November 9, 2009 | Commentary on Democracy and Human Rights

Painting the Gulag: A Haunting Reminder of Soviet Atrocities, Courtesy of Nikolai Getman

My Russian father and German mother, who survived some of the worst wars and atrocities of the last century, came close to death many times. But I recently experienced a visual reminder of just how lucky they were, despite the many hardships they endured.

The Heritage Foundation is exhibiting a "new" collection of 50 paintings of the Soviet Gulag, the infamous penal system for political prisoners and slave laborers. They were painted over a 40-year period by Nikolai Getman, a Ukrainian who spent eight years in Soviet concentration camps in Siberia and Kolyma. His only crime was being present at a meeting of artists where one drew a caricature of Stalin on a cigarette box.

After Getman was released in 1953, he began secretly to paint a series of pictures about life in the Gulag. He told no one about his paintings -- not even his wife -- knowing that if they were discovered, he would be imprisoned again or perhaps even killed.

The paintings were rescued in 1997 and brought out of Russia. Getman was desperate to get them safely into the West because he feared they would be destroyed upon his death by a post-Soviet Russia that wants to pretend this past never existed.

The paintings are haunting. They are the only visual counterpart to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's writings, which exposed this terrible system of mass imprisonment that Robert Conquest has rightly called "unexampled coldblooded inhumanity." We will never know how many innocent people disappeared into the Gulag, but the estimates of those who died in the Gulag and under Soviet Communism range from 15 million to 30 million. The only difference between the Holocaust and the Gulag is that the Soviet Communists never got around to using gas to kill their prisoners -- just old-fashioned bullets, beatings, starvation, and literally working them to death.

Getman's stark paintings cover everything from the transportation of prisoners to the camps in unheated trucks and ships, to the horrible and almost unspeakable living conditions in the Gulag. We see the routine brutality with which prisoners were treated. The fragile existence they led is captured in Getman's paintings, which represent an enormous accomplishment considering that all of the scenes were painted from memory. They represent events that Getman either witnessed himself or heard about firsthand.

One painting shows the despairing faces of a group of men taken from their barracks in the middle of the night and executed by the NKVD (the forerunner of the KGB), the secret-police organization that ran the entire Gulag system. These kinds of executions occurred constantly for no apparent reasons. All of the prisoners knew that if you were taken out of your barracks in the middle of the night, you never came back.

Looking at Getman's paintings, I realized that if my father, who fought the Communists, had not fled Russia when they took control, he undoubtedly would have ended up in the Gulag -- assuming he wasn't immediately executed by the secret police. As for my mother, at the end of World War II, she lived in the part of eastern Germany that the Allies handed over to Poland. When German civilians were ordered out in 1946, my mother was loaded into a cattle car with hundreds of other men, women, and children. The Russians divided the train in half -- one half went east toward the Soviet Union, where those civilians disappeared into Stalin's labor camps, and the other half was sent west into occupied Germany.

My mother was in the very last car sent west. Had she gone east, her chances of surviving would have been almost nonexistent. She might have ended up in one of the camps depicted by Getman, a women's forest camp where the inmates were forced to do hard labor with primitive hand tools to get their daily rations of soup and bread. Those who did not fill their quotas received only bread and no water. Countless women inmates were sexually assaulted and permanently maimed. Many were killed doing the work or died of malnutrition and disease.

Nikolai Getman was convinced that it was his duty to leave behind a testimony to the fate of the millions of prisoners who died and should not be forgotten. He survived under such unimaginable circumstances because of his absolute conviction that good would triumph over evil. He concluded that one of the great human virtues is strength of will, which even the terrible Gulag machine couldn't extinguish. The tragic repression and lawlessness he saw in the camps persuaded him of the value of man and of the dignity of his mind and spirit. Getman realized that "each of us is responsible for the future" -- and because of that responsibility, he could not be silent.

Lee Edwards, chairman of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VCMF) and a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, recently launched a virtual museum on the Internet dedicated to telling the story of Communism. It's a story that stretches from Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto to the ongoing suppression of Tibet by Communist China -- a country that, led and inspired by White House communication director Anita Dunn's favorite political philosopher, Mao Zedong, has killed 65 million of its own citizens since 1949 through the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the Tiananmen Square massacre, and its own Gulag system, known as Laogai. Edwards is hopeful that at some point in the future, the VCMF will be able to raise the funds needed to build a bricks-and-mortar museum where Getman's paintings -- and all of the other information the foundation is collecting -- can be displayed.

The least we can do is to remember those who, unlike my parents, did not escape the terror and death of the Soviet and Chinese camps, which were part of the second and third Holocausts of the 20th century. These stark paintings help us do that.

Hans A. von Spakovsky is a visiting legal scholar at the Heritage Foundation. He is also a former commissioner on the Federal Election Commission and counsel to the assistant attorney general for civil rights at the Department of Justice. The Getman paintings will be on display at Heritage through December 10.

About the Author

Hans A. von Spakovsky Manager, Election Law Reform Initiative and Senior Legal Fellow
Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies

First Appeared in National Review Online