Cherkas’s graphic novel Red Harvest (NBM, Nov.) follows one family through the Holodomor, the Ukrainian famine of 1931 and 1932.
What inspired you to tell this story?
My background is Ukrainian, so I’ve always known about the famine. My father used to talk about it, although he was already in Canada when it occurred. At first I had no interest in doing this period, because it’s dark, and all my previous comics work was light and satirical. But about 15 years ago, a colleague called me up. One of his parents was Ukrainian, and he asked me what I knew about it. This sent me down the rabbit hole of research. It took me five or six years to figure out how to tell the story.
Did anything in your research surprise you?
The varieties of ways that people survived. Everybody had a different story. For some it was a matter of trading their valuables—rings, earrings, jewelry, medals from serving in the czar’s army. In the 1930s, the Soviets set up stores where you could exchange gold for rubles. A lot of people gave up their family heirlooms to get money to buy flour or sugar. Others had one cow, and the government didn’t take it, so they survived that way.
The other thing that surprised me was how much of Ukraine was blocked off from the rest of the Soviet Union. Fully one-third of the villages were blacklisted: people couldn’t get in or out. Many of those villages had guard towers with militia so people couldn’t leave.
Were there particular cultural details you wanted to include?
I did include an Ivan Kupala bonfire. It’s an old pagan ceremony, and during Soviet times they had an
official stance that they were against traditional religions, but they encouraged people to follow pagan culture. So the scene I drew, with people jumping over the bonfire and going into the woods to look for the magic fern, would have been encouraged at that time by the Soviet authorities.
What was the biggest challenge to telling this story?
To make it coherent, because the process by which the famine happened was not linear. At different points, after the initial farm collectivization in 1930, there was some starvation, then things seemed to improve, and then they got worse because of requisitions. It happened in waves, and the famine was the culmination of everything that had happened before.
What do you hope readers take away from the book?
I just want them to be aware that it happened. The famine was the biggest national trauma to Ukraine in the 20th century, and it affected the nation for many years after. Not only did the Soviets destroy the peasantry but they destroyed the intelligentsia, the cultural elite, as part of a plan to destroy Ukrainian identity.