THE GULAG COLLECTION: PAINTINGS OF THE SOVIET
PENAL SYSTEM BY FORMER PRISONER NIKOLAI GETMAN
“I was born on December 23, 1917 in the town of Kharkov, Ukraine”
Book: “The Gulag Collection: Paintings of the Soviet Penal System
by Former Prisoner Nikolai Getman”
Published by The Jamestown Foundation
Washington, D.C.; Year 2001
1. ESSAY NUMBER ONE FROM THE BOOK—————————
In 1946 an artist named Nikolai Getman was imprisoned in the Soviet Union’s GULAG. During the 1920s, the Soviet Union developed a system of extreme repression and terror that inflicted forced famines, purges, executions, and arrests on the people of the Soviet Union. Under Josef Stalin, forced-labor camps in Siberia became the pillar of that system. They were one of the principal techniques by which Stalin exerted absolute control over the lives and decisions of the Soviet people. An estimated 50 million people died as a result of Stalin’s inhuman policies of terror and repression.
Nikolai Getman in his workshop
Getman’s “crime” was that he had been present in a cafe with several fellow artists, one of whom drew a caricature of Stalin on a cigarette paper. An informer told the authorities, and the entire group was arrested for “anti-Soviet behavior”. 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’s collection is unique because it is the only visual record known to exist of this tragic phenomenon. Unlike Nazi Germany, which recorded and preserved in detail a visual history of the Holocaust, the Russians prefer not to remember what happened in the GULAG. Not a single person has been punished for the deaths of the millions who perished there. If film or other visual representations of the Soviet GULAG existed, they have been largely destroyed or suppressed. The Getman collection stands alone as a most important historical document.
William W. Geimer, The Jamestown Foundation
2. ESSAY NUMBER TWO FROM THE BOOK—————————
FROM THE ARTIST
The Gulag Collection: Paintings by Nikolai Getman
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.”
Magadan Hills (Golgotha)
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.
In the NKVD’s Dungeon
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 lit 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 standing 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.
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.
It took me over forty years to create this visual chronicle of the Gulag. My collection eventually grew to a total of fifty pictures, recording various aspects of camp life. To be able to draw and paint from life, even if the artist tackles contemporary subjects, is not necessarily to describe one’s time in the language of art. In order to describe the epoch, one has to try to visually encapsulate its meaning, the way the great artists used to do. It is imperative to depict not just what you see, but what you know. In its essence, from the perspective of image and content, the “theme” (in this case the theme of camp life) becomes an artistic category.
Magadan’s Port: Nogaevo
The port of Nagaevo was built at the capital city of Kolyma, Magadan specifically for the transport of prisoners. It was the first glimpse the prisoners had of the land to which they had been transported. This view captures the typical landscape of the region, but in the spring, when the snow is lightest. The seabirds in the foreground echo the migratory birds that appear in other paintings in the collection and are, for the inmates, always a distant reminder of freedom.
I developed a unique way of working, which seems to go against all the established rules for creating a picture. In the camps, it is unthinkable to do sketches or drafts or details. All the material amassed for the future painting is concentrated in intense mental work. The idea in my head and the blank canvas is the starting point for each work. There are not many artists who would readily agree with me. This method, this approach, is not taught in art college. One should never forget the established canons-first, “what” to portray and “how” to portray it and, second, there is no art without color. As the brush lays the picture onto the canvas, the color, not the paint, comes into its own.
I am sometimes asked how I felt, or rather how anyone can feel in such unimaginable circumstances as loss of freedom, arrest, interrogation, trial, prison, labor camp. The human brain possesses a unique ability to adapt, and this ability is far greater than we can imagine in ordinary life.
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.
Some may say that the Gulag is a forgotten part of history and that we do not need to be reminded. But I have witnessed monstrous crimes. It is not too late to talk about them and reveal them. It is essential to do so. Some have expressed fear on seeing some of my paintings that I might end up in Kolyma again-this time for good. But the people must be reminded, as part of their education, and as a tribute to the memory of the more than 50 million who died as a result of one of the harshest acts of political repression in the Soviet Union. My paintings may help achieve this.
Stalin’s death changed little. Khrushchev’s thaw and the denunciation of the personality cult did nothing to eliminate the system, which can still be felt. Russia is still looking for another way today. The Bolsheviks’ motto – “Those who are nothing will become everything” – provides inspiration for certain people.
Remember the NEP (New Economic Policy)! I remember it. I remember how my father, a worker in the Kharkov tobacco factory, lived and supported his family.
He lived honorably and freely.
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.
A Search: They Find a Book of Esenin’s Poetry
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.
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.
ER PRISONER NIKOLAI GETMAN
“I was born on December 23, 1917 in the town of Kharkov, Ukraine”
3. ESSAY NUMBER THREE FROM THE BOOK—————————–
By Robert Conquest
Gulag has become a word of horror for all of us, Russian and non-Russian, and rightly so. The system it describes was one of almost unexampled coldblooded inhumanity. We now know almost all that is to be known about it. But the deep, penetrating illustration that Getman gives us is unique in taking us right into the human actualities.
The first Soviet prison camps were set up in 1918 as part of the terror by which the regime established itself. The system continued to grow, and became institutionalized. The most notorious of the late 1920s camps were those on the Arctic island Solovki. But it was only in the 1930s that the camps ceased to be merely inhuman rural prisons and the system of intensive slave labor was introduced. And soon many of the several million peasants deported as kulaks were working, either in camps or in ‘special’ settlements under secret police control. At this time the Soviets were exporting lumber, and the countries to which it was sent were disturbed by reports that it was being cut by forced labor. This the Soviet government denied, despite first-hand evidence. The campaign of total fabrication of the dreadful realities now entered its vital phase. This involved, amongst other things, hiding the camps and the slave labor operations from foreigners, apart from those the Communists were able to blackmail or bribe.
The center of repression moved, in the early 1930s, to the Baltic-White Sea Canal. This was opened with much fanfare in 1932. In fact, though it exploited several hundred thousand forced laborers, it was never of much use. Its predicted ability to transfer the Northern or Baltic Fleets to the other sea was not achieved. A group of writers and others were brought in, however, and produced a book on it in which they printed the results of their interviews with selected prisoners who told them of how they had been spiritually saved by “corrective labor.” This book was published in English in New York, but eventually had to be withdrawn, most of the officials and the writers quoted having been shot.
I Remember the Port in Vanino
The portrait is of the artist, Nikolai Getman, at the age of twenty-eight, while boarding a ship at the port of Vanino. During the spring and summer months, up to 6,000 people were transported on every trip from Vanino to the labor camps at Kolyma. Getman arrived at the port in the fall when it was icebound. He thus had the good fortune of living in a transit camp until the water became navigable in the spring, a circumstance that he believes contributed to his survival. The ships in the painting bear the names of the actual ships which became notorious as carriers of human misery. The freight train in the back of the painting was used to transport prisoners from the European parts of the Soviet Union to Vanino. Painted on the plank on which Getman stands is the first line of a famous labor camp song: “I remember the Vanino port/The morose drone of the steamships/As we climbed aboard/Into the cold and forbidding ship’s hold…”
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.
Many of the projects were more usual, though most effective in wearing out their miserable human capital. But insane enterprises persisted. When, after World War II, Stalin demanded a new railway across north Siberia, for four years-in temperatures down to -55C in winter-thousands of forced laborers in more than eighty labor camps managed to build 850 kilometers of rail. The whole thing was abandoned, locomotives and all, in the 1950s.
From the mid-thirties on, the terror became yet more intense, the treatment worse still. These millions of totally innocent men and women were treated in ways that would have been thought grossly inhumane elsewhere even if applied to the worst criminals. In Russia itself, in Tsarist times, enemies of the state such as Lenin were merely ‘exiled’ to Siberia-with their wives, housing and even an allowance. In Soviet times most of the prisoners had been held in one or another of the immensely overcrowded prisons, and had been ‘interrogated’ to produce confessions of being to one degree or another enemies of the people, of society, of the party. It was taken for granted that anyone given only a ten-year sentence was totally innocent, and guards and police officials sometimes implicitly accepted this. The prisoners were then transported in packed and unsanitary cattle trucks for journeys often of weeks, with minimal rations, with not even water given regularly, with hardly room to stand in almost total darkness. In the case of the Kolyma camps in Northeast Siberia, “the pole of cold and cruelty” of the system, as Solzhenitsyn put it, prisoners then had to face a week or more packed into the holds of the slave ships, even more filthy and crowded.
After this interlude, they faced a deadly environment. There were often executions in the camps. Ten thousand were specifically ordered by Moscow in 1937. Others were carried out for local offenses such as failing three times to work, or simply as a means of removing those showing any other sign of independence, or uttering any “anti-Soviet” words. Some were done locally, others in special camps serving a whole area such as the Serpantinka in Kolyma. There were even small execution camps outside of any particular group that handled a few hundred brought in at a time, two or three batches a week.
A further horror of the Gulag was that, in most camps, there was a proportion of members of the old Russian criminal caste, the urkas, dating from the Time of Troubles. These were favored by the authorities, and, together with the camp officials, they terrorized the noncriminal prisoners in an alliance productive of both physical abuse and starvation.
Far worse, if anything, than the general brutality and degradation inflicted on the prisoners was the central point of the whole Gulag operation-the food ration. It was calculated so that satisfactory toil could bring up to 800 grams of bread a day. Anything less than 100 percent fulfilment of the arbitrary and often almost impossibly high ‘norm’ meant a lower ration. In any case, the corruption in the camps and the favoring of the gang-criminal element kept the ordinary convicts’ food intake at little above, often under, starvation level. One striking comparison is with the Japanue prisoner of war camps on the River Kwai whose ration was about 3,500 calories (though, as in the Soviet Union, very deficient in vitamins)-the worst experience of its sort directly known to Westerners. The Gulag ration, in a more lethal climate, was about 2,400 calories.
First Group of Five Move Out
Women prisoners are being divided into the customary groups of five and assigned work for the day, to be guided by armed escort to the work site and back again at the end of the day. Standing near the guards is also a prisoner, but one who has been elevated to a favored position. The price for such power or privilege, however, was steep. Whatever the guards demanded, she had to give. Such women were detested by their fellow inmates and their power was often short lived, especially after being cast aside by guards who had grown weary of them.
The Soviet example, however, long remained unknown-or rather misknown-during the war. There were model prisons, to be shown to inquiring foreign penologists-in particular Bolshevo, where all the most progressive methods of restoring errant individuals to society were practiced. On one occasion an American mission headed by Vice President Henry Wallace was in the dreadful Kolyma area on a stage in a flight to China. He and his colleagues were actually guests at a campsite. Its wire had been taken down, its towers temporarily demolished and the prisoners replaced by healthy police and other officials. The trick worked. Wallace, though he later had second thoughts, published a eulogy. An even more positive line was taken by another member of the mission, Professor Owen Lattimore, who wrote of the healthy and heroic workers. No allusion to the realities of Gulag life was permitted in the Soviet Union until 1962. Very much against the wishes of most of the leadership, Khrushchev was induced to permit the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a crucial moment in the emergence there, for the first time, of a true memory and understanding of the fearful Soviet past. As Galina Vishevakaya, the great singer, put it, they had let the genie out of the bottle and were not able to put it back. But it still took decades for the full story to become available, with the developing glasnost of the late 1980s, followed by the collapse of the regime.
The word Gulag only became known the world over with the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago in 1973. The material he had collected from a large number of victims proved final and decisive to a wide readership that had not until then really assimilated the realities. In France, in particular, where the Soviet system was deeply entrenched in an unusually idealistic intelligentsia, the book was widely seen as the death blow for communism.
Nikolai Getman shows the world of hunger and deprivation and oppression with extraordinary clarity and vision. In his paintings one can see the whole perspective of what the Soviet government itself had to describe in the last years of the regime as a system in which “death was caused by unbearable toil, by cold and starvation, by unheard of degradation and humiliation, by a life that could not have been endured by any other animal.”
The burial ritual of the zeks (political prisoners) was quick and simple. It amounted to putting a tag bearing the prisoner’s number on one of his toes, and sending the body to the hills to be buried in the snow. A famous song describing such burials ends with the words “…and no one will ever learn where my grave is.” The prisoner in the painting is transporting dead fellow inmates on a sleigh to the snowy hills for burial. The bodies of those who had starved to death were so light that it was often possible to pick up several of them at a time.
4. THE GULAG COLLECTION: PAINTINGS OF THE SOVIET PENAL SYSTEM BY FORMER PRISONER NIKOLAI GETMAN
To view this outstanding collection of fifty paintings by Nikolai Getman click on:
a. The Catalog: http://russia.jamestown.org/getman/gulag_sum1.htm
b. Guided Tour: http://russia.jamestown.org/getman/painting1.htm
A complete tour of all fifty paintings and the text for each painting.
The Jamestown Foundation has done an excellent job of presenting this book and all of the paintings on their website.
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
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.
All of this material was originally published in: The Gulag Collection: Paintings of the Soviet penal system by former prisoner Nikolai Getman
[ISBN: casebound 0-9675009-2-3, limpbound 0-9675009-1-5]
The Jamestown Foundation, 4516 43rd Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20016
All of this material and much more can be found on The Jamestown Foundation website: http://russia.jamestown.org