“It’s penal servitude! What bliss!” Play and Survival in Evgenija Ginzburg’s Journey Into the Whirlwind and Andrej Sinjavskij’s Voice from the Chorus

Oana Popescu-Sandu, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

“In general, it is interesting the way a man looks for an excuse to survive, saying to himself: why not just be the contrary and go on living when it’s no longer possible, when thought itself is almost extinguished by fatigue and apathy? Here, at rock bottom, is where you get to your feet and begin!” (Sinyavsky 5)

Questions about the possibility of moral and spiritual survival have always been at the forefront of camp literature. My paper will examine how Evgenija Ginzburg’s Journey Into the Whirlwind (Krutoj maršrut, 1967) and Andrej Sinjavskij’s (Abram Terc) Voice From the Chorus (Golos iz xora, 1973) reassert the power of the mind in a new framework that requires the reconfiguration of the self and it is based on an existential “game with ideas”. The recreated self demands “incessant answerability for and response to the other” (Emmanuel Lévinas) and the creation of a moral interval that allows the struggle for survival to remain moral without, however, becoming fixed into preconceived fictitious boundaries like the ideological self.

Moreover, living in the territory of the “abject” (Julia Kristeva), both writers create a niche, an interval, where morality and the intellect can function. This interval is inhabited by a rediscovery of memory and by an inventive use culture and, in the case of Sinjavskij, of narrative technique as play/ludus which defies disorder and engenders a sense of freedom, beauty and meaning. Finally, they simplify the mechanism of moral choice and get closer to an authentic “I” by looking at ethics not as an absolute but as a continuous struggle with the given conditions. This way the “abject” existence of the prisoner is made sublime. It is a sublime lined with irony, as reflected in one of Ginzburg’s favorite Boris Pasternak lines: “We greet our sentence with a smile – /It’s penal servitude! What bliss!”


Ginzburg, Evgenia. Journey Into the Whirlwind, San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 1967, 1995.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror. An Essay on Abjection, New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

Lévinas, Emmanuel. Is it righteous to be?: Interviews with Emmanuel Lévinas. Ed. Jill Robbins. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001.

Syniavsky, Andrei. Voice From the Chorus. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976, 1995.