The Long Struggle To Reveal Stalin’s Terror-Famine in Ukraine
Film Review: Mr. Jones (2019)
The 2019 movie Mr. Jones tells the story of Gareth Jones, a Welsh journalist, who went to the Soviet Union in the early 1930s and reported on the famine Joseph Stalin’s regime had created in Ukraine, the Holodomor, which murdered four million people, fully ten percent of the entire Ukrainian population. It focuses on Jones’ dogged efforts to break through the Soviet wall of lies around the famine and to evade the physical Soviet quarantine on journalists in Moscow, as well as Jones’ struggle, once he has taken the news to the outside world, against a vicious campaign to destroy his reputation led by his fellow Briton, the Merseyside-born Walter Duranty, then-working as The New York Times’ bureau chief in Moscow.
It Can Always Get Worse is a reader-supported publication. To receive all new posts, become a free subscriber. If you value this newsletter and are able, consider becoming a paid subscriber.
PREPARING FOR MOSCOW
The film opens with George Orwell (played by Joseph Mawle) reading from Animal Farm (1945), which he is in the process of writing. The premise of the script by Andrea Chalupa, herself of Ukrainian origins, is that Jones inspired Orwell to write the book, a claim with no historical evidence behind it. (It is possible that Orwell’s farmer, “Mr. Jones”, is named after Gareth Jones, and Orwell did regard the Holodomor as a central example of the way language was abused to obfuscate something terrible.) Even on its own terms, however, this framing device is bizarre: it is not consistent, occurring at essentially random intervals throughout the film.
The 27-year-old Gareth Jones (James Norton) is introduced speaking to a group of British government officials about his recent interview with Adolf Hitler. This, again, is not true. On 23 February 1933, Jones had been aboard the Richthofen, the great modern plane that symbolised the Nazis’ claim to be the wave of the future, with Hitler, though he never actually spoke to the Führer. Jones is shown as worried about Hitler’s intentions (which is true), while those around him laugh off the Nazi leader as a hopeless madman.
The officials Jones was speaking to are in the office of David Lloyd George (Kenneth Cranham), also a Welshman, the Prime Minister who led Britain through the latter part of the First World War and by this time simply a Member of Parliament. After Jones graduated from Cambridge in 1929—just before the Soviets recruited their most famous and destructive spy ring, the Magnificent Five, from that same university—he had briefly taught languages, a subject where Jones was very gifted, as is shown in the film, before being hired as Foreign Affairs Adviser to Lloyd George. Throughout this period, Jones worked simultaneously as a freelance journalist, and it was in that capacity that Jones had been in Germany right after Hitler’s seizure of power.
In the film, Jones is let go from Lloyd George’s office because of severe budget cuts, this being during the Great Depression, and leans into his other profession as a journalist. Having “interviewed” Hitler, Jones sets about interviewing Stalin. In the film’s telling, this is not, for Jones, simply a personal ambition. It is to try to bring the Soviet ruler on-board as an ally of Britain’s should Jones’ premonitions prove true and Hitler plunges Europe into war.
ARRIVING IN THE SOVIET UNION
Jones is shown as being sympathetic to the Soviet system, beguiled by its myth-image of a workers’ paradise where all have been made equal and impressed by its continued economic growth when the West is in tatters at the depth of the Depression. It is not clear how true that is, either. Be that as it may, it serves the plot, showing Jones’ search for truth rapidly dispelling his illusions about the Soviet Union.
The Soviets are shown tapping the telephone of “Paul Kleb” (Marcin Czarnik), an invented character credited with getting Jones the interview with Hitler, and the secret police pull the plug on the switchboard when Kleb tries to tell Jones about the famine. When Kleb is killed soon afterwards at the railway station in a “robbery”, we as the audience know what has happened and soon enough so does Jones. (Kleb is an evident homage to the American journalist and historian Paul Klebnikov, murdered by the successor agency of the KGB in 2004.) Journalists are confined to Moscow for their “safety”. One journalist tells Jones to get hold of a copy of The Masque of the Red Death (1842) by Edgar Allan Poe, an oblique way of telling Jones that death has taken over Ukraine, and the journalist adds that he should do so before the Soviet government bans it, further revealing the nature of the Communist system. NKVD officers follow the journalists. Another colleague plays music when she tells Jones what Kleb was working on that got him killed so the listening walls cannot hear her.
Those around Jones seem barely to notice these things, and if they do to accept them as the way of things, the necessary price for the great Revolution. This is true above all of the most eminent journalist in Moscow, The New York Times bureau chief Walter Duranty, shown as arrogant and sleazy, the host of parties where guests inject opium and cavort naked with prostitutes. But Jones notices them and takes these things to heart. The party sequence allows some play to be made with the class elements at work—Duranty as the exemplar of the decadent upper orders against the serious and earnest working-class Jones—though this is not developed and quickly dropped.
There is a rather clunky section underlining the point about Jones’ truth-seeking, where he speaks to “Ada Brooks” (Vanessa Kirby), another fictional character who serves as a sort-of love interest, a German Communist and supposed journalist, about the nature of journalism. Jones argues for following the facts and there only being “one truth”, saying the job means one cannot “take sides”. Brooks, by contrast, is convinced she is part of the “fight for the future”, where the “real people, the workers”, will triumph, and protecting the Cause is the primary duty, not least because only the Communist movement can thwart Nazism. This is at least spiritually true: the supposed “anti-fascism” of the Soviet Union was a very prominent theme in Moscow’s propaganda in the 1930s, and one of its most effective means of recruiting idealistic young Westerners as agents.
The question Jones arrives in Moscow with in the film—his third trip to the Soviet Union in reality—is how Stalin is financing the Five-Year Plan (1928-32), represented by all the buildings around the capital, plus the factories and armaments the Soviets are known to have created. Jones is told by Duranty that “grain is Stalin’s gold”, drawing his attention to Ukraine, the breadbasket of the Soviet Empire.
To get down to Ukraine, Jones is shown passing himself off as still working for Lloyd George and worrying if the Soviets could handle the Eastern Front against Hitler. The apparatchik offers to take Jones to the wheat fields and factories in Ukraine to show him “how prepared we are for an attack from the Germans—or the British”. A lot more could have been done with this line, since it gets at something that was true. On the one hand, the Soviets believed the “imperialist” (democratic) states threatened them. This paranoia was so severe that the Magnificent Five were cut off—twice—by Soviet intelligence in the 1940s, the second time after the British had allied with the Soviets and helped rescue them from Operation BARBAROSSA, because the Five had not passed on the (non-existent) British plans to invade the Soviet Union, thereby proving they were MI5 plants. On the other hand, the Soviets had little fear of Hitler. To the contrary, Stalin wished to bring about a war between Hitler and the democracies, believing it would allow Communism to prevail over the rubble once the “capitalist” states had exhausted one-another, and in the course of events took a direct hand in getting the process going, making an alliance with Hitler to start the Second World War and literally fuelling the Nazis’ aggression in the West.
In a film where the backdrop is the industrialisation of the Soviet Union and the approaching Second World War, something more on the condition of Soviet-German relations might be expected. Weimar Germany had signed the Treaty of Rapallo with the Soviet regime in 1922, which allowed the Germans to rebuild their military in defiance of the Versailles Treaty, both on the industrial side—developing and testing weapons, including planes, tanks, and chemical weapons—and the personnel side, training German soldiers on these weapons and the manoeuvres to deploy them. Many of Hitler’s officers who carried out the invasion of the Soviet Union were either instructors or attendees at these training programs. The Soviets made the transfer of German chemical weapons technology the “centrepiece” of this arrangement, kickstarting the Soviets’ massive weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program. The additional benefits for the Soviets included receiving training for the Red Army, a line of credit, and further income with Germany opened up as a market for Ukrainian grain. Rapallo was reaffirmed by the Treaty of Berlin in 1926 that added a non-aggression agreement between Germany and the U.S.S.R. The renewal of this treaty was the first international action Hitler took after seizing power, something his predecessors had been reluctant to do after it expired in 1931 because of the increasingly evident menace of the Soviet Union.
This surely would have been a more interesting story to tell, a way into showing that the Treaty of Versailles is essentially a myth and foreshadowing the Hitler-Stalin Pact that would take Europe into the impending war that hangs over the movie. The lack of interest in this seems to be a combination of the scriptwriter’s unconscious Anglocentrism and a more conscious ideological choice to uphold the falsehood that the Soviet Union was “anti-fascist”.
SEEING THE TERROR-FAMINE IN UKRAINE
In the film, Jones soon gives his Party minder the slip, sneaking off the train and touring through Ukraine on his own. At the railway station where Jones leaves the train there is a dead man and he finds hungry people in a train carriage. Jones gets drawn into work on one of the Soviet plantations, where he finds out the grain is being shipped to Moscow. Jones is immediately denounced as a “spy”, dropping his sack of grain—which the peasants fall on—and is shot at as he runs into a forest. The people dead in their homes are shown, the carts collecting the bodies, the wandering children who steal his bag with food in it, his attempt to eat bark from a tree, and the meat provided to him from the children of another family, who explain it is from their brother. When Jones asks where the boy is, he finds him dead outside in the snow. The children meant “from their brother” quite literally: they have been reduced to cannibalism, and now so has Jones. Jones’ sojourn is ended when the NKVD arrest him.
Jones’ descendants have complained about this crucial section in the film, showing the terror-famine, on the grounds that essentially the entire sequence of events is inaccurate. Particular criticism is reserved for the film: (1) portraying the famine as being limited to Ukraine, when Jones had said explicitly in his 29 March 1933 press conference after he left the Soviet Union that “every part of Russia, from the Volga [to] Siberia, the North Caucasus, [and] Central Asia” had been affected; and (2) presenting Jones as being in danger—scrabbling for food, shot at, arrested—and generally as a victim of the famine, when he was only a witness. Fair enough.
The distortions of history over Jones’ time in Ukraine, however, seem much less serious than some of the others in the film: it packs the atmosphere of Ukraine in 1932-33—the deathly quiet, the scale of the killing, the collapse of order that led to roving bands and cannibalism—into a reasonably short section, and allows Jones to be our explorer in uncovering this. Had the factual record of Jones’ trip along the railway line been kept to, it would have involved departing from Jones to show these elements, which would have been narratively jarring, or not showing them, which would have been worse.
Another excellent line wasted in the film is from a Ukrainian woman who tells Jones that all this has happened because men thought they could “replace the natural laws”. This could easily have been used to show the ideological foundations of the famine. As it is in the film, the reasoning of the Soviet regime in bringing about a man-made catastrophe on this scale is rather opaque, and where it is hinted at it the suggestion seems to be that Stalin is a robber baron of a kind seen in the West, albeit the film does allow—voiced through Jones—that Stalin is “worse” than these exploiters.
The truth is, as Robert Conquest lays out in The Harvest of Sorrow, that Ukraine, a vast territory of forty million souls, was turned into “one vast Belsen”, complete with “well-fed squads of police or Party officials” supervising emaciated victims, for the sake of Communist theology. Stalin’s ruthless implementation of Lenin’s program of collectivising agriculture, that is seizing privately-owned farms and nominally transferring them to “public” ownership, and the doctrinally mandated class war to exterminate the “kulaks” (land-owning peasants), is one of the starkest examples of the “Great Man” at work in history, occurring for purely ideological reasons, against all material reason and over the opposition of the entire Soviet elite. Buoyed by his faith that this was the only road to True Communism, Stalin’s nerve held even when it nearly brought about his own downfall and the implosion of the state. Four million people in Ukraine and one million in Kazakhstan—a third of the population—perished in man-made famines in 1932-33 for sake of this utopian vision, and the whole process of collectivisation and dekulakisation from 1928 to 1936 killed a minimum of eleven million people.
As the film alludes to, for Ukrainians the terror-famine is not an issue confined to the past: it is a living national memory—now perhaps more than ever, as another ruler in Moscow seeks to subjugate Ukraine—and there is an ongoing struggle to have the Holodomor recognised as a genocide. Unfortunately, this is an uphill battle. In Red Famine, Anne Applebaum explains: “Had the concept of genocide remained simply an idea in the minds and writings of scholars, there would be no argument … the Holodomor was a genocide … But the concept of genocide became part of international law in … [the] context … of the Nuremberg trials”. Nuremberg, and the development of “international law” that followed, was grossly deformed by the involvement of the Soviet Union. This was specifically true of the 1948 Genocide Convention, where the Soviets “helped shape the language precisely in order to prevent Soviet crimes … being classified as ‘genocide’,” writes Applebaum, constricting the definition of ‘genocide’ so that it did not apply to campaigns against “political groups”, like kulaks.
RETURNING HOME AND REVEALING STALIN’S CRIMES
Mr. Jones makes an odd decision in explaining how Gareth Jones got out of the Soviet Union. As mentioned, the story told in the film is that Jones is hunted after escaping the minder he had deceived about being foreign adviser to Lloyd George and is eventually arrested. The Soviets then detain six other British subjects working at the factories as hostages, publicly accusing them of espionage and sabotage. Jones is released, with instructions to tell the story of the Soviet Revolution’s success—the efficiency of its collective farms and armament production—and to falsify the rumours of a famine, and is threatened that if he does not the six men will be “executed”. Jones has a confrontation with Duranty as he leaves Moscow, in which Duranty claims he convinced the Soviets to release Jones. When Jones asks how Duranty can justify continuing to lie for the regime, Duranty replies: “There comes a time in every man’s life when he must choose a cause greater than himself”.
Back in London, Jones in the film meets in a café with Orwell and explains his dilemma: if he tells the truth, six innocent men will die, but millions might be saved. Jones decides he will not yield to blackmail and gives a dramatic press conference about the famine, the nature of Stalin’s regime, and the need to resist it, lest the example of impunity inspire others to carry out such horrors. Duranty responds to this, when asked by reporters, by saying Jones’ claims are “overblown” and “hysteria”, asking rhetorically, “What does London want—another war?” (an echo of the “World War Three” threats Russian apologists wheel out at the present time when any proposal is made to hinder Russia’s assault on Ukraine), concluding in the most hackneyed way: “You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. What’s being done here will transform mankind.” Duranty then leads an international effort to blacken Jones’ name, which is largely successful. The upside is that with Jones neutralised, the Soviets release the British hostages, but Jones is reduced to working for his local hometown paper on non-political matters.
This is all entirely fictional. Jones left the Soviet Union of his own accord. The arrest of the British “wrecking group”—the “Metro-Vickers Affair”—had nothing to do with Jones, not even indirectly: the show trial of the British engineers was not a reaction to deteriorating Anglo-Soviet relations because of Jones’ revelations; it was driven wholly by internal Soviet dynamics, and it caused a deterioration of relations that had otherwise been stable. Jones never met Orwell, and did not agonise about whether to broadcast his findings: the first thing he did after arriving in Berlin was give his press conference.
Perhaps most importantly: There was, of course, no confrontation with Duranty, since Jones did not return to Moscow, and even in spirit that exchange is false: Duranty was not a true believer. Duranty’s motive in participating in Stalin’s cover-up was personal pride. Duranty had won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for a series of articles, most published in mid-1931, on the glories of Soviet collectivisation. If Duranty publicly admitted that collectivisation had starved millions of people to death, as he privately told a British diplomat in December 1932, it would have been a tremendous embarrassment, not to mention the repercussions for his cushy existence in Moscow, and the loss of power and influence as the semi-official interpreter of the Soviet Union for Western publics and governments Duranty would have suffered if his access was curbed or the Soviets expelled him.
It is strange in a film that skirts around the ideological motive for the famine itself that it then casts the most cynical character in the whole saga as a Communist zealot. Duranty is the villain of the film and showing him as he actually was would have emphasised this fact. It is unclear what narrative purpose this historical falsification serves. The “Brooks” character had already been inserted to show how devoted Communists dealt with the terror-famine, though she is shown as remorseful and disillusioned by the end. (This raises a separate question of why the filmmakers did not just include Eugene Lyons, an American wire reporter and Communist sympathiser who helped in the Holodomor cover-up and the effort to destroy Jones’ career, then came to regret it. The answer seems to be that “Brooks” was able to fulfil this story arc and double as Jones’ fictional love interest.)
The film concludes with an event marking the United States’ recognition of the Soviet government in November 1933. Duranty is at the event, and in the film is presented as having virtually single-handedly orchestrated it. This is something of an exaggeration, but Duranty’s influence on that decision is real enough. In July 1932, while Franklin Delano Roosevelt was campaigning for the Presidency, he had met Duranty and many of FDR’s closest advisers were heavily influenced by Duranty’s “reporting”. Some of FDR’s “Brain Trust” at least suspected the truth about the Holodomor, but famine denial became an important political posture in changing the sixteen-year-old non-recognition policy. FDR’s people hoped that beginning economic relations with the Soviets would alleviate the Depression domestically, and that strategically the Soviets could be a counterweight to Japan and possibly Hitler’s Germany. Quite a number of Democrats were also ideologically sympathetic to the Soviets, and the Roosevelt administration sent officials to the Soviet Union to “learn” from that economic system as they set about their own New Deal reforms.
This latter aspect is captured quite well in the film in the fictional exchange Jones has with Orwell after his press conference. Orwell suggests that perhaps the Soviets are doing the best they can. Jones says this is not so. Orwell answers: “Are you saying there’s no hope?” It was a common view in that generation that the Old World had failed and therefore the Soviet Experiment had to be defended, whatever its faults, because it was the only hope for the future.
It was perhaps beyond the scope of the film to delve into the outcome of this opening in American-Soviet relations. What would have been shown is the U.S. constructing the industrial base of the Soviet Union, everything from agriculture to the GULAG concentration camps, in exchange for the Stalin gaining an Embassy in Washington he could use to expand Soviet subversive activities against America. (There was certainly no easy way to mention that recognition of Communist regimes at the height of their malignancy became something of a habit for the U.S., repeated almost exactly four decades later when Richard Nixon went to Red China in the middle of the Cultural Revolution and quite forgot himself, embracing Zhou Enlai and the other CCP killers with such craven enthusiasm that William F. Buckley, sat fifteen feet from the spectacle, wrote: “[Nixon] would toast Alger Hiss tonight, if he could find him”.)
As the film fades out, on-screen text notes that Jones was killed while reporting in China on 12 August 1935, the day before his thirtieth birthday. Jones was killed in the Inner Mongolia area, adjacent to Manchuria, which had been invaded by Japan in 1931. This was the situation Jones had come to report on. The film lays the blame squarely on Stalin’s secret police, and—despite objections from some members of Jones’ family—this is almost certainly correct. To conceal the Holodomor, the Soviets destroyed Jones’ reputation and then destroyed him physically, and it basically worked. The reality of the scale and nature of the terror-famine in Ukraine would not become widely accepted until after the Soviet Empire’s demise in 1991. The historians who tried to expose the truth before that were widely attacked within their own profession, above all Robert Conquest. Conquest handled both his periods of vilification and vindication with grace, rejecting the mischievous suggestion of his friend Kingsley Amis, when The Harvest of Sorrow was re-issued in the 1990s, to entitle the new edition, “I Told You So, You Fucking Fools”.
Mr. Jones is a deeply flawed film. Possibly to account for a mass audience with a very limited range of reference, the “show, don’t tell” rule is serially violated, and the telling relies very heavily on cliché. (The “can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs” line is only the worst.) The liberties taken with the historical record are not just vast, but in many cases senseless; it would have been a better story to stick to the facts. The misrepresentation of Duranty’s motives and the failure to properly explain that the terror-famine inflicted on Ukraine resulted from Communist ideology are not really forgivable. Some of the artistic choices, like the use of Orwell, are equally baffling, contributing to a slightly unfocused feel to the enterprise. Perhaps it is unfair to criticise a movie for what is not in it. Nonetheless, there are places where additional context could have been included, notably on Soviet-German relations; it takes considerable effort to explain the German military build-up for war and Soviet industrialisation without mentioning the connection between the two, and, again, it would have been a more interesting story than the two-dimensional film presentation of them as implacable foes. For all that, it is very rare that a Hollywood film focuses on the great crimes of the Soviet Union, so one takes what one can get, and now more than ever it is important that the Holodomor is widely known about in the West. To the extent this film helps in that project, and to raise the profile of the unjustly forgotten Gareth Jones, it is most welcome.