Bitter Harvest. Directed by George Mendeluk (Devil’s Harvest Production, 2017).
Running time: 103 minutes.
Bitter Harvest is a recently released wartime romance, set during the state-induced Ukrainian famine of 1932-33: otherwise known as the Holodomor. Directed, written, and funded by members of the Ukrainian diaspora, it was filmed on location in Ukraine during the Euromaidan protests of 2013-2014, which some of the crew participated in. As the producer Ian Ihnatowycz stated, the film is intended to bring greater global awareness to the real, but controversial, genocide.
Genocide is not a word I use lightly. It’s one I’ve chosen to use after much research and the first-hand accounts of my grandparents. They were both residents of Soviet Ukraine and survived the Holodomor as children, only to be abducted as Ostarbeiter laborers during the Nazi invasion ten years later, before finally making their way to the U.S. under General Eisenhower’s graces. One great uncle committed suicide some years after. My grandmother’s brother was shot in the street by Red Army tools. Many other relatives and neighbors never made it out at all.
The Holodomor is a controversial issue in Ukraine and Russia. The claim of genocide — deliberately engineered starvation of Ukrainians by Stalin and the Soviet regime — is upheld by the Ukrainian state and diaspora as item number 19,871 in 600 years of Russian oppression. Both the modern Russian Federation and most existing Soviet apologists deny this, contending that it was incidental, and that the fallout from Stalin’s rapid collectivization of agriculture also afflicted Russian-majority regions throughout the southern breadbasket. Ukrainian fascist parties that rode Euromaidan to power call the famine the work of “Jewish Bolsheviks” and glorify nationalist figures like Stephan Bandera that resisted Soviet authority for all the wrong reasons: eventually collaborating with the Nazis. Meanwhile, the Novorossiya separatists to the East hang pictures of Stalin in their headquarters, reflecting their obedience to the strong authoritarian father figure. It also reflects the neo-Eurasianist fascism that underpins Putin’s United Russia party and its support for far-right movements throughout Europe and the United States. Typical to Eastern European history, all sides are hideously evil, and all possibility of truth and reconciliation has been crushed under the treads of tanks and the weight of stacked corpses.
I’ve said a lot about the surrounding controversy, but not the film itself. Bitter Harvest is an underwhelming, melodramatic, made-for-TV movie. The overwhelming majority of reviews have panned it as clichéd and formulaic, which it is. It is not a groundbreaking film as far as the format goes. The choice to cast British actors speaking in English — to make it more accessible to Western audiences — is both completely understandable and constantly grating. Aside from the high-quality horse combat and swordplay that are a staple of Eastern European cinema, it is not a great film.
It is also not the insidious NATO propaganda that vulgar anti-imperialists imagine it to be. It is casually, reflexively nationalist and romantic in the “Ukraine has a beautiful culture, please don’t throw it into a corpse pit” kind of way. I can pretty much forgive this, albeit with an eye roll. It does gloss over the ugly history of the Ukrainian People’s Republic in the introduction, described as “a few glorious years of independence,” which I do not forgive for one second. The UPR was founded by moderate nationalists in the chaos of Russian Civil War. Though promising its Jewish population full equality and autonomy in a way that was unprecedented under the Tsars, UPR forces initiated an intense series of pogroms, killing 35,000 to 50,000 Jews over the course of the UPR’s short existence. Symon Petliura, the head of government, was unable (or some allege unwilling) to stop this. He would rather not have alienated anti-semitic soldiers and peasants. Anarchists of the nearby Free Territory fought his forces. A Jewish anarchist named Sholom Schwartzbard assassinated him in 1926.
That unfortunate whitewashing aside, I see no indication that the film is supportive of Ukrainian fascism, either of the interwar or modern variety. It doesn’t scapegoat the Russian people, nor does it attempt to appeal to any popular antisemitic conspiracy theories. To its credit, Bitter Harvest takes the time to mention the harm that Stalin was simultaneously inflicting on Kazakhs and Byelorussian Jews.
The film follows the lives of two young Ukrainian lovers and their families as they live through the events surrounding the Holodomor. Yuri is a painter from a family of famous Cossacks. The Cossacks were egalitarian warrior societies that for centuries lived semi-autonomously on the borders of Russian civilization. Cossacks are symbolic of Ukrainian culture and its defiance toward surrounding empires: free holders opposed to serfdom and direct democracy opposed to autocracy. Their history inspired Nestor Makhno, the Ukrainian anarchist who led the Free Territory’s fight against the White and Bolshevik forces during the Civil War. Often comprised of runaway serfs and liberated Crimean slaves, anarchists have likened Cossacks to other melting pot outlaw communities like maroons and Caribbean pirates: living on the fringes and striking back at oppressors.
The real history is not so clean. Cossacks served as mercenaries and colonizers under the Tsars just as often as they sparked anti-imperial rebellions, and by the 19th century they had become an elite, if unruly, extension of the military and police state. They traded violence against other enemies of the state in exchange for privileged immunity. When Yuri’s grandfather Ivan calls on him to fight for his country and for freedom, it’s with the same Orwellian language of American patriot militias.
Natalka (Yuri’s love interest) remains in their idyllic farm community throughout the film, and witnesses the brutality of the Bolsheviks firsthand, as well as the creeping intensity of the famine. Authorities coerce peasants by threat of death and dispossession to join the cooperative, surrendering their land in the process. There is a harrowing scene in which the local Commissar tries to rape Natalka in exchange for sparing her family’s life. This was something that happened in my grandparents’ village. They both married young because the soldiers were more likely to rape single women.
Many peasants begin to kill their animals for food, as Stalin’s frustration with an inability to meet unrealistic grain quotas leads him to increase them. By November, collective farms that fail to meet their targets are placed on blacklists and told to surrender 15 times the original amount. Soviet law demands that farmers meet their quota before keeping any surplus for themselves. Several are accused of being kulaks: wealthier peasants. Though the state’s official criteria for a kulak was one that employed wage labor, rented land, or engaged in commerce, this definition expanded over time to include anyone that owned slightly more land or livestock than their neighbors. Never clearly defined to begin with, kulak rapidly devolved into a general term of abuse, as neighbors accused each other over grudges or to escape scrutiny themselves by appearing to be model Communists.
Yuri’s brother Mykola joins the Party in Kiev and becomes a local official. He believes in the ideals of Marxism-Leninism and Stalin’s leadership, rationalizing the food shortage and Commissariat excesses as growing pains in a rapidly changing society. He also believes that the government wishes to do well by Ukrainians, and that with its help Ukraine can become a prosperous and respected nation.
Mykola’s optimism reflects the early Soviet policies of “indigenization”, by which the government sponsored minority cultures in an attempted reparation for centuries of Russian oppression. For the first time in almost a hundred years, Ukrainians were allowed to speak their language in schools. Ironically, this revival led to precisely the national consciousness that so threatened Stalin’s plans, and which he sought to crush. Here is where we see the cultural dimension to the genocide, as Ukrainian party officials, intelligentsia, and artists like Yuri are executed or sent to gulags in Siberia. Mykola and others like him are replaced by forces loyal to Stalin and his personal representative, Pavel Postyshev, who in a year’s time would declare that “1933 was the year of the defeat of Ukrainian nationalist counter-revolution.”
Aside from an over-the-top portrayal of Stalin himself (he was a withdrawn paranoid, and not the kind of person to shout about shiftless peasants at parties), the facts are solid. The film emphasizes the punitive and malicious nature of Soviet policies, depicting party officials and soldiers ransacking people’s homes for caches kept to survive the winter. It spells out that the Ukrainian SSR was deliberately blockaded to keep supplies out and people in. Russian soldiers were used to staff that blockade and terrorize the population. Sympathetic Western journalists conspired to minimize the tragedy.
As casualties mount, and dispossessed peasants flee to the cities to find food, the film portrays a harrowingly real feeling of indifference. Kievan residents keep their nose to the pavement, reciting the official Pravda line that there is no starvation, only “widespread malnutrition”, and ignore the withered bodies piling up in their streets.
At this point, I have to stop and return to the objections. The ones that you, the reader, will face if you bring up the Holodomor. Outside Ukraine, you’re less likely to find some Nazi saying the Jews caused it (it’s just one among their many conspiracy theories) than you are to find left-wing denialists. People who, like Holocaust deniers, will opportunistically jump back and forth between claiming it wasn’t intentional…and that it was, but those dirty kulaks deserved it. This kind of idiocy is easily dismissed. The genocide claim did not originate in Nazi anti-Soviet propaganda or the Cold War histories of Robert Conquest, but with Raphael Lemkin: the person who invented the word. Stalin knew from his own party officials that the quotas were unrealistic, and chose to double down rather than ease off in a way that was not done to Russian-majority regions. He cited Ukraine as a powder keg of disloyal elements in his correspondence to Kaganovich, and the policies they implemented were a direct response to that perception of potential unrest.
Few of the people that make these self-contradicting claims have really considered them; they’re just one of many lines that their abusive cult has forced them to recite in the mirror over and over again. Ideology is a package deal, and they feel that they must not admit certain things (especially to themselves) if they are to maintain their social capital and prevent their entire worldview from crashing down. So they internalize the lie. Kulak and Holodomor jokes serve the same purpose as alt-right helicopter memes, desensitizing themselves and others into being comfortable with their brand of atrocity.
Paraphrasing George R.R. Martin, if you wrote a story with villains dressed in all black, decorated with skulls, and whose mission was hunt down members of a harmless religious minority, gas them and then bake them in ovens, everyone would say that’s over the top. There are degrees of cruelty so far outside our normal experience that we reflexively laugh them off to spare ourselves the ontological dissonance. No one wants to believe that your respectable suit-and-tie white nationalist or the Maoist serving food to homeless folks could really be capable of such things. Would-be totalitarians know this. So they exploit this blind spot with a mix of vague assurances that things will be different next time and a playful nihilism to signal that they don’t really care. Only sympathizers and victims can hear the dog whistle, and the latter are easily dismissed as overreacting or living in the past.
So we accept the excuses to paper over our divides and enable the superficial cooperation with authoritarians that would fall apart if we all began by candidly discussing our core motivations. Sometimes, this is necessary to accomplish more pressing goals. Sometimes the power-seeking seems so tacit, so righteously directed or far removed from the immediate context, that it can be overlooked. Sometimes you simply need a critical mass of people, or a quick and dirty direct action. But there are limits and costs to these compromises.
Whatever trope you choose — whether that is to support the “progressive” nationalism of the oppressed or allow aspiring dictators and cops to deceive you of their true intentions — it will end badly. You’ll find yourself in the position of the Maidan protesters, as anti-imperialism bleeds into patriotism and a desire to purify the nation. Or you’ll end up like Mykola, sitting in his office with a pistol to his head as his former Communist allies come to collect.