Herling-Grudziński showed in one drop the ocean of evil of the Soviet system

an interview with Prof. A. Nowak

Gustaw Herling-Grudziński, in one drop, which incorporated  his personal experience from the camp near Arkhangelsk, revealed the ocean of evil of the Soviet system, says Prof. Andrzej Nowak, a historian from the Jagiellonian University.


Polish Press Agency: How did Gustaw Herling-Grudziński and other writers from his generation contribute to understanding the nature of communism?

Prof. Andrzej Nowak: Undoubtedly, the book “Another world. Soviet Notes” by Herling-Grudziński, first published in English in 1951, and only later in Polish, played a very important role in conveying knowledge about the nature of the system and communist imprisonment to the West, that is, where the Red Army and the NKVD did not reach.

Herling-Grudziński was a prisoner in the camp in Yertsevo near Arkhangelsk – certainly not the most severe of the camps in the entire Gulag system. After all, some of his later fellow soldiers managed to leave the Soviet Union together with General Władysław Anders’ army had much worse experiences – for example Anatol Krakowiecki, who ended up in the lowest circle of Gulag hell, that is Kolyma.

Prof. Andrzej Nowak (photo: PAP/J. Bednarczyk)

And yet, based on the experiences from the camp in Yertsevo and thanks to his great literary talent, Gustaw Herling-Grudziński was able to extract  a crucial perspective  of this inhuman system – a metaphysical evil that degraded people and made them slaves. This combination of personal experience and literary talent made “Another World” an impressive book to anyone who undertook to readit.

Does it mean that not everyone wanted to read it?

Not everyone wanted to pick up such books. Much of the opinion-forming circles in the West rejected this kind of knowledge in advance. They believed that there was nothing wrong with the Soviet Union and that this system was regarded as a model with some imperfections that needed to be tolerated as it   built a “brave new world”. Thus it should not be treated as a suspect, nor as an incarnation of evil.

Western academic, literary, intellectual and journalistic circles already in the 1950s rejected and disavowed those testimonies, one of the most outstanding examples of which was “Another World”, as unbelievable, and untrue, an expression, as in the case of Herling-Grudziński, of “Polish Russophobia” and “sick anti-communism.”

As a result, people who gave such testimonies were often exposed to specific, at least within their milieu, repression. This included Gustaw Herling-Grudziński, who was consistently fought in Italy, where he settled, by very powerful communist circles there, broadly speaking left-wing, as a “cold war liar”, “propagandist”, and as someone who should not be allowed any entry to the literary salons of the great cultural world of the West or Italy in particular. We today do not realize how powerful the communist party in Italy was in the 1950s and 1980s.

How did Herling-Grudziński react to these critical voices towards “Another World”?

A man is not made of reinforced concrete and is not able to completely isolate himself from dishonest and unfair critics who strike not only him personally, but also his loved ones.

Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski – NKVD photo (Grodno, 1940)

I had the opportunity to talk to Gustaw Herling-Grudziński only three times, so I cannot say at all that I got to know him well. However, [I am very familiar with] with his vast legacy and those things that can be read in his texts and reports of his own life, as well as what can be learned from others who knew him better. Prof. Włodzimierz Bolecki, the most eminent expert on Herling’s work, spoke to the writer on many occasions. What can be clearly seen is that he was deeply affected by this genuine persecution from the left-wing and pro-Soviet establishment dominating in the literary and cultural milieu in Italy, and more broadly in Western Europe.

However, Gustaw Herling-Grudziński was a man not only very brave personally, but also with a temperament that was prepared to rake up journalistic clashes and enter into arguments when he had no doubts that he was defending the truth.

You talked about the critics of the truth contained in “Another World”, but this book also gained great recognition from readers…

The success among readers is undeniable and was visible from the very beginning. The path for Herling-Grudziński was paved by the readers’ support. Also by left-wing and liberal circles, represented by Bertrand Russell, the author of the introduction to the first edition of Herling’s book, an outstanding British philosopher and mathematician. Back in the 1920s and 1930s, Russell was captivated by the hope, as he and his ilk believed, in the Soviet experiment. He found, however, that it was in fact a system that radically diminishes and destroys human freedom, instead of broadening its dimensions.

It was the voice of support for Herling-Grudziński from people like Russell who significantly helped the recipient of this book – although there were few of them, they nevertheless had the “impeccable” credentials of people representing the left rather than the right. It was more difficult to accuse the representatives of left-wing and liberal circles of “morbid anti-communism” or right-wing phobias, because these terms were most often used to denounce the truth about the Gulag and the Stalinist terror.

Has Moscow reacted to these testimonies?

Relatively recently, the second volume of Stalin’s monumental biography by the American historian Stephen Kotkin was published, the first one written on the basis of such a rich set of sources from the Stalin archives in Moscow. I mention it because the detailed analysis of this archive by the author of the biography shows how the dictator himself reacted to this kind of criticism.

Stalin was primarily interested in what concerned himself, that is, in the testimonies in which he appeared. This, of course, was only possible if these accounts came from a circle of people who had some access to it, some of whom fled to the West. The most famous examples were the writings by Leon Trotsky and what happened to him.

In the bottom row Lidia and Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski, on the right Andrzej Peciak, 1997 (photo: CC BY-SA 4.0; Czupal)

Trotsky, who was obviously co-responsible for the construction of the system of totalitarian enslavement (he was the originator of the camp system for opponents of power), when he was expelled from the Soviet Union after losing the rivalry for power with Stalin, began to stigmatize and criticize the Stalinist dictatorship. Since he knew many details of the dictator’s personality and the system of control over people and their minds perfected by him, it was Stalin that most disturbed him. By using his abilities, he was able to physically liquidate someone he considered a dangerous critic of his personal weaknesses, or those who revealed secrets too valuable to his authority. Trotsky was murdered by Ramon Mercader, sent by Stalin, and almost all of his relatives and friends died in the attacks.

There were also many other cases of the murder by Soviet agents of foreign intelligence of people who wrote books critical of the Stalinist system. The case of Trotsky was not isolated, but the most famous, the most drastic.

After Stalin’s death, people who accused the system in the West were murdered less frequently, and it happened only incidentally. However, the entire department of the KGB, the central institution for the police control system reformed in 1954, dealt with weakening this type of testimony by discrediting their authors, carrying out various provocations, inspiring polemics, and trying to show the authors not only as unreliable people, but to evil to the marrow of their bones.

The last example of this phenomenon, which did not end with the Soviet Union, concerns Władimir Bukowski, who knew Gustaw Herling-Grudziński very well.  They respected and admired each other very much. Bukowski is one of the most famous dissidents of the 1960s, who was imprisoned for many years in psychiatric hospitals and in various camps and prisons for his resistance against the government. He was the author of several extremely important testimonies about this system. The FSB, the successor of the KGB, assembled a provocation against him, which was to present Bukowski, who had been living in Oxford for many years, as a dangerous pedophile.

What makes Gustaw Herling-Grudziński’s account different from other testimonies about Soviet labor camps?

The testimonies of the Soviet labor camps were written both in the 1930s, although they did not make a major dent  in public opinion in the West, and after Herling-Grudziński’s testimonies, as well as after the most important testimony, the “Gulag Archipelago” by Aleksander Solzhenitsyn.

However, what immediately catches the eye in the case of Herling-Grudziński’s account is the extraordinary literary quality of this testimony – the ability to symbolically condense what is most important in the Gulag experience.

Obelisk in Jercewo commemorating the writer

The author has the talent of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, consciously referring to his “Memoirs of the house of the dead”, that is, his relationship with the system of evil, although certainly milder, which was in the mid-19th century tsarist Russia. However, some elements of both these systems of evil were similar: human enslavement and degradation, awakening the worst instincts, appealing to meanness.

Herling-Grudziński was able to show the struggle of human nature with the system of degradation in an excellent literary way. We admire not only the style, but also the fact that as readers we are immediately drawn into this world and its dilemmas. This is what makes Herling-Grudziński’s work one of the first to make such an impression. It is true that Solzhenitsyn’s work was even more impressive, but in this case two factors overlapped – not only  the great literary quality, but also the scale of the testimonies collected over the years from hundreds of prisoners from various places. “The Gulag Archipelago” is a documentary account which additionally has the value of a great synthesis of the system of evil, in addition created by a Russian, and therefore not burdened with the suspicion widespread in the West, which was put against Herling: about the “Polish bias” anti-Russian / anti-Soviet.

Herling-Grudziński, however, was the first who showed in a single drop of his experience from the Arkhangelsk camp, the whole ocean of evil which was the Soviet system.


Intervier: Anna Kruszyńska (PAP)
Translation: Mikołaj Sekrecki