FROM GULAG to LAOGAI: Art & History.

From GULAG to Laogai:   Art & History project, 2013. Outreach to Humanity Series of Projects.

From GULAG to Laogai was a very special project of Michael Rogatchi, and a strong contribution into The Rogatchi Foundation Outreach to Humanity series of international cultural educational projects. 

As previously – and continuously – regarding his artistic reflections and re-addressing Holocaust, Michael has his artistic word to say also about another terrible crimes against humanity, the Gulag which Michael and his family happened to know first-hand. 

It was so terrible reality that although Michael did a few works about it, reflecting on it, showing its mercilessness and rare in life but very truthful black & white reality, the artist does not show them, nor he is dwelling on these works in any way. At the same time, Michael believes that these works should serve as the testimony of the formatting , unprecedented violence against humanity what communism and its cruel system is about. 

The history of one particular painting from the works dedicated to Michael Rogatchi’s reflections on his first-hand experience of Gulag is truly unique and reverberating. The work’s title is Year 1953 which is the year of the artist’s birth which happened to be in the Gulag, in the Soviet Far East, in the terrible place known as Valley of Death, after famous writer Varlam Shalamov who had spent 17 years in the Gulag himself. 1953 is also the year of the death of Stalin, the event which was paramount for millions of people.

Michael Rogatchi before the special ceremony for his Art & Memory project at Laogai Museum, Washington D.C.. 2013. (C) Michael Rogatchi Archive.

Michael created that work as chilling memories of the endless columns of the prisoners of Gulag, the columns of the people reduced to nothingness by oppression, violence, humiliation, cold, hunger and forced labour. These columns small Michael was witnessing himself on the streets of the place in Kazakhstan where his family had been exiled after the Stalin’s death, as millions of other Gulag’s prisoners. The artist remembers how he saw those columns of horror even when he was a small boy, on his way to a kindergarten. He remembers as he asked his Mom who was the wife of the Gulag’s prisoner, “Who are those people, Mom?” and heard from his mother: “These people are very misfortunate people, my son. Very, very misfortunate ones”, and his Mom sighed deeply. 

Michael created this painting in 1993, as a reminder on his 40th birthday, on those people. Endless columns of them, millions, tens, perhaps hundred million human beings, all of them destroyed psychologically, and many annihilated physically by the Soviet regime in Gulag.

Michael Rogatchi at the special ceremony for his Art & Memory project at the Laoogai Museum in Washington DC. 2013. (C) Michael Rogatchi Archive.

Alexander Solzenitsyn who did return to Russia after many years of his and his family exile, was enthusiastic about that special art work. He wanted very much to have it. Michael understood the desire of famous writer, the author of Gulag Archipelago. He did a special copy of the painting ( as he was not ready to give that very work away), and sent to Solzhenitsyn in Moscow safely, on which Michael was cordially thanked by the writer. 

The painting have had a very special place in the artist’s studio ever since. It hanged in the place where Michael’s eyes always were on it while he was working in his studio. It was a very meaningful work for him. 

Almost twenty years after the creation of Year 1953, Michael’s wife Inna happened to be in Washington DC, at the famous and unique Laogai Museum, the only museum in the world that tells a horrible story on Laogai, the Chinese Gulag which still be functioning today. Laogai Museum was founded by famous Chinese dissident, Nobel prize nominee, writer and freedom fighter Harry Wu, a good friend of Inna and Michael Rogatchi. Laogai Museum used to have two important sections which were vital for explaining to the visitors the origins of Chinese Gulag, the sections on Holocaust and on Stalinist Gulag.

Michael Rogatchi (C). Year 1953. Oil on canvas. 1993. The painting is hanged on the wall of the Laogai Museum, Washington DC. (C) Michael Rogatchi Archive

During her first visit to Laogai Museum, Inna was stunned by seeing a real life photograph from the Chinese Gulag taken in 1970s which was literally the same that Michael’s painting Year 1953. After consultations with Harry Wu , the Laogai Museum and Foundation, and The Rogatchi Foundation, Michael Rogatchi had decided to run this special project on history education by the means of art, together wth Harry Wu and The Laogai Museum and Foundation. 

He also decided to donate that essentially important painting for him to Laogai Museum. 

Special events and lectured had been set and organised in Washington DC in 2013 as this project was implement, with participation of many leading American public figures and the senior representatives of The Rogatchi Foundation Internationally Advisory Board, including the Members of the European Parliament, and leading politicians. These lectures on humanity as the main tool of surviving in the inhuman conditions of both Gulag and Laogai, conducted by Michael Rogatchi, Harry Wu and many of our colleagues, has become a memorable and very important project on human rights. 

In more detail, on this particular project built around Michael Rogatchi’s special art work, it can be read here.