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«A World Apart» by Gustaw Herling

Translated by Agnieszka Kołakowska


Wlodzimierz Bolecki

Gustaw Herling’s A World Apart is one of the most important books about Soviet camps and communist ideology in the Stalinist period. First published in English in 1951 and translated into many languages, it was relatively unknown till Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago in the 1970s. However, the narrative of the author’s experience in the Jertsevo gulag was highly appreciated by Bertrand Russell, Albert Camus, Jorge Semprun and others. In this first monograph on Herling’s fascinating life, Bolecki discusses hitherto unknown documents from the writer’s archive in Naples. His insight into the subject and poetics of Herling’s book and the account of its remarkable reception offer readers an intriguing profile of one of the most compelling witnesses of the 20th century.
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Chapter VI. Subject Matter


The main topic of A World Apart is the (anti-)civilization of Soviet labour camps: the tyuryemnaya tsyvilizatsya, as Nadezhda Mandelstam called it. This general subject had many aspects and encompasses many particular themes. Among them are: the system of slave labour; the daily life of prisoners; typical situations in the camp; hunger, sexuality and prostitution, and how they were experienced and dealt with in the camp; the mechanisms of investigations and interrogations; the practice of camp “law”; and many others. All these subjects are dealt with in Anne Applebaum’s magisterial book Gulag, whose second part, about life and work in the camps, describes in detail the same things which over half a century earlier Herling (frequently cited by Applebaum) had touched on in his brief and brilliant summary: arrest, prison, transport, arrival, selection, life and work in the camp, punishments and rewards, prisoners and guards, women and children, the dying, strategies for survival, rebellion and escape.1

Reflections on human nature and behaviour in the extreme and inhuman circumstances of the labour camp are an integral part of Herling-Grudziński’s approach to all those subjects.

Almost every chapter of A World Apart contains some new detail about the organizing principles of slave labour. Chief among these was that the prisoners should work as much as possible while being fed as little as possible, which in practice meant a slow death.

Work in the Gulag was part of the rhythm of the State’s normal production;...

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