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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Gold fields were discovered far from the port of Magadan in a region inhabited only by nomads. Prisoners built the 1,200 kilometers of road from Magadan to Indigirka, using only shovels, pick-axes, crowbars and wheelbarrows. Many of the malnourished prisoners died on this project. Getman believes that their deaths were at the hands of the director of the Daltstroi at the time, Eduard Petrovich Berzin.
At the head of the Debin River lies the most inaccessible region of the Taiga. A punitive camp was located there for “counterrevolutionary” prisoners—those alleged to know state secrets. It is also symbolic of a trend in the history of the Gulag. Paranoia about secrets caused numerous incarcerations and in some cases made prisoners out of former guards. The bodies of two prisoners shot trying to escape were allowed to lie in the snow as a warning to the newly entering prisoners about the futility of attempting escape. The portrait of Stalin, which Getman painted while a prisoner at the camp, was there to exhort prisoners that “through honest labor lies the road to release.” At camps like the Upper Debin, however, very few prisoners ever left alive. Getman attributes his release from the Upper Debin to his talent and the favor of the wife of the camp director.
On a day when the temperature reached -50 C, the day's portion of balanda (a nondescript soup or gruel) was a great pleasure. Its chief virtue was that it was served hot. While warming themselves with the balanda, the inmates in the painting are talking among themselves. They are likely chatting about the weather or the soup, because talk of politics or other forbidden topics could result in their imprisonment being extended. The inmate in the lower left hand corner has stuck a spoon into his boot to prevent its loss or theft. Political prisoners were often victimized by the real criminals among them.
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.
The landscape depicts the natural beauty of the Magadan Oblast, which abounds with hills, gullies and valleys. In 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 a 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.
Prisoners were given only the most meager of rations to last throughout the day. A small piece of bread, and perhaps balanda (gruel) made from the tops of vegetables,were all that were provided. The senior prisoner seated at the table knows enough to eat only minuscule portions at a time. The newcomer in the upper left-hand corner, who has most likely—and foolishly—eaten his entire rations at one time, is observing the senior prisoner intently, learning the hard way how to survive.
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.
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.
In the most inaccessible parts of the taiga where the prisoners worked and lived, migratory birds flying overhead were a welcome sight. Getman found it difficult to reconcile the beauty with the horrors. Scenes like this reminded him of his lost freedom, but watching the birds fly also gave him and others a sense of hope and optimism. Freedom, somewhere, still existed. Feelings such as this became a way for prisoners to gather strength and to survive.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Mealtime was a complicated and delicate event. Soviet authorities saw to it that camp prisoners remained in a state of constant hunger. The distribution of every crumb was scrutinized because being short-changed could mean the difference between life and death. Distribution of rations was therefore a source of great tension. To avoid favoritism and arguments, a common system was devised to try to keep the peace between the men. A prisoner would sit with his back to the day's rations and, while unable to see the size of the portion being given away, would randomly call out a prisoner's name after another man held up a piece of bread for distribution. In this painting, the decision is being made by the man sitting on the bed boards in the lower left corner. The man is calling out names while cleaning lice and other ubiquitous pests from his bedding.
The prisoners were forced to build many railroads and highways in the Soviet Union. The major railroads constructed by the Chief Camp Administration of Railway Construction (GULZHDS) included the Komsomol'sk-on-the-Amur to Sovgavon, and the Baikal-Amur Mainline Railroad. Prisoners also built the highway from Moscow to Minsk. The work was grueling because the inmates worked extremely long hours (generally fourteen to sixteen hours a day) and had only very basic tools: shovels, axes, hammers and their hands. The prisoners who worked these details usually did not live in barracks. They slept outdoors all year round, regardless of the weather.
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.
A Russian engineer by the name of Ivan Pavlovsky, whom Getman met, made tags from cans, barbed wire and crude tools to attach to the feet of the dead prisoners. The tags bore the prisoner’s file number for identification. To show respect for the dead, Pavlovsky diligently removed all the barbs from the wires so the remains would not be mutilated in any way. The bodies were stored just outside the camp and the tags would clang against the barbed wire, making a noise similar to a windchime. The sound, particularly at night, was a constant reminder of the dead and the dying.
As the work at one sector was clearly nearing an end, a brigade would move further ahead and begin to construct a new camp. When the work at a sector was completed, the camp would then be abandoned. Everything needed at the new camp would be moved. If a prisoner were sick and couldn't make the journey to the next camp, he would likely be left to die—either on the taiga or at the abandoned camp. A fresh supply of labor was always available.
In the mines, prisoners were expected to dig in the frozen ground with only pick axes and shovels. In the gold mines the work was extremely difficult, but there was still a small hope for survival. The inmates knew, however, that in the uranium mines hope was extinguished. Prolonged exposure to the mineral would eventually and inevitably kill them. The mere mention of the assignment made the prisoners' blood freeze. There was no set system for determining which prisoners went to the uranium mines and which did not. It was simply a matter of luck.
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.
The indigenous people living near the camps were on a constant state of alert because they were expected to help the Soviets capture runaways. The authorities would often drill the local communities by sounding alarms when no one had escaped. The intent was to maintain a constant state of vigilance, winter and summer, to make running from the prisons impossible. Locals who captured an escapee were given rewards, such as a vacation from work. Sometimes entire villages were paid. Prisoners were rarely brought back alive. The villagers in the painting are returning from a search empty-handed. The man on the right is signaling to someone at the border guard station in the distance.
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.
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.
This happy couple lived somewhere in the Far North in the vicinity of the camps and was a source of hope and inspiration. Getman became very familiar with the lifestyle of the Chukchi, both while he was in the camp and immediately following his release, when he was under travel restrictions and lived in Siberia for several years.
Prisoners assigned to diamond mining were required to dig in the permafrost with only basic tools. Although fewer diamonds are required to come up with a gram, the work was no less strenuous than digging for gold because intensive labor was required to find even the smallest number of diamonds. Prisoners would often work fourteen or sixteen hours a day in order to make their quota.
A lepovets works on electrical lines. The lepovets depicted in this painting is a Chukchi who was sentenced under article 58 for political crimes and sentenced to work in a brigade of unguarded prisoners. His crime was saying, “Yankee is good.” Prior to 1917 the Americans established a trade concession under which the Chukchi supplied furs in return for cash and guns. The situation deteriorated after the revolution because the Chukchi were both forbidden to trade with the Americans and paid poorly by the Soviets. The “Yankee is good” remark was therefore taken as political commentary and cause for imprisonment in the camps. Like many other political crimes, the sentence was a form of intimidation meant to quell any discontent.
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.
The most difficult to reach gold deposits were in the extreme climate of the Indigirka permafrost regions. A prisoner’s song describes the location by saying: “Kolyma, Kolyma, what a wonderful planet, twelve months of winter, and all the rest is summer...” Prisoners assigned to this detail knew their fate was death. Prisoners in such harsh conditions were given neither extra rations nor clothing nor reduced amounts of daily work.
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.
In this painting Getman intended to depict both the landscape and people of Chukotka and the relations between men and women under such harsh conditions. The man in the painting is a Chukchi prisoner and the woman is his wife. On several occasions local women were permitted to visit their husbands and bring them clothing and reindeer meat. Getman was struck by the strength of the bond they shared: the ability of the couple to keep the relationship alive despite the stress of being separated.
The adjective “golden” in the painting's title is derived from the larch tree, which is ubiquitous in the region, and which changes to reds and golds in the autumn. The word also refers to the special group of prisoners shown in the foreground working without a guard--a geology detail in search of more gold fields. Assignment to a geology detail was much-sought-after work and was given only to those who had short sentences, some expertise in geology or the trust of the authorities.
Vadim Tumanov, convicted as a counterrevolutionary, performed an unusual feat when he convinced the authorities to allow him to organize a brigade of prisoners who were permitted to work unguarded. Tumanov had argued that the laborers would fulfill the government work plan more efficiently and quickly if they were freed from the harassment of nearby guards. The “Tumanov Brigade” proved him correct. The success of the experiment was evidently lost on the authorities, however, because no other brigades of this type were permitted. Tumanov is depicted as the man standing on the right side of this painting. He was released in 1956.
The dredge, located in the middle of the lake, digs and separates the heavier gold from the sand. The gold settles into a special holding tray and the remainder falls out the chute at the front of the machine. In the painting the dirt pours from the chute onto a large mound directly in front of the dredge. This dredge, the only one of its kind in the Soviet Union, was purchased from the United States during World War II and used at the Upper Aturyakh gold field in the Yagodinsky region. It was delivered in boxes with English-language instructions for assembly. Eventually the authorities found in the camps an English-speaking Greek engineer—Sergei Yanonnaki, an acquaintance of the artist—who was given the task of putting the machine together. An entire brigade, more than 100 people, was put under his command for the task. When the construction of the dredge was complete, the existence of the dredge itself automatically became a classified secret. In an attempt to make the machine seem inconspicuous the authorities numbered it “183-A” as if there were 182 other dredges in operation throughout the Soviet Union. The prisoners found the absurdity of the directors hilarious but never laughed out loud for fear that mocking the authorities would result in a lengthened sentence. The dredge is still in use today.
In the most remote part of the taiga accessing the gold was extremely difficult. Helicopters would fly in, pick up gold shipments and deliver them to the ports for shipment back to Moscow or elsewhere in the country. The helicopters were also used to deliver supplies to the most distant camps. These flights were a source of irony for the prisoners, who were driven in trucks over nearly impassable roads and forced to walk for hundreds of miles to reach a destination. Knowledge of the helicopter flights made their forced travel all the more arduous.
Bugor was a labor camp slang term for the mounds created by mining activities, which surrounded the camps. The convicts also applied the term to other prisoners who for one reason or another were raised to a privileged position. The bugor himself was not required to work, but instead served as the leader of his work brigade. Bugors were often more experienced in the type of work required, or more intelligent than the other prisoners and knew where, when and how to work. To achieve this position the prisoner needed to be in contact with the prison authorities, often using his position to benefit them. Some of the bugors in the camps, however, worked for the benefit of their brigades. Sometimes, at extreme personal risk, a bugor would secure easier work for the brigade or falsify production figures to lighten the brigade's burden. Such was the case with the man depicted in the painting, Sergei Ivanovich Bocharov. Bocharov was thus highly respected by the camp prisoners for using his status to earn privileges for his brigade.
Pictured here is the left bank of the Kolyma River, which runs through Magadan Oblast and finally empties into the Arctic Ocean. A road was built along the bank at the cost of thousands of lives. Construction was extremely difficult along the Kolyma because the hills could be quite steep and during the rainy season floods were common. Like all the other roads in the Kolyma, this one was laid down with only axes, wheelbarrows, shovels and backbreaking human labor.
Japanese prisoners of war were held in the Gulag from 1945 to 1948, when an agreement between the Soviet and Japanese government called for their return to Japan. They performed the same types of work as the other prisoners: building bridges, laying railroad tracks and making embankments. In this painting the Japanese are clearing the taiga for a railroad using the same rudimentary tools provided the other prisoners. The Japanese prisoners had better rations than the Russian inmates, but only because they were able to bring whatever they had with them when they were captured. They also brought spare uniforms. When they were sent back to Japan in the autumn of 1948 they left behind all their extra food and clothing—a kindness for the Russian prisoners.
The landscape depicted here is typical of the Kolyma: endless hills, gullies, ravines and rivers. At the source of many of these rivers geologists found gold on the surface, not underground. To retrieve the gold, the prisoners built roads which twisted and turned around the hills. Hence the title. After the roads were finished, the prisoners were transported along them to the areas where their next labor was to pan and dig for the gold itself. The road depicted here leads to the Shturmovoi mine in Khotyni, one made famous by a man named Garanin, the director of the Daltstroi Corrective Labor Camps. In these hills, Garanin personally shot entire brigades of prisoners who had not fulfilled their daily quotas. Tractor engines drowned out the sounds. Garanin was eventually sentenced to execution by the government authorities, but in order to maintain the image of the NKVD, a rumor was spread in the camps and throughout the country that he had been a Japanese agent trying to ruin the reputation of the NKVD. For Getman, the placid scene depicted here is a reminder of the countless killed in secret behind the bends in the road.
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.