Tag Archives: Evgenia S Ginzburg

Nothing But Poetry

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:
“That’s forbidden!”
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!


Grit Your Teeth

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