Nikolai Getman

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Nikolai Getman ( Russian Николай Гетман , Ukrainian Микола Ґетьман ; born December 23, 1917 in Kharkiv , † August 29, 2004 in Oryol ), was a Ukrainian-Russian painter . From 1946 to 1953 he was a GULAG prisoner and did forced labor in camps in Siberia and on the Kolyma River . He survived the inhumane working conditions there by producing propaganda pictures on behalf of the camp guards. He is one of the few Russian painters who managed to artistically process the GULAG subject despite the censorship by the Soviet state security.

Life before arrest

Getman had a difficult childhood in Ukraine, where he experienced the famines of 1921 and 1932 and the aftermath of the deculakization . His mother fell victim to a typhus epidemic in 1919 and he and his older brothers were raised by his father alone. Despite the difficult living conditions, he had the opportunity to develop his artistic talent. Getman's family was threatened several times in the 1930s by terrorist measures by the Soviet domestic secret service OGPU (later NKVD). After the murder of Sergei Mironowitsch Kirov on December 1, 1934, Getman's eldest brother Aleksandr was executed on December 11, 1934 in Kharkiv. He was accused of being a "white terrorist" . Nikolai Getman's remaining brother moved to Moscow under a false name for several years, and his father also changed his identity.

Getman himself was lucky enough not to get caught up in the clutches of the Soviet State Security and was able to begin studying art at Kharkiv University in 1937. There he was stylistically strongly influenced by Professor Semjon Markowitsch Prokhorov , who in turn was a student of Ilya Eefimowitsch Repin . Prokhorov often talked about Repin and shaped Getman's art by reproducing Repin's creed: “The most important thing in a picture is color. You can only bring the mood of your picture closer to the viewer by using color. There is no art without color. ” This influence becomes clear when looking at Getman's pictures.

In 1940 Getman was drafted into the Red Army for military service. He was already a soldier at the beginning of the German-Soviet War . During the war he was assigned to the 24th Soviet Army. He saw the end of the war on the shores of Lake Balaton and a short time later was sent by Marshal Tolbuchin to Romania as an art expert to examine formerly German looted art. Shortly afterwards he was released from the Red Army and returned to Kharkiv in early October 1945.

Time as a GULAG prisoner

Getman was arrested on October 12, 1945. His offense was that he had talked to other artists about German propaganda pictures that he had seen while marching into various cities. Among them was a play on words with the Russian abbreviation of the official state name of the Soviet Union: The letters SSSR were assigned the words "Skoro Smert 'Stalinskomu Reshimu" (German: "Rapid death of the Stalin regime" ). Unfortunately, one of the interlocutors was an informant from the NKVD who reported the reproduction of the anti-state slogan, which led to the arrest of the entire group.

Getman was sentenced to ten years in GULAG imprisonment and five years of disfranchisement in January 1946. Shortly afterwards he was deported to Siberia for forced labor. He spent his imprisonment in the Taishetlag (Siberia) and Svitlag (Kolyma) camps. There he resolved to process the horrors he experienced every day in pictures and thus to document them for posterity. During his imprisonment, however, he was under no circumstances able to paint such pictures as they would have been discovered by the camp administration. This would very likely have resulted in his death. So he tried to save as many details as possible in his mind. He was only able to survive the imprisonment because he produced propaganda and harmless landscape pictures for the camp administration in the camps. This put him in a privileged position and enjoyed slightly better food and accommodation than most of his fellow inmates. After Stalin's death in March 1953, the GULAG camp system quickly disintegrated, many prisoners were released, but not acquitted or rehabilitated. Getman's imprisonment ended on August 30, 1953.

Painter in the Soviet Union

After the end of his detention, Getman could not return to Kharkiv as he was still subject to travel restrictions. He settled in Jagodnoe, a small settlement in the Magadan Oblast , and immediately began working again as an artist in the local "House of Culture". In 1956 he took part in a major exhibition of Siberian artists and was accepted as a 1957 candidate for membership in the Soviet artists' association. In April 1963 he took part in the 2nd Congress of the Soviet Artists Association in Moscow and in 1964 became a member of the association. From 1963 to 1966 he was director of the Magadan section of the RSFSR Art Foundation . Only in 1969 did the Soviet State Security allow him to relocate from Jagodnoe to the Oblast capital Magadan.

Getman was a well-known artist in the USSR in the 1970s, together with artists from the GDR , Bulgaria , Finland and Holland he took part in exhibitions in Irkutsk , Khabarovsk , Ulan-Ude , Vladivostok , Oryol , Bryansk , Ryazan , Leningrad and Moscow . His own works were shown in Magadan in 1972, in Orjol in 1977, 1987 and 1993, and in Bryansk in 1994. In 1976 Getman moved to Oryol and received its own studio from the Union of Russian Artists.

It was only after the fall of the Iron Curtain that Nikolai Getman was fully legally rehabilitated. Previously, like many former GULAG inmates, he had the stigma of being a convicted criminal.

The GULAG cycle

Shortly after his release, Getman secretly began to process his experiences in the camps in pictures. He kept these works top secret so that not even his own wife knew of the existence of the pictures. In the period from 1953 to the time of publication, Getman created 50 paintings depicting motifs from the time of his imprisonment. By the time the Iron Curtain fell, he risked arrest again as the subject was kept strictly confidential. However, he considered it his duty to document the suffering of his fellow prisoners for posterity and at least to enable a historical appraisal of the time of the GULAG.

A common feature of almost all pictures in the GULAG cycle, in addition to their intense coloring, is the direct, non-abstract rendering of certain scenes from everyday life in the camps. Getman tried to reconstruct as many details as possible from memory in all of the pictures, which turns these into oppressive and disturbing documents of the time.

It was not until 1989 that Getman dared to show his pictures to other artists he trusted. Their reaction was shocking for him: This kind of garbage would bring him to Kolyma a second time and this time forever. It was not until 1993 that Getman showed his pictures to a larger audience for the first time in Oryol, with the support of Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn . Getman was threatened with the destruction of his pictures in the following years, so that he felt it was necessary to bring them to safety somewhere in Europe. After he began looking for support for this endeavor, the Jamestown Foundation, officially a not-for-profit foundation in the United States mainly operating in the former USSR area, was ready to bring his paintings to America. They were first exhibited there in 1997 in the US Congress in Washington.

Nikolai Getman stayed in the Russian Federation. He died in Oryol at the age of 86.


"I dedicate my collection to the memory of those who survived the GULAG and those who did not return from Stalin's camps. Light a candle to commemorate. The living need it more than the dead. Bow down."

Web links


  • Getman, Nikolai: "The Gulag Collection: Paintings of the Soviet Penal System" , The Jamestown Foundation, 2001, ISBN 0-9675009-1-5 .

Individual evidence

  1. Nikolai Getman reproduced in archived copy ( memento of the original from April 3, 2008 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was automatically inserted and not yet checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. : From early childhood, for as long as I can remember, I was always drawing; I tried to express the things I felt and observed. My drawings were primitive, of course, but the early sketches were utterly sincere. At school, I would do drawings for the class newspaper, decorate the classroom, and on special occasions the whole school. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  2. A characteristic of totalitarian forms of government is that they try to affect all social conditions, often combined with the claim to shape a “new person” according to a certain ideology. In plain English this means that people in such a country only have to think and express themselves exactly as this ideology prescribes. The group with Getman never intended to actually bring about an overthrow in the Soviet Union, but the reproduction of the slogan undermined the demand for unconditional ideological harmonization.
  3. American intelligence services can actually do useful things. It is to be hoped that these images will not be exploited for political purposes. The Jamestown Foundation board of directors includes James Woolsey (Vice Chairman) and Zbigniew Brzeziński . Even Dick Cheney is a former board member. The efforts of these and other American companies have of course found their appreciation on the Russian side. Sergei Ignatschenko, press spokesman for the Russian domestic secret service FSB , said at a press conference on April 22, 2008 on the subject of falsification of history in Russian documentary films about the Second World War : “[…] What is particularly frightening is that although it is known that it is a program of ours Western opponents for falsifying history and even spending money for these purposes [the Russian documentary filmmakers support the enemy]. "