In Yaroslavl prison near the start of her ten year sentence as a victim of Stalin’s purges Evgenia S. Ginzburg writes in Into The Whirlwind how vital books are to prisoners.
At home, I had always been regarded as a passionate and indefatigable bookworm. But it was only here, in my stone sepulchre, that I really learned to explore the inner meaning of what I read. I saw that always until then I had skimmed the surface, developing in breadth but not in depth. And when I came out of prison, I once again became incapable of reading as I had read in my cell in Yaroslav, where I rediscovered Dostoyevsky, Tyutchev, Pastenak and many others.
It was also there that, after ploughing through several books, I first learned the rudiments of the history of philosophy. Paradoxically, books which had long since been withdrawn fro the public libraries could be freely borrowed in prison.
Nothing is simpler than to explain the profound effect of books on a prisoner’s mind by the absence of outward stimulants. But this is not quite all there is to it. Isolation from everyday life and from its rat-race favours a kind of spiritual lucidity. Sitting in a cell, you don’t chase after the phantom of worldly success, you don’t play the diplomat or the hypocrite, you don’t compromise with your conscience. You can be wholly concerned with the highest problems of existence, and you approach them with a mind purified by suffering.
If even in labour camps, with their naked animal struggle for survival, thousands of our fellow-citizens were able to keep their integrity, how much more is this true of solitary confinement! Its ennobling influence is unquestionable – provided, of course, it does not go on so long as to undermine the foundations of personality.
Sentenced to ten years solitary confinement in Stalin’s purges Evgenia S. Ginzburg’s book Into The Whirlwind is about the survival of the human spirit. She makes many references to how poetry affected the lives of those imprisoned.
According to the rules displayed on the wall, books were allowed at the rate of two every ten days. But throughout the first month the library remained closed for stock-taking, so I had sixteen hours a day to fill in as I saw fit. I tried to establish some sort of routine to stop myself from going mad. The important thing was not to forget how to talk. The warders were trained to silence and spoke only about half a dozen words a day – reveille, washroom, hot water, exercise, bread…
I tried to do gymnastics before breakfast. The flap-window clicked open:
I tried laying down after dinner. Another click:
“That’s forbidden except from lights-out to reveille.”
So what remained? Nothing but poetry – my own and other people’s. And so I paced my five steps up and five steps down, composing:
Between these walls of stone
All roads are just as short:
By any count this cell
Is never more than three by five.
No good without a pencil! Clearly, I wasn’t a born poet.
After dinner was my time for Pushkin. I gave myself a lecture about him, then repeated all I could remember oof his poems. My memory, cut off from all impressions from outside, unfolded like a chrysalis transformed into a butterfly. Wonderful!
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