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The Gulag Collection by Nikolai Getman: From the “Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation”
Looking for art from the Gulag, I discovered the Ukrainian artist Nikolai Getman (1917-2004), who created a whole series documenting the experience of the forced labour camp system. Dedicated to the memory of those who survived the Gulag and those who did not, the collection of paintings is owned by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, a Washington, DC-based non-profit educational and human rights organisation “devoted to commemorating the more than 100 million victims of Communism around the world and to the freedom of those still living under totalitarian regimes.”
Born in Kharkiv/Kharkov, the second-largest Ukrainian city, Getman began drawing at an early age. Following his discharge from the Red Army, he was involved with a group of artists, one of whom drew a picture mocking Stalin on cigarette paper. An informer reported the sketch and the whole group was arrested on October 12, 1945 for anti-Soviet propaganda and agitation. Getman spent eight years in Siberia and Kolyma. He was freed on August 30, 1953. He immediately began painting from his memory about life and death in the Gulag. No allusions to Gulag life was permitted in the Soviet Union until 1962. He didn’t tell anyone about the paintings, not even his wife. It took him over 40 years to complete a total 50 paintings. The haunting paintings were saved from likely destruction and brought to the United States in 1997.
The artist’s own words: “I was born on December 23, 1917 in the town of Kharkov, Ukraine. My mother died in the typhus epidemic of 1919, before I reached my second birthday. It fell upon my father and my two older brothers, Pyotr and Aleksandr, to care for me and raise me. I remember the 1918 civil war and its consequences—the 1921 famine—from the age of four. Our family did not have an easy life in Kharkov, then the capital of Ukraine. I was saved from starvation by my aunt Masha. From early childhood, for as long as I can remember, I was always drawing; I tried to express the things I felt and observed. My drawings were primitive, of course, but the early sketches were utterly sincere. At school, I would do drawings for the class newspaper, decorate the classroom, and on special occasions the whole school. I lived through the tragic news of the death of my brother Aleksandr, who was accused of committing a “white” terrorist act and shot by firing squad on December 11, 1934.
“Fearing persecution and repression, my brother Pyotr took refuge for several years in a friend’s house in Moscow. My father left in secret one night to live with his sister, my aunt Masha, who moved from her village of Pokrovskoe to Dnepropetrovsk not under her maiden name of Getman, but using the name of her husband, Pavel Epifanovich Sokh. The fates decreed that the repression would not affect me, a second-year student in a technical college, but that was in the 1930s. After graduating in 1937, I entered the Kharkov Art College to become a professional artist. One of the teachers there, Semyon Markovich Prokhorov, was a pupil of Repin’s. He often spoke of the great artist and teacher. I have never forgotten the words that were to become my credo: ‘The most important thing in a picture is color. It is through your use of color that you will make the viewer sense the mood of your canvas. Without color there is no art.'”
Getman’s images show us with great honesty and exactness the extent of the atrocities and humiliations endured by his fellow inmates. They also remind us how, very often, what we understand as success and failure, prosperity and poverty can be a direct outcome of one’s larger social context and situation rather than personal choice and effort. Every individual caught in the hell of the labour camps was a precious life, with untapped potential, possibly with dreams and ambitions, but had all of their qualities and visions sacrificed—without their permission—in the insane and horrifying and all-consuming scheme directed at the achievement of the Far-Left utopia. By employing a vibrant visual approach, Getman makes this dark chapter of history slightly easier to confront and comprehend.
In 1932, members of the Tsaregradsky, Bilibin and Drapkin expedition discovered gold at the mouth of the Utinny River. A settlement was built between the villages of Balaganny and Ola, the hills there destroyed, piers built, and the settlement named Magadan after a nearby stream. Forced laborers were brought in to build roads from Magadan to the gold. Building the roads was incredibly harsh labor in the permafrost. The prisoners were poorly fed and worked for long hours under fierce conditions with rudimentary tools. The sentiment expressed here is that the roads were built on human bones—that every hill, every gully, and every path in Magadan represents human lives and could be the site of a human grave. The sun is eclipsed to symbolize the darkness and evil that cast its shadow over the people of the Soviet Union. The cross represents the enormous burdens the prisoners had to bear. It also symbolizes Christ’s trek up the hill of Golgotha, which the artist likens to the prisoners’ journey.
This is one of the few paintings in the collection that depicts an event or circumstance which Getman did not actually witness. It is dedicated to Aleksandr Getman, the artist’s brother, who was executed on December 1, 1934—more than likely having been led down a dimly corridor and shot in the back, in a basement where few were likely to hear. Aleksandr Getman was among a group tried as spies and dissidents operating out of Leningrad. All the victims of this trial were later reportedly rehabilitated—that is, had their names and public stand restored. The artist is intent on seeing his brother’s name restored officially and publicly. His campaign to thus memorialize his brother has so far been frustrated however, both by the Soviet government and now by the Russian government.
Millions of prisoners were transported by rail to the camps. The journey could take as long as fifteen days. Fifty or sixty people were packed into each freight car and given water only when the train stopped every three or four days to replenish its water supply for the boiler. Food, when provided, was generally salt herring—which only made the prisoners’ thirst that much greater. Not eating the fish however, meant starvation and death. For even minor infractions of the rules, a death certificate could be drawn up on the train, and the prisoner left to die on the permafrost. Given the lack of nourishment, inadequate clothing and cramped quarters, only the very strong, usually the young, reached the camps alive. The prisoners in this painting are seated on the snow in groups of five during a stop. It was Gulag custom to sort prisoners into fives.
HEADED FOR THE KOLYMA
The transfer to the camps was often the most grueling part of a prisoner’s journey. Prisoners in transit suffered greatly for lack of adequate food, water and clothing. In this painting the prisoners are being transported in the back of a truck at night. Prisoners also arrived in ships and by rail. The area where the prisoners are seated is not covered, leaving them exposed to the elements. This practice continued in winter, making the journey close to unbearable.
THE GUARD’S KENNEL
Dogs—trained to maul their prey (anyone who attempted to run or flee)—were kept both to guard the convicts and the restricted areas, and to catch runaways. Getman believes that turning a naturally peaceful animal into a malicious killer typifies an aspect of the inhuman Soviet mentality. The sight of the dogs’ food bowls produced constant fury and envy in the prisoners. These bowls were usually full of meat, and served as a painful reminder that the Soviets treated their dogs better than their human captives.
Unprovoked body searches in the camps were commonplace. At random, arbitrarily and disrespectfully, the guards hunted for contraband. In the scene depicted here, a book of banned poetry is found. The penalty for such a transgression was severe. The prisoner’s sentence would be lengthened by the number of years he or she had already served. Under Stalin, the Soviet regime sought total control over the minds of the entire population, control which included whatever art inmates were allowed to experience. Numerous poets, musicians and artists, including Sergei Yesenin, Pyotr Lechshenko and Aleksandr Vertinsky, were branded as bourgeois, as hostile elements. Their songs, music and poems were forbidden to all. Punishment for disobedience in the Soviet Union was harsh, and harsher still in the Gulag.
AT THE SOURCE OF THE RIVER ARMAN
The landscape depicts the natural beauty of the Magadan Oblast, which abounds with hills, gullies and valleys the foreground is the long road to Kolyma, in the building of which countless died. The pillars along the bottom of the landscape are a boundary to the camp, a reminder to the viewer of the atrocities that occurred in such beautiful part of the world, something the artist found ironic. Despite the atrocities he witnessed daily, Getman found some solace in the natural beauty beyond the camp.
JAPANESE WORKING ON THE BAM
Japanese prisoners of war were kept in the labor camps of the Gulag and were used to build the Baikal-Amur Mainline Railroad, despite claims of the Soviets that this endeavor was the work of the industrious Young Communist League. That the builders were Japanese is clear from the traditional style of architecture used in the Kvitok to Vikharevka stations on the Tayshet-Bratsk line, all built from 1946 to 1948. The Russian prisoners sometimes saw but rarely approached the Japanese. The language barrier, of course, made it difficult to communicate. More significant, however, was the danger that attempting to talk to a Japanese prisoner might give rise to charges of spying and a lengthened sentence.
Butara is a gold field-more precisely, a place where gold bearing sand was gathered and panned to separate the gold from the sand. The malnourished prisoners worked year round. In the winter months when it was too cold to pan, they would work twelve hours a day breaking up the frozen ground. In the warmer months (the panning season), the day was often extended to sixteen hours. Despite their weakened condition, the prisoners strove to respond to the constant cries of “Move! Move!” from the guards. Failure to meet one’s quota meant punishment in the form of a cut in the already meager rations or confinement in a cell with a charge of “sabotage” or slacking off at work. It made no difference whether the inmate was sick or too physically weak to comply with orders. Although he pushed wheelbarrows at a mine, Getman never worked in the gold-sand fields. He learned about the fields from a friend, Leonid Pavlovich Rychkov, depicted in this painting as the man pushing the wheelbarrow. Rychkov appears physically strong because he was an athlete before his arrest.
SMOKING BREAK: DIALOGUE
Prisoners were allowed to take breaks when they wanted, but every minute of rest was added to a fourteen-hour day, extending the time during which they would be forced to dig to meet the day’s cruelly high gold quota. A barter system developed for rare items like tobacco and tea. One gram of gold was worth a gram of tobacco or tea. The price of such items was high, however, as it meant longer hours of labor to enjoy such pleasures while on break. On these breaks, the prisoners avoided conversations that might risk the length of their terms. They talked instead about trivial things like the weather. Getman has intentionally arranged the figures in the shape of the cross as a reference to the enormous burdens the prisoners had to bear.
FITIL’ (THE WICK OF A CANDLE)
In camp slang, fitil’ (the wick of a candle) came to mean someone who would soon die. Such inmates lost their will to live after only days of endless labor under wretched conditions, and would resort to self-mutilation in an attempt to incapacitate themselves. Prisoners would occasionally gain access to explosives and ignite them either in a hand or a boot. Inmates who attempted this often received extra terms and were sentenced to punishment cells where they would sit without rations, heat, or medical attention. No one offered assistance, not even the medical section. A prisoner with a self-inflicted wound was allowed to suffer. If he survived, he survived; if he didn’t, he didn’t.
ETERNAL MEMORY IN THE PERMAFROST
The painting depicts both the burial of a Russian convict and a Japanese POW and the observance of two religions, Russian Orthodoxy and Buddhism. The prisoners present at the ceremony are not clerics, but rather inmates, who felt the need to provide a respectful burial for the dead. In the extreme winter cold, bodies were placed beneath a block of ice because digging graves in the permafrost was too difficult. The funeral shown here provides an example of the crosscultural unity Gulag prisoners developed in the face of their common fate.
An Old Believer—a member of the old Orthodox faith, as evidenced by his beard and posture of the two fingers on his left hand—was convicted by the Soviets for his beliefs. This individual is encouraging two prisoners at a work site, telling them that good will triumph over evil. The younger convicts, like the man seated on the wall, and the new ones, like the man seated on the ground, were most vulnerable to depression. Men like this priest would offer support at their own risk. Such behavior could lead to extra punishment.
PUNISHMENT BY MOSQUITOES
The torture-death depicted here was known as komariki (little mosquitoes). For even an insignificant misdeed, such as a harsh word to a guard, a prisoner could be stripped naked, hung crucifixion-style to a pine tree, and left to be fed upon by mosquitoes. Within thirty minutes to an hour he would be taken down. By that time, however, he would have lost so much blood that a slow and painful death was almost inevitable. Such executions were carried out beyond the barbed wire, in full view of the other prisoners. In some camps, the victims of komarki were not hung on trees, but were thrown instead into pits.
A NORTHERN SETTLEMENT
The Soviet authorities tasked some prisoners with building villages for the indigenous peoples of Siberia (the Chukchi). These villages were very Western, meaning that the houses resembled those in Russia rather than those in the Far East, and represented a new way of life for the native population. The process amounted to a policy of Russification and Sovietization of the natives, who were unlikely to build such villages themselves. The use of prisoners to build these villages also served another crucial function, as a warning to the indigenous groups that resistance was pointless. Looking at what life in the camps did to the men and women there was often enough to make the natives comply with the authorities’ wishes. Relations between the Chukchi and prisoners were frequently good. The Chukchi sympathized with the plight of the inmates, who understood the precarious line the Chukchi walked. When possible, the natives would slip extra food to an inmate working in the village.
The journey to the camps left prisoners nearly emaciated upon arrival. Within a month or two, hard labor and further malnutrition often resulted in scurvy and dystrophy. Inmates who worked in the permafrost, in the mines, or in the limeworks were more subject to physical ailments than the others. Those who only had a short time to live and had become too weak to work, such as those depicted in the painting, were put in special medical barracks “to be cared for.” They were in fact considered already dead. The doctors were also prisoners and tried to help, but had neither proper equipment nor medicines, only iodine and streptocide. The best they could offer was to make the prisoners more comfortable. The authorities were indifferent. New laborers, stronger than those who had been in the camps for a couple of months, were constantly arriving. The doctors lived in special barracks. These were not, however, a luxury, because extremely ill prisoners were transferred into these barracks to suffer out their last days. The doctors were left with the responsibility for determining when someone was no longer fit to work. Exemption could be given only when a convict was too weak to stand or had a life-threatening illness. To excuse a prisoner from labor for any other reason put the doctor’s life in jeopardy.
Escape attempts occurred at every camp. The majority of the prisoners who attempted to run knew that their odds of success were next to nothing. A successful escape required a weakened and malnourished prisoner to travel great distances under harsh conditions, and without adequate provisions—perhaps no more than a few pieces of saved bread. But the attempt gave them, at least for a few days, hope of freedom. While he was imprisoned at the Taishetlag camp, Getman knew of inmates who tried to escape. The two men depicted in the painting were caught and brought back to the camp. They received additional twenty-five-year terms.
WAITING TO BE SHOT
This painting is meant to remember a group of 159 men taken from their barracks in the middle of the night and executed by the NKVD. Such occurrences were common and often without any apparent reason. New prisoners quickly came to understand what being dragged out in the middle of the night meant. Those taken away never returned. The men in the painting are clearly aware that they are going to be killed.
WOMEN’S FOREST CAMP
The wives and children of so-called the enemies of the people often suffered the same fate as their husbands and fathers. They were guilty by association. Women and older children were assigned to forestry units and worked felling trees, chopping wood and stacking timber in order to get their daily rations of camp soup and bread. Younger children, too small for work, were left at the barracks, often with only camp guards to supervise them. For the workers, mosquitoes, swarms of flies, poor climate conditions and unrealistic daily quotas made the labor extremely harsh. The women had only simple hand tools to perform their work. Those who could not live up to the expectations of the Soviet authorities were sent to disciplinary barracks where they received only bread with no water. Countless numbers of them were crushed by trees, or permanently maimed or killed in other accidents in the forest.
A DEAD MAN’S BREAD RATION
The prisoner sitting on the bed boards holds a bread ration intended for his dead neighbor. Inmates were occasionally able to conceal for several days the fact someone in the barracks had died, thus increasing their own rations for a brief time. In the painting, the dead prisoner is lying on the bed boards to the right of the man holding the bread. In the left corner is a dying man beyond anyone’s help. Prisoners went about from day to day surrounded by suffering and death. When possible, misfortune for one brought opportunity for another. The scene depicted took place on a typical bath day. Inmates were given small pieces of soap and forced to walk semiclothed to and from the showers through the freezing cold, after which they would try to dry and warm themselves by huddling around the stove.
THE LAST OLP (SEPARATED FORCED LABOR CAMP)
Getman discovered the abandoned camp shown here while on a fishing trip long after his release. Such camps can be found throughout Siberia. At many of them the skeletal remains of deceased inhabitants are still strewn over the ground. The mounds in the background of this camp are former mining sites. The sunlight slanting from the clouds symbolizes the dawning of a new era that Khrushchev’s reforms brought—hope and freedom for the prisoners of the Gulag fortunate enough to have survived. After Stalin’s personality cult was denounced in 1956 at the 20th Convention of the Soviet Communist Party, Khrushchev’s “Spring Thaw” began and the “corrective camps” of the Gulag were closed down. The prisoners were released and some were rehabilitated. Leaving the prison camp, however, was usually not the end of a prisoner’s problems. Many former inmates were discriminated against, for example, by being denied promotions and treated otherwise badly. The stigma of being in the Gulag hung over many of the innocent throughout their lives.
The man depicted is holding his rehabilitation papers, documents in which the Russian state declares him a free man with a restored name. Freedom after the Gulag, however, was often a mixed experience. Many former inmates remained under travel restrictions and could live only in certain areas. The stigma of having been a prisoner in the Gulag also made it difficult to advance professionally. The artist himself was denied promotion in his artist’s union years after he had been released and Stalin’s cult denounced. Many former prisoners internalized the stigma. They felt somehow different, even guilty, notwithstanding the fact that they knew they had done nothing wrong. In 1991, President Boris Yeltsin of Russia issued a decree that would provide monetary compensation for survivors of the Gulag. The former prisoners would be paid a sum prorated for the amount of time served. The lump sum which Getman received was small, approximately the same as his pension of $50 per month. When he received his rehabilitation papers, Getman personalized the original of this painting by affixing his rehabilitation documents to the man’s hands.
Cosmopolitan soul and King's College London + National Gallery alum - slowly working on a novel and a collection of short stories. Say hi at firstname.lastname@example.org, send all professional communication, including enquiries related to content creation, curatorship, educational engagements, art buying and building a collection, to email@example.com. Follow on IG: @tulika_inez_bahadur89. View all posts by Tulika Bahadur