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Into The Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg Persephone Books, £12 Review by Todd McEwen

Sometimes one could wish that there was a little shelf of books that everybody in the whole world had to read, just to get a licence to be human:

John Hersey's Hiroshima, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, and the works of Saul Friedlander. Maybe Tristram Shandy, Don Quixote and The Canterbury Tales so as to give ourselves a little credit on the plus side. Not that we really deserve it. Into The Whirlwind belongs on this shelf.

Eugenia Ginzburg was born in 1904. By the 1930s she was a historian and linguist in Moscow. She was also a wife, a mother and a loyal, contributing member of the Communist Party. Many of the ordinary intellectual workers of the Soviet Union believed implicitly in socialism, and that its future could and would be delivered by the Communist Party and Joseph Stalin. One day in 1937, Eugenia was telephoned at home by a party member in the police - whom she knew - and was asked, politely, to come to his office and answer some questions. Just a formality, he assured her. It would take perhaps an hour.

She didn't quite know it, but the wave of purges orchestrated by Stalin had already begun, though Eugenia and her husband Paul knew of colleagues who had been removed from their posts for fishy-sounding reasons. As they walked together towards the jail where the commissar had his office, Eugenia and Paul grew apprehensive, but told each other that the policeman's request couldn't mean much. Paul said to her: "We'll expect you home for lunch." Eugenia went inside. She never saw him again, nor two of her children. At that very moment she walked, as she says, "with the boldness of despair", into the whirlwind.

Gone were the telephone manners. The commissar had turned rabid. He screamed and spat at Eugenia, accusing her of disloyalty and treason, of conspiracy with a Trotskyist colleague. He demanded she surrender her party membership card, a moment which broke her heart. She was then taken down into the jail. She would be in prisons and labour camps for the next 18 years (she was not "rehabilitated" until 1955).

Part of Ginzburg's academic work involved study of the Crimean Tatars and their language. Suspicion had been growing in high circles about the Tatars and their supposed links with Germany. Eugenia had no knowledge of this paranoia - her only crime was to study the hapless Tatars (chillingly, in the current Ukrainian crisis, they are being victimised again). She had contaminated herself by association, Stalin took a dislike to her field of study, and that was that. She could never again be considered a reliable worker, let alone a trusted member of the party she had put all her faith in.

What happened to Eugenia in the system of the Gulag, you must find for yourself. It is one of the harshest, most touching, most moving books you will ever read.

Her account of a journey across Russia on a train with hundreds of female prisoners is staggering. In the Butyrka prison where Eugenia was first taken, an astonishing way of singing news from one cell to another was established: she called it, with her often poetic turn of phrase, the "operatic radio". These women made brave and sometimes futile attempts to remain feminine: each prisoner managed to hide a bra in her cell where it could not be found in the frequent, demoralising searches. Stockings that were falling apart were mended with fish bones rescued from putrid soups.

Ginzburg kept herself sane by reading poetry (books were not always prohibited) and she is a profoundly humane and powerful writer. Such is her aplomb - it seems funny to use such a word but that is what she had, along with humanity and guts - that one of the most astounding realisations that comes to you in the course of reading Into The Whirlwind is this: after all that happened to her, when Eugenia finally arrived at a prison camp, her privations had barely begun. She had to tell the rest in another book.

All this happened in Europe a mere 75 years ago. It happened to a person exactly like ourselves, a happy, confident, hard-working teacher, because in the society in which she lived there was nothing to stop the delusions of the government of the day from being imposed as rational policy. One of the hundred imperative reasons to read this book is so you may ask yourself how safe you feel from such a calamity. Into The Whirlwind depicts the terrifying motive force with which a respectable and earnest life was destroyed by the state, in the twinkling of an eye.

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