Famine Film: "Harvest of Despair"

Leonard Klady

IN THE FALL and spring of 1932 and 1933, the government of the Soviet Union created a man-made famine in Ukraine to quell what was perceived as the dangerous threat of regional nationalism. With alarming design, the authorities succeeded in their goal. The possibility of rebellion was eliminated at a most terrible cost of millions of lives.

Harvest of Despair recalls this black period of modern inhumanity. The exceedingly well-documented film details an act of genocide using both personal and historical ammunition. The result is an unquestionably sobering film which rightfully deserves wide distribution on television and in the educational system.

Produced by the Ukrainian Famine Research Committee (since renamed the Ukrainian Canadian Research and Documentation Center -- Webmaster InfoUkes) with assistance from the National Film Board and a variety of private and public funding sources, the movie screened at the Planetarium Auditorium of the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature on October 26 and 27, 1984. It is a real eye-opener.

The startling aspect of this bit of history goes well beyond the act by the regime of Josef Stalin. The insidious nature of what transpired was orchestrated in such a fashion that those within and outside the borders of the Soviet Union were led to believe low crop yields and drought were the cause of what is estimated to be seven million deaths. However, subsequently available meteorological, trade and political data quite conclusively proved this not to be the case.

THE ROOTS OF THIS deliberate and vicious act are traced back to the years immediately following the 1917 Revolution. Emerging from the era of the Czars, Lenin opened the door to liberal trade and cultural activity in Ukraine.

As detailed in the film, it was a time of tremendous growth of all types in the region. With Lenin's death and the rise to power of Stalin, there was a change in Soviet government attitudes. Ukraine, with its independent attitudes in education, politics and culture, was viewed as a hot bed of dissent. No method was viewed as being too severe to bring the area back into the fold.

The historical documentation has been vividly assembled. One can see that tremendous research was a part of making Harvest of Despair. There can be no question that without the film and photographs uncovered from the 1932-33 famine, the film would lose much of its authority.

However, the production's greatest asset remains the eloquent and emotional testimony of survivors and first-hand witnesses to the horrors. Memories of those who saw relatives and friends slowly succumb to disease and malnutrition fill one with the most terrifying images. It is clear from the tone of these people's recollections that their lives were forever changed by the experience.

Harvest of Despair is a chilling reminder that so-called civilized modern societies continue to participate in or remain silent witness to the most gruesome atrocities. Let's hope in some small fashion this and other like documents can reverse the terrible tide.

FOR YURIJ LUHOVY, THE PRODUCER and editor of Harvest of Despair, the documentary provided him with a very special opportunity to stand up and be counted for something of a very personal nature.

The 34-year-old film-maker, a native of Montreal, admits most of his income has come from editing feature films of questionable quality. He has a reputation as a good "doctor" someone who's brought in to salvage a movie which is deemed unreleaseable by film exhibitors and distributors.

"This movie," he says, "represents one of those rare situations where you have to demonstrate some courage and conviction. It may seem very strange but even 50 years after the actual famine, survivors now living in Canada and the United States are still fearful of reprisals. I cannot honestly say whether relatives of mine who live in the Soviet Union will not suffer because of this film."

Despite positive response to world premiere screenings in Toronto last month, Luhovy remains anxious about the film's reception and its eventual distribution to television and educational systems.

Produced on a modest budget of less than $200,000, the producer-editor indicates that the film could simply not have been made without the tremendous commitment of many people. He personally viewed more than a million fe&t of historic stock footage to find roughly 20 minutes (720 feet) of appropriate material for the film.

HE ALSO INTERVIEWED more than a hundred living survivors of the famine who live in Montreal. In the vast majority of cases, these people refused to be filmed or would only consent on the understanding the material would not be seen until after their deaths. Luhovy says their fear of reprisals is unshakeable.

"Of course, all of us who participated in the film would hope it has some small effect on getting the famine official recognition by Soviet authorities,' Luhovy notes. "But most important is that people not forget what occurred. The film was not made out of anger, it was made to show the senselessness of the action. We must always remember this and ensure such incidents never happen again."

Harvest of Despair: The 1932-33 Famine in Ukraine. Director: Slavko Novytski, Producers Yuri Luhovy and S. Novytski.

Reprinted, with permission, from the Winnipeg Free Press, Friday, October 26, 1984.

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Copyright © 1985 Leonard Klady

Reprinted from FORUM Ukrainian Review No. 61, Spring 1985

since September 8th 1997