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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 20 th century.
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Chapter IX. From A World Apart to a “Russia Apart”


In his later work Herling returned again and again to the issues raised in his polemic with Borowski, above all to the question of nihilism. One good example of this is an entry he made in the Diary Written at Night after reading Wiktoria Kraśniewska’s (Barbara Skarga’s) reminiscences of the Gulag, Po wyzwoleniu (“After the Liberation”). She writes:

And so we slowly lose our souls. Day after day, with hunger, with work beyond the limits of exhaustion, with the hopelessness of time, indifference to evil seeps into us. We have no strength left for outrage; now we just shrug our shoulders. It is when we come across an honest person, a reliable person, that we are surprised. Every day brings with it the dismal threat of Soviet perevospitanye (re-education).1

And here is Herling’s comment:

Liberation from Soviet perevospitanye means – as in Chekhov’s story – purging ourselves of the poison of slavery which has destroyed our souls, squeezing it out of ourselves drop by drop. (Diary…, 25.7.1985)

There is another frequent motif in A World Apart to which Herling returns again and again in his later work, and that is Russia and Russian culture and literature. This is a topic on which Herling wrote a number of essays, later collected in a volume called Upiory rewolucji (“Spectres of the Revolution”).

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