A young Ukrainian fights for his freedom, and to survive, as occupying Soviet troops deliberately starve his country into submission during the infamous Holodomor holocaust. [ Bitter Harvest credits: Dir: George Mendeluk/ Max Irons, Samantha Barks, Terence Stamp/ 103 min/ Drama, Romance, History/ Democide, Anti-socialism/ 2017]
“The land belongs to the State. You, your icon, your land. All belong to the State now.” So announces a Bolshevik commissar to a peasant farmer in the Ukraine. That is how Bitter Harvest begins, as indeed the multi-year famine (1932-1933) — referred to as Holodmor by the Ukrainians, and the subject of this film — also began, with the forced collectivization of farm land by occupying Soviet troops.
Ensuing events are told through the eyes of a young artist, as he witnesses his village’s heroic but hopeless resistance, the roundup of journalists, the arrests and disappearance of his friends, the brutal seizure and shipping out of all food by Soviet troops, and the resulting mass starvation.
Bitter Harvest is remarkable for its accurate portrayal of the blunt truth – no major narrative film of which I am aware has ever told this story (there have, however, been several documentaries: 1, 2). Ukrainian farmers did indeed resist Soviet collectivization, often heroically, but they were a largely unarmed population facing armed troops, with predictable results. Still, collectivization did not go well, partly due to relentless sporadic resistance by the Ukrainians and partly due to the illogic of collectivization itself. In 1932, Stalin decided to punish the Ukraine, by closing the country’s borders and shipping the food out, nearly all of it, leaving those millions inside – innocent men, women, and children – to starve. The death toll from the resulting famine was about five million people (some estimates are higher).
These events are inescapably a tragedy, but at least in the film the main characters are given enough hope to steer it clear of being too depressing. I actually liked Bitter Harvest much more than I thought I would. Max Irons is very compelling in the lead role and the storytelling is effective. The portrayal of mass starvation is understated, but accurate depiction would probably have been too grim for modern audiences to take.
The Ukrainian holocaust is a tragedy within a tragedy. Five million were deliberately starved to death, a horror beyond imagining; but that crime was then compounded by official denials for decades, aided in some cases by complicit left-wing Western media. Survivors had no one to believe them, and these events nearly slipped into history, forgotten and unrecorded. The truth was finally revealed by historian Robert Conquest, with the publication in 1968 of his book The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties. Bear in mind that even then it wasn’t the New York Times that broke the story – their man on the beat, Walter Duranty, was actually in on the original deception and won a Pulitzer prize for his articles about how wonderful things were in Stalin’s USSR. But other than a few obscure documentaries, Conquest’s revelation never made it into a major film – until now. Bitter Harvest is both long overdue and a small drop of justice for the victims whose stories were never told.
“Must-see, dramatic, powerful story.”
“A love story set during one of history’s darkest moments, that portrays the history you don’t know and cannot imagine.”
“A rousing tale with political pertinence.”
–Sydney Morning Herald
How to See It
Related Film: Harvest of Despair: The Unknown Holocaust
Related Film: The Soviet Story
More Films About: Democide
More Films About: Anti-Socialism
Book: Hunger by Design: The Great Ukrainian Famine and Its Soviet Context (Harvard)
Book: The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine
Book: Execution by Hunger: The Hidden Holocaust
The Ukrainian Weekly: Why Certain Critics Are Bitter Over ‘Bitter Harvest’