Evgenia Semyonovna Ginzburg was a Bolshevik and one of the countless victims of Stalin’s purges. Between 1937 and 1955 she was in prison and labour camps. Her book Krutoy Marshrut about her experiences was published in Russian, but in Italy, in 1967. An English translation Into The Whirlwind was published by Penguin in 1968.
Many times in the book Ginzburg talks about poetry helped her, and the other inmates, get through. She also wrote poetry herself.
Here after final receiving her sentence, and expecting to be shot, she has been given ten years maximum solitary confinement.
I intended to stay alive. Just to spite them… Keep alive… Keep alive… Grit your teeth… Grit your teeth…
As I repeated these words to myself, they brought back the memory of Pasternak’s poem ‘Lieutenant Schmidt’:
The indictment stretches, mile on mile.
Pit-shafts mark the highway to Nerchinsk.
Grit your teeth! Whatever else, no tears!
So this is penal servitude! What bliss!
Suddenly the meaning of the poem overwhelmed me. Such moments are the test of poetry, and one’s heart fills with love and gratitude. How could Pasternak have known this, living in his ‘melancholy Moscow flat’, how could he have known that I would feel exactly this? I remembered other lines: ‘The rest were drunk with space, and spring, and penal servitude…’
If only he could know how much his poem helped me to endure, and to make sense of prison, of my sentence, of the murderers with frozen-fish eyes.
Evgenia S Ginzburg