Michael Cherkas | Red Harvest: A Graphic Novel of the Terror Famine in 1930s Soviet Ukraine (nbm)

144 pgs. B&W | $19.99 hardcover | Writer and Artist: Michael Cherkas

The more I learn about history, the more I’m convinced that atrocities are not, in fact, rare events, as we were taught in school. Instead, they are shockingly common, and often worse than what (if anything) you have been told about them. They only seem to be rare because most historical atrocities are either minimized in or left out of the standard history taught in most schools, while current atrocities are granted scant to no coverage in the American news media as they are happening.

Michael Cherkas’ graphic novel Red Harvest: A Graphic Novel of the Terror Famine in 1930s Soviet Ukraine presents a fictional narrative, based on historical research, of life in a Ukrainian village during the years when Soviet government policies inflicted mass starvation on the people of a region so fertile it was known as the breadbasket of Europe. Called the Holodomor, that famine (aptly described as a “terror famine” in the title), resulted in the deaths of millions of Ukrainians (estimates range from 3.5 to 10 million; some estimate 10% of the Ukrainian population died). Some scholars today consider it a deliberate genocide engineered by Joseph Stalin rather than simply the result of crop failures, bizarrely ineffectual policies, and incompetent leadership.

Click to enlarge

Mykola Kovalenko, a survivor of the Holodomor, is the grandfather of a young farm family in Ontario, having immigrated to Canada after World War II. While preparing for a return trip to Ukraine, he suffers from a recurring dream in which, as a young boy in his native village of Zelenyi Hai (“Green Grove”), he sees his family members as ghostly spirits. An old photograph of his family, taken in 1927 when they were enjoying a comfortable life as kulaks (peasants owning more than 8 acres of land), sparks further recollections. It was a happy time: the harvest was good, they’re making plans to improve their home, and older sister Nadya is engaged to be married. That marriage, to a Bolshevik named Borys, provides a microcosm of the conflict between the local customs and priorities of the Ukrainian peasants and those of the Russian-dominated Bolshevik party in Moscow.

Things soon take a turn for the worse. Stalin orders that peasant farms be collectivized, the better to put modern farming machinery and techniques to work. Russian officials arrive in Zelenyi Hai to enforce the new and officially voluntary policies, the first of many examples of official doublespeak since refusing to turn your land over to the collective is punished by exile and very likely death.  Food is actually confiscated as well, even the seed corn needed to plan next year’s crops, because the people making and enforcing these policies understand nothing about how agriculture works.

As is often the case, it took several years for the worst effects of this bad policy to emerge. The Holomodor took place in 1932 and 1933, and while bad weather may have been a factor, human decision-making played a major role as well. The Russian government imposed a quota system on Ukraine, requiring the collective farms to supply ever-increasing amounts of grain to Moscow, in the process creating a food shortage among those actually producing the grain. A weakened labor force, also diminished by the number of adult men imprisoned, murdered, or exiled, could not work effectively. As the remaining food dwindled, people scavenged for anything remotely edible, from worms to tree bark to their fellow human beings. Meanwhile, according to the Soviet government, none of this was happening and any reference to the famine was simply anti-Soviet propaganda. 

Click to enlarge

This is a terrible chapter of history and one that is effectively told Red Harvest, which expertly places a fictional narrative within the larger historical and political context necessary to understand it. Further context is provided by Cherkas’ introduction and a two-page glossary. This a story that carries particular meaning for Cherkas, as a Canadian of Ukrainian descent, and one that he thought about for years before deciding to tell it (he is best known for the much lighter science fiction mystery comic The Silent Invasion).

Cherkas say he tried a number of artistic styles before settling on a black-and-white ink drawing style that looks as if it was done quickly and surreptitiously and then smuggled out of the country. The result is a simplified realistic style with a lot of texture provided by the kind of filler techniques children doodle with (i.e., filling in an area with circular squiggles while never lifting the pen from the page). This approach works well in Red Harvest, since it’s realistic enough to portray specific characters and situations in a meaningful way, yet also general enough to allow this story to serve as emblematic of the many harms Stalin inflicted on non-Russian ethnic groups within the Soviet Union, and more generally as one among the many atrocities carried out by political leaders against those perceived as their enemies. | Sarah Boslaugh

You can see a preview of Red Harvest: A Graphic Novel of the Terror Famine in 1930s Soviet Ukraine on the nbm web page.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *