The Horrors of the Soviet GULAG prison-camps and the humanity that survived

A World Apart – Gustav Herling (1951)

            Horror can come in so many ways.  It could be the sudden arrival of an incomprehensible terror.  It could also be the slowly dawning realization that hope is a feeling best left dead.  In many ways, the horrors experienced by Mr. Gustav Herling while serving in a Soviet GULAG hard-labor prison run the full gamut.  For several years, the author, a Polish native who had left for the Soviet Union after Poland had been annexed by the Third Reich, experienced horrors both physical and mental, and in sharing his story he helps us understand the true evil that totalitarian government inflicts upon the entire population.

            Reading Mr. Herling’s account of his time as a prisoner brought back memories of my youth reading Animal Farm and 1984, and of wondering in indignant rage why people tolerated the obviously absurd and illogical pronouncements of the ruling parties.  As a young teen, those books filled me with a deep hate for mindless subservience and for blind allegiance to any political system, especially those of a totalitarian state.  Mr. Herling’s life in this forced-labor camp shared so much of the idiocy and stupidity that the animals on Animal Farm or the citizens in 1984 had to accept or else be destroyed by the state.

            Mr. Herling meets prisoners from all walks of life.  One is a former diva of Soviet theater who was sentenced to ten years hard labor.  Her stated crime was being a traitor to the Soviet State.  What was her actual crime?  She danced for too long with the Japanese ambassador at a gala event in Moscow.  That was it.  Several of the inmates were there merely because they were not Russian.  These were Poles who got stuck in Russia avoiding the Nazi takeover of Poland.  There were people whose jobs pre-revolution were in education and intelligentsia, and of course a totalitarian state cannot abide having anyone else be an authority on anything.  The state must the ultimate authority on anything!  How fucking horrible.  With the Soviet Union officially banning all organized religious activities, priests and nuns were also laced in these ruthless work-to-death camps.  All kinds, even those that believed themselves deeply committed to the Communist Party, found out they were worthless pieces of a machine in which they had no control.

            The life in the camp is terrible, with surreal and illogical precision running everything.  The prisoners were fed according to their crimes, and according to how much they worked daily.  Those that worked heavy labor were lucky to receive a few grams of bread and a thin barley “soup” at the end of the day.  Those that were unfit for heavy labor received solely a thin warm liquid with no meat and no vegetables.  If you were sill or injured you spent some time in an unheated “infirmary” where you received the bare minimum food portion, and minimal medical care.  If you were unable to get better enough to work, they would send you to the Mortuary, where the dying waited to die in relative peace.  Mr. Herling spent time in the Mortuary and describes the twisted sense of calm and rest combined with the foreknowledge of your impending death.  There is no comfort anywhere. The paranoia, the pain, the SMELL of countless rotting, sickly, and dying men and women, awash in their own feces, ever-seeping sores, malnutrition, night-blindness from lack of vitamins, and eventually the complete loss of their conscious ability to think all wash over the narrator, as he slides into this horror himself.  Throughout all this, Mr. Herling manages to share any and all wisdom he gained, most of it bleak, and brutally honest about what a man has to deal with when hope is gone yet life continues interminably.  It is a brutal story, and the fact that we know he managed to survive and publish this a few years later does nothing to diminish the trauma of his and all of the other prisoner’s experiences.

            Prison for actual criminals is bad enough.  When the state sets up prisons for those who do no crime other than political opposition?  Evil.  When the state punishes people pre-emptively, trying to weed out supposed traitors before they even have a chance to act?  Evil.  When the state’s own reasoning is so twisted and flawed and fucking pointless that they have to retroactively invent methods to protect their own lies?  Evil.  Under Stalin, Soviet/Russian history was turned into a pathetic joke, with whole secret government entities erasing people’s entire lives from the historical record, solely to appease the whims of the mustachioed madman controlling everything. Whole families disappeared.  Whole generations of educated people were sent to Siberia to die in labor camps.  This same shit happens in all totalitarian states, and is happening right now in Saudi Arabia (religious rule by an autocratic family of assholes), North Korea (totalitarian rule by a fat man-boy with a tiny pecker and total control of his starving population), etc.  It could happen anywhere.  It could happen in the USA.  The only thing that prevents dictators is the willingness of brave people to stand up to them, to the death.  Never expect a despot to “make sense.”

            During WWII the Germans, the Russians, and the Americans all had forced-relocation camps.  The Germans used theirs to attempt a mass genocide of European Jews, as well as anyone deemed undesirable by the Reich.  This included the homosexuals, religious leaders, Romany, mentally and physically handicapped people, and anyone else deemed as “the Other.”  Russian forced labor camps were barely any better.  Their goal was not to solely exterminate enemies.  It was to suck out as much forced labor as possible with the bare minimum of food and support, thereby killing the state’s enemies while also benefiting the state’s GDP.  In the USA, our forced-relocation camps consisted of thousands and thousands of Japanese-Americans, many of them full citizens of the nation, including children and the elderly.  They were treated as if just because they were of Japanese ancestry, they were a treasonous threat to the nation.  While they were not treated as inhumanely as those in German or Russian camps, the very existence of such places in the supposed “Land of the Free” should be enough to strike terror in the hearts of free-thinking humans anywhere.  Who knows how bad it could have gotten for the Japanese-American prisoners if the war had raged on, or if the Japanese had managed a full on attack of the USA mainland?  Totalitarianism is a slippery slope indeed.  We must be ever-vigilant against it, even if it is an unpopular stance to take.

(This book is available for download as a PDF here: https://archive.org/download/worldapart007324mbp/worldapart007324mbp.pdf )

(This book can also be purchased here:  A World Apart  )

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