The images from Ukraine in recent days have been shocking, but Russian President Vladimir Putin will have to descend even lower into the realm of pure evil than he’s already gone if he hopes to do to the Ukrainian people what his predecessor and hero Joseph Stalin did to them. It’s one of the curiosities of modern history that while everyone in the world seems to be aware of Hitler’s murder of six million Jews, Stalin’s murder in 1932-33 of three to four million Ukrainians (or perhaps as many as twice that number) is far less well known. In Nazi Germany, Jews were rounded up from the four corners of the Reich, shipped to death camps, and exterminated with Zyklon-B gas. Stalin’s approach was simpler: viewing the Ukrainian peasantry as a potential threat to the ultimate success of the communist paradise, he deliberately deprived the Ukrainians of food and let them starve to death.
One of the many commonalities between the Holocaust and the Holodomor (Ukrainian for “starvation by hunger”) is that the New York Times dropped the ball on both stories. In the words of Laurel Leff, author of Buried by the Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper (2006), the Times and other American newspapers reported on the Holocaust but “never treated [it] as an important news story” and rarely mentioned that the primary victims of Hitler’s killing machine were Jews. No, the Times wasn’t alone in this. But, as Leff notes, “no American news organization was better positioned to highlight the Holocaust than the Times, and no American news organization so influenced public discourse by its failure to do so.”
Exactly who was responsible for this failure? The fault can be divided among several editors and reporters, as well as publisher Arthur Sulzberger. In the case of the Holodomor, however, the Times’ failure was that of one man: Moscow correspondent Walter Duranty (1884-1957). Confronted in 1933 by a report of famine in Ukraine, Duranty admitted that there had been “food shortages” but denied that there was “actual starvation.” In fact, as Sally J. Taylor demonstrated in her Duranty biography, Stalin’s Apologist (1990), he knew full well that Ukraine (known as “the breadbasket of Europe”) produced enough grain to feed millions, but that Stalin was confiscating it and selling it abroad, thereby starving Ukrainians to death. (Note that it was Duranty who, apropos of the forced famine, said that you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.)
The man responsible for the report of famine that Duranty rejected was Gareth Jones (1905-35), a principled young Welshman who’d studied Russian at Cambridge and worked for a time as a foreign affairs advisor to former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. In February 1933, he scored a journalistic coup in the form of an interview with Hitler, whom he recognized early on as an existential threat to peace and freedom in Europe; the next month, on his third trip to the Soviet Union, he traveled to Ukraine and encountered universal starvation.
As it happens, this brief but pivotal visit is at the center of a 2019 film, Mr. Jones, which, at this writing, can be viewed for free on YouTube. Written by Andrea Chalupa and directed by Agnieszka Holland, it provides an illuminating account of Jones’s (James Norton) character and experience. In an early scene, we see him in London, being mocked by elderly diplomats for suggesting that Hitler represents a long-term danger to Britain. Fired by Lloyd George (Kenneth Cranham), he gets a press visa to Moscow, where he hopes to get an introduction to Stalin from Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard) and investigate rumors of a famine in Ukraine. Shortly after his arrival, he finds himself at a sex party hosted by a totally nude Duranty, who — when Jones turns down an offer to hook him up with a coital partner of either sex — replies: “You are rather dull.”
Putin will have to descend even lower into the realm of pure evil than he’s already gone if he hopes to do to the Ukrainian people what his predecessor and hero Joseph Stalin did to them.
Distrustful of the decadent Duranty, who’s obviously a Stalin fan, Jones secures an official permit to visit Ukraine on the pretense of being interested in Soviet border defenses. Once there, he shakes off a government tail and starts moving among the people. He sees a cart piled high with corpses — and a truck full of grain headed for Moscow. He meets a peasant girl who — amazingly — has meat, and gives him some. “Where did you get it?” he asks as he chows down. “My brother,” she replies. It takes him a moment to grasp what she’s telling him: he’s eating her brother’s flesh. Back in Moscow, Jones erupts at his colleague: “You knew, Mr. Duranty,” he roars. “How much is Stalin paying you? What’s keeping you here, lying for them?” In response, Duranty lectures him about what it means to be a journalist.
When, after returning to Britain, Jones reports on the famine, Duranty issues a flat denial: “In all my time in Moscow, I have never heard a tale as preposterous as that of Mr. Jones.” Maxim Litvinov (Christoph Pieczynski), Russia’s top diplomat, complains to Lloyd George, who gives Jones a tongue-lashing: “You betrayed my trust. You betrayed your country.” Alas, for all Jones’s efforts, the world believes the famous Duranty (who’d won a Pulitzer Prize the previous year) while regarding Jones, an unknown, as an attention-seeking liar. No happy ending here, then. Jones goes home to Wales to teach; the closing titles convey the sad information that he was killed in Mongolia on the day before his 30th birthday — probably by a Soviet agent — whereas the vile Duranty died in retirement in Florida at age 73.
While dozens of major movies have dealt with the Holocaust, Mr. Jones is one of a very small number that have so much as touched on the Holodomor.
It should be said that, for all its admirable intentions, Mr. Jones is something of a mess. All too often, the emphasis feels misplaced, the tone uncertain, the cinematographic choices inappropriately artsy. Although it’s in color, Holland has decided to make much of it look as if it’s in black and white; she’s also kept the lighting in most scenes very low-key. Her reasons are obvious, but I wish she’d chosen to tell this story as directly and unobtrusively as possible. Similarly, I understand why Chalupa decided to shoehorn George Orwell (Joseph Mawle) — anachronistically — into her script, but I wish she hadn’t: his presence only creates confusion. (Speaking of anachronism, by the way, Chalupa’s characters listen to at least two hit recordings — of Caravan and Bei Mir Bist du Schon — that, in reality, weren’t released until years after the period covered by this movie. But no big deal there, I guess.)
So, no, Mr. Jones isn’t a masterpiece. But it’s good. And important. While dozens of major movies have dealt with the Holocaust, Mr. Jones is one of a very small number that have so much as touched on the Holodomor. In fact, remarkably few important films have attempted to capture any aspect of the villainy of the Soviet Union. So it’s most assuredly worth a look. If nothing else, at least scroll through to the Ukraine sequence, which does an impressive job of suggesting the haunting scale of the evil loosed nine decades ago by the Kremlin upon the ancestors of those brave souls who are now resisting Putin’s despicable invasion.