On February 7th, 2013, a special event took place at the Laogai Museum in Washington, D.C. – the celebration ceremony of the donation of Michael Rogatchi’s Year 1953 artwork to the Laogai Museum and Foundation. The event gathered distinguished politicians, diplomats, academics, artists, and media representatives. Prominent Finnish and European politician, Member of the European Parliament Sari Essayah, who also is a member of The Rogatchi Foundation’s International Advisory Board, was the Guest of Honour at the event.
About the Year 1953 painting
Michael Rogatchi’s Year 1953 (oil on canvas, 36 x 110 cm, 1993) is one of the most personal and special works by the artist. This work evokes his own memories of the realities of the Soviet Gulag where Michael was born back in 1953, a few months before Stalin’s death, and where his family of Soviet political prisoners had been exiled in Kazakhstan, sharing the destiny of tens of millions of prisoners of the Gulag. This is first-hand evidence by a witness and later-day reflection of a person who grew up within the Gulag and the Soviet system, a person who has overcome it, and whose deep conviction and personal devotion is to fight the practices of totalitarianism with his best efforts. This work is also a tribute to all the victims of totalitarianism, both of the Gulag and the Laogai.
The London-based leading art expert Sam Chatterton-Dickson has noted Michael Rogatchi’s Year 1953 painting in particular:
“The work is truly rare and special as it deals with historical phenomena of utter importance, one of the most important in the XX century, and the artist’s input here is his personal experience. This is a rare occurrence in the contemporary arts. The work also evokes the atmosphere of the massive repressions, and both psychological and physical terror that has been executed cruelly on a horrendous scale. Michael has succeeded here to create the art work which is as if ‘breathing’ the terror that had been instrumental in the formation of both the regime, and millions of lives of the people who were living under it. The fact that Michael is one of those people, adds to the special characteristics of the art work, indeed.” (2009).
In his opening remark, Laogai Museum’s Founder and Executive President Harry Wu greeted the distinguished audience and emphasised how important and even logical it is to have the artwork that depicts the Soviet totalitarian system, for the Museum which tells in detail the repression machinery of China – as being inspired, both literally and metaphorically, by the Soviet totalitarian regime. “There is no coincidence that we are featuring in our Museum not Laogai only but also the Soviet Gulag and the Nazi concentration camps. They all are the prototype of evil”, – said Harry Wu.
Co-founder and President of The Rogatchi Foundation Dr Inna Rogatchi co-hosted the event. In her opening address, Inna gave some insights into her husband’s artistic and personal background, and also analysed parallels between Michael’s and Harry’s life experiences.
“When a few years back, we flew to Kazakhstan as I was filming a documentary on Michael’s life and work, I noticed that even for the camera men who were locals and for whom existing in the Karaganda landscapes was routine, even for them it was difficult to film what we did. You have a neat small house where Michael’s family lived, and just a hundred meters in front of it, not more, there is a vast concentration camp, abandoned now, but was functioning at the time. On the left, there is a huge cemetery, so to say, but in fact, it is a giant pitch in which the remnants of thousands of prisoners were just ditched away for years. In this landscape a human being is raised; Michael spent there about 18 years, after his family had been exiled to that part of the Gulag, known as the Valley of Death, one of the most terrible parts of the Gulag in the Russian Far East where Michael was actually born. Michael does not talk much, if at all, about his and his family’s experience in the Gulag; neither does he paint a lot concerning it. Apart from this painting, there is only one of Michael’s works that exists that was inspired by his experiences in the Gulag. And one just cannot help but think – how crystallised must be the artistic message coming out of one’s actual experience of such total horror. And how special this kind of work of art is.
Harry also spent about 19 years in the Chinese Gulag, known as Laogai; and what’s important, he had been arrested and sent there not being a mature man, but just a kid under 19. To survive there and stay sane, a person does need extraordinary strength. But Harry’s strength and commitment to unmask the ugly truth about the Chinese oppressive regime went far beyond ‘just’ surviving the camps. Following dissident movements all around the world for many years, and having many friends among those extraordinary courageous people, I do not know anyone who had voluntarily returned to the place of one’s unimaginable tortures, in order to collect the evidence of the crimes of the regime. But Harry did it, and not just once, but several times. His first-hand hard-core evidence from Laogai, all those photos and documents are undeniable facts of what is really happening there. Harry brings out this truth with extraordinary focus and determination for twenty years by now. And without him and his activities, this world certainly would be different.
In my understanding, a human being can be deprived of anything, despite one’s dignity, for those who have it. Harry’s life, his Museum, all what he is doing is a living statement of this simple but fundamental fact. And we both, personally, and as the representatives of our Foundation, are very happy that this particular painting of Michael’s will be living now on the walls of the Laogai Museum”, – said Inna while handing to Harry Wu The Rogatchi Foundation’s Donation Letter and the Certificate of Authenticity for the Year 1953 painting.
Artist Michael Rogatchi did share some of his memories from his childhood in the Gulag and his understanding of the human right situation in China:
“In one of his letters to us, Simon Wiesenthal wrote: ‘As time goes on, it is very important that there are people who still remind the rest of the atrocities of the past, to prevent atrocities of present and future’.
As it is well known to all of us, Harry Wu is precisely such a person – the one who still reminds all of us what has happened, and what is going on in China today, as well. And the Laogai Museum is a testimony of Harry’s and his colleagues’ stand and work.
This museum is incredibly important as it provides people with the unique possibility of seeing the ongoing horror in a huge country with their own eyes.
Decent people, those who respect and value dignity, see the situation with human rights in China as it is, while some other people are looking for cheap labour opportunities there. This is a serious distinction.
The totalitarian system has no nationality. It was Soviet instructors, specialists from the Gulag who helped their Chinese comrades set up the Laogai in the form it is. They provided the ‘know-how’ of engineering and construction; they trained the Chinese personnel; they provided the entire supervision over the Laogai’s establishment and functioning.
This painting was done 20 years ago. I did it for myself. All those twenty years it hung in my studio, just in front of my eyes. The image of the painting was a part of my childhood. I grew up in Kazakhstan where our family had been exiled, in the place called Karlag which was a major part of the Gulag. Going out with my friends and taking a walk, we regularly found human skulls, with an accurate hole in them.
Due to that, I understand very well what Laogai was and is.
My wife and I have decided that there is no better place for this painting than the Laogai museum.
It is a huge honour for me that my work has found its home at the Laogai museum.”
Famous historian and author of many key books on modern history Jerrold Schecter reminded the audience in his note:
“I was working as the Times correspondent in China in the 1960s, and the building of Laogai had been going on just then. Then the first book appeared about the Chinese atrocities in the camps, it was a memoir by Jean Pasqualiniwho was imprisoned there and survived. That was my first real knowledge of the Chinese Gulag, now known as Laogai, thanks to the giant work that Harry has been doing for many years here in the USA consistently. Soon after my Chinese years, I and my family spent many years in Moscow, where I was working as the chief of the Timesbureau from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. And again, first-hand knowledge of the Gulag and what was going on there, was just flooding in, especially during the reign of Khrushchev.
Still, I believe, there is nothing that can surpass first-hand experience, personal knowledge, the experience that both Michael and Harry and their families went through. And what is striking is not ‘just’ the similarities; one would expect it from two systems being virtually identical in their origin; but the mutual coherence of both regimes. That coherence had been also mutually enforcing the repressive machines of both states, both vast countries, the Soviet Union and China. And from that point of view, Michaels’ strong and very telling painting here at the Laogai Museum, is a remarkable statement. Congratulations to both parties, Michael and Inna and their Rogatchi Foundation, and Harry and his Museum, on that.
With all that we do know now and continue to learn, thanks to Harry and his work, the picture would be rather gloomy and depressing. But this morning, before coming here to this ceremony, I have read in the Wall Street Journal that the Chinese authorities have announced that they are closing down several Laogai facilities in a couple of provinces. Of course, it is just a few camps out of hundreds, if not thousands; but could it be that it is the beginning of the fall of Laogai? Nobody believed that the huge Soviet oppressive regime would fall and collapse – but we witnessed that is exactly what has happened. So, let’s hope that the Chinese regime won’t be able to run for long in its current way, and in particular, that horrendous Laogai will end as the Gulag did. I wish us all to see this day, and do hope that our wish will become true sooner than later”.
The Founder and President of the Institute of World Politics, one of the key-figures in the decades-long struggle for freedom and human dignity professor John Lenczowski addressed the guests of the ceremony in the following way:
“I was one of the people who was in the situation-room during a good part of the Cold War. And I know first-hand of all those mutual submarines chases, and numerous things like that with which we all were so busy all that time. But the fact is that it all was not about submarine chases, or military exercises. It was all about morality; about human character and behaviour; about dignity as its key element, and about convictions based on one’s values. The longer I live, the more I analyse that period of immense effort of all sorts, the more I see and am convinced that the Cold War, the opposing and resisting the forces of inhumanity and terror, was about a personal morality and the strength of that morality. We saw it both at the gross level and at the highest level; we saw it in agencies and in the situation rooms; we saw it inside the Gulag and Laogai camps and the psychiatric wards of both of those criminal systems. And we are seeing it among the people who overcame the crushing oppressions and are still fighting for human dignity, the ultimate value of our lives.
Look at Michael – he well could say after leaving those terrible realities of the Gulag behind him, ‘OK, I am out of it, and don’t want to have anymore to do with that life with human skulls on the way to a kids’ walks. Enough. Forget it.’ But instead, he has been and is devoted to creating a testimony; and done by the means of art, this testimony is speaking just straight to our minds and hearts.
Michael is a phenomenal artist. His works which I have seen are those of an extremely powerful, fantastic imagination. The power of his imagination is overwhelming, it is simply tremendous, unbelievable. And the fact that the artist as himself, if turning to such matters as the reality of the Gulag, is doubly remarkable as he has thrown his immense talent to support his human, civic stand.
Many of us sitting here have been moral witnesses of the harsh realities of the Cold War, and of many essential phenomena that followed it. We saw many people who were the champions of truth, the heroes of that ongoing battle for dignity – people like Vladimir Bukovsky, people like Harry Wu, people like Jerrold Schecter; those who were honest in seeing the truth and who were brave in telling the truth loudly, reaching to the public as wide as possible. Those people, those heroes are in our memory, and their brave and decent stand against tyranny will stay in history, it has been imprinted there already.
And it is very good to have Michael and Inna Rogatchi here, in the USA, in Washington, D.C., with us, as they are bringing with them the same stand, the same understanding, the same devotion and the same determination – to stay as moral witnesses to the ongoing battle for moral values, to be continuously committed, as we know and see, in their deeds and activities, to this vital process of emphasising human dignity throughout the unfolding of our history, and to bring an element of creativity into that which is rare and truly unique. Talented artists with a strong moral stand and convictions are talking not to minds only, but to the hearts of people, very importantly. Anyone who could have a look at this painting of Michael’s, would see that a creative image can express things much more powerfully than many words would do.
I salute Harry’s extraordinary courage and his systematic quest for truth on Laogai, and I also thank Michael for his outstanding painting; the anti-totalitarian testimony created by the Gulag survivor himself. This painting just cannot be at a more convenient place for such testimony. It will remind us about the cause of dignified life to all of us.”
The Guest of Honour at the ceremony, one of the leading Finnish and European politicians, Member of the European Parliament Sari Essayah enlightened the audience on Michael Rogatchi’s biography and the Rogatchi family’s connections to Finland:
Sari Essayah told the audience about Michael’s scientific background, his work as a neurochemistry scientist and his scientific works in that direction; she also told about the moment when Michael had finished his artistic education in St Petersburg with the leading artists there. Sari told the primarily American audience about Michael’s work and life in Finland and many of his exhibitions worldwide, and about his and his wife Inna’s philanthropic activities.
“Michael is a famous and highly respected artist in Finland and in many other European countries, his works have been exhibited very widely, and they belong to the leading public and cultural institutions both in Finland and in many countries worldwide. Inna is known as an established art photographer, but I would like to remind the distinguished public that she also is a very famous writer. For over 25 years, both Inna and Michael have been involved in very many charitable activities in Finland and elsewhere in the world; and given Michael’s biography and his and his family’s life and story, it is only natural that today him and The Rogatchi Foundation are donating this very special painting of Michael to the Laogai Museum. Inna and Michael have been Finnish citizens for a long time now, and on a personal note, I have to say that I am proud to be a co-citizen with Inna and Michael Rogatchi, and to be a member of the International Advisory Board of their Rogatchi Foundation” – said MEP Sari Essayah.
Sari also told the audience in detail the principles and ways of the European Parliament’s Human Rights Committee, and as a senior member of that important committee, she expressed her commitment to the causes of human rights, and the Laogai issues which are the screaming examples of the consistent, numerous and ongoing violations of human rights, including those of women, children, and elderly among them.
MEP Sari Essayah concluded her speech expressing her “hope that Laogai will disappear in the same way as the Gulag did, and that it will happen as soon as possible”.
The Guest of Honour MEP Sari Essayah and the Laogai Museum Founder Harry Wu unveiled the donated painting to the cheer of the invited guests.
In his closing remarks, outstanding fighter for human rights Harry Wu said:
“There is no coincidence and there is nothing accidental in the fact that Michael’s painting has been donated to our Museum: the first ever Chinese concentration camp, where I was sentenced to, was built entirely by a Soviet team, and supervised by Soviet representatives. The first Chinese concentration camp, very symbolically, and many many other camps following, had been entirely Soviet ‘products’. During the Chinese regime, there have been from 40 to 50 million people murdered in those concentration camps of Laogai, the Chinese Gulag. When I was freed, and arrived to the West, and in a while, started to do something regarding the Communist regime crimes in China, I was asked by The Washington Post journalist here in Washington: ‘Harry, what is your dream?..’, and initially I did not know the answer, but then I said: ‘My dream is that Laogai word would become a recognised term, a word in the Oxford English Dictionary, and from there on, in every dictionary in every language in the world, to symbolise the crimes which are ongoing in China’. We started to work, and we worked all the time, and in ten years the word ‘Laogai’ did appear in the Oxford Dictionary, and from there – in all dictionaries of all languages; Laogai has become a recognition of what’s going on in China. My dream has come true, in that respect – of people’s awareness, at least.
Look at this painting – even without knowing Michael’s biography and his life, one can feel and understand that this painting is first-hand testimony. Michael’s father was a prisoner of the Gulag; Michael was born in the Gulag, just shortly before Stalin’s death. Otherwise, we don’t know how Michael and his family’s life would have developed, and what could come out of it. And then, his family was sent to many years of exile in Kazakhstan, another big place of the Gulag. There is certainly a big sum that this painting has been valued at. I have to say to you: I do not care how much this painting costs in figures, I am not interested in sums. This painting is valuable; it is very, very valuable – because this is a real person’s memories, his testimony, in which there is the story of his family, but also of very many people and their families, millions of those, both of the Gulag and Laogai. Thank you, Michael”.
Remarkably, distinguished guests stayed for a long while in this unique Museum after the ceremony. Many of them compared the exhibits in the museum, the photographs from the Chinese concentration camps, with Michael Rogatchi’s Year 1953 painting, underlining the similar patterns both in photographs and the painting, and the lives that produced them.
The Rogatchi Foundation intends to continue its support and cooperation with the Laogai Museum and Foundation in its unique and notable work, and to stand firmly on the vitality of freedom and dignity of life for people everywhere.
In the front row, from the left: MEP Sari Essayah, writer and historian Leona Schecter, Inna Rogachi, Michael Rogatchi, professor Juliana Geran Pilon, the Laogai Museum Founder and Executive President Harry Wu, and Dr Roberta Pieczenik.
In the back row, from the left: culture attache of the Finnish Embassy in the USA Heini Rekola, President of the Institute of World Politics professor John Lenczowski, Brigadier General (Ret) James Hutchens, artist Pat Mercer Hutchens, writer and historian Jerrold Schecter.
Credits: Photo © Pat Mercer Hutchens, 2013 –