Days and Lives :: Prisoners

Eugenia Ginzburg

Introduction

Eugenia Ginzburg and her husband were both Communist party officials living in Kazan with their two sons in 1937 when she was arrested for being a member of the party and for “participation in a Trotskyist terrorist counter-revolutionary group.” She never saw her husband or eldest son again. After years spent in prison and at several camps, including the notorious Kolyma, she was sent into exile at Magadan where she was reunited with her youngest son after twelve years of separation. Ginzburg was released from exile in 1955.

Arrest

After she was expelled from the Communist party, Eugenia Ginzburg feared that she would be arrested as many of her associates had already been. One day she received a telephone call from the head of the NKVD department for special political affairs and was asked to come in to his office. As she prepared to leave her home, she said only casual goodbyes to her children and considered visiting her mother first, “Perhaps it was just as well not to see my mother either. What must be must be, and there’s no point in trying to postpone it. The door banged shut. I still remember the sound. That was all…I was never again to open the door behind which I had lived with my dear children.”

Labor

“I was handling a scythe for the first time in my life. Mowing across hummocks is a difficult job even for an expert male reaper. We went about it barefoot. We moved in a line abreast, swinging our scythes side to side, puffing and panting. We shuffled through the marshy bits and stumbled over the hummocks as best we could. At night we returned to our improvised shacks. We were soaked to the skin and plastered with mud up to our waists. Our sodden skirts clung to our legs. Those with ‘serviceable’ boots tried at first to protect their legs from the icy water. But shod feet sank still deeper into the glacial quagmire. We no longer had the strength to fulfill our output norms. Our rations were steadily reduced.”

Suffering

Ginzburg was sent to Yaroslavl where she spent two years initially in solitary confinement. “To this day, if I shut my eyes, I can see every bump and scratch on those walls, painted halfway up in the favorite prison colors, brownish-red and a dirty white above. Sometimes in the soles of my feet I still feel this or that crack in the stone floor of my cell: Number 3 on the second floor, north side. And I still remember the physical anguish, the despair of my muscles, as I paced the area in which I was henceforth to live. It was five paces long and three across. I was taken out of my cell three times every twenty-four hours: morning and evening to the washroom, and before or after dinner for exercise.”

Propaganda

Ginzburg was sent to Yaroslavl where she spent two years initially in solitary confinement. “To this day, if I shut my eyes, I can see every bump and scratch on those walls, painted halfway up in the favorite prison colors, brownish-red and a dirty white above. Sometimes in the soles of my feet I still feel this or that crack in the stone floor of my cell: Number 3 on the second floor, north side. And I still remember the physical anguish, the despair of my muscles, as I paced the area in which I was henceforth to live. It was five paces long and three across. I was taken out of my cell three times every twenty-four hours: morning and evening to the washroom, and before or after dinner for exercise.”

Solidarity

At the transit camp, men and women were separated by a barbed wire fence. ”Unhindered by the guards, we stood by the barbed-wire fence which separated our compound from the men’s, and gazed spellbound at the long line of men who passed before us-silent, with bowed heads, plodding wearily in prison boots similar to ours. Their uniforms were also similar, but their trousers with the brown stripe were even more like convicts’ garbs than our skirts. Although one might have thought the men were stronger than we were, they seemed somehow more defenseless and we all felt a maternal pity for them. They stood up to pain so badly-this was every woman’s opinion-and they would not be able to wash their clothes on the sly as we could with our light things…Above all, they were our husbands and brothers, deprived of our care in this terrible place.”

Conflict

Upon her arrival at a transit camp, Ginzburg began to understand the camp hierarchy of prisoners. The group she belonged to had come from prisons before being sent to camps. “’People from prisons’ – for the next ten years or so this grim definition stuck to us like a label. We were the worst criminals, the worst off, the worst everything….The aristocracy consisted of people who had got into trouble for such respectable crimes as embezzlement, bribe taking, and so forth. Then came the political hierarchy, the ‘politicals.’ The most innocuous group of these [were] the anti-Soviet agitators. Next came those convicted of ‘counter-revolutionary activity.’ These were mostly not party members and got off with lighter work or even administrative duties. Next came the CRTAs (‘counter-revolutionary Trotskyist activity’) who until our arrival were the lowest category of all, the camp pariahs.”

Guards

“The key turned in the door. My heart jumped into my throat: any visit at an unscheduled time could only mean trouble. It was the block warder, ordering me to go with him. Finally we came to a halt in a sort of narrow dungeon, where I saw the stout, stocky figure of the senior warder. He pulled out a register and announced that the governor had given orders for me to be confined in an underground punishment cell for five days. He urged me forward into a sort of triangular stone space. There was no lamp or window, and the only light came from the open door. A narrow plank bed was fixed a few inches above the floor, and on it were the rags I was supposed to change into: the greasy remnants of a soldier’s overcoat, and enormous bast sandals. ‘I won’t!’

Survival

Like many survivors, Ginzburg recalls the kindness of those who helped keep her alive. “What induced Dr. Klimenko not only to keep me in the infirmary more than a month, so that I could recover fully from the journey, but also to bring me high-calorie food almost every day from her own home Perhaps, as a doctor, she was fascinated by the process of resuscitating a half-dead person. Later on, she said to me several times: ‘When your party came off the ship, you seemed nearer to death than any of the others.’ Yes, no doubt she took a professional interest in my case, but that was not all. There were rumors that the angelic doctor saved the lives of dozens of people by keeping them longer in the infirmary, having them excused from heavy work, or prescribing extra food for them.”

Fates

Ginzburg was freed from the prison camp in 1947 after having spent ten years of her life, but had to remain in exile and made plans to go to Magadan where she would work as a teacher. “No sooner had I appeared outside the Elgen free hospital, where I had served out my last two months as a prisoner, than I was surrounded by all the prisoners on the hospital staff. And I could read the same expression in all their faces. They loved me at that moment simply because I personified for them the thought that it was, after all, possible to get out of there!” While in Magadan, Ginzburg was able to send for her younger son, her eldest son and husband had died while she was in prison. In 1955 she was finally allowed to return to Moscow.