Images of the gulag that today's Russia wants to forget

Mary Dejevsky meets the artist dissident ignored in his homeland
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The Independent Online
Washinton - There is much here that is reminiscent of the bad old days: a Russian artist, a one-time prisoner of Stalin's Gulag, is in the capital of the United States to present his work - and his case - to a more receptive audience than the one he finds at home.

His pictures are exhibited in one of the more elegant halls of the Capitol. He is lionised, albeit in a small and quiet way, by some of the same Cold- warriors who once supported the Soviet dissidents. But this is a story with a distinctly post-Cold War twist.

Nikolai Getman, an animated gentleman in his late seventies, who turns up for our meeting in turquoise shorts and professes his surprised delight in the elegance and greenness of Washington, has no fear for his life.

There is no risk in his meeting a Western journalist, and no one will cancel his citizenship for exhibiting abroad. He is free to return to his home in the central Russian city of Orel whenever he likes.

But Getman, who had problems aplenty in the Soviet era, finds himself in a typically post-Soviet dilemma. After a brief period in the late Eighties and early Nineties when delving into Russia's inglorious past was all the fashion, he finds himself in what might be called the "Solzhenitsyn trap".

Today's Russia is rushing ahead fast and furiously. The quickest are making money hand over fist; everyone else is working just to stay afloat, and no one has the time or inclination to dwell on what was.

For Getman, this is a bitter disappointment. In 1989, after much soul- searching, he invited two trusted friends around to see some of his pictures. These were not the pictures for which he was known; not the conformist pictures he painted after his release from the Siberian labour camp in the Fifties and Sixties, nor the landscapes with birch trees to which he graduated.

They were part of an oeuvre he has now pronounced, at 50 pictures, to be complete. It is a set of oil paintings depicting scenes from daily life and death at the arctic camps of Kolyma, where he was detained from 1946 to 1953.

Getman was one of those Russians who, as he puts it, "fought the Nazis to defend Soviet power and that same Soviet power put me behind bars".

Barely demobbed, he was picked up one day at his father's flat in Dnepropetrovsk, and accused of participating in drawing an irreverent sketch on a cigarette paper at a local cafe. He was sentenced to 10 years' hard labour.

The pictures, all painted from memory and in great secrecy (their premature discovery could have sent him right back to Kolyma) were completed over the next 40 years.

"I have accomplished my civic duty," he says, to record what happened. He would have several in progress at once; there were no drafts. He painted directly on to the canvas from the complete images he saw in his nightmares. While there is a solid corpus of camp literature, his work constitutes a rare pictorial archive.

The paintings exhibited in Washington, 15 of the 50, have a surprising amount of colour. There were limits, said a representative of the Jamestown Foundation which sponsored his exhibition, to what could be displayed on Congressional premises. The more sombre and horrifying would not be deemed suitable for the children who might pass through the hall, which is open to the public.

But the 15 were sombre enough, and each told a tale. In one, The One You Have, a released prisoner holds his spravka - the document that guarantees the restoration of his civic rights. But he is depicted on a swing: "You understand, even after release, everything is insecure, unstable, it could give way at any moment," explains the artist. Another shows the distribution of rations, depicting the prisoner who hands out the uneven chunks of bread with his back to the recipients, while another prisoner calls the names - a system that the prisoners themselves devised to prevent favouritism.

Getman is frank about what he calls his "miraculous good fortune" in the camps. A warder noticed that his documents described his profession as "artist". He got him to design a rug for his wife. Getman was transferred to light work.

Later, other work around the camp was noticed by a visiting inspector, and he was transferred to a camp with a less stringent regime. But he served his full term, curtailed only slightly for good behaviour.

After he plucked up courage to invite his two friends to look at his pictures, it took another four years before he dared show them to anyone else.

Finally, in 1993, he was able to hold an exhibition in Orel. But he still had a fight to have the poster say that he was "a former Gulag prisoner". (He won that battle.)

Thereafter, however, there seemed no prospect of finding a permanent home for the works. Control of the local authority remained with the Communists.

Getman said that people - camp survivors - would beg him to record what he had seen. "Sometimes, someone who was so ill they can barely move their lips, would plead with me to draw what I saw." A few individuals asked for a picture, but Getman wanted to keep them together.

He preferred to go through the bureaucratic obstacle course of taking them out of Russia and transporting them half-way across the world to a place where, even if a permanent exhibition is not possible, there is at least sympathy, interest, and appropriate storage.

And the Jamestown Foundation, which existed to fund and settle emigre dissidents during the Cold War, finds itself responsible for a victim of history of a different sort: a corpus of work depicting the past that today's Russia wants to forget.