Gareth Jones lives again in a ground-breaking film about genocide in the Ukraine
The Polish director of “Mr Jones – 1933, The Holodomor” says that this is a film that tells the most important story you will ever watch. But some Russia-watchers argue that it’s just the tip of an iceberg when it comes to revealing the full horror of a genocide that has been air –brushed out Russian history books. Is that because there are no images – no monuments – that bring home to us the horror of this man-made famine, asks TREVOR GRUNDY
A Soviet joke says that one of the most fascinating things about studying the story of Communism under Stalin is that you never know what’s going to happen yesterday.
So three cheers for Polish director Agnieszka Holland and first-time screenwriter Andrea Chalupa who were inspired to tell part of the story of a genocide that has been air-brushed out of official Russian history books –the 1933 Holodomor.
In the Ukrainian language, that word means “to kill by starvation.”
There can’t be a school kid in the world who hasn’t heard of the most widely publicised genocide in human history that also starts with the letters H-o-l-o.
But it’s not this one.
One reason is that so many liberal-minded Britons, Europeans and Americans wanted to believe in something better than capitalism. In 1930, unemployment topped three million in Britain. During the 1929 Wall Street Crash stockbrokers and shareholders threw themselves out of windows in New York and in Germany Hitler and the Nazis were waiting, watching, getting ready.
The hunt for something better was on and Western liberals were not slow to move to Russia. One of them, the early 20th century’s best known public intellectual.
George Bernard Shaw fell in love with Stalin’s Russia. Some believe, with Stalin himself.
Two years after he completed a nine day tour of Moscow (in 1931) in the company of the American socialite and British MP Lady Astor, the horror story started in the Ukraine and other parts of the Soviet Union.
Sadly, the man known by his initials GBS didn’t notice what was going on.
George Bernard Shaw – hero of the Soviet Union
He was so busy being chauffeur- driven round Moscow and eating nourishing vegan meals in restaurants catering for the non-wretched of the earth.
”When my friends learned that I was going to Russia,” said Shaw, “they loaded me with tinned foods of all sorts. They thought Russia was starving. But I threw all their food out of the window in Poland before I reached the Soviet frontier.”
And Eugene Lyons remarks in his wonderful book “Assignment in Utopia” (George G, Harrap & Co London, 1936) – “He laughed like a mischievous schoolboy.”
Back in Britain, Shaw was asked about a looming famine Russia.
To dispel rumours about mass peasant/kulak starvation caused by endless demands by Stalin for more and more food to feed the new proletariat working on a five year plan to industrialise the Soviet Union, GBS said that while in Moscow he “ate the most slashing dinner of my life.”
He spent three hours with Stalin and found him kind, considerate and with such a great sense of humour.
The subject of food shortages was not raised.
“I expected to see a Russian worker,” said the Irishman who also had soft spots for Adolf Hitler and the Fascist leader, Sir Oswald Mosley “and I found a Georgian gentleman. ”Tomorrow I leave this land of hope and return to our Western countries – the countries of despair.”
He rejoiced because he had at last seen Wonderland, telling his Fabian friends back in Bloomsbury that he couldn’t consider dying before visiting Stalin’s Russia.
James Norton as the camera-clicking Gareth Jones
“Mr Jones – 1933, The Holodomor” is a film that all those who have a soft spot in their hearts (or between their ears) for Joseph Stalin should see.
It stars James Norton as the Welsh-whistle-blower Gareth Jones who revealed the genocide to the world and Peter Sarsgaard who plays the role of Walter Duranty, the New York Times bureau chief in Moscow from 1922 -1936 who won a Pulitzer after interviewing Stalin and telling the world what a considerate and well-meaning chap he really was.
The film starts slowly with the young Jones (having already made a splash in the British media after interviewing Hitler soon after he came to power in January 1933) using his government contacts with the ex-Liberal PM David Lloyd George to get official permission to travel to the Soviet Union on a mission to interview the Russian despot and find out the truth about Russia’s colossal economic expansion.
Who was financing it, how was it being carried out, a five year plan but how costly in terms of human lives and sufferings?
In 1933 American had not yet recognised the USSR. That didn’t happen until November 1933 and the role played by Duranty in bringing this about was not insignificant.
As the film, shows, leading Western businessmen and politicians listened with open mouths (only later with open cheque books) to what he had to say.
He was – they thought – the voice of reason when it came to understanding the whims and the ways of the Sphinx in the Kremlin.
On sides he might well be – but then what is the use of a journalist in a dictatorship if he or she gets the boot?
The African elite admired Soviet idealism when it came to land reform but rarely examined Soviet tactics to bring it on.
Picture (above) Winnie and Nelson Mandela with Communist leader Joe Slovo at freedom celebrations in South Africa.
At first, Jones (like nearly every other Western journalist) was restricted to Moscow, condemned to hang around in luxurious flats rented out to British and American correspondents from some of the world’s best read and most influential newspapers and magazines.
For students keen to know more about this time and the way the Soviet elite lived, paralysed as it was by sycophancy and fear of the 3 am knock-on-the-door by state police, it’s hard to beat two books – The House on the Embankment by Yuri Trifonov (Northwestern University Press, Illinois ) and The Jewish Century by Yuri Slezkine (Princeton University Press).
Keeping an eye on all of them was Walter Duranty, born in Liverpool but at that time a naturalised American. (The best book on this strange man, I think, is Stalin’s Apologist – Walter Duranty by S.J. Taylor (Oxford University Press, 1990).
But the crafty/clever Gareth Jones managed to slip the lead and make a dangerous and unofficial trip around different parts of the Ukraine where the nightmare started
When Jones arrives in the desolate, waste of eastern Ukraine, he found out the truth about what Stalin was doing and that was taking everything produced by peasants in the Ukraine to Moscow to feed hungry new proletariats.
If they failed to hand over, they were shot. If they handed over, they starved.
Jones saw hundreds, maybe thousands, of starving peasants.
In one look-away-now scene he sits down with wafer-thin Russian children to enjoy a meaty meal – the body of one of their dead brothers.
Jones told the world about the mass starvation and in many Western quarters he was disbelieved.
George Bernard Shaw and Walter Duranty 6 – Gareth Jones and starving millions 0.
It was not convenient to believe because the West was working out how to handle Hitler. One day, they might need Stalin. Should he be offended with the truth?
Hadn’t GBS thrown away all those tins of meat before crossing from Poland into Russia?
Wasn’t he the acceptable voice of a socialist revolution that didn’t threaten Parliament, the Civil Service, the Monarchy or the Church of England?
Applauded at home in Britain, Shaw and his fellow Fabians were mercilessly mocked by Trotsky and most of the Soviet elite. (See Trotsky’s essay The Fabian Theory of Socialism in the Age of Permanent Revolution – A Trotsky Anthology (Dell Publishing, New York, 1964).
Duranty lead the campaign against Jones. He ridiculed the Welshman, said he hadn’t travelled widely and that yes there were pockets of hunger in Russia and death by malnutrition but that Jones’ claim that it was a man-made famine was utterly ridiculous.
And he coined the phrase – “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.”
To which Jones might well have replied –“And you can’t make an omelette without eggs.”
Bas relief of Gareth Jones who, like Trotsky, was murdered by a Soviet agent shortly shortly before his 30th birthday
Jones had few supporters in the media but one of them was Malcolm Muggeridge who said that Duranty was the biggest liar he’s ever come across.
In late 1932 the Pulitzer Board awarded Walter Duranty its prize and today not only the government of the Ukraine but 17 other countries demand that it is posthumously withdrawn.
How many died in the Holomodor?
It’s hard, no, it’s impossible to say.
But there are clues in long-hidden archives.
On November 24, 1933 the Soviet Union threw a lavish dinner at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel for 1,500 guests in honour of President Franklin Roosevelt’s recognition of the Soviet Union.
They feasted on fancy wines, caviar and Boeuf Stroganoff. Later in the evening they gave a standing ovation to the special guest of honour, Walter Duranty.
They (the Americans and British diplomats) knew what Duranty had covered up so deliberately for so long.
Long shelved British Foreign Office archives show that Duranty deceived the world when he admitted to a diplomat that possibly as many as ten million people had died of lack of food in the USSR, says Diane Francis, a senior fellow sat the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patricia Eurasia Centre and the Editor at Large with the National Post in Canada.
In 1991, Boris Yeltsin acknowledged the existence of Stalin’s genocide in the Ukraine and in 2003 the United Nations adopted a joint statement on the Great Famine of 1932-1933, signed by 25 countries including Russia stating that – “The Great Famine of 1932-1933 in Ukraine (Holodomor) took from seven million to ten million innocent lives, and became a national tragedy for the Ukrainian people.”
But the new man in the Kremlin, Vladamir Putin (a strong defender of Stalin) has publicly denied the famine ever happened.
The Polish journalist Paulina Siegers who specialized in Polish-Russian issues writes about the way this film has been received outside Russia. “In some reviews of the film one can read that Mr Jones does not fully explore the atrocities of the Holodomor, it does not explain Stalin’s motivation to implement the hideous policy not does it offer a more detailed picture of the Soviet Union’s brutal machine. Such voices are a clear signal that there is a large need for films that would further explore Soviet history.”
After watching this two hours long film I wondered why we know so much about Holo Number Two (1939-1945) and so little about Holo Number One (1932-1933).
I believe part of the answer is provided by the widely-respected American historian Anne Applebaum.
In the Weekly Telegraph (February 1-7, 1995) she wrote a fascinating article under the heading: ”The Reich regrets, but where is the guilt for the gulags?”
In it she says that monuments help us remember the appalling atrocities committed by the Nazis.
After recalling that Primo Levi witnessed the liberation (by Russian soldiers) of the camp at Auschwitz –Berkenau on January 27, 1945, she writes that the guards had not intended that any survivors should remain, nor did they want to leave any physical evidence of what had happened there.
After dismantling the Treblinka camp in 1943, the Germans sowed the fields with grain, planted pine trees and used the bricks from the crematorium to build a farmhouse.
“But because the Germans left Auschwitz in a hurry, and because Auschwitz was so vast – there were camps, and sub-camps, death camps and work camps – several thousand people did survive. Some evidence remains to this day: rusting gates, half-burnt barracks, watchtowers, railway lines, heaps of clothes, spectacles, hair, suitcases.”
She went on to say that the camp had become a museum and that it remains on maps, is mentioned in guidebooks, the focus of day trips from Krakow in Poland. “Along with dozens of monuments, plaques and memorials all over Germany and Eastern Europe , the USA and the UK, it serves as a physical reminder to Germans and everyone else about what happened.”
American historian Anne Applebaum
How then do we recall the atrocities committed by the Soviets?
There are no monuments in Russia to the dead of the Great Famine.
Nothing at all.
We take Nazi atrocities for granted.
But what if the monuments to their barbarism did not exist?
Anne Applebaum: ”What if we did not have the survivors’ testimony and the buildings of Auschwitz- as well as the memorials at Treblinka, the monument to the Warsaw ghetto uprising, the photographs taken at Belsen?”
I will watch Mr Jones again, next time with those challenging and chilling words from Applebaum ringing in my ears –
“To imagine what the world would be like if we had forgotten the Holocaust it is necessary only to attempt to ponder the millions who died in Stalin’s gulags. Try to do it and no images come to mind – because there aren’t any.”