Museum of Gulag Art and Life

Among the millions of innocent victims of the nation-wide genocide in the Soviet Union were many artists. Some enjoyed recognition, others were still unknown, sometimes students of the Soviet art schools. We do not know how many of them were shot on the “testing grounds” or in the Lubyanka vaults, how many perished in railway prisoner cars, the goldfields, mines and punishment cells, or died of scurvy and pellagra; how many died prematurely of mental and physical trauma, after their prison terms.

New names gleaned from state, public and private archives are continually added to the rolls. It behooves us to identify and honor every one of them, to trace the Road to Calvary of those who were sentenced to “ten years without the right to correspond” (the KGB fiction invented for the relatives of prisoners who received a bullet in the back of the head), those who were crippled during the brutal interrogations and tormented by hunger and thirst, by freezing cold and burning heat in the prison cars; those who were thrust into barges that were sunk with their human cargo. It behooves us, too, to name those who survived by the grace of fate, by their own iron will and creative potential. To name and honor these victims is the guiding principle of our collection of artistic material and other artifacts from the Gulag.

Creative work from the Gulag as artistic expression in this country was presented to the general public for the first time in 1989 at an exhibition dedicated to the memory of the victims of Stalinist repression. We use the term “Stalinist repression” somewhat loosely; some of the exhibits are from the Khrushchev and Brezhnev years, when confinement in forced labour camps and distant internal exile were by no means things of the past.  As the exhibit revealed, many drawings, embroideries and other objects from the Gulag had been preserved by prisoners’ families. They were brought for exhibition either by the former camp inmates themselves or by their wives and children. Julo Sooster’s son came up with a fire-scarred stack of miniature portraits in pencil and India ink, which later came into the museum’s permanent possession. All the objects that surfaced at that time were immediately included in the display. This is how our collection, which today numbers over 1000 storage units, originally took shape.

The range of exhibits is sufficiently wide to warrant the museum’s name: Museum of Gulag Art and Life.Visual art is represented by graphics, painting and sculpture; decorative and applied art by embroidered napkins and blouses, by covers of prayer books (copied in well-nigh microscopic writing), by knitted pieces, objects in wood and metal. This is craftwork par excellence, sometimes executed with extraordinary skill. Most of the forced labour camps had manufacturing branches which processed metal, wood, clay or textiles, and the prisoners displayed incredible ingenuity in using every bit of the scrapped materials and the production facilities to serve their own needs. Aluminium wire was used to make spoons (these were scarce in the Gulag and had to be jealously guarded), mugs, mess tins, bowls and locks; wood went to produce knives, cigarette holders, caskets and miniature boxes. The objects were sometimes purely functional– indispensable artifacts of camp life—or decorative—knick-knacks intended as presents for a camp medic, for a camp mate whose sentence was up, or for any other occasion.

Many of the embroidered articles came from the Mordovian labour camps for women, which had sewing workshops to produce underwear, padded trousers and jackets for the armed forces, as did the Akmolinsk camp for “wives of traitors of the Motherland” in Kazakhstan. Every scrap of material was ingeniously put to good use. The smallest bits went to make cushion covers (one small cushion in our collection has been sewn together from 26 patches) and slips; knitting threads were procured from the edgings of flannelette lengths, and coloured threads had to be plucked out of outworn knitted underwear or socks. The women discovered bizarre sources of materials. Needles, for example, were made from fishbones or the teeth of ordinary combs, and were often hidden in cracks made in the soles of footwear.

In addition to sewing and knitting for their own needs, female prisoners worked to fulfil the orders of the camp chiefs. They produced superb drawnwork and filet lace; cross-stitched embroidery on cambric without canvas involved counting the well-nigh invisible threads of the fabric under dim electric light and often led to irreversible impairment of the eyesight. Women employed in the workshops copied from patterns of the finest embroidery to decorate Russian and Ukrainian-style shirts for men and ladies’ dresses – which, according to some sources, were exported abroad.

A widespread form of artistic activity was amateur performances by political agitation teams at the separate camp sites and full-fledged theatre companies at the camp administration centres. It could thrive only thanks to the prisoners’ ingenuity. To produce the stage sets, costumes, and properties which they designed, the Gulag artists used paper sacks that normally stored cement or cereals, cotton wool (for wigs) and medical gauze. Fishing nets were made to look like lace on the stage, bast matting was painted to look like velvet, and cane could turn stools from the mess hall into fine pieces of furniture.

Just like the painters of olden times, the camp artists prepared their own pigments, drying variously coloured clay moulded into small bricks which were subsequently powdered and mixed with oatmeal. The museum has two small landscapes painted in pig’s blood. Understandably, the Gulag administration centres were much better equipped for artistic activities than the ordinary camp sites.

Vasily Shukhaev and Leonid Vegener, two leading stage designers of the Gorky Music and Drama Theatre in Magadan, had a better than usual supply of materials (this theatre was built and decorated by the prisoners, who were also its stage designers and players). Yet they were treated like all prisoners and escorted to work under guard.

A professional theatre company with star players from Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev and other major cities, capable of giving excellent performances, boosted the self-esteem of the Gulag functionaries; it enhanced their prestige and enabled them to challenge their opposite numbers and show off before the higher-ups from the central administration. The vocalists, musicians, ballet dancers and orchestra conductors who performed in the camps scarcely differed from the serf-performers in pre-Revolutionary Russia.

Costumes, set-designs, and planning sketches held by our museum reveal that such theatres were able to produce classical plays by both Russian and foreign authors (even though there were special selections of plays for the Gulag), as well as Soviet and classical operettas, and sometimes even operas – or, more likely, selected parts of operas. There is information to the effect that some of the musicians could reproduce the musical scores they needed from memory.

When prisoners were finally able to leave the camps, they would be wearing their prison uniforms and carry small suitcases with an assortment of objects that had daily served them for years. We have a selection of such suitcases, hammered together from planks of wooden parcel boxes– a sort of identity badge of former Gulag inmates. From this source came also padded jackets, caps with earflaps and many other items of daily use.

The catalogue presents another group of objects which, despite their small number, underpin the entire collection by their stark authenticity: a wooden frame with metal bars – the window of a punishment cell; bits of barbed wire; the metal shade of a lamp which lighted a compound; handmade nails; plates with prisoners’ names that were attached to their bunks. Many of these objects were retrieved by young members of the “Memorial” Association in the course of several expeditions to the Solovetsky Islands and to former camp sites in Mordovia, Perm and the “Dead Railroad” from Salekhard to Igarka (it earned this name because it was never put into operation).

Each of these objects reveals not only dissimulation of totalitarianism; it is also a desperate signal of distress from a human being. Professor Viktor Vasilenko of Moscow University, art historian and poet, who had taught several generations of art specialists, served his term in the same labour camp as Nikolai Punin, the distinguished art historian (once married to Anna Akhmatova). Punin met his death in that camp. As he consigned his own padded jacket to the museum, Professor Vasilenko explained that people like himself – the “politicals” – were never issued new things; they got shabby, torn, and filthy hand-me-down clothes. The dress of Valentina Bukhanevich-Antonova, who subsequently became an esteemed research associate of the Tretyakov Gallery and contributed several books on Russian icon painting, has dozens of motley patches attached to its inner side – a memento of the Butyrki Prison, where she was held for a year.

This catalogue demonstrates that we have illuminated the fate of most of the artists who suffered under the repressions, thanks to oral testimony, memoirs, letters, documents and accounts given by their relatives. The information is truly unique. Monographs, catalogues—even the specialized encyclopedia of the art of countries and peoples of the world— published before the late eighties neglected to mention the repression, executions or foced labour camps. There are unaccountable decade-long gaps in the artists’ biographies – periods of seeming inactivity, after which they miraculously reappeared on the art scene; only people of their inner circle knew the grim truth. One of the major aims of the museum and of the present catalogue is to fill in these blanks. Collected and cited in it are the authentic dates of life and death or execution, dates of arrest and conviction, the length of prison term, the place of confinement, internal exile or residence after expulsion from the major cities. We feel that the complete biographical chronologies of artists ought to appear in all publications of art history—that is, if we really want to see the cultural scene of recent decades in true perspective. It hardly matters whether the name of a particular artist is well known or obscure: this is all an integral part of our history, our visual art and our creative issues.

Gulag art has features inherently to the specificity of the Gulag universe, in its rules and practices. It bears the stamp of its times, and the art of one camp has something in common with the art of others. But Gulag art was also influenced by “local” circumstances; the particular kind of camp and the disposition of its personnel, from the “big shots” to the VOKhR (Russian acronym for “militarized guard service”). Descriptions of how camp authorities related to camp artists vary widely. Some of them allowed paints and pencils to be mailed to the imprisoned artists via their own addresses to ensure safe delivery; others secretly provided the prisoners with food, saved them from being included in prisoner transports or closed their eyes to certain breaches of camp rules; others who beat the prisoners or deliberately sent them to a lingering death.

In the Solovetsky labour camps, from which the Gulag sprouted out across the entire country, prisoners in the twenties were allowed to engage in literary and artistic activities without overoverly harsh restrictions. The prisoners’ mail could include drawings and poetry. They were allowed to put out their own magazine, The Solovetsky Islands, and to launch their own theatre, the Gulag’s first. The situation began to change from the later thirties on. Conditions became more strict, general camps were divided into penal colonies and ITL (“corrective labour camps”), reserved mainly for “enemies of the people”. Nineteen thirty-four witnessed the appearance of hard-labour camps; where number tags were sewn to the backs of the prisoners’ clothes, to their trousers and caps; even to shawls worn over the shoulders. One of a camp artist’s main duties was re-doing the numbers so that they could be seen clearly,even at a distance.

The years 1948 and 1949 saw the appearance of Osoblags (“special camps”), reserved for the “politicals". Strict-regime barracks (“BUR”) were built with barred windows, isolated from the general compound and locked at nightfall. The hard-labour camps were abolished after Stalin’s death and after bloody prisoners’ revolts. Only one kind of camp remained—the “corrective labour camp.”.

Our collection includes exhibits dated in different periods. The earliest specimens of graphic work, from 1919, were done in Moscow’s Butyrki Prison by Yakov Apushkin (in addition to his name and date, the sketches are marked “Sakhalin” – probably the name given to some prison corner). Apushkin had had some professional training as an artist, but subsequently chose a literary career, mainly as a writer of plays. We have a large number of prisoners’ sketches, including many done by amateurs. But the majority of sketches was produced by professional artists, featuring some distinguished names: Mikhail Sokolov, Boris Sveshnikov, Mikhail Rudakov, Vasily Shukhaev, Solomon Gershov, Julo Sooster, Lev Kropivnitsky, Nikolai Padalitsyn. Padalitsyn never made it to the camps: he was shot and his remains were put into a common grave for executed prisoners at the Moscow Vagankovo Cemetery. Padalitsyn’s wood engravings, which we received as a gift from the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, were done several years before his tragic end. This is not the only specimen in our collection to have been produced outside the Gulag. In our opinion, it is only fair that every period in the creative work of a victim of the regime should be brought to light.

The explicit and often harrowing drawings by Thomas Sgovio were done for his autobiographical book My Dear America!, in which he described his Gulag misadventures. A comparison of Sgovio’s subjects and interpretations, artistic work unhampered by fear, with drawings done on the camp sites palpably demonstrates the difference in available technical media and the limits of the permissible.

The only other specimen of graphic work comparable to Sgovio’s in terms of subject matter, is the series of rapid sketches from life by Sergei Reichenberger, the property master and stage designer of the Gorky Music and Drama Theatre in Magadan. His poignant, tragic drawings fill in the gaps of Gulag art.

The extremities of Gulag life –the punishment cells, additional prison terms, the ordeal of railway prisoner cars – were paralleled by the equally horrible day-to-day reality, which sapped the prisoners’ mental and physical strength; total isolation from the outside world, including the separation from dear ones, overcrowded stuffy barracks with two tiers of parasite-infested bunks, hunger, scurvy and deprivation of all human rights. The Gulag artists and actors had their full share, like the other victims of the notorious Article 58 of the Soviet Criminal Code. Under these conditions any human being endowed with a minimal creative potential felt an urgent need for some form of artistic self-expression as a means of both moral and physical survival. On the moral plane, self-expression helped to stave off, however minimally, degradation and despair, allowed some egress from unbearable surroundings into a private world of fantasy, visions of the past and promises of the future. The portraits and picture cards, when they were done on commission, also provided some material support that was so desperately needed to supplement the meagre rations of bread and gruel.

In the Gulag, an artist’s creative drive, which can be likened to the will to live, helped to preserve what the totalitarian system zealously sought to erase from everyone’s mind: individuality, spirituality, defiance of authoritarian prescriptions. Understandably, at the logging sites or in the mines the only kind of drawing would be to trace patterns on sand – provided one had enough strength left for such an exercise.

Drawing, not to speak of painting, was prohibited. An artist could work openly only if he or she was employed in a workshop at a KVCh (acronym for “cultural and educational section”), which presided over every manifestation of the prisoners’ spiritual life and artistic activities. Artists would get to the KVCh after a stretch of “general-assignment work” (i.e. heavy manual labour). Among their numerous duties were: painting number tags or re-doing old ones for thousands of prisoners; drawing or painting portraits of the “great leader” Stalin; producing sundry slogans and placards for the compound; decorating the culture clubs and barracks for the official Soviet holidays of November 7 (anniversary of the October revolution) and May Day; sometimes they also had to design wall newspapers. Work for the camp chiefs included making copies of the well-known 19th century paintings of the Peredvizhniki school, which often appeared in the popular Soviet magazine Ogonyok; renovating apartments, with elements of interior decoration; painting portraits of the chiefs’ wives. The Gulag exploited to the full an artist’s potential, just as it all the prisoner specialists; but the artist was thus afforded a place for work and the necessary materials – paper, pencils and paints. This was the only redeeming feature of the KVCh. Some of the artists persistently sought to improve their professional skill, hoping to engage in serious work after the end of their prison terms. Its importance can hardly be overstated.

Black-lead pencil was the most available, easy to use and “conspiratorial” drawing implement both for professionals and for amateurs who had no access to the KVCh. Hence the predominance of work in black-and-white over the other techniques. Overpainting was practised rarely because it required more sophisticated materials (wooden parcel boxes, foot-rags, floor mops became substitutes for canvas) and because the undisguisable smell of paint made paintings easily detectable during routine searches.

The most popular art form was a pencil portrait, which could be sent to one’s family and relatives in place of a photograph; hence the preference for the format that fit into an ordinary postal envelope, even though quite often such portrait drawings were sent clandestinely with someone who was able to leave the compound.

The ban on photography is hardly surprising. The camera lens yields an authentic image, registering all that was not meant to be seen; portrait drawings, on the contrary, omitted the tabooed details and aallowed certain “embellishments”: a padded camp jacket would be replaced by a civilian suit, sometimes complete with a necktie. Holes,patches and number tags were left out, and hair could be added to the shaven heads. This, of course, was also prompted by the desire to spare the feelings of dear ones, to minimize their anguish.

.These Gulag portraits, which generally aimed at a good likeness, also have a special feature: a certain measure of artistic freedom, because their authors were not constrained by prescribed style. Whether they placed the dramatic accent on the sitter’s mood (as is the wont of professional artists) or strove merely for an outward likeness (as is the wont of amateurs), the authors of the portraits were able to avoid conforming to socialist realism. Even though these Gulag portraits moderate the truth, they are free from official hypocrisy; here realism is tantamount to stark reality.

Landscape drawing was a genre with which the artists could feel more at ease. Landscapes featuring the natural setting in the manner of picture cards and intended for the prisoners’ families and relatives, carry an important informative message. Some landscapes, however, are drawn in a different manner, their authors seeking to convey the mode of nature that was consonant with their own emotional state; they lent their landscapes the drama which they dared not express in portraits or scenes of daily life. Landscape art became a means of expressing secret thoughts and emotional disarray. Far from passive contemplation, the artists saw nature in the light of their own suffering. Accordingly, the choice of motif was not happenstance; it was determined by the general creative impulse to correspond to the artist’s loneliness, anxiety and hopelessness.

The landscape drawings of Irina Borchmann feature freezing waters and bare branches of trees reaching up to the autumn sky;alternating with threatening masses of oddly shaped rocks and snowdrifts; a precarious foot bridge over an overflowing stream is the only sign of life in a vast expanse of steppe. Viktor Toot’s landscapes have an apocalyptic note. A slender birch-tree swaying in the wind can hardly bear up under the cruel storm; the drawing entitled Golgotha features a raging gale driving masses of ragged clouds over a flat Russian plain—a scene of suffering comparable to Christ’s. Small wonder that Toot chose this motif when night after night, the names of prisoners taken out to be shot broke the silence of the barracks, and no one knew who was the next on the death roll. By day Toot had to work at a store where the personal possessions of prisoners who had died or been executed were sorted out.

The prisoners’ bunks were a precarious refuge where the tortured spirit could unbend and find a fleeting escape from the nightmare surroundings, to reach out for truth and beauty. Prisoners used the bunks to write, embroider, draw or pray. Mikhail Sokolov produced his series of diminutive (almost matchbox size) landscapes crouching in a top bunk, tormented by chronic heart trouble. He called it Taiga after the name of the labour camp where he was held. His depictions of nature, permeated with a poetic charm, seem to belong to a realm devoid of the physical and mental suffering that accompanied the artist throughout his Gulag term. The miniatures which seem to shimmer like gems are done in a fantastic technique: clay was mingled with tooth powder and powdered medicines (acrichinum and red streptocidum). These brilliantly executed miniatures are endowed with a monumental quality, evocatinag the artist’s admiration of nature and his yearning for beauty, quiescence, and harmony.

Under totalitarian laws, the conditions in which Soviet artists had to live and work were very much the same, irrespective of whether one was “inside” (in the Gulag) or “outside”. As a matter of fact, the KVCh’s were charged with the same tasks as the party upper crust, who worked in conjunction with the state security organs: they were the vehicle that implemented the state’s nationwide policy in the sphere of culture. The rules of the Gulag, “the lesser compound” as it was called, were modelled on those practised “outside”, in “the greater compound”, which had its fixed methods of suppression, intimidation and punishment, and a well-regulated mechanism of coercion. The differences between “inside” and “outside” were not fundamental. “Outside”, there were official decrees, deliberate instigation of “public anger”, searches and repression. The forced labour camps were not so different. It stands to reason that one cannot put life in the home environment, despite all its pressures, and life in the Gulag, on the same plane. In the labour camps daily life was in itself an ordeal, making for the steady decline of the inmates. Coincidentally, the Russian acronym ITL (“corrective labour camps”) can be interpreted also as “annihilation labour camps”, and everyone knew the second version. What life “inside” and “outside” had in common, was the punishment inevitably meted out for every manifestation of talent and individuality.

By virtue of its very existence graphic work from the Gulag debunked the traditional myth about the sunny life of the Soviet people, pitting another reality against the fictions of official art. Having grown from the same root, Gulag art developed into a special branch and as such it has a special niche in the history of the country’s visual art.

Some exhibits, received by the museum after this catalogue had been prepared for the press, had to be left out . It is our hope that a proper supplement to the catalogue will appear at some time in the future.


AKhR [Assotsiatsiya khudozhnikov revolyutsii] — Association of Artists of the Revolution

AKhRR [Assotsiatsiya khudozhnikov revolyutsionnoi Rossii] — Association of Artists of Revolutionary    Russia

ALZhIR [Akmolinsky lager zhon izmennikov rodiny] — Akmolinsk camp for wives of  traitors to the  Motherland

ChEKA/VChK [Chrezvychainaya komissiya po borbe s kontrrevolyutsiyei, sabotazhem i spekulyatsiyei] — Extraordinary Commission for struggle against counter-revolution, sabotage and speculation

ChSIR [chlen semyi izmennika rodiny] — member or relative of family of traitor to the Motherland

Gosizdat [Gosudarstvennoye izdatelstvo] — State Publishing House

GPU [Gosudarstvennoye politicheskoye upravlenie] — State Political Administration

GUGB [Glavnoye upravleniye gosudarstvennoi bezopasnosti] — Chief Administration of State Security

GULAG, acronym for the Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Camps

ITL [Ispravitelno-trudovoi lager] — Corrective Labour Camp

Lagpunkt — separate camp site

NKGB [Narodnyi kommissariat gosudarstvennoi bezopasnosti] — People’s Commissariat of State Security

NKVD [Narodnyi kommissariat vnutrennikh del] — People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs

OGPU [Obyedinennoye gosudarstvennoye politicheskoye upravleniye] — United State Political Administration

OMAKhR [Obyedineniye molodezhi AKhR] — Association of AKhR Youth

OSO — the Special Boards attached to the GPU-NKVD

Politprosvet [Politicheskoye prosveshchenie] — Board of Political Education

Proletkult [Proletarskaya kultura] — Association for the advancement of Proletarian culture

ROSTA [Rossiiskoye telegrafnoye agentstvo] — Russian Telegraph Agency

UNKVD [Upravlenie narodnogo kommissariata vnytrennikh del] — Administration of the People’s   Commissariat for Internal Affairs

VGIK [Vsesoyuznyi gosudarstvennyi institut kinematografii] — All-Union Institute of Cinematography

VKHUTEMAS [Vysshie gosudarstvennye khudozhestvenno-tekhnicheskie masterskie] — Higher State Art-Technical      Studios

VKHUTEIN [Vysshii gosudarstvennyi khudozhestvenno-tekhnicheskii institut] — Higher State Art-Technical   Institute

Vsekokhudozhnik [Vserossiiskii kooperativ khudozhnikov] — All Russian Co-operative of Artists

Zhurgazobyedinenie — Magazines and Newspapers Publishing Agency

“Sharashka” — Russian prison slang for a special research centre in which the research scientists, specialists and technicians are all prisoners under prison discipline.

“Goner” [dokhodyaga] — camp slang for prisoner who was so exhausted by work and wasted by disease that he had little to live.