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Red Harvest

Apr 18, 2024 | Featured, The View From Here - Walter Kish

A new book on the Holodomor came out recently titled “Red Harvest” by Michael Cherkas, a good friend of mine who also hails from Oshawa where I currently live and who also happens to be my “koom”, (godfather to one of my daughters). What is noteworthy and somewhat unique about this book is that in contrast to the usual academic or historical treatises that have been published in recent decades on the Holodomor theme, it is in the “graphic novel” format. What this means is that it is not a textual narrative, but one created in what most people would call a comic book format. Yet there is nothing “comic” or less than intellectually serious about it. It joins a well-established body of “graphic novels” that have come out in recent decades that deal with serious themes and issues. No doubt some of you may be aware of one of the best-known forerunners of this genre, the graphic novel “Maus” published by Art Spiegelman in 1986 that tackled the tragedy of the Holocaust in this innovative way. Red Harvest can be said to be carrying on in this same tradition in dealing with the Holodomor.

Although it is ostensibly a fictional account of one family’s tragic story set during the Holodomor, it is based on well researched factual events and experiences. The story unravels within the framework of one man’s memories, Mykola Kovalenko, the last surviving member of a large family that perished during the Holodomor. Mykola managed to survive and escape to Canada, where in his old age he relates to his children and grandchildren the painful events he was forced to endure back in the 1930’s.

As most of us here in the diaspora know, there has been no shortage of books, films and documentaries that have emerged in the decades since Ukraine became independent that have exposed the full and tragic scale of what Stalin and his evil regime did to Ukraine and Ukrainians during the Holodomor. These make for difficult reading or viewing, and one can be easily overwhelmed by the facts and statistics that surround this genocidal event. Yet, as we all know, facts and statistics tend to be impersonal and often can’t begin to have the same emotional impact as the well-crafted narrative of a flesh and blood individual that we can relate to on a personal level. One can read all the available historical facts and statistics about the Holocaust, yet they will seldom have the emotional impact of seeing or reading of the experiences that are brought to life in novels like “Sophie’s Choice” or Schindler’s List” or their cinematic adaptations.

There is a famous quote attributed to Stalin to the effect that one man’s death is a tragedy, whereas a million deaths are but a statistic. This might help to explain why “Red Harvest” so effectively illustrates the tragedy of the Holodomor, since it does so through the framework of the fate one family as they become innocent victims of overwhelming evil historical forces that they are completely helpless in withstanding.

Although many of the older generation of Ukrainians in the diaspora have become well-versed about the history and causes of the Holodomor, there is one demographic that remains a challenge in reaching with the story of thіs dark period in Ukraine’s history, and that is the younger generations born in the diaspora, and teenagers in particular. It is a truism that the majority of young people do not really become interested in historical events or the personal experiences of their parents or grandparents until those generations are no longer there to tell their personal life stories. Red Harvest, with its easy-to-read format and focus on strongly defined individual characters, hopes to fill this gap. Young people that have grown up with animated genres like cartoons, comic books, anime, manga and the like will find the graphic novel format of this book less intimidating than another academic or historical tome that might overwhelm them with text, statistics and data. The death of most of Mykola Kovalenko’s family that we come to know in the course of reading Red Harvest becomes more poignant and understandable than the death unnamed millions that we read about in the standard history texts that deal with the Holodomor. I should add that this book is not just aimed at young people. I am sure that most adults will find it as compelling a read as I did when I first cracked the covers of this book.

I would strongly urge everyone to get a copy of this book. It is available through most of the major book store chains in the U.S. and Canada as well as through online distributors like Amazon.

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