“The Gulag Collection,” 50 compelling paintings of life and death inside the Soviet Union’s notorious prison camps, will be on view at The Heritage Foundation beginning this morning, Sept. 30. The exhibit opens as part of “The Year of Miracles: The Fall of the Berlin Wall,” a Heritage-sponsored event marking the approaching 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Gulag survivor Nikolai Getman created “The Gulag Collection,” an unparalleled visual record of the hundreds of penal camps that held more than 14 million political prisoners — many of whom died in captivity or shortly after release.
Getman began painting the scenes in secret once freed in 1953 after eight years’ forced labor in Siberia and Kolyma. His own crime? He’d been in the company of a fellow artist who had mocked Stalin by drawing a tiny caricature.
Of his “task,” Getman later said:
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.”
Getman devoted decades to putting his nightmarish yet strangely uplifting evocations of the Gulag on canvas. When he died in August 2004 at age 86, he rested assured that he had done all he could to preserve images of communism’s cruel inhumanity.
“Heritage is proud to sponsor the first public display of these poignant, often shocking paintings in more than a decade,” says Heritage scholar Lee Edwards, one of the organizers of the anniversary events.
Getman’s paintings have been called the visual counterpart to dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s classic memoir, “The Gulag Archipelago,” notes Edwards, who was the driving force behind the nation’s new Victims of Communism Memorial.
Heritage will keep Getman’s haunting work on public view weekdays during the runup to the anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall on Nov. 9, 1989. The collection has been on view in Washington only once before — for five days in July 1997, in the Russell Senate Office Building.
Edwards said Heritage, which acquired the Getman paintings from the Jamestown Foundation, hopes to find a permanent owner and exhibit space for “The Gulag Collection” and other artifacts of the horrors of communism.