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The Gulag

I had never seen the infamous GULAG system; the Soviet authorities were not keen to document their crimes. But in 1946 they incarcerated an artist, Nikolai Getman, and he survived.

Getman spent eight years in Siberia at the Kolyma labor camps where he witnessed firsthand one of the darkest periods of Soviet history. Although he survived the camps, the horrors of the GULAG seared into his memory. Upon his release in 1954, Getman commenced a public career as a politically correct painter. Secretly, however, for more than four decades, Getman labored at creating a visual record of the GULAG which vividly depicts all aspects of the horrendous life (and death) which so many innocent millions experienced during that infamous era.

Getman explains what happened to him:

In my third year I was called up to join the Red Army, which was where the war found me. I saw military action in the 24th Army. On Victory Day I was on the shores of Lake Balaton in Hungary, a lieutenant technician. Marshal Tolbukhin sent me to Romania as an art specialist to serve on the Soviet Commission for the return of art treasures stolen by the Germans.

I returned home to Kharkov in October 1945 where I became one of the millions of Stalin�s victims. My crime was meeting with other artists in Dnepropetrovsk, where I was visiting my father, and exchanging memories of what we had seen in the towns we liberated. Remnants of fascist propaganda, posters, leaflets, cartoons. One of the artists took a cigarette box and drew a caricature he had seen of Stalin with a play on the abbreviation SSSR (USSR): Skoro Smertrt� Stalinskomu Rezhimu (Sudden Death to the Stalinist Regime). An informer reported the sketch, and the whole group of us were arrested for anti-Soviet propaganda and agitation. I was arrested on October 12, 1945. In January 1946 I was convicted and sent to Taishetlag in Russia�s Irkutsk Oblast.

The Dnepropetrovsk Oblast court condemned me under article 54-10 of the Criminal Code of the Ukrainian SSR. In Russia this is known as article 58. I was sentenced to ten years� imprisonment and five years� suppression of civic rights. I spent about eight years in Siberia (Taishetlag) and Kolyma (Svitlag). Labor camps records show that I was held in custody for seven years, ten months and eighteen days. I was freed on August 30, 1953.

From the very day I was released, I began to implement my plan to paint a series of pictures on the theme of the Gulag, but because this was a forbidden topic, I had to do my civic duty in secret. And so, in complete secrecy, beginning in 1953, I painted pictures about camp life that I recreated from memory. I told no one about this work�not even my wife�because this sort of activity was punishable by imprisonment or even death. I undertook the task because I was convinced that it was my duty to leave behind a testimony to the fate of the millions of prisoners who died and who should not be forgotten.

Getman produced 50 paintings about the GULAG, and they can be viewed here. I must advise that some of the paintings are extremely distressing, since Getman simply tried to recreate what he actually saw. However, they are also of huge historical value as a rare record of what the horror of Soviet ‘justice’ actually meant.

Getman dedicated his works thusly:

I dedicate my collection to the memory of those who survived the Gulag and to those who did not. Light a candle in memory. The living are in need of it more than the dead. Bow your heads.

I bow my head. I will not forget.

8 comments to The Gulag

  • I just got my hands on what I think are first editions of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.

    I should have read this a long, long time ago.

  • Susan

    Wow, great post and very educational too. The mosquito punishment is unbelievable. This should go out to all the blogosphere.

    PS — Walter Duranty still has his Pulitzer Prize, last I heard. (NY Times journalist who whitewashed the Soviet gulag in the ’30s.)

  • I asked a friend of mine in Moscow where she originally came from. She said “from Magadan, where the concentration camps were”

  • Cobden Bright

    What a fantastic and inspiring post. Following your link I read a little about what this great artist had to say about his experiences:

    “I did not think about death at all because I did not believe in it. I did not live in permanent fear, but with an extremely heightened sense of danger. I was always on my guard, but the main thing is that I would not have survived without the belief, the absolute conviction that good would triumph over evil. Nothing could convince me that Bolshevism — the plague of the 20th century — would reign unchecked in Russia. I was one of a huge number of people, among whom, in the face of death, the whole gamut of human behavior was revealed more clearly than ever before.

    I, like everyone else, wanted to draw a specific conclusion based on my experience. And it was this. There is a human virtue called strength of will. I realized what a great, unbending force that is, if even the terrible Gulag machine could not extinguish it. This is why I am absolutely convinced of the victory of good over evil. I believe this because that extremely harsh and tragic repression and lawlessness persuaded me of the value of man, and of the dignity of his spirit and mind. The very atmosphere of our age arouses great alarm for the fate of Russia and her jewel — mankind. Each of us is responsible for the future. Because of this responsibility, I cannot be silent.”

    Good god, if there is ever an antidote to cynical pessimism, the temptation to hang up your boots in the face of apparently insurmountable obstacles, this is it. How humbling to see someone who lived through amonst the worst conditions imaginable find inspiration in the human spirit. Quite how he managed to glean such a positive conclusion from such unremmiting tragey is beyond my comprehension, but god damn, I’m glad he did. Next time I’m in Russia I’ll raise a glass to our brother in spirit Nikolai.

    Let this be a lesson to the pessimistic libertarians out there!

  • Read Anne Applebaum’s Gulag too. I’ve just finished reading it, and by chance I read most of it whilst in Moscow. Not only did this make me wonder what would have happened to me had I tried to bring this book into Russia 15 years ago, it also made me realise the significance of Lubyanka square and the large piece of granite sited there.

  • zmollusc

    Alexander Dolgun wrote a good book about his experiences in Gulag and another one to look for is “As far as my feet will carry me”.

  • Scott

    After seeing Getman’s paintings and having long ago read Koba the Dread, Gulag Archipelago and Robert Conquest’s books, I am sourly amused that most liberals still think it was all just an abberation; that there’s no real connection between 80 million Russian Zeks and Marxism-Leninism. In fact, getting liberals to even admit there was a Gulag is a chore — let alone the Killing Fields of Cambodia, or the Cuban, north Korean and Chinese Gulags.

  • Jim Hash

    Good grief! Now there’s 50 paintings you’d never see in
    a San Francisco Art Gallery!