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June 16, 2014 06:00 AM

The Jamestown Foundation invites you to attend a conference exploring the profound effect the Russia-Ukraine conflict has had on Moldova and the South Caucasus. Our panelists will examine current security threats to this region on the eve of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia signing the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) and Association Agreements (AA) with the European Union. The conference will also analyze the Russian military presence in the South Caucasus as well as the regional impl...


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NIKOLAI GETMAN: The Gulag Collection

The Artist By Nikolai Getman Copyright © 2001 The Jamestown Foundation

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.”

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.

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.

This essay 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]
Copyright © 2001 The Jamestown Foundation
All rights reserved