"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
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important historical document.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
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.
(Click on images to enlarge them)
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
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
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
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.