Covering for Stalin

James Norton in Mr. Jones. (Samuel Goldwyn Films)
Agnieszka Holland’s new film about the Ukrainian famine sheds light on a Western blind spot.

Following the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, Ukraine failed to escape Soviet control. Stalin’s collectivization of the countryside saw the confiscation of private property and farms, as well as all food. This policy was enforced by state police and local activists and as a consequence, at least 4 million Ukrainians — as well as several million more across the Soviet Union — died of starvation. The death toll, as well as the witness testimony from those times, tells a tale of staggering brutality. So why, then, do we hear so little about it?

Among the first people to ask this question was a young Welsh journalist called Gareth Jones, the main character of a new film available on iTunes, Mr. Jones, by Agnieszka Holland. Born in 1905, Jones graduated from Cambridge University with a First in Russian, German, and French, worked as a foreign adviser to the former prime minister Lloyd George, and — a talented journalist as well as a linguist — managed to snag an interview with Adolf Hitler in the early 1930s.

The film begins with Jones (James Norton) warning, to no avail, members of the British establishment that Hitler is a warmonger who will change Europe forever. After that, Jones travels to Moscow in hot pursuit of another scoop: an interview with Stalin about his five-year plan. Though the interview with Stalin never materializes, Jones unearths a story with far graver consequences: the horrific truth of a state-imposed famine, the Holodomor (which means killing by hunger), purposively ignored by the foreign press corps in Moscow.

The most influential journalists, such as Walter Duranty of the New York Times (who won a Pulitzer for his reporting) and Eugene Lyons of the United Press, were essentially feeding back Soviet propaganda. Foreign correspondents were kept in Moscow, not permitted into the Ukraine, and were heavily reliant on Soviet cooperation to get stories. Duranty had a Soviet-sponsored apartment and mistress and exclusive access to key officials (including, on multiple occasions, Stalin himself, who spoke approvingly of his favorable coverage). There is no doubt that they knew the inconvenient truth. Lyons later admitted: “The famine was accepted as a matter of course in our casual conversation at the hotels and in our homes,” but never in their reporting.

When Jones broke his story, Duranty (whose Pulitzer, Mr. Jones reminds us, has never been revoked) continued to deny the truth and succeeded to a large degree in discrediting Jones’s story. Jones’s reputation never recovered, and he was murdered by Chinese bandits three years later in circumstances that suggest Soviet foul play.

Duranty, meanwhile, supped with Franklin Roosevelt (then governor of New York) and wrote of Stalin’s experiment in the New York Times (“all the news that’s fit to print”) that “to put it brutally — you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” Sally J. Taylor’s 1990 biography of Duranty, Stalin’s Apologist, details how in addition to his inaccurate reporting, the correspondent participated in Satanic orgies as well as heavy drug and alcohol abuse. Taylor documents “the bitter, ironic story of a man who had the rare opportunity to bring to light the suffering of the millions of Stalin’s victims, but remained a prisoner of vanity, self-indulgence and success.”

While Mr. Jones accurately characterizes Duranty, Gareth Jones’s family complains that the same is not true of him. Jones’s niece, Margaret Siriol Colley, published her uncle’s notebooks in the 1990s, which are now exhibited at his old Cambridge college next to memorabilia belonging to fellow alumnus Isaac Newton. Jones’s family complained of the “multiple fictions” in the Mr. Jones screenplay. His great-nephew told the Sunday Times that Jones “didn’t witness any dead bodies or cannibalism, let alone take part in any.” Nevertheless, Andrea Chalupa’s thoughtful screenplay is more about the truth Jones exposed. And in that regard, the script is in alignment with scholarship. Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands recounts how in desperation people would eat the dead, including family members. Anne Applebaum candidly discusses cannibalism within families in her book Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine. As for the scene in Mr. Jones in which a crying baby is tossed with its mother’s corpse onto a cart of dead bodies, that is taken from a survivor of the Holodomor, Chalupa’s own grandfather, whose memoir she interweaves in her book Orwell and the Refugees: The Untold Story of Animal Farm.

In Mr. Jones, Jones briefly meets Malcolm Muggeridge, a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, who also managed to smuggle stories about the famine out of the USSR, publishing them anonymously. Back in England, Jones also meets George Orwell, a socialist writer, whose mind he seems to change about Stalin’s experiment. It is not clear that, in reality, the two ever met. But there is a symbolic truth here, too.

In Orwell and the Refugees, Chalupa explains that in 1947, shipments of the Ukrainian edition of Animal Farm — the first language other than English in which it was published — were intercepted by Americans who, seeing Stalin as a critical ally in the defeat of Hitler, handed them over to Soviet authorities. Luckily, around 2,000 books slipped through the net and were taken by Ukrainian asylum seekers across the world. Chalupa explains, “I first learned of this incredible story from Christopher Hitchens’s introduction to Animal Farm. Inspired, I decided to make it the hopeful ending to the dark screenplay I had been working on for many years about Stalin’s terror famine in Ukraine.”

“Up to 1939, and even later, the majority of English people were incapable of assessing the true nature of the Nazi regime in Germany, and now, with the Soviet regime, they are still to a large extent under the same sort of illusion,” Orwell writes in the Ukrainian preface to his allegory. Mr. Jones begins with Orwell at a typewriter, writing Animal Farm — a reminder that real writers tell the truth, no matter the cost.

Editor’s note: This article has been amended since its initial posting.


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