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40: Bitter Harvest

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Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.

There are plenty of conspiracy theories out there. While they’re all controversial in some form or fashion, perhaps some of the most controversial are the conspiracies that shake the very foundation of history.

For example, there are some people who believe the Holocaust during World War II didn’t happen—it’s just propaganda made up to vilify the Nazis.

But we know from the mountains of documentation that it was very real. We know from the physical locations and remnants of the places where the horrible events took place that it did happen.

And that’s not even to mention the reports and accounts of those who were there. Those who managed to survive the horrors have to relive them in their memories every moment of every day.

Some things you can’t unsee, no matter how hard you try.

The story of Bitter Harvest is set on top of a time that many have tried to cover up. By “set on top”, what I mean is many of the characters in the film are made up. For example, Max Irons’ character, Yuri, and his childhood sweetheart, Natalka, who’s played by Samantha Barks.

But other characters, like Gary Oliver’s version of Joseph Stalin, are based on real people. While it may be a blend of fiction and reality, the backdrop for the film is real.

The storyline is one that’s been created by the filmmakers to let us know what it must’ve been like to live through what many consider to have been one of the worst events in human history.

It’s an event that, until recently, many people didn’t even know happened.

Maybe the atrocities of what people can do to each other for absolutely no reason are just too much for us to bear. Or maybe it’s because for those of us in the United States, it’s foreign history that we just don’t talk about that much. In fact, the story that is the backdrop of Bitter Harvest is one that’s never made its way into a Hollywood feature film until, well, until Bitter Harvest.

The film is set between World War I and World War II during the early 1930s in the Soviet Union. It was during this time that Holodomor happened. Translated from Ukrainian, Holodomor means “murder by hunger.”

Just like understanding the history of the Holocaust means learning about the Nazi rise to power in Germany, understanding the history of Holodomor means learning about the Bolshevik rise to power in the Soviet Union.

Before we do that, though, it’s important to set up this rise to power with a few facts about a region in the Soviet Union at the time—Ukraine.

The region that is modern-day country of Ukraine wasn’t always an independent country. During the 1800s, the Ukranian region we think of today was controlled by two countries. In the west, it was governed by the Austo-Hungarian Empire, and in the east it was controlled by the Russian Empire.

From the medieval period through this period in history, many of the people of Ukraine lived and worked through a form of servitude called serfdom.

Basically, a land-owner, usually a lord, would offer someone in the peasant class a plot of land. The peasant gets a piece of land to settle on, and in exchange becomes a serf. As a serf, the peasant agrees to work for the lord.

Think of it sort of like a medieval rental system, except instead of paying for a place to live a serf would pay with labor. They just cut out the monetary middleman.

In a very simplistic example just to explain the system, maybe for one plot of land the serf-lord would require one day of labor per week. That often meant working the lord’s lands to grow crops, livestock or some other manual labor.

How much a serf had to work and how the serf-lords could treat the serfs under law would vary from country to country. How much land the serf would get in exchange for their work would vary, too.

Maybe instead of one day a week for their plot, they’d have to work four, five or six days a week.

And I’m using the term “plot” here because there’s no real standardized term for how much land the serfs were given. Maybe it’d be something small like 100 meters squared. That’d be 328 feet squared.

Or maybe it was larger. But usually not.

So in a nutshell, the only consistent part of serfdom was that the lords got free labor in exchange for renting out a plot of land for their laborers to live on.

This started in the 1400s and as the centuries passed, an odd thing happened. The plots the serf-lords gave their serfs would shrink as the labor required for them continued to grow.

It was these conditions that contributed in no small part to the Cossack-Polish War in the 1600s.

In 1814, a man named Taras Shevchenko was born in the Ukraine. Despite being born a serf, Taras was a dreamer and a nationalist. And he was also a talented poet, writer and painter.

During his lifetime, Taras used his talents to draw together the Ukranian people. Of course, the Russian Empire wasn’t too happy with this. They forced Taras into an exile that lasted ten years.

But that didn’t stop him. In exile, Taras continued to write poems that mocked the Russian oppression of Ukraine and even prophesied revolution.

So the Russian Empire went another step further and banned the Ukrainian language. Written, spoken or any other form of the language became illegal.

But it was Taras’ writings, art and influence that would go on to help lead the total abolition of serfdom in Ukraine region in the same year he died, 1861.

His influence lived beyond his own life, as Ukrainians started dreaming of something they certainly thought could never happen before—independence.

Then, in 1914, history forever changed when the entire world erupted into war. The Great War, or World War I as we call it now, lasted four years at the cost of tens of millions of lives.

The Russian Empire was ravaged in the war. They were weak, and everyone knew it. That’s when a young man named Vladimir Lenin took advantage of the ruling government’s weakness and seized power.

The Russian Empire that had been in power since 1721 completely collapsed in 1917 after both the February Revolution of 1917 and later the October Revolution.

Or as it’s commonly called, Red October. You can learn a bit more about this in The Hunt for Red October episode.

In place of the Russian Empire, Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik faction took power.

But Lenin wasn’t the only one trying to seize power. So while parties in Russia battled each other for power, attempting to grasp freedom in the chaos, Ukraine declared independence on January 22nd, 1918.

By the time World War I ended on November 11th, 1918, both the Russian Empire and Austro-Hungarian Empires had collapsed. For the people of Ukraine, this meant both of the countries that had ruled over them for centuries had collapsed within the span of a couple years.

But even though they’d declared independence didn’t mean they would be an independent country. The Bolsheviks weren’t keen on losing any of the power they had just gained, and from the end of World War I in 1918 until 1921, the people of Ukraine were swept up in the Russian Civil War.

At the end of the war, the Bolsheviks and the Red Army’s leaders teamed up to do something horrible. On June 11th, 1921, one of the Bolshevik leaders, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko, signed an order with an intent to put an end to violence in the Tambov Province, to the northeast of modern-day Ukraine.

His method for ending the violence was to do it by force. Fighting violence with violence. Here’s a few of the things outlined in his Order Number 171:

  • – Shoot civilians on sight if they refuse to give their name.
    – If any village is hiding firearms, arrest and shoot those who refuse to reveal where they are—and do whatever it takes to keep them from getting more. Fear and intimidation is implied here.
    – If a family is found with firearms, execute the oldest son in the family immediately.
    – If a family has been found to have hidden a bandit, execute the oldest son immediately, then arrest and deport the rest of the family from the province. Oh, and all of their possessions are to be seized and officially become possessions of the government.
    – If a family is to harbor a family who has harbored a bandit, all of the same will happen—arrest, deportation, losing possessions and execution of the oldest son.
    – If a bandit’s family has fled their home, all of their possessions are to be redistributed to peasants who have proven loyalty to the Bolshevik regime, and the homes are to be burned and demolished.
    – All of the orders above are required to be carried out without mercy.

It seems unimaginable in our day and age to have such laws to be something the government would do. It sort of makes our complaints in the United States seem rather petty.

As you can probably guess, this led to massive deaths. Men were slaughtered without mercy. Women were beaten and raped. Children were killed, beaten or taken to concentration camps.

But despite all of this, resistance was ongoing. Then, Bolsheviks found an even more effective means of forcing their way.


The Red Army started to seize grain and other food from villages, causing immense food shortages. Anyone who tried to steal grain or stop soldiers from taking it was shot. Anyone caught trying to steal grain from the land—in other words, pick it from the plant in the field—was shot.

There are even claims of Bolsheviks who would do horrible, brutal things in an attempt to make an example of people who tried to get food. These were the Cheka, or a special force set up to combat counter-revolution.

One claim was that when the Cheka would find someone stealing grain, they’d cut open the victim’s stomachs. Then, with the person still alive, they’d tie part of their intestine to a pole and whip the person, forcing them to run around the pole in circles until the intestine unraveled.

It’s sickening.

We don’t know if these claims are true because, well, it was the government doing this to their own people. When those in power force their people into submission, all too often those events are lost to history.

We also don’t know exactly how many people died as a result of this. Or of the resulting starvation that started to sweep across the nation. Some have estimated it to be around 1.5 million people in Ukraine alone. But we’ll likely never know the real numbers.

We’ll also never know how many wanted to protest, but simply caved.

Any grain that was taken would then be given to those peasants who were loyal to the Bolsheviks. So if you’re someone who wants to protest these atrocities, your options are basically to risk a horrible, brutal death, or to go without food.

What would you do in that situation?

Would you become one of those loyal to the corrupt government so you and your family could eat? Or would you risk a horrible death for your principles?

The movie Bitter Harvest is set in the 1930s. So if these events happened in the early 1920s, the timeline is a bit off.

Sadly, as much as I’d like to say this was the only time this would happen, it’s not.

These events were what historians now refer to as the first Holodomor. As the name implies, it was not the last. In fact, the first Holodomor was overshadowed by much worse conditions that were to come.

In 1922, under what must’ve been immense pressure, Ukrainian officials recanted their independence and joined the Soviet Union.

By this point, Lenin’s health was deteriorating. At the time they thought it was because of bullets that were still in his body after an attempted assassination in 1918. But he had those removed in 1922 and his health didn’t improve.

We don’t really know why.

Historians have suggested perhaps he had syphilis, but it’s not like the medical records from the leader of the Soviet Union were public information. Even now, we don’t know exactly what caused his poor health.

What we do know was that as his health declined due to multiple strokes in 1922, two men started to rise in power.

One was a man named Leon Trotsky, the other Joseph Stalin. Both Trotsky and Stalin were members of the original Bolshevik party along with Lenin before he rose to power.

Old Bolsheviks, as they were called.

Lenin’s health forced him to run the government from his home—well, mansion. And Stalin visited Lenin often. Sensing the end was near, Stalin began positioning himself as Lenin’s successor.

And it worked.

Lenin began to trust Stalin, and named him General Secretary in 1922. Soon after, Lenin would get into a fight with Stalin and try to get him removed from this position.

But that didn’t work.

Vladimir Lenin suffered a stroke in March of 1923 and although he lost the ability to speak, by the time the summer rolled around he started to improve a bit. That was short-lived, and on January 21st, 1924, Lenin died.

Joseph Stalin took over, but he didn’t have absolute power. For a few years, he worked hard to gain powerful allies and silence his critics. As you can probably guess, we don’t know exactly how many critics were silenced or how…but you can probably guess.

In 1928, Stalin completed his takeover of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. He effectively became the dictator from his position as General Secretary. Immediately after seizing full control, he started on what he referred to as the First Five-Year Plan.

The plan was, basically, to prepare for a potential war from more industrialized countries like Japan or even the United States. To be prepared, the Soviet Union would need to rapidly bolster their industrial output.

To achieve this, Stalin’s plan basically had two sides to it. First, they’d build massive industrial centers and flood them with workers. Second, to support such massive industrial complexes, they’d create collective farms in the agricultural regions.

Collective farms were essentially taking all of the individual plots of land owned by individual people and throwing them all together. Instead of ten families working their own farms, ten families would work on one farm together.

That one farm, of course, would be owned by the State.

As you can probably guess, regions such as Ukraine that were filled with primarily working class peasants were hit hard by this. And they didn’t like it too much. But Stalin didn’t care too much whether or not they liked it.

Remember the horrific conditions that happened in the first Holodomor to force the people into submission? Well, it began again.

As multiple farms were consolidated into collective farms, any possessions of families who refused to comply were taken and given to those who did. We don’t know specifics about what happened to the families. Historians estimate that in 1930 alone, somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million people were either sent to Siberian industrial work camps or simply executed.

As the pressure increased, more and more people began to revolt against the Soviet Union. A third of those revolts took place in Ukraine.

What do you think Stalin did to stop these revolts? No, he didn’t change his mind and relax his strict policies.

Instead he instituted a new policy. This policy was the one that provided the backdrop for the movie Bitter Harvest.

When it went into effect in 1932, Ukraine was far from at risk for famine. In fact, in the previous four years, the farmers of Ukraine had managed to increase their grain harvest by about 10%.

Stalin’s policy was to take 40% of all grain from Ukrainian farms and ship it to industrial centers elsewhere in the Soviet Union. Like the enforcement that caused the first Holodomor, this new policy was enforced brutally and without mercy.

Harvests were done under strict oversight. The Soviet police force would arrest or immediately execute anyone who tried to pick grain from the plants outside of harvest. Anyone who tried to sneak grain during harvest would be shot or arrested and sent off to a concentration camp. Anyone who gleaned crops, or basically trying to find any leftover crops that were left after harvesting would be shot or arrested and sent off to a concentration camp.

Catching a theme here?

As if that weren’t enough, the new collective farms drastically underperformed. After all, farmers who had worked the land for centuries had been torn from their land and either killed or forced to hand it over to others. Soviet officials expected 132,750 tons of grain in 1932. A little less than 50,000 tons were delivered.

These two things made a huge impact. There wasn’t enough food being produced, and that which was being produced was being shipped out of Ukraine.

The military set up blockades around villages to inspect people and ensure anyone leaving the village to pass by farmland didn’t have any illegal food on them. If they did? Well, you can probably guess.

Food wasn’t allowed into the villages, either, meaning each village was essentially under siege from their own military. At the same time, bands of Soviets from other regions who were loyal to the government would sweep the villages to find any hidden grain.

Starvation ran rampant through Ukraine. It became commonplace to find starving people lying in the streets. Without the energy to continue. People died. A lot of people died.

Those who still lived would have to step around the bodies to keep going themselves.

By June of 1933, historians estimate about 30,000 people were dying in Ukraine per day. Per day! That’s 1,250 people per hour.

Things were much worse than the first Holodomor.

While the Ukrainian people were dying of starvation while being forced to work farms to feed others in Soviet Russia, as far as the rest of the world was concerned, everything was fine. The Soviet Union continued to export millions of tons of grain to other countries as if it were just another commodity to be traded.

We don’t know how many people died. Was it more than the 6 million who died in the Holocaust at the hand of the Nazis? There’s just no way of knowing. As of this recording, the most recent estimates are somewhere between 2.4 and 7.5 million people who died because of the famine.

All of them could’ve been avoided.

Or could they?

Because of the secrecy and suppression of, well, just about everything in the Soviet Union, it took nearly fifty years for these events to come to light. This happened thanks to a documentary released in April of 1985 called Harvest of Despair from the Ukrainian filmmaker Slavko Nowytski.

Despite the documentary, the Soviet Union denied these reports up until December of 1991. That’s when the Soviet Union was officially dissolved.

After this, people began to get their first look at many of the things that went on in the Soviet Union for decades—including the Holodomor. Not everything was documented, and even with the fall of the Soviet Union it’s not like documentation simply was released to the public.

It certainly wasn’t a clear picture, but it was a horrifying one.

Since then, historians have debated the reason for the Holodomor. Why did it happen? What do we know about it? What don’t we know?

Some people think that perhaps Stalin didn’t know just how bad things were. For example, there were documented reports of widespread cannibalism. But then, if the Soviet government caused the famine that led to cannibalism, why would they take the time and effort to print posters that condemned those who ate their own children as a barbarian act?

Why would they do that if they knew how bad things were?

But then if they printed posters, obviously the Soviet government knew how bad things were. And if things were that bad, why would they station military around the villages and force farmers to turn over their grain in the face of such famine? Not to mention continue to export millions of tons of grain to other countries.

The exported grain alone was enough that it could’ve been used to feed the starving in Ukraine. And the amount of grain exported during the Holodomor was enough that it could’ve saved everyone.

Just before the official dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Act of Declaration of Independence of Ukraine was passed by the Ukrainian parliament on August 24th, 1991.

Ukraine was finally an independent country.

Over 5,000 pages of documentation was declassified by the Secret Service of Ukraine in 2006 that gave a fresh insight into the Holodomor. After pouring through these documents, many historians believe the cause for Holodomor was because Stalin’s Soviet regime specifically avoided giving the same humanitarian aid they gave to other regions in Soviet Russia.

Soon after these documents were released, on November 28th, 2006, the Ukrainian parliament passed a law that officially defined the Holodomor as a deliberate act of genocide.



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