IN 1970, WHEN I WAS living in Moscow and working on my first book, I had the good fortune to receive an introduction to an Old Bolshevik who had survived 20 years in the Gulag Archipelago. I was, he told me, the first foreigner he had dared to speak to since his release from camp in 1955. "I would like to write a book myself," he said, "but I don't have the courage. You see, I am not free -- the fear is in my blood and my bones."
This man, who clutched his heart when he heard any sound in the corridor outside his apartment, was typical of millions of Soviet camp survivors who were grateful simply to end their lives outside barbed wire. Eugenia Ginzburg, whose first book of memoirs (published in English under the title Into the Whirlwind) began making the rounds in Russian samidat in the early 1960s, was an exception to the fear-ridden rule. With the posthumous publication of this second volume, which follows her from the Arctic servitude of 1940 through "rehabilitation" in Moscow in 1955, Ginzburg has fulfilled the mission of bearing witness that animated her life after camp.
At the time of her arrest in 1937, Eugenia Ginzburg was a Communist Party member, teacher and journalist; the mother of two small sons, and the wife of Pavel Aksyonov, an important party official in Kazan. She had always been a dedicated supporter of the revolution and the Soviet system.
She and her husband were both arrested in the early stages of the party purges. Their elder son, Alyosha, was sent to an orphanage, and later died of starvation during the siege of Leningrad. In some respects, Ginzburg was luckier than many of her fellow revolutionaries. She survived the camps and, after 12 years, was reunited with her younger son, Vasily (who became an important writer of the post-Stalin generation, fell into official disfavor and emigrated to the United States after his mother's death in 1977). Ginzburg also found love in the Gulag. Her second husband, a fellow prisoner named Anton Walter, was a camp doctor.
The inevitable publicity surrounding the discovery of each significant new book by a Soviet survivor tends to make one forget how few documented accounts we actually have of life in Stalin's prison empire. This dearth of literary and historical evidence is responsible in large measure for Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's unique symbolic position; if there were thousands of other accounts, Solzhenitsyn would still be considered a great writer but he would not be a historical icon. The infinitely volume of memoirs by an infinitely smaller number of Holocaust survivors is a case in point: no single Jewish writer is regarded as the voice of the six million dead.
This phenomenon is no mystery, Nazi Germany was destroyed from the outside. Those who survived the Gulag returned to a society run -- albeit with a lighter hand -- by the same bureaucrats who had manned the Stalinist machine.
Uncritical admiration is an understandable response to any book by a Soviet survivor who managed to keep memory intact through years -- sometimes decades -- of imprisonment. In Ginzburg's case, this response is heightened by the compassionate humanity that shines through her most terrible recollections, by a memory for detail akin to perfect pitch and -- last but not least -- by the fact that this is the only substantive camp memoir by a woman. The female perspective -- of a mother torn from her own children and of a prison nurse who cared for babies unfortunate enough to be born to camp inmates -- is an invaluable addition to the record of those times.
In the opening chapter, a fellow prisoner explains why the children never speak. "Whom did they ever hear speaking?" she tells Ginzburg. "In the infants' group they spend their whole time just lying on their cots. Nobody will pick them up, even if they cry their lungs out. It's not allowed."
Ginzburg watches the babies. "There they lay," she writes, "little martyrs born to know nothing but suffering. The one-year-old over there, with the pleasant oval face, already had a spot on his lung. He wheezed and made convulsive movements with his hands, exhibited bright blue nails. What should I say to his mother?"
After this catalogue of evil, Ginzburg adds a qualification in the light of subsequently acquired awareness of still greater evil. "I'm not saying there is any comparison between them and, say, the Jewish children in Hitler's empire. Not only were the Elgen children spared extermination in gas chambers, they were given medical attention. . . . It is my duty to emphasize this so as not to depart from the truth by one jot or tittle.
"And yet, when one calls to mind Elgen's gray, featureless landscape . . . the most fantastic, the most satanic invention of all seems to be those huts with signs saying 'Infants' Group,' 'Toddlers' Group,' and 'Senior Group.'"
These details are not found in Solzhneitsyn. Hell, it would seem, has a specifically feminine as well as masculine component.
In spite of this book's many virtues -- its scrupulous attention to the details of joy as well as horror -- Ginzburg has left a great gap in her account of what happened within the whirlwind. She leaves no doubt that her camp experiences permanently changed the views she held as a younger builder of the Soviet system, but she does not discuss these changes in any depth. For one who was an enthusiastic party member before her arrest, questions of personal responsibility and complicity must have been unavoidable.
Lev Kopelev, who was the model for Solzhenitsyn's character Lev Rubin in The First Circle, deals straightforwardly with these questions in his book, To Be Preserved Forever. Kopelev, a major in the political section of the Red Army when he was arrested, describes in unsparing details his participation in the brutal forced collectivization of the land, his willingness to take grain from starving peasants in order to "build communism."
Although Ginzburg does not exactly ignore these issues -- she expresses contempt for survivors who "want to forget everything, to suppress in themselves all they have learned through suffering" -- she does not deal with them in the direct, personal manner that lends such power to the rest of her account. Exactly what lessons were learned through suffering? Could they not have been taught in a gentler classroom? Eugenia Ginzburg sidestepped these issues in her writing, even as she offered irrefutable evidence of the misery engraved on human tablets.