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History: “Said To” Have Happened

I haven’t seen Bitter Harvest, the new film made about the Holodomor, the man-made famine that transformed Ukraine from bread basket to mass grave, so I have absolutely no view on its artistic merit. It may be terrible (the reviews I have read have not been kind) but this from Michael O’Sullivan’s review in the Washington Post, well…

The Holodomor — an early 1930s famine in which millions of people in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, are said to have died when their foodstuffs were confiscated by the central Soviet government under Joseph Stalin.

Are said to have died?

We  will never know precisely how many died. In Khrushchev Remembers, the former Soviet leader explained why:

I can’t give an exact figure because no one was keeping count. All we knew was that people were dying in enormous numbers. 

There is, however, no doubt at all that the death toll ran into the millions, perhaps 3-4 million, although there are (far) higher estimates out there.

And then:

Whether the Holodomor resulted from a policy of systemic genocide, as is the official position of Ukraine and many other governments, or was a terrible situation that nevertheless fails to meet the definition of deliberate mass murder, as others have characterized it, is a matter for U.N. diplomats and historians to argue about.

Well, Raphael Lemkin was someone who thought that it was genocide. Raphael Lemkin? Oh, he’s just the man who devised the word ‘genocide’, and whose ideas were hugely influential in the post-war treaty-making that established how that crime came to be defined.

In an unpublished work, he described the Holodomor as “perhaps the classic example of Soviet genocide”, a genocide that  he saw as multi-pronged—intellectual, cultural and, of course, physical, with the latter itself falling, Lemkin argued, into three categories:

The first blow is aimed at the intelligentsia, the national brain, so as to paralyze the rest of the body.”

Going along with this attack on the intelligentsia was an offensive against the churches, priests and hierarchy, the “soul” of Ukraine. Between 1926 and 1932, the Ukrainian Orthodox Autocephalous Church, its Metropolitan (Lypkivsky) and 10,000 clergy were liquidated.

The third prong of the Soviet plan was aimed at the farmers, the large mass of independent peasants who are the repository of the tradition, folklore and music, the national language and literature, the national spirit, of Ukraine. The weapon used against this body is perhaps the most terrible of all – starvation.

It is true that Soviet agricultural ‘reform’ (collectivization) also took a hideous toll outside Ukraine and that there were famines elsewhere, famines that were, to Moscow, an acceptable price to be paid for what the Communist Party saw as progress. But at the same time, the Stalinist regime had already launched a broad attack on Ukrainian nationalism (real, potential and imagined). It then deliberately took the murderous opportunity presented by collectivization to break a very large community—the peasant-farmers—who were key not only to Ukraine’s sense of a separate identity, but of its ability to sustain that identity. 


The crop that year was ample to feed the people and livestock of Ukraine, though it had fallen off somewhat from the previous year, a decrease probably due in large measure to the struggle over collectivization. But a famine was necessary for the Soviet[s] and so they got one to order, by plan, through an unusually high grain allotment to the state as taxes. To add to this, thousands of acres of wheat were never harvested, were left to rot in the fields. The rest was sent to government granaries to be stored there until the authorities had decided how to allocate it. Much of this crop, so vital to the lives of the Ukrainian people, ended up as exports for the creation of credits abroad.”

Back to the Washington Post’s review:

Stalin (Gary Oliver) is depicted as a villain straight out of a black-and-white serial from 100 years ago, with his evil henchman, the commissar Sergei (Tamer Hassan), portrayed as a brutish caricature of heartlessness. When the commissar and his Bolshevik enforcers descend upon a Ukrainian farming village, for instance, trampling on horseback over an innocent woman making her way with a loaf of bread, the camera cuts to an unsubtle and overly symbolic shot: the broken and blood-spattered loaf, lying by the side of the road.

Stalin was clever, complicated and, when necessary, subtle: The most effective devils often are. Before weighing Oliver’s performance, I’ll (obviously) have to see the film to judge just how crude a caricature it is. I wonder, however, if an overly melodramatic depiction of a villainous Hitler, particularly in a movie describing the horrors of the Third Reich to an audience in which many were unfamiliar with the historical background (the fact that the Holodomor is likely to come as news to many is a topic in its own right) would have received quite the same criticism. As for the “brutish” and the heartless”, well, many of those who pushed through and enforced this genocide were indeed that. 

It comes with the territory when eradicating, yes, millions 


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