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Film Review – Bitter Harvest (Stalin’s Terror Famine)

Today I went to the cinema, Cineworld, a round trip of some 100 miles, to see the film Bitter Harvest, a film about the Stalin’s Terror Famine in the Ukraine in 1932/3. The film takes the form of a dramatic ‘love story’, starting in a Ukrainian village (most likely but it unspoken – Cossack) as the Bolshevik Revolution has started, and news of the Tsar’s death breaks. The Revolution seems far away in this idyll and the couple who are the heroes are young children. There is an echo of Tolkien’s shire about the place, very beautiful even if life is hard. Then Lenin dies and Stalin (called ‘Koba’ by his Comrades) comes to power. The local Commissar comes around, backed by Red Army troops, and the village is to be collectivised. All land belongs to the State, as the Commissar reminds everyone, and evidently he has some targets to meet, enemies of the people to kill, kulaks to be purged, icons to be seized (for sale) and Collective Farms to be formed. His brutality is probably only tempered only by his anxiety at which target he has the greatest need to meet, something which diverts him occasionally from the most brutal option available.

The heroes of the film are a couple Yuri and Natalka from that same village. Yuri is one of several artists, he is a painter, and all his friends in his age group are keen to go to the Big City Kiev, some eagerly noting how the State has work for artists. Eventually Yuri goes to Kiev (on his internal passport*), leaving behind Natalka. On the way to Kiev, there are encounters with the starving peasantry, a passenger talks about the famine and gets arrested by the NKVD. There is a constant theme of the starving and dying, with an unmechanised disposal system of horse and carts scouring the streets for corpses for mass burials here and there, and corpses in open train wagons. The starving flock to Kiev, simply to die in the streets. The film is simply and properly unrelentingly grim, and it does not shy from showing the brutality of the Bolsheviks.

Stalin is informed of the resistance to collectivisation and the starvation that his policy is causing, he implements Lenin’s plans but without mercy, and the greater the resistance, the higher the targets become until all food is to be seized. The official line is that there is ‘malnutrition’ but not famine, a lie that Walter Duranty and the New York Times were happy to peddle, the latter partially recanting many decades later.

Yuri in Kiev meets up with his friends, and awkwardly hints and the famine and its increasingly visible consequences. He finds himself working as a painter, with his friends all doing political work, but his art lacks the necessary ideological flavour, his boss is purged (we infer) and he is then fired, working as a ‘rag and bone man‘, sorting through the possessions of the dead for sale, the only growth industry apart from terror. His friend from the village, who has risen in Kiev to be local party chief, shows some perhaps surprising independence, before shooting himself as the NKVD close in. Yuri gets arrested after a brawl, but manages to escape. Yuri’s family have been arrested for anti-Soviet activity after realising that they are doomed in the village as it is collectivised. Yuri meets up with Ukrainian partisans, and manages to spring some of his family. The film gives the impression that there was a significant amount of resistance to the Soviets, and also that people in the early 1930s spoke more freely that you might have imagined. Perhaps this has been overlooked in the face of the apparently monolithic Soviet police state. Yuri and Natalka realise that they have to escape, and they hope to make it to Canada, (long before the Trudeaus starting fawning over Castro). They head for the Polish border before making for a break chased by shooting Soviet Border Guards.

The film is very well shot, CGI is minimal, and barely noticeable. The grimy, shrunken starving hordes are a constant presence, very well done. The clothing and fashion are convincing, and whilst the dialogue is a little forced sometimes, the message that the State is your executioner (which it was) is well put across. It also mentioned famines in Kazhakstan and amongst the Jews in Belarus. The plot feels slightly fanciful, being necessarily at the high end of expectations, not in that it obviously shows a fight-back, but that there was so much spirit in those fighting the Soviets. However, it at least tells a story that should be told again and again.

That the film has had minimal publicity is a shame, even in the cinema showing it, it was not advertised except for a partial listing. In its first and only week, 11 people came to this Sunday showing, the nearest to me at 50 miles away. I enjoyed it, I appreciated it, and it was nice to be somewhere watching an anti-Soviet film feeling pretty damn certain that I wouldn’t end up sitting next to Jeremy Corbyn.

As I write, some speeches are perhaps being polished for the Oscars. I’m sure that the people in this film heading for a border as a matter of life and death won’t feature in the minds of the speech makers, and you won’t hear an actor not called, say, Sterile Weep, making a heart-renching condemnation of the system that led to an estimated 7,000,000 to 10,000,000 deaths.

* per Wikipedia, The Ukraine only scrapped internal passports in 2016.

31 comments to Film Review – Bitter Harvest (Stalin’s Terror Famine)

  • rxc

    The film does not stand a chance, because there is no way that they can blame this event on fascists without completely rewriting history. So it just has to be ignored.

  • ragingnick

    I see the bolshevik msm have already given it a critical mauling.

  • JohnW

    A good question to stop SJW’s in their tracks is: “Do you imagine there would have been a Holocaust if it were not preceded by the Holodomor?”

  • bobby b

    It sounds very much like a rural version of Rand’s We The Living. I can’t imagine anyone of the left enjoying it.

    Or maybe I can.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Thank you for the review, Mr Ed. If it’s good, it must be heart-wrenching. Speaking of which, you can still find the documentary film The Soviet Story on UT.

  • Julie near Chicago

    bobby, I just deleted from my comment the remark that We the Living ought to make a very good movie! Great minds & all that…. 😉

  • Jib Halyard

    @ragingrick, where in the following do you see the Bolshevik msm taking issue with the historical fact of Stalin’s terror, rather than just the movie itself? Couldn’t a capitalist movie critic conceivably reach a similar conclusion? Am I missing something here?

    a clichéd wartime romance whose clumsy melodrama dishonors the victims of the real-life horrors it uses as a backdrop.

  • bobby b

    Jib H, I see that the Rotten Tomatoes critics give the movie a bare 9%, while the audience reviews on the same site give it 80%.

    In my experience, (YMMV), this usually indicates that the critics had philosophical issues with the movie that go beyond “was it a good movie?”

    An 80% audience rating is quite good. A 9% critics rating in the face of the 80% audience rating is usually what you see for a “right wing movie” that we’re just not supposed to like.

  • Are the clichés in Bitter Harvest any clumsier than those in Titanic or Avatar, to name just two?

  • Mr Ecks

    The reception given to Ken Loach’s regular on-screen vomit sessions gives the clue to the kind of films the left like to see.

    As witness the 100% rating the Rotten Tomato pukes gave to “Versus” –the Marxist scumbags life story on screen.

    “You say tomato
    I say marxian coprolite” As George Gershwin put it.

  • Bilwick

    I thought our US “liberals” might give this movie some favorable buzz, now that it’s suddenly chic to dislike Russia.

  • I thought our US “liberals” might give this movie some favorable buzz, now that it’s suddenly chic to dislike Russia.

    Dislike of Putin’s Russia is fine for the lefties, because he is a corrupt crypto fascist or some antifa bullshit.

    This seems to suggest that when Putin was the KGB officer responsible for Dresden in East Germany, he was acceptable to the left, but as the elected President of the Russian Federation, he is unacceptable. Imagine that. It’s almost as if they only like “democracy” when it is one of their guys in charge…

    Railing against any part of the socialist/communist spectrum is not allowed.

    You have been warned comrade! 😯

  • Cal Ford

    I see on Rotten Tomatos that Australian critic David Stratton says “Bitter Harvest looks good, but it’s a wasted opportunity to tell a story the world should not forget”.

    But of course people like him are making damn well sure that the world does forget. When do films about such things ever get made? And if they do, the media does its best to bury them. There are endless films about the Nazis. The Soviets, not so much.

  • Jonathan

    To be fair, the Reviews on RT seem to be: ” Important history let down by a poor film ” rather than actually trashing the subject matter. Would it even be possible for a Hollywood film to portray the subject truthfully, given it’s fawning support for American Communists like Dalton Trumbo – look at the hatred directed by many towards Elia Kazan because he testified to HUAC about Communist subversion in the American film industry.

  • NickM

    I think it is a given that people only like democracy when their side wins regardless of stripe. The left though tend to be much more shrill about it ranging some of the more demented ravings in the Guardian to the actions of Stalin or Pol Pot.

    There are many anti-Soviet classics which could be filmed. I wonder about Andrey Platonov’s, “The Fountain Pit”.

    Talking of such movies one of the great “What ifs?” was the movie that wound-up as “Enemy at the Gates” was originally going to be rather different with a huge budget and Sergio Leone directing. Alas he died so it was all re-jigged. But image that with Ennio writing the music.

    Anyway we’ve got another election coming-up in my old stamping ground of Gorton, Manchester. That is going to be mighty interesting. Labour are defending a 25,000(!) majority in a seat held by a very well respected MP… It has an interesting ethnic mix too…

    And Gorton Girls Know all the Words to Songs by Chaka Khan

  • “and you won’t hear an actor not called, say, Sterile Weep, making a heart-wrenching condemnation of the system that led to an estimated 7,000,000 to 10,000,000 deaths.”

    and the rest….

    ….1 million imprisoned or exiled between 1927 to 1929; 9 to 11 million peasants forced off their lands and another 2 to 3 million peasants arrested or exiled in the mass collectivization program; 6 to 7 million killed by an artificial famine in 1932-1934; 1 million exiled from Moscow and Leningrad in 1935; 1 million executed during the ”Great Terror” of 1937-1938; 4 to 6 million dispatched to forced labor camps; 10 to 12 million people forcibly relocated during World War II; and at least 1 million arrested for various “political crimes” from 1946 to 1953. These figures are probably on the low side. Anglo-American historian Robert Conquest said: “We get a figure of 20 million dead [under Stalin], which is almost certainly too low and might require an increase of 50 percent or so.”

  • Cal Ford

    >To be fair, the Reviews on RT seem to be: “Important history let down by a poor film” rather than actually trashing the subject matter.

    Not convinced. Of course they have to say something like “Important history”, but they’ll go out of their way to make people forget. But if it was a historical subject favoured by the left they’d forgive lousy acting, lousy writing, lousy everything.

    BTW I counted 128 Oscar-related stories on the front page of the Daily Mail today. I was just thinking yesterday how the Oscars had long ago become irrelevant and tedious. WHat a publicity coup this mix-up was for them.

  • “The film gives the impression that there was a significant amount of resistance to the Soviets, and also that people in the early 1930s spoke more freely that you might have imagined.”

    That may be factual enough. The left ensured the story was not told to us but, from the low-level functionary who reported that he could fulfil his meat deliveries “but only with human corpses” and then fled, through the women’s rebellions (the babski bunty) – which you won’t find mentioned on any feminist course despite (or rather because) types like Kanyashyna Nasta make western feminists look like the jokes they are – all the way up to higher-level types like the Ukranian commissar whom Stalin nicknamed Brother Dystrophic after he dared to suggest that collectivisation was causing the odd food-related health problem, there were protests that were not silenced locally, though they were never allowed to get out. The Kiev newspapers were ruthlessly controlled (stories about “our new happy life” were read by commuters while picking their way round collapsed bodies of peasants in the streets), but the local village newspapers sometimes contained surprisingly factual information.

    As well as the women’s rebellions, there were also straight-out armed peasant uprisings, requiring the full armed might of the NKVD, and often enough full-scale military assistance, to crush. (The women’s rebellions were a definite tactic aimed at avoiding military intervention. The women took the whole role in aggressive harassing action against the local party representatives, with the men only defending the women if they were violently attacked. They often had temporary success in reclaiming farm implements or land while staying just below the threshold at which the party activists felt comfortable reporting they needed military assistance.)

    In the early 1980s, there was a huge renewal of the western intellectuals’ denial, with academics “revealing” that the numbers who died were “only tens of thousands, or maybe a hundred thousand”. This was a response to “evil empire” Reagan’s supporters sometimes mentioning the holodomir in their annoying attempts to defend his remark (that Margaret Thatcher agreed with Reagan only added to the plain duty of all ‘good’ intellectuals). In one sense, their timing was spectacularly bad; the Soviet Union collapsed a few years later and all the evidence anyone could want was there for the examining – but that only added to the intellectuals’ annoyance and they’ve been very successful in memory-holing it.

  • Mr Ed


    At one point in the film, there is a women’s rebellion, the underlying implicit assumption being an expectation that in the Party members and activists there was a lingering bourgeois notion of morality which might prevent them from attacking women (indeed, the final collapse of the USSR was iirc helped by a bunch of women standing in front of tanks near Yeltsin’s ‘White House’ during the August 1991 coup).

    Surely to a current feminist, the idea of praising these women would be a nod to bourgeois morality and it would be wholly wrong and sexist to praise an action underpinned by stereotypes as to women’s roles as well as siding with an action designed to re-inforce capitalist patriarchy by opposing the progress towards social ownership of the means of production?

    bobby b / Julie

    I don’t read Rand, but I am aware of ‘We the Living‘ and yes, I suppose it is the rural version of that work.

    Jib H

    a clichéd wartime romance whose clumsy melodrama dishonors the victims of the real-life horrors it uses as a backdrop.

    Well, it wasn’t war in the legal sense, it was a war against humanity by their own government. A cannibal is a socialist in a hurry. Stalin had the leisure to make his victims into cannibals. All films are ‘melodrama’ when you have under 2 hours to get a message across and 10,000,000 deaths as a backdrop. At the very least, for every second of the film, 1,132 people died in the Ukraine alone. Quite how it dishonours the victims is unclear, you see plenty of them being tossed into pits or dying on the streets, in the station and so on. From that quote, my impression of its author is that I hear a Lefty sneering at someone having the temerity to make a film about something that discredits socialism in practice and theory, but a Lefty who has sufficient awareness to realise that it would sound bad to simply say ‘F*ck them, they were kulaks‘.

  • Mr Ed, I’m pleased the film showed an example of a women’s rebellion. As regards your “to a current feminist…” point (ironic, I know), some remarks follow.

    1) The women were perhaps sometimes, as you suggest, exploiting the activists’ lingering moral reluctance to strike women, but as well, and perhaps rather more, they were exploiting the activists’ male pride, something a modern lefty feminist has less excuse for refusing to notice even in her own terms. Calling in the army to deal with a mob of women was something many an activist found embarrassing to do. Sad to record, quite a few activists found it as easy or easier to overcome any traditional, chivalrous instincts they had as they did to swallow their pride and beg the army, or an NKVD infantry regiment, to help them deal with a crowd of women. However as the demands of Stalin became ever more ruthless in the latter half of the period, and the consequence of failing to satisfy him ever more alarming, even pride gave way.

    2) The particular loathing of the village women for collectivisation reflected the fact that the collectivisation plans, drawn up by (mostly male and urban) bureaucrats, understood the farming activities traditionally controlled by women even less (almost impossible though that might seem!) than they understood the more obvious ones of the men. The secondary products of a typical arable kholkoz, i.e. the milk, butter, etc., of the small dairy herds kept near the house, were not just very disproportionately shared – they were entirely allocated to the state. Thus while the men were turned into very ill-paid serfs where before the crop was their own, the women got literally nothing of those products that had previously been under their direct immediate control (a point the bureaucrats probably never grasped in the slightest). A sizeable part of the women’s concern was for the milk they relied on for their children (a concern that was to be all too horribly justified). However to this traditional female concern can justly be added a personal anger. So again, the modern lefty feminist could easily tune this detail to their lute if they wanted to.

    It is a waste of time to be angry, but I like to give these women some of the acknowledgement the typical ‘feminist sister’ is determined to withhold. It is, no doubt, a reflection of my ‘bourgeois morality’.

  • Paul Marks

    I was pleased the film pointed out that “Stalin” was simply carrying out the plan of “Lenin” – he did not invent anything himself, “Stalin” was just carrying out socialism.

    I was also pleased that film pointed out that other peoples (such as the Kazakhs) were also terror starved – the Soviets stole their food (for “fair distribution”) and starved them to death – in their millions. Those who survived, by cannibalism or other means, were reduced to slavery under the principles of Social Justice.

    Mao did the same later – and much of Hollywood (and the universities) would like to do this now. Just as they all hated such things as traditional religion and the family – the Soviet war against these things is shown in the film.

    Nor were people allowed to leave – to steal people’s food may or may not kill them, they may go to some other place.

    But if you steel the food of people (as in Tolkien’s “Scouring of the Shire” where the men took the food of the hobbits for “fair distribution” and everything by “the rules” got shorter and shorter – the rules getting long and longer) and shoot people who try to leave, your intention is clear.

    You want the people dead – at least many millions of them. With the survivors as slaves of the collective – mentally broken (and perverted) by the terrible things they had to do to survive.

    The creation of New Soviet Man.

  • Jib Halyard

    From that quote, my impression of its author is that I hear a Lefty sneering at someone having the temerity to make a film about something that discredits socialism in practice and theory, but a Lefty who has sufficient awareness to realise that it would sound bad to simply say ‘F*ck them, they were kulaks‘.

    That’s a rather intricate reading of the Rorschach blot…

  • That’s a rather intricate reading of the Rorschach blot…

    True. But it is probably pretty much on the money 😛

  • Bruce

    Let’s not forget that other “lion of the left”; Mao.

    His tally makes Stalin and his mates look like total pikers.

  • NickM

    I was pleased the film pointed out that “Stalin” was simply carrying out the plan of “Lenin” – he did not invent anything himself, “Stalin” was just carrying out socialism.

    This is a very good point that is either not known or deliberately ignored by many apologists for Lenin. I only found this out in 1999 when I was first dating my wife (BA Russian – Leeds Uni).

    The idea I think is that you can put Stalin into, er… Room 101 as a special case of a “bad apple” which is superficially plausible. But when history keeps repeating itself, as it has, again and again and again well it seems the whole orchard ought to be grubbed-up. Seems that way to me.

    A footnote to this is my wife had to read books by Lenin as part of her degree (which included Russian history natch) and also had to read “Mein Kampf” (totalitarianism featured heavy on the course). The librarians didn’t give “What is to be done?” a second look but they did when she checked-out “Mein Kampf”. Very odd looks.

    I think as a culture we have perhaps made a critical error in uniquely casting Hitler as Satan himself.

  • Deep Lurker

    To coin a phrase, “this is no accident.” As a culture we have cast Hitler as uniquely evil because of Soviet propaganda – and in particular because of Soviet propaganda under Stalin.

  • Rich Rostrom

    JohnW @ February 26, 2017 at 11:58 pm:

    A good question to stop SJW’s in their tracks is: “Do you imagine there would have been a Holocaust if it were not preceded by the Holodomor?”

    Yes. Hitler was not even aware of the Terror Famine. His precedent (to the extent that there was one) was Ottoman Turkey: “Who remembers the Armenians?” And his motives were independent.

    Though, as a matter of billiard-ball history: if there had been no Terror Famine, the USSR would have been a different state, and probably much more able to resist the 1941 blitzkrieg… In which case the Nazis would have lacked access to many of their victims, and possibly would have fallen from power in 1941.

    The million or so murders committed by the Nazis before invading the USSR might still be considered “the Holocaust”, though.

  • Mr Ed

    If I may cite a passage from The Liberators, a Ukranian GRU defector’s excellent account of his life in the Soviet Army, after invading Prague in 1968, a Czech argues with a Soviet Army Political Deputy:

    ‘Have you read Lenin?’
    ‘Of course I have!’
    ‘And Stalin?’
    ‘Ah… Ah… well…’
    ‘Well, my old lad, you read them both and count how many times each of them uses the word ‘shoot’. There are some very interesting statistics. Did you know that, in comparison with Lenin, Stalin was a pitiful amateur and ignoramus. Lenin was an out and out sadist, one of those degenerates who happens only once in a thousand years!’
    ‘But Lenin didn’t annihilate as many innocents as Stalin did!’
    ‘History stopped him in time. It removed him from the scene at the right time. But remember that Stalin didn’t let himself go completely from the very outset, but only after ten to fifteen years of unlimited power. Lenin’s start had much more impetus. And, if he had lived longer, he would have done things which would have made Stalin’s thirty million dead look like child’s play in comparison. Stalin never, I repeat never, signed orders authorising the killing of children without trial. And Lenin did so in his very first year of power, isn’t that so?’
    ‘But under Stalin, children were shot in their thousands.’
    ‘That’s right, Comrade Colonel, quite right, but you just try and name me at least one child who was shot without trial on Stalin’s orders! There you are, you can’t say anything! I repeat, Lenin was one of the most bloodthirsty degenerates who ever lived. Stalin at least tried to conceal his crimes, not so Lenin.’

    It ends:

    ‘You… you… you’re an Anti-Soviet! That’s what you are!’
    ‘And you… You are a Marxist-Leninist which, translated into human language, means a child murderer!’.

  • bobby b

    Great essay. Thanks for sharing it here.

  • Thank you everyone for the respect Richard Bachysnky Hoover screenwriter ,,and yes Fk the Holodomor anti Ukrainian deniers and ego maniac critics wanna be film screenwriters paying off their BMW etc ,,homes with motives or poisoned by Soviet Nostalgic crap! Parasites stirring up honour to turn it into shame,,Shame on them! I write from the heart for Ukraine about Ukraine respected by Ukrainians first ,,all comes after and they are 95% pleased ,,and in tears in theaters in every country,respecting me and the investor producer and directors and actors and crews !! Know Ukraine and its history before whipping up a CON story to attract attention to A Critic parasitic websiet that destroys art and truth to feel empowerment fake power!fake criticism based on their own ideas to start a beef to grab a readers attention and stop viewers from seeing the film,,anti Ukrainian obviously…or they are the ones that are FICTION in the mirror each day,,lie to get a paycheck writing,,i wrote for zero,,initially,,from the heart ,,sweat endurance and passion,,no money ,,no BMW,,just for Uktraine with compassion,,i live here 12 years and see the pain manifested in the families today who heard the painful stories passed on by the millions who Stalin starved todath with his secret police and Bolshevik SCUM! have a great day ,,thats my Critical on critics spoilers of art and truth! Go to Ukraine and get the goods first hand ,,rather than cheap below the belt shots in the ring,,,never cross honour of a Ukrainians family and anscestors ,,God is watching you ,,and your tongue and notebook of lies!