Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Red Harvest, Graphic Novel

The desire to erase Ukraine as a nation and the Ukrainians as a people did not start with Putin. He just revived a longstanding Soviet tradition. In the early 1930s, Stalin deliberately killed at least four million Ukrainians through starvation and other contributing methods in what is now known as the Holodomor. In this case, the “bug” of socialism’s poor performance became a “feature” when applied to the brutal collectivization of Ukrainian agriculture. As both writer and artist, Ukrainian Michael Cherkas depicts the true story of the Holodomor through the fictional eyes of Mykola Kovalenko, the sole survivor of his composite family, in the graphic novel, Red Harvest, which is now on-sale where books and comics are sold.

Initially, Kovalenko was born into a big, loving rural Ukrainian family. Their recent harvests were bountiful, which should have been good news. However, Stalin’s true-believing enforcers tar successful family farmers such as themselves “kulaks,” or wealthy peasant. That might sound like a contradiction in terms, but it really meant a class enemy, likely to be dispossessed and deported to work camps.

In some ways,
Red Harvest is the dark inverse of Fiddler on the Roof, in which Kovalenko’s big sister Nadya marries Borys Shchurenko, an ardent Communist activist, who whisks her away to the big city. However, unlike the faithful Perchik, Shchurenko returns to sleepy Zelenyi Hai in triumph. Those who are not blacklisted and deported are forced to relinquish their farms and slowly starve, as all the collective crops are shipped to Moscow, to be exported for hard currency. Instead of protecting the Kovalenkos, Shchurenko betrays them, while brutally abusing Nadya.

Somehow, Kovalenko, now a “Tato” (grandfather) himself, survived and escaped to Canada. He is now the happy patriarch of another large family, who are safe from the horrors of famine and collectivization. It is easy to understand why he rarely talked about the Holodomor before the events of the current day prologue and epilogue. Every time readers see the young Kovalenko loses another family member, it is absolutely heartbreaking. Yet, this is still a survivor’s story.

Cherkas opens a window into the devastating horror of the Holodomor by showing it from young Kovalenko’s perspective. It is hard to fully grasp the enormity of it all, but we can start by multiplying what happens in Zelenyi Hai, by hundreds of thousands.

For the look of
Red Harvest, Cherkas deliberately eschewed the more polished approaches of his previous graphic novels, opting for a sketchier style that evokes the urgent roughness of underground samizdat publications. He certainly conjures up that vibe, but he still creates many starkly striking images.

Red Harvest pubbed at a timely moment, but the truth is the world needed more works like this since 1933. It is an established fact New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty deliberately covered up the horrors of the Ukrainian genocide, as Agnieszka Holland pointedly dramatized in Mr. Jones. Too many still deny the Holodomor, while continuing to demonize and dehumanize the Ukrainian people. Cherkas’s Red Harvest will be a persuasive tool to fight their propaganda and denial. Consider giving a copy to any young comic reader you know. There is nothing dry about the drama and tragedy on its pages, but it also clearly establishes the fundamental facts of the Holodomor. Very highly recommended, Red Harvest is now available at book and comic retailers.