A review of the 2017 film Bitter Harvest.
Most Americans are familiar with the Holocaust and revile the regime that committed it. Its symbols and racist ideology evoke a visceral reaction so strong that ideologues use them against their enemies in hopes of tainting them. Knowing that this genocide really happened helps keep us on guard against allowing it to happen here. Outside of rightly vilified hate groups, no one promotes the evil and antiscientific racist ideology that drove the Germans to the “final solution.” Even those who deny the genocidal animus behind the Holocaust are vilified. This is all to the good.
The irony is that another genocide was committed in Europe and has escaped notice. The regime that committed it was no less totalitarian and its ideology no less evil and antiscientific, but its symbols and ideas evoke no widespread visceral reaction. Furthermore, the regime’s defenders and sympathizers—not to mention those who actively deny the genocide it created—receive no condemnation. This genocide is known as the Holodomor (literally, “murder by starvation”), and it was committed against Ukrainians by the Soviet regime. The USSR was committed to the creation of a “New Man” and the destruction of everything and everyone that stood in its way. This included not only the bourgeois but also the freedom- and independence-loving nation of Ukraine. Yes, Communism was a blight on all 15 of the Soviet republics, but what the Communists did in Ukraine was especially brutal. Between 1932 and 1933, four to 10 million Ukrainians—men, women and children living in the “breadbasket of Europe”—were intentionally starved to death.
One reason for our ignorance and apathy about this epic tragedy is ideological; leftist such as Walter Duranty worked with Soviet propagandists to cover up the cause and severity of the famine. Robert Conquest’s The Harvest of Sorrow (1986) and the documentary Harvest of Despair (1984) helped publicize what Ukrainian immigrant communities have long known: the intentional starvation of Ukrainians was the worst chapter in the long history of Muscovite imperialism in and against Ukraine. What remains is for the Communist regime that committed the Holodomor, along with its ideology and symbols, to work their way into our imaginations so deeply that they too become the automatic objects of our hatred. Recent academic work such as Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (2010) will help, but to affect the imaginations of most Americans, movies like Bitter Harvest (2017) will help even more.
The most memorable images from Bitter Harvest portray Ukrainian country folk in bright, embroidered clothing singing and dancing as they work and play; it may be overly romanticized, but it is beautiful. The depictions of the midsummer feast of “Ivana Kupala” (i.e., St. John the Baptist), with its mix of Orthodox and pagan customs, are idyllic and authentic. Scenes of the courting and wedding rituals are especially bucolic and joyful. None of this beauty survives the brutality of Stalin’s regime, personified by the Commissar Sergei (played by Tamer Hassan). He beats up and eventually murders the village priest, turns its church into a prison and puts an image of Stalin up in the church where the patron icon of St. George had hung. The presentation may seem too cut-and-dried for sophisticated audiences, but all atrocities shown in the movie represent common occurrences in the Soviet Union.
But Sergei is not just in Ukraine to use force to implement common Soviet policy; he is there to use hunger and starvation as a means of subjugation, and if not subjugation, then annihilation. The main policies the Soviets used in the Holodomor were unsustainably high grain quotas and requisitions, bans on any kind of gleaning and prohibitions on travel (i.e., escape) and aid. Sergei and his soldiers are shown demanding more from the farmers than they can provide in the hopes of forcing them to give up their lands and homes and move to the collective farms. The movie also shows how ready the Soviets were to use violence.
The movie also does a good, if overly romantic, job of showing the hardships suffered during the starvation. Natalka (Samantha Barks), the movie’s heroine, is tempted to consider prostitution. She dresses herself up as best as she can, even going so far as to paint her lips with her own blood, and visits Sergei seemingly to exchange her body for food. She ends up resisting his advances, but the audience cannot help but think of how often this sort of scene must have happened in real life, often to different and more tragic results.
Another scene that especially highlights the terrible reality of the Holodomor occurs when some soup is shared in the village. When Natalka asks what is in the soup, the answer is “nettles and grass.” The mind is drawn to consider the despair of people who filled their soup pots with things that were never meant to be consumed.
Many of the movie’s images are more direct; we are shown men, women and children dead and dying in the streets. This is no exaggeration. At the height of the famine, 30,000 people, many of them children, were dying every day from starvation.
The post-occupation scenes in the village are not the only ones juxtaposed with the Edenic early scenes of village life; Kyiv becomes a nightmare of beggars, poverty, occupation and betrayal. Again, it is overdone, but the story arc of Mykola (Aneurin Barnard), the hero's best friend, is archetypal. He is the political idealist who sees Communism as a way to bring education and prosperity to the nation he loves. He remains committed to Ukrainian nationalism and becomes the leader of the Communist party in Kyiv. However, he soon realizes that the Soviet plan does not allow for the continued existence of his beloved nation. He ends up taking his own life out of despair for himself and Ukraine.
The movie is far from perfect. For instance, I am not convinced it provides enough information about the Soviet regime and its policies for its actions and motivations to make sense to most viewers. Moreover, many will be turned off by the movie’s style. The acting is solid, but the characters are intentionally exaggerated if not caricatured. However, it could have been worse. In other hands, there might have been an attempt to sympathize with or even excuse the totalitarian Communist regime and the men who worked to enforce its evil policies. My hope, like that of its creators, is that Bitter Harvest will help make the tragedy of the Holodomor more well-known and the ideology and symbols of Communism better understood and reviled.