Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

A World Apart

A World Apart
Gustaw-Herling Grudziński

PLOT SUMMARY: Beginning with his journey to the camp of Yertsevo, during which he is forced to pass the days and nights in Vitebsk, Leningrad, and Vologda, Gustaw Herling prepares audiences as he descends deeper into A World Apart. Having crossed into this separate world, his work transforms from a linear story into a collection of assorted events, in which he writes of the life he and others endured and how the few survived in the face of spiritual torment. While some of his comrades resort to self-mutilation, Herling initiates a hunger strike to improve the conditions of his lot. Although the strike brings him closer to death, it is this same act that would bring him life in the form of a hospital visit. Given a period of rest, Herling regains the strength needed to survive. Shortly after this time, Herling, a part of a wave of Polish prisoners granted amnesty in 1942, is released after serving two of a five-year sentence.

     Having aided his mother country in World War II upon release from prison, Herling spends years traveling the globe before settling permanently in Italy. It is here where one morning he is suddenly approached by a man whom he recognizes as a fellow prisoner in Yertsevo. The man explains he needs Herling, for he has traversed several countries to ask a question only he could answer. Motioning for the man to accompany him to his hotel room, Herling sits and listens attentively to the man’s words. While in Yertsevo, the man recalls, he was forced to choose between his own life or that of four others. And it appears this thought had eaten away at his conscience as he begs Herling to say he understood. But this interaction would be to his detriment, for Herling, having turned his back and staring off into the distance, cannot.

ANALYSIS: In an epigraph to the memoir, Herling quotes Dostoevsky’s Notes From A Dead House as he writes that “Here is a world apart, unlike everything else, with laws of its own, its own manners and customs, and here is the house of the living dead--life as nowhere else and a people apart. It is this corner apart that I am going to describe.” Although Dostoevsky’s work is an acclaimed account of life in a Russian prison camp, Herling takes on a role to bear witness as well, for it is he who sets out to describe A World Apart. In referencing Dostoevsky, however, besides introducing the purpose of his writing, he also establishes early his views on the Soviet prison system. It is a place out of this world, a society of its own, that is inconsistent with civilization, devoid of reason, and composed of individuals stripped bare of their humanity.

     Although many common themes of Russian prison literature are present in A World Apart, what makes Herling’s work unique is not only his literary elegance but, more importantly, his ideas surrounding conscience. In the last scene of the memoir, Herling comes across a former prisoner who seeks to ask him if he can sympathize with his actions as a prisoner, for he had chosen to save his life over those of four others. When Herling is unable to console this man, it may appear he has a heart of stone. But the implications of this scene are far more profound than that. Speaking about prisoners who can forget, Herling once writes that they are stronger, yet they are weaker. Stronger because they have adapted to prison life. Weaker because any breach of memory erodes their psychological defenses. Faced with this interaction, Herling is in conflict between being strong and weak, for if he denies this man consolation, he allows himself to adapt to life outside prison walls. If he assures the man he understands what prisoners must do, he makes himself vulnerable to the pool of memories that prevent him from existing in the present as his conscience will be consumed by the past. Thus, Herling’s actions suggest that for one to live, one must suppress his conscience. But a question counter to this idea is what does he risk in doing so?


“Those who force themselves to forget are stronger, and at the same time weaker, than the rest. Stronger, because they submit to the laws of camp life without hesitation, accepting them subconsciously as normal and natural; and yet weaker, because the slightest breach in their defences, the most trivial event which stimulates the imagination, lets loose a flood of repressed memories which nothing can hold back” (98).

“I became convinced that a man can only be human only under human conditions, and I believe that it is fantastic nonsense to judge him by actions which he commits under inhuman conditions--as if water could be measured by fire, and earth by hell” (132).

“That evening I saw the camp from a hill near the station; it looked so small that I could have put it in the palm of my hand. Vertical columns of smoke rose from the barracks, lights shone in the windows, and but for the silhouettes of four high crow’s-nests, cutting the night with the long knives of searchlight-beams, Yercevo could have passed for a quiet, peaceful settlement” (229).

BIOGRAPHY: Gustaw Herling-Grudziński was born in the city of  Kielce, in south-central Poland, in 1919. He was the son of a merchant and his education was undertaken at Mikolaj Rej High School and then at the University of Warsaw. Although literary historians have yet to discover much on his childhood, as many of his autobiographical works and memoirs withhold such information and contain gaps in time, Herling’s words suggest his formative years were somewhat grim. In an interview held in Naples in 1996, he recounts how before his birth, his father had owned a small property near the town of Busko, which had been the subject of many stories centered around the land's remarkable abundance. Legend has it that here grew “mushrooms that you had to jump over," lived “fish that weighed a few kilos," and laid an “incredible wealth." But in the coming years before the war, that is, after he was born, his father had sold this property and migrated to Suchedniów. It is here Herling considered to be the basis of his life and where he would later grow his interest in the power and structure of language. And thus, he went on to study Polish Philology while at University. But with the emergence of World War II, particularly the invasion of Poland in 1939, his studies were soon interrupted.

     In 1939, with the help of his colleagues at Orka Na Ugorze magazine, Herling established the political resistance organization Polska Ludowa Akcja Niepodległościowa or the Polish People’s Independence Action (PLAN). Facing pressure from suspicious authorities, however, he soon fled to the Soviet-Lithuanian border where upon arrival he was arrested by the NKVD. Sentenced to five years in the Gulag, he was liberated after only serving two, a part of a wave of Polish Prisoners granted amnesty in 1942. Within those captive years, however, Herling’s spiritual and physical torment would inform his literary acclaimed writing: A World Apart. Despite the mounting success of this novel, it would not limit Herling’s contributions to the written world. In 1947, he co-founded the Polish political magazine Kultura and seven years later became a member of the Polish Writers Association. After having settled permanently in Naples and wedded Lidia Croce in 1955, however, his work was met with ignorance by an italian audience disapproving of his anti-communist beliefs. But two years later, in 1957, he eventually partnered again with Kultura as an Italian correspondent and writer, a position which he held until 1996. In his later years, that is, in the latter part of the 1990s, Herling, having had an interest in societal issues and politics for quite some time, then collaborated with the Polish Roman Catholic Magazine Tygodnik Powszechny, the independent Catholic Journal Więź, and the nationwide newspaper Rzeczpospolita. It is unclear how long he held these positions for but at the turn of the century, on June 4, 2000, in Naples, Gustav Herling-Grudziński died. He leaves behind a rich literary legacy. Although it should be noted that it was not until the collapse of Communism in 1989 before his writings were “discovered” in his mother country. It was around this time that Herling’s work began to attract readers on a wide-scale. Nonetheless, the “enemy of realistic narration” has since captured the souls of readers across the globe who are drawn by his unique literary qualities present in his writings and the stories within them. And it is because of this Herling is considered one of the most influential writers in twentieth-century Polish literature.                     


Herling, Gustaw. A World Apart. Translated by Andrezj Ciolkosz, Penguin Group, 1996.

Bolecki, Włodzimierz. A World Apart by Gustaw Herling. Translated by Agnieszka Kołakowska, vol. 17, Frankfurt Am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, 2015. “Gustaw Herling-Grudziński.”,

"Gustaw Herling." Gale Literature: Contemporary Authors, Gale, 2001. Gale Literature Resource Center, Accessed 26 Feb. 2021.

Encyklopedia, PWN. Herling-Grudziński Gustaw - Encyklopedia PWN - Źródło Wiarygodnej i Rzetelnej Wiedzy,;3911242.html.

Rosenzweig, Roy. “Many Days, Many Lives.” Gulag, Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, George Mason University,

Swiech, Jerzy. “Review: Conversations with Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski.” The Polish Review, vol. 47, no. 2, 2002.

FURTHER READING: Adamowicz-Pośpiech, Agnieszka. “Gustaw Herling-Grudziński As A Reader Of Conrad.” Yearbook Of Conrad Studies (Poland), vol. 3, 2007: 181–193.
In this short article, Adamowicz analyzes the relationship between Joseph Conrad and Gustaw-Herling, focusing on the fellow Polish writer's influence on Herling’s ideals, motivations, and actions throughout his lifetime and writing. Expressed is the idea readers can ascribe more meaning to Herling's works by examining it through a Conradian lens.

Rubenstein, Joshua. “Premature Witness.” AGNI, vol. 54, 2001: 136–143.
Documenting international opinion surrounding the emergence of Soviet prison literature in the 1950s, Rubenstein provides background for the differing receptions of audiences to several memoirs, namely, Herling’s A World Apart. He also explores the structural barriers that would go on to limit such works from mass exposure. 

Bolecki, Włodzimierz. “The Totalitarian Urge vs. Literature: The Origins and Achievements of the Polish Independent Publishing Movement.” Canadian Slavonic Papers, vol. 39, no. 1/2, 1997: 47–62.
A Polish theorist and historian, Bolecki charts the formation and progression of the Polish Independent Publishing Movement as an opposition to the communist regime. Although literature can be a tool for propaganda, he notes that literature can likewise be an instrument for liberation.

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