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Gulag Art: What really happened during the reign of Communism at the former USSR

Updated on March 27, 2015
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Time heals all wounds. Now that the communism era has been gradually changed by more democratic proceedings in Russia, more and more artists, mostly painters, are coming out in the open to show the remnants of the Stalinist Regime.  Seeing the paintings in exhibit drew me into a feeling of being one of them, suffering at the cold labor camps in Siberia.


Gulag paintings came out in the open after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. It became the unique visual record of a dark chapter of Russia’s history.


The true account of the era was hidden for a long time. With the presence of this unique art, we can now reveal to the world the real scenery of what’s to live in a communist country.


With the opportunity given to hubbers by HubPages on what’s to write, I hope this revelation will open the minds of those skeptics to really see the backbone of human history during those dark times in the former USSR.

Remembering the Victims of Communism c/o ReasonTV

Nikolai Getman's self-portrait after being freed from the gulag (Photo Credit:
Nikolai Getman's self-portrait after being freed from the gulag (Photo Credit:
Nikolai Getman at his workshop in Orel, Russia before his death in 2004
Nikolai Getman at his workshop in Orel, Russia before his death in 2004

Nikolai Getman: The Famous Painter of Gulag Art


The firsthand artist who painted the depressing scenes of the iron curtain was Nikolai Getman. Born on December 1917 in the ancient Ukrainian city of Kharkov, he witnessed the difficult situation under the leadership of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin like the campaign against the kulaks, peasants who resisted the forced collectivization of agriculture.


He also witnessed the activities of secret police, breaking into local churches and burning religious paintings and icons without respect.


To the young mind of Nikolai, he always wanted to be a painter. So, he entered the Kharkov Fine Arts Institute, learning the socialist realism kind of painting – often portraying workers heroically building communism.


At 18, he served in World War II on parachute reconnaissance team behind enemy lines. After the war, he was accused of engaging in anti-Soviet propaganda, when the secret police found out that he sketched a cartoon of hapless stick figure crushed beneath a globe darkened by communism on an empty cigarette box wrapped in a Nazi slogan “Quick Death to Stalinist Regime.”


Because of it, he was sentenced to ten years of “corrective labor” in Siberia. The cold often went down to minus 50 degrees Celsius but the zeks or the prisoners labored up to 12 hours a day, making roadbeds in the frozen ground, wearing only cotton jackets and trousers. When they failed to meet its work quota, the ration of bread and cabbage soup was cut in half resulting to death of many comrades.


Getman became a vital witness of the gulag holocaust. When freed in August 1953, five months after Stalin’s death, he remained in Siberia and married there. He persuaded bureaucrats to give him permission and other ex-zek painters to form an official artists’ union.


By day, he painted scenes of happy workers, but by night, he sketched an painted the horrifying experiences in the gulag. By early 70s, he had over a dozen gulag paintings hidden in his studio that even his wife, fellow zek Anna Philippovna didn’t know about it.


Two years later, after the fall of communism, his works were shown publicly in 1993. It caught the eyes of Soviet expert Joseph DeBolt, a Central Michigan University sociologist, recognizing the great historical value of the paintings. He knew that there was no or “almost no visual record of the gulag.”


Historian Robert Conquest called Getman’s collection “a vital contribution” to understanding one of humanity’s darkest chapters.


Though fearing for his own life, Getman and other survivors and dissidents shocked Soviet Union by documenting the scope of the gulag. During the period of glasnost, in the 1980s, it was estimated that between 11 million and 20 million people were dragged into the vast prison system, where millions perished and disappeared.


To view his paintings, it was now being showcased at the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation in the USA.


His message to the Russian students today is that “this is the true history you will never learn in school.”

Realistic paintings of Nikolai Getman (1917-2004)

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Photo Credit:
Photo Credit:
Photo Credit:

To the memory of N.Getman c/o olgavld


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    • travel_man1971 profile imageAUTHOR

      Ireno Alcala 

      7 years ago from Bicol, Philippines

      @trauerspel: Why would I kid with a serious and horrid topic such as this? The method of Russian police during that period was to kill those prisoners slowly. The intense of cruelty was still there, just like the Nazis.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      At least Russian police were not that mean as the Nazi army..You are kidding right?

    • travel_man1971 profile imageAUTHOR

      Ireno Alcala 

      7 years ago from Bicol, Philippines

      Thanks, crystolite. That's what I do here on HubPages. Gulag art interests me and this has to be featured here on the primer virtual writing community.

    • crystolite profile image


      7 years ago from Houston TX

      Nice hub that can also act as a documentary

    • travel_man1971 profile imageAUTHOR

      Ireno Alcala 

      7 years ago from Bicol, Philippines

      @f_hruz: Yes, I agree. At least Russian police were not that mean as the Nazi army. Yet, they cannot escape the cold surroundings of Siberia. If not from gun, most zeks perished due to hunger and hypothermia (death cause by extreme cold of the place).

      Just followed your link on Guantanamo Bay camp. And the photos, I've seen some of it already way back the early 2000. Yes, maybe I can have a chronicle hub on the subject but not too political in order to evade controversy.

    • travel_man1971 profile imageAUTHOR

      Ireno Alcala 

      7 years ago from Bicol, Philippines

      @ImChemist: Thanks for rating and voting! This has been long overdue but I decided to publish it as well. I've been to Ukraine in 2002; people are clamoring for a more democratic way of governance, there.

    • f_hruz profile image


      7 years ago from Toronto, Ontario, Canada

      Getman made it through the 10 years and looked quite well in 2004 ... had he been in a Nazi camp for the extermination of jews, he may not have been as lucky!

      Got any contemporary art from the Guantanamo Bay camp run by the US in contrast for your next hub? :)

    • ImChemist profile image


      7 years ago

      Nice pictures and great video , thanks rated and voted.

    • travel_man1971 profile imageAUTHOR

      Ireno Alcala 

      7 years ago from Bicol, Philippines

      @Arian Rey: Truly, the truth prevails in every human history. We can never hide it for long.

    • travel_man1971 profile imageAUTHOR

      Ireno Alcala 

      7 years ago from Bicol, Philippines

      @Romano Arnesto: This was the most horrible period that ever happened in Russia.

    • Arian Rey profile image

      Arian Rey 

      7 years ago from Pearl of the Orient Seas (PHILIPPINES)

      So many lives were wasted. If not for these proofs, the younger generation will not be able to bridge the gap with what happened during the Stalinist regime in Russia. Visual accounts are tangible proof regarding the holocaust.

    • Romano Arnesto profile image

      Romano Arnesto 

      7 years ago from Philippines

      This was the most saddening experience in Russia's history. Looking at those paintings gave my sympathies to those who suffered, like Nikolai Getman.


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