Thursday, October 1, 2009

Visual Reminders of the GULAG Archipelago

The Heritage Foundation (my employer) has turned its seventh floor auditorium and foyer into a crowded art gallery for a unique collection of paintings by Nikolai Getman, and two days ago I was able to take a break from work and look at each of them.

The 50 paintings depict chilling scenes of the Soviet Union's extensive system of forced labor camps. Perhaps the paintings are best described as the visual equivalent of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago, in which Solzhenitsyn documented the brutality and systematic evil of the camps and the totalitarian government that created and perpetuated them. The collection of paintings also reminds me of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, with the distinction that they deal with the millions of living unpersons that populated and often died in the Soviet labor camps.

In 1946, Getman was sentenced to forced labor for being present when another artist drew a caricature of Stalin. He survived eight years in Kolyma, one of the most infamous Soviet labor camps. After his release, he painted a series of 50 paintings about life and often death in the GULAG. His paintings were publicly displayed in Russia after the Soviet Union collapsed. The Jamestown Foundation brought the collection to the United States and recently gave it to the Heritage Foundation. Heritage is displaying them as part of a series of events to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. (See press release.)

If you have a chance, I highly recommend that you come to the Heritage Foundation to see these paintings that document some of the crimes committed by Soviet Union in the name of Communism. If that is not possible, you can see a few of the pictures in the exhibit brochure and at this online arts gallery.

On a related note, if you're ever in Moscow, take a moment to see the Solovetsky Stone, a monument "To prisoners of the GULAG," next to Lubyanka, the former headquarters of the KGB. (It's now occupied by the Border Guard Service and one directorate of the FSB, the KGB's successor organization.) In 1994 when I was living in Moscow, I was quite pleased—and saddened by the lost lives it memorialized—when I stumble across this understated, powerful monument located across the street from one of the gateways to the GULAG archipelago.

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