Allen Esterson is now enjoying retirement after spending most of his working life teaching physics and mathematics in Further Education colleges in London (with a two-year interlude at the end of the 1970s tutoring students in Los Angeles). Almost inadvertently, he became involved with Freud scholarship in the 1980s, and published a book on the subject, Seductive Mirage, followed by journal articles mostly devoted to rebutting the widely-propagated claims of Jeffrey Masson about the seduction theory (see here and here). Allen's most recent interest has been in combating the gross misrepresentations of the role of Einstein's first wife in his scientific work, as depicted in the documentary Einstein's Wife, promoted by the Public Broadcasting Service (see here and here). In this post he writes about Evgenia S. Ginzburg's Into the Whirlwind
Allen Esterson on Into the Whirlwind by Evgenia S. Ginzburg (and The Invincible by Stanislav Lem)
It's hard to recall the impact made by a book read nearly 40 years ago. You have to try to project yourself back in time, to imagine yourself as you were when you first read it, coming to it without the knowledge imparted by the book itself, and by the scores of books read since then, not to mention the changes experienced through the subsequent decades.
I know that Evgenia Ginzburg's Into the Whirlwind engrossed me, stunned me, and left me struggling (unsuccessfully) to grasp how such things could happen, how people could conceivably behave in the way she describes. And although I think I understand a little more nowadays, these things still remain incomprehensible to me. One can just about understand the Nazi barbarities - at root there was some kind of perverted logic that ran like a thread through those dreadful times. It's not that I had any illusions about the nature of the Soviet Union and its history; and, of course, Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, published a few years before, had told the world about conditions in a Soviet labour camp. But so often the events that Ginzburg describes seem (at least in their details) to have no rhyme or reason, a kind of Alice in Wonderland of human suffering. Yet it is by no means a depressing book. It's hard not to resort to clichés here, but shining through it all is a sense that the human spirit, exemplified by Ginzburg and some of her companions in their particular circle of hell, can remain undaunted through the most appalling of circumstances.
Into the Whirlwind recounts, first hand, Ginzburg's experiences during the years 1935-1940, covering only the first few years of her journey into the Gulag. She was working at the Pedagogical Institute in Kazan, and also for the local paper, Red Tartary, when an eminent colleague was arrested for purported 'Trotskyist' activities. The Alice in Wonderland aspects of Ginzburg's experiences were in evidence from the beginning, during what she describes as the 'prelude'. At a Party meeting she was faced with the charge of not having denounced the supposedly erring colleague - her protestations that no one else had done so were to no avail. Later, when summoned to Moscow to hear the result of her appeal against being expelled from the Communist Party, the allegation that she had not denounced a specific article by her 'Trotskyist' colleague was reiterated by her interrogator - who was himself the editor of the volume of the history of the Party in which the colleague's condemned article had appeared.
This does not convey the nightmare quality of the experiences Ginzburg underwent in the 'prelude' period, which brought her close to mental breakdown prior to her arrest and transfer to 'Black Lake', Kazan's Lyubyanka. There followed her first spell on the 'conveyor belt' of interrogations, seven days without sleep or food - but at least she was spared the physical torture that became standard practice soon afterwards.
None of this will be news to the present-day reader. But that may not be the case for Ginzberg's account of what follows: the succession of prisons, the nightmare train journey to Siberia with so many prisoners packed into goods vans that there was scarcely room to stand, the transit camps, the horrendous journey by ship to her final destination, Kolyma, leading Ginzburg to recall the words of Saint-Exupéry: 'What I have endured I swear no animal could have endured.'
The last paragraph probably gives a false impression of Ginzburg's memoirs of her journey into the Gulag. It is by no means simply a litany of horrors endured, but is constantly enlivened by long passages depicting the verbal exchanges among a succession of people who accompany her on each stage, and by Ginzberg's portrayal of the personalities of those who remain with her for extended periods. It is these passages that lift the book out of the ordinary and make it a heart-wrenching testimony on behalf of the millions who suffered the same fate.
All schoolchildren nowadays are made aware of the horrors of the Nazi death camps. How many have any knowledge of the labour camp system that endured for many more years in the USSR?
I can't resist adding a plug for a book that seems to be little known, though it's by one of the great science fiction writers of the 20th century, Stanislav Lem. Maybe it has received less attention than some of his other writings because it is in the traditional mould of science fiction - a cracking adventure story about a journey into space. (Ah, Journey into Space – so much better than the current Dr Who nonsense.)
Being by Lem, The Invincible is, of course, more than just an adventure story - it's also a mystery story with a Darwinian backdrop, as we eventually find out. The eponymous space cruiser lands on Regis III, a planet in the Lyre Constellation, on a mission to discover the fate of Condor, a space craft that has disappeared on an exploratory expedition. They swiftly locate Condor, only to find the crew have all died in some mysterious fashion, many of them apparently having engaged in senseless activities prior to death. One had stumbled into the hibernator, thereby enabling his frozen brain to be 'auscultated' to ascertain the contents of his memory system. It turns out that his entire auditory memory bank is absolutely empty. Something horrifying had evidently overtaken the occupants of the spacecraft.
The rest of the novel is taken up with the search for the explanation for the fate of the crew of the Condor. It soon becomes apparent that dense cloud formations accompanied by occasional violent electrical storms are in some way connected to the mystery. The clouds are found to be composed of vast numbers of tiny black metal particles that, as The Invincible crew learn to their cost, have en masse acquired a cold-blooded intelligence. The means by which this had happened (plausibly conjectured by one of Lem's characters), and the ensuing struggle for survival of the crew against an unpredictable inanimate enemy, makes for an engrossing read – at least for those of us with a predeliction for a writer whose imaginative forays are invariably informed by his formidable intellect.