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The Gulag Lives On – But Not in Our Culture

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I linked Daniel Crandall’s fine commentary on the paucity of films devoted to the Gulag in this week’s Acton News & Commentary (sign up here). But do to an, ahem, editing error the link did not send readers to The Gulag Lives On – But Not in Our Culture on Crandall also discusses the paintings of Nikolai
Getman, whose work based on Gulag life is on display at the Heritage Foundation through Dec. 10. As Heritage explains it, “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 with a tiny drawing.” Crandall asks an important question in his article:

Films that use the gulag as a plot device are few and far between. In 1968, there was The Shoes of the Fisherman, in which a Catholic priest imprisoned in a Siberian gulag is released. Central to that film, however, is a potential war between Russia and China, not the “labor camp” the priest leaves behind. Just referring to the prison as a “labor camp” diminishes its impact and pushes it into the character’s back-story. The one film that comes to mind, in which the gulag does play a significant role, is 2003’s I am David. A young boy escapes from a Bulgarian communist prison camp and travels across Europe in order to find the family he was viciously torn from as a child. Most of the film’s action is set in 1950s Europe, but there are several revealing scenes of life in the gulag under the boot of communist oppression.

So why so many excellent films set in or around the Holocaust and so few films using any gulag, be it Soviet, Chinese, North Korean, Cuban, etc.?

John Couretas John Couretas is Director of Communications, responsible for print and online communications at the Acton Institute. He has more than 20 years of experience in news and publishing fields. He has worked as a staff writer on newspapers and magazines, covering business and government. John holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in the Humanities from Michigan State University and a Master of Science Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University.


  • Roger McKinney

    Hollywood has been communist since the 1920’s. Even though NAZI’s were socialists, too, American socialists had to choose between the NAZI’s and Soviet Communists in WWII. Since we were allies with Stalin, the choice wasn’t too hard. You’ll never see much criticism of the old USSR coming out of Hollywood because Stalin was one of their own. Who is the darling of Hollywood today? None other than the old Soviet style communist Fidel Castro. The majority in Hollywood today see as their prime purpose for existing the defeat of capitalism and the resurrection of socialism.

  • Patrick

    Interesting article John. I have often wondered why the book “Death By Government” has been ignored as a basic reference manual of deadly ideologies and how to contain them. There is a real need for documentation and publication of the evils of socialism and utopian government ideology.

    At some point, I hope editorial and elite writers will face a public inquisition; for example, Sally Quinn of the Washington Post states: “I announced to my parents when I was 13 that I was an atheist. And I was a committed atheist all of my life. My view was that more evil had been done in the name of religion than anything else in the world. I saw no redeeming value in it at all.” Contrasting Quinn’s belief with the facts in “Death by Government” would show Quinn to be uninformed if not an ignorant bigot.

    Poor artist Getman appears caught in a Catch 22 phenomena; Gulag pictures do not exist, Getman draws the reality, then the art sellers say it lack artistic interpretation.

    Today’s Zenit, by coincidence, carried an article concerning the Pope’s statement on art: He [Pope Benedict XVI] explained that “an essential function of genuine beauty” is “that it gives man a healthy ‘shock,’ it draws him out of himself, wrenches him away from resignation and from being content with the humdrum.”

    In this, the Holy Father observed, it may even make him suffer, “piercing him like a dart, but in so doing it ‘reawakens’ him, opening afresh the eyes of his heart and mind, giving him wings, carrying him aloft.”

    “Beauty pulls us up short, but in so doing it reminds us of our final destiny, it sets us back on our path, fills us with new hope, gives us the courage to live to the full the unique gift of life,” he affirmed.”