Corsage

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This is a film about the Empress Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary, born a Bavarian duchess, known as Sisi, and still obsessed over by the Viennese tourist industry.   Despite the presentation of her, especially in a series of sentimental films in the 1950s, as a fairytale princess, she was a deeply troubled woman, as this film, set in 1877/78 when she was 40/41, shows.   She was obsessed with maintaining her slim figure, and ate very little whilst maintaining a rigorous exercise regime.   She also travelled a lot rather than spending time in Vienna.

The film gets what would now be described as anorexic behaviour right, and shows her travels including a visit to Northamptonshire, although it ignores her close connection with Hungary.   It also shows how she struggled with her official duties and the attention they brought.   I was a bit confused by the title, though: I would take “corsage” to mean a small bunch of flowers attached to clothing, but it seemed to be intended more along the lines of “corset”.  Sisi wore her corsets laced extremely tightly – and a title of “corset” would obviously be a metaphor for the restrictions of the Empress’s life.  So maybe something got lost in translation (the film is mainly in German, with English subtitles).

It ends with a suicide attempt off the coast of Italy, which is fictional and was rather depressing, but the general idea of the film, the pressure on female royals and to some extent on female celebrities, and the effects that that can have, is obviously still relevant today and rings very true.  Don’t watch this if you’re looking for something light and festive, but it’s worth seeing if you’re prepared for what’s really a rather gloomy story.

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Your Christmas or Mine?

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Young drama student couple James and Hayley are both heading home from London for Christmas, he to Kemble (which, thank you Google, is a village in Gloucestershire), she to Macclesfield.   Macc itself, not the posh areas outside it!   At the last minute, they both decide they want to spend Christmas together, so she jumps on to his train and he jumps on to hers.   Heavy snow means that all the trains are cancelled, so each is stuck with the other’s family, and each finds out that the other hasn’t been quite straight with them.  It’s more than a bit silly, and of course, it all turns out happily in the end, but it’s an enjoyable seasonal film and will make you smile.

Cue a load of really cliched stuff about the posh boy meeting the ordinary family and the ordinary girl meeting the posh family.  It turns out that he’s the grandson of an earl and lives in a stately home, where people refer to tea as “supper”, whilst her family are like the Royle family.   His father, like Captain von Trapp, has made the house austere and gloomy ever since being widowed, whilst her family are laugh a minute. 

Neither family knows about the relationship.  His family think he’s at Sandhurst, and her family think she’s still engaged to her ex.  It’s all laid on with a trowel and a bit daft;  but, hey, it’s Christmas, and it’s all quite entertaining.   And available for free on Amazon Prime.   If you’ve got time, give it a go.

The Children’s Blizzard by Melanie Benjamin

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This is a novel about the severe blizzard which, after an ordinary-seeming morning, hit the Great Plains one afternoon in January 1888, killing  235 people and causing many others to lose limbs or digits to frostbite.   It’s sometimes called “The Children’s Blizzard” because, due to the timing, many of the victims were school pupils trying to make their way home at the end of the school day.

As readers of Laura Ingalls Wilder will know, teachers at that time and place could be girls of just 15 or 16, little more than children themselves.  They were the ones who had to decide whether their pupils should wait out the storm in the schoolhouses, try to get home, or try to reach another place of shelter.  Two of the four threads of the book are those of two such teachers, sisters, one of whom was hailed as a heroine in the national press as well as locally, the other of whom was vilified for making what turned out to be a bad choice.  The other main characters are a hired girl and a “booster”.

Boosters, who featured a lot in The Beautiful Snow, aimed to persuade people from Europe, mainly Scandinavia, and the eastern US to settle in Minnesota and Dakota Territory, giving a very over-favourable impression of the farming conditions and climate there.   Most of the characters in the book were Norwegian immigrants, and the author seems to contend that the US authorities and eastern US society weren’t overly concerned what became of them.

For some reason, there aren’t a lot of books about Scandinavian settlers in the Great Plains.  Vilhelm Moberg’s four The Emigrants books, about a Swedish family, spring to mind, and Laura Ingalls Wilder mentions Norwegian neighbours;  but most people’s image of immigrants in the late 19th century US is of people from Ireland, Italy and Eastern Europe crowding into New York City.   And, other than Laura Ingalls Wilder’s brief reference to a black doctor, I can’t think of any other books mentioning black settlers in the area, as this one does.  And the settlement of the area in general doesn’t get much attention, with the obvious exception of Laura’s books. Incidentally, I just did a “Goodreads” search on “pioneer”, and 8 out of the top 10 results were books by Laura.  Other than Willa Cather, none of the other authors or books in the top 25 were well-known.  Yet both the Native American Wars and the Dust Bowl have attracted a lot of attention from different quarters.  It’s strange.

It’s an interesting subject, not least because it’s had so little coverage; but it’s not the most gripping of books, which I think is largely because it’s so focused on the one incident, and goes into it very quickly.  We don’t really have chance to get to know and care about the characters before they and we are swept up in the blizzard.   But it’s still a fascinating story, about the hardship faced by the pioneers, many of whom had thought they were going to a land of plenty.   And, without wishing to get political, it’s interesting to think how often, in the past, there were places which were desperate for immigrants, so desperate that they deliberately gave a falsely favourable impression of the lands they wanted settling in order to get people in; and how that’s changed.

The best part of the book was actually the last few chapters, about what happened to the girls after the blizzard.   What happened sounded far-fetched, but is based on real accounts of the time.  The hired girl and the “right” sister briefly became the 1880s’ equivalent of tabloid celebs, benefited from a “Heroine Fund” set up by a newspaper and were able to start new and better lives.  The “wrong” sister ended up teaching at an “Indian school” in Montana and being horrified by the abuses committed there.   I think the author felt that she had to include that, given the current (unfair) fashion for criticising the Little House books.   And both the booster and the hired girl’s mistress were overcome with guilt over the way they’d treated them, which felt rather like a 19th century American moralising novel.  Somehow, that all made for better reading than the drama of the blizzard, maybe because we actually got to know the characters better.

All in all, I don’t think that I’ll be reading this again, but I’m certainly glad that I’ve read it once.  If you can find a reasonably-priced copy, it’s worth a go.

King Richard

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Back in the day, the BBC used to produce an annual Wimbledon preview magazine/brochure, which my teenage self used to read assiduously.  The 1992 edition claimed that an 11-year-old kid called Venus Williams was set for stardom, and that her 10-year-old sister, Serena Williams, was shaping up to be even better.   Jennifer Capriati had made her professional debut at just 14, and Monica Seles had won her first Grand Slam title at 16 and Steffi Graf and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario had both won theirs at 17 … but predicting stardom for kids of 10 and 11 still seemed a bit mad.   The rest, as they say, is history.

Tennis won’t be the same without Serena.

For Jennifer Capriati, it was too much, too young.   But the Williams sisters, the girls from a working-class background, who grew up playing tennis in public parks, got it right.  It was their dad, Richard Williams, who planned their careers, who’s the King Richard of this film – no crusades, depositions or Princes in the Tower!  Venus and Serena were involved in the making of the film and it does rather eulogise Richard, who by some accounts can be very difficult to deal with – but the fact is that, yes, he got it right. 

There’s been a lot of unpleasantness over pushy tennis parents, and there’ve also been players who’ve either burnt out and or been unable to cope with the pressure of fame; but Venus and Serena have both handled it very well, and without any family fallings out.   

As the film shows, Richard Williams pulled them out of the Rick Macci Academy and stopped them from playing in official junior tournaments, and that worked for them.   But it was a gamble.  The film does a good job of showing how expensive tennis is, and how, for that reason, a lot of players in the 1990s were desperate to turn pro and get professional sponsorship.   It’s not like football, where clubs will sign kids at an early age, and where there’s no pressure to move to a specialised academy.   It’s a lot of money.  And, for that reason, most players are from relatively well-to-do backgrounds – and the film shows how there can be snobbery and even racism at some of the famous/infamous American country clubs.

It’s not such a problem in the UK, because the LTA has a lot of money with which to help out young players, but it is elsewhere: the Kazakh Tennis Federation persuaded Elena Rybakina and several other players to take Kazakh nationality, using its oil money.  Richard gambled – and won. 

This film didn’t get very good reviews, but I quite enjoyed it – but then I was bound to enjoy a tennis film.  One minor quibble – referring to Arantxa Sanchez Vicario as “Vicario” rather than “Sanchez Vicario”.  That wouldn’t have happened.  And, whilst most of it was about Venus, because originally most of it was about Venus, as she was the eldest, I thought they could have shown a bit more about what it was like for your sister to be your main rival, but I can understand that they didn’t want to go down that route.   

All in all, it really wasn’t bad.  It’s an amazing story.  It’s really quite creepy that a parent should decide that their children are going to be professional tennis players (or professional footballers, singers, dancers or anything else) when those children are barely out of nappies, and yet it’s all worked out for them.   That in itself is amazing, and that makes the film worth seeing.

The Railway Children Return

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I’m pleased to say that this film is about evacuees from Salford.  It’s a bugbear of mine that stories about evacuees practically always feature children from London, as if no other part of the country were affected.  There’s been so much publicity about it that I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that the children concerned are sent to Oakworth – although much of the Oakworth village set is actually Haworth – where they’re billeted with the former Bobbie Waterbury, her daughter (the headmistress of the local school, referred to as “the head teacher” as kids today apparently can’t be expected to cope with the word “headmistress”) and her grandson.

The shots of the village and the surrounding countryside are glorious, and there’s plenty of Blytonesque running around in fields, having conker fights and collecting eggs from chickens.  The plot wasn’t really very dramatic, though.   It followed the original film in that the children helped someone in need and stopped a train, but the suspense and emotion weren’t really there.  Maybe the scriptwriters focused a bit too much on appealing to a young audience demographic?

(Don’t read the rest if you don’t want any spoilers at all!)

I’d been expecting a spy story.  Instead, we got a wartime racism story.   It might have worked better in an adult film, but there wasn’t enough sense of menace here.  It was obviously aimed at a young audience – I could have lived without seeing kids using the outside of a train as a toilet, and the remarks about farting, but, OK, I’m not really in the target demographic – and maybe that was why the fear of the military police just didn’t come across very well, despite the talk of our man possibly facing hanging if he were caught.  The police just never seemed very intimidating.   Also, it was hard not to wonder why no-one seemed to notice kids just disappearing from school in the middle of the day, or why everyone’s rations seemed to stretch so far that they could hold food fights and feed biscuits to their dog.

Having said all that, the racism story was historically accurate.  We know that there were major issues over the segregation in the US Army, especially concerning black soldiers engaging with white British women: the film actually borrowed the true story of the Battle of Bamber Bridge, in which US military police attacked black soldiers drinking in a pub.   The idea in this film was that a young black soldier had deserted as a result.  He was discovered hiding out by the four children – the three evacuees, an older girl with a younger brother and sister, as in the original film, and their new pal, Bobbie’s grandson.   It was then rather unconvincingly resolved (I won’t say how), and he was allowed to gallivant around the countryside and then return home to his mum, thanks to all the children stopping the train (but without red underwear) and the intervention of Ric Griffin from Holby City.

It was all right, and it was worth seeing for the shots of the countryside.  And it was also lovely to see a film in which the Brits were the goodies.  The liberal elite will hate that … which is probably a recommendation in itself.  But don’t be expecting a classic, and don’t be looking for an unforgettable moment like the legendary “Daddy, my daddy” scene, or you’ll be disappointed.   It’s OK, but it’s not great.

 

Downton Abbey: A New Era

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I enjoyed every minute of this.  If you’re looking for a couple of hours of old style, feelgood escapism, and you’re able to get to the pictures to see this, then I highly recommend that you do so.  Yes, all right, it’s all a bit cliched and predictable, and no doubt some people will complain that it doesn’t even touch on the terrible hardship faced by so many people in the late 1920s; but it’s entertaining, and it feels like catching up with old friends.

And it’s got some of the more glamorous aspects of the 1920s down to a tee.  ITV were guilty of a few anachronisms in the TV series, but the film, like the first film, gets it spot on.  Especially the costumes.  The tennis whites.   I’m so glad that the AELTC still make players wear all white clothing, and I’m also glad that coloured cricket pyjamas have so far been kept out of Test matches!   And the hats.  Lots of wonderful hats!

There are two main storylines.  One is that the Crawleys have been approached by a company wanting to use Downton Abbey as a film location.  Lord Grantham and Carson are both horrified, but the money is needed for repairs to a leaking roof.  And it all gets a bit Singin’ in the Rain as the film is turned from a silent movie into a talkie. The other is that the Dowager Countess has acquired a villa in the South of France, left to her by an old admirer, and intends to hand it over to little Sybbie.  Cue a party from Downton heading off to the glamorous Riviera, with Edith, resuming her career as a journalist, writing an article about the appeal of the area to the likes of F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.  All very 1920s.

Lady Mary stays at Downton to oversee the film making.  The beautiful leading lady turns out to be rude and unpleasant, but it turns out that she’s worried about her Cockney accent ending her career now that talkies are coming in.   She eventually learns to do an American accent, and heads off to find fame in Hollywood.  However, they need someone with a posh voice to dub her lines in the film they’re making at Downton.   Now, who could possibly step in to save the day?  And the suave leading man, whom all the women fancy, turns out to be gay … and Barrow is in need of a new love interest after his previous boyfriend decided to marry a woman.  Nul points for working out what happens, but it’s all good fun.

Meanwhile, in the South of France, Carson is refusing to dress for the climate or to learn a word of French, and is going around muttering about how the English do everything properly and the French haven’t got a clue, Lord Grantham fears that the marquis whose villa it was may have been his natural father, and Lady Grantham is worried about her health.  Of course, everything turns out OK in the end.

Tom and Lucy get married at the start of the film.  Daisy and Andy are already married.  Edith and Bertie are happy with their new baby … and everyone seems to accept that Marigold is Edith’s illegitimate daughter, but not to be bothered about it.  Anna and Mr Bates are also happy with little Johnny.   Miss Baxter is after Mr Molesley, and Mrs Patmore is after Mr Mason: the course of true love never doth run smooth, but you know that both ladies are going to bag their chaps in the end.  The only person who isn’t happy is Lady Mary, but that was because Matthew Goode wasn’t available for the film, so we’re told that Henry is off doing something with cars.

There’s a sad storyline towards the end, but it was made clear towards the end of the previous film that that was coming.  And, after it, the film does end on a high note.

Don’t be expecting to be too intellectually challenged by this, but do expect to enjoy it, and to come out with a big smile on your face.  It’s lovely.

 

 

 

The Chaperone

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  I have to admit that I don’t know very much about Louise Brooks apart from what’s in the OMD song: I was quite into OMD in the early 1990s.  However, although this film involves Louise Brooks, it’s actually a fictional story about a woman who never existed but who, in the film, is Louise’s chaperone when Louise leaves Kansas for New York.  And is played by Elizabeth McGovern from Downton Abbey.

It’s quite an involved and imaginative story: we learn that the woman was, as a toddler, left at a New York orphanage run by nuns, and was then shipped out to Kansas on a train carrying young children to be adopted.  It sounded so horrific, and the horrified woman, when she found out, said that it sounded like some sort of slave market.  The nuns pointed out that – like Anne of Green Gables, I couldn’t help thinking – she was taken in by a loving couple and given a good life.  But what if she hadn’t been.  Everyone knows the story of Anne, but somehow you never think very much about these children who were sent out across the US and Canada, and how it was all the luck of the draw as to who took them in.

She was hoping to find her birth mother, and she did find her, but none of it was very convincing.  And then we learnt that, after her adoptive parents had died young, she’d married a rich lawyer, but then caught him in bed with another man.  She ended up leaving him for a young German man who worked at the orphanage.  It was all extremely far-fetched, and didn’t really have anything to do with Louise Brooks, so I’m not sure why the story involved her at all.  But anyway, it was something to watch!

 

 

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (2021 film)

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  Mancunian kids of my generation grew up thinking that drag queens were incredibly cool.  That was largely thanks to the late, great Frank “Foo Foo” Lammar, one of the most well-known and popular figures in Manchester in the 1980s, always working hard to raise money for charity and always in the local press.  When Foo Foo sadly died of cancer in 2003, Sir Alex Ferguson gave one of the readings at his funeral: that’s how cool he was.

So it would never occurred to me that there was anything strange about being a drag queen.  There were the TV drag queens too – Danny La Rue was very popular back then, and then there were Dame Edna Everage, and, later, Lily Savage.  However, I suppose it’s one thing for established drag queens and another for teenage boys wanting to become drag queens; and, in this film adaptation of the stage musical, set in Sheffield (is it me or are films about boys trying to break away from macho stereotypes always set in northern cities?) in 2017, sees 16-year-old Jamie trying to fulfil his ambition of becoming a drag queen but being picked on by school bullies and rejected by his homophobic dad.   It’s aimed at teenagers and it’s absolutely full of tropes and cliches – the camp gay boy is best mates with the swotty Asian girl,  the teacher (they only seem to have one teacher)’s grumpy, the mum’s supportive, the dad isn’t – but it’s really very watchable.

And, at the end, of course, Jamie turns up to the school prom in a dress, his best mate puts the bully in his place, all the other kids support Jamie when the teacher says he can’t go in because he’s breaking the dress code, and in they all go and dance the night away.

Made me feel so old, though.   I remember when Sarah Lancashire and Shobna Gulati were being cast as the glamorous young girls, not the downtrodden mum and honorary auntie!   Kids messing about with mobile phones at school all the time, a big fuss about the school prom (in my day, only American schools had proms, and the only proms you got near here were the sort you walked along at the seaside), and I kept wishing we could have some decent ’80s music instead of today’s stuff 🙂 .

It seems to be mainly aimed at teenagers, as I said, and it does come across as being a bit didactic – we’re told a million times about how important it is to be yourself, and Richard E Grant gives Jamie, who appears to be extraordinarily ignorant about anything that happened in the pre-internet age, a lesson about the fight for gay rights in the ’80s and ’90s.   Speaking of history, someone really needs to tell the scriptwriters that Emmeline Pankhurst would not have had the slightest problem with girls getting glammed up for a school prom.  Do you ever see pictures of Emmeline looking anything other than fabulous, except when she’d just come out of prison?

But most of the points are important and, for the most part, well-made, even if they are laid on with a trowel.

And they finish up by taking group selfies at the prom and WhatsApping them to their mums.  I feel like Methuselah …. 🙂 …

 

Cinderella

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Er, OK.  (Cinder)Ella wants to be a dress designer, break into the male-dominated world of business and not give it all up to be a princess.  The prince isn’t so much charming as a bit of a dork who seems to have walked straight off the set of Blackadder III.  His sister, “the People’s Princess” (oh puh-lease!) lectures everyone about not buying so many catapults, and using wind power instead of fossil fuels.

The “Fabulous” Godmother is Billy Porter from Pose.  The Wicked Stepmother, played by Idina Menzel, sings “Material Girl” and regrets not having had a career as a pianist.  Before the ball, the prince sings “Somebody to Love”, and all the hopeful princesses sing “Whatta Man”.  Everyone sings “Rhythm Nation”.  The town crier is a rapper.

It’s a pretty star-studded cast, including James Corden, Romesh Ranganathan and James Acaster as three helpful mice who are turned into coachmen, and Pierce Brosnan and Minnie Driver stealing the show as the King and Queen –  clearly not taking any of it seriously!

As long as you don’t take any of it seriously either, you’ll probably quite enjoy it.  It’s very lively and cheerful, and it’s not so much a feminist rewrite as a gentle mockery of the whole fairy tale genre.

And, at the end, the prince decides to give up his royal status and travel the world with Ella, whilst his sister takes over as heir.  Well, at least he decides to go travelling, rather than to lecture people about things he knows nothing about and tell lies about his family like, er, certain other people who might spring to mind and who are known to be quite pally with James Corden, who was one of the producers.  So they ride off in unwedded bliss, with Ella declaring herself his “love” rather than his girlfriend, partner or anything else, because, hey, who needs labels?

If you prefer your fairy tales traditional, give this a miss.  If you’re up for a laugh, give it a go!

 

Mr Jones

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  This film tells the tragic story of Gareth Jones, the brave young Welsh journalist who tried to tell the world about the Holodymyr, the man-made famine which killed millions of people in Ukraine in 1932-33, part of a wider famine also affecting Kazakhstan and other parts of the Soviet Union, and is now considered genocide in Ukraine.  Not only were the Soviets were determined to cover it up, but so were left-wing intellectuals in the West, unwilling to admit that damage that Stalinism had done.  That, and false reporting by the New York Times‘ “man in Moscow” Walter Duranty, meant that the efforts of Jones, Malcolm Muggeridge and others to bring the famine to world attention sadly did little good.   Jones was murdered by bandits, almost certainly in the pay of the Soviet secret police, not long after his reports were published.

It’s not the easiest of films to watch, especially as quite a lot of it’s in Russian with English subtitles, but it tells an important and still little-known story of very tragic events.

It was only in the era of glasnost that people were really able to talk for the first time about what happened.  Gorbachev himself spoke of losing two aunts and an uncle in the mixed Russian-Ukrainian village in Southern Russia where he grew up.   It’s not clear how many people died – estimates vary from 3 million to 12 million – and there’s little clarity and fierce argument over exactly what went on.  Stalin’s collectivisation programme, together with generally poor administration, meant that crop yields fell in the first place, and a lot of grain was lost in the processing and transportation processes.  Then such grain as there was was requisitioned, and most of it was allocated to industrial workers in towns, leaving those in the countryside to starve.

Some people think that, whilst due to appalling mismanagement, it wasn’t deliberate.  Others believe that the Stalinist administration deliberately starved people in rural areas, probably to stifle Ukrainian nationalism.

Malcolm Muggeridge – am I the only person who associates him with Adrian Mole? – raised the issue in the British press, after spending time in the Soviet Union.  Other Western reporters also raised the issue.  However, they didn’t feature in this film, which was all about Gareth Jones, the first Western writer to speak out using his own name.

We saw Jones working in the Soviet Union, and some fairly harrowing scenes as he uncovered what was going on.  Then we saw his attempts to bring it to Western attention – and how, although his reports were widely publicised, it didn’t really suit anyone in authority to accept what was happening.   George Bernard Shaw and others would later travel to the Soviet Union, at Stalin’s behest, to claim that they saw no signs of famine: in this film, it was George Orwell who was reluctant to accept the damage done by communism, but that did sum up the views of many left-wing intellectuals.

Business people were eager to normalise relations with the Soviet Union, in the middle of the Depression, in the hopes of boosting the economy.  And we saw Lloyd George, for whom Jones had once worked, saying that he accepted what Jones was saying but that he didn’t know what Jones wanted him to do about it – what *could* he do about it?  On top of that, the Metro-Vickers trial was going on – the Soviets were holding six British engineering workers.  The film suggested that they’d threatened to execute them if Jones published his report … although I’m not sure that that’s very accurate.

The main figure, though, was Walter Duranty, the Liverpool-born journalist working for the New York Times, who insisted that Stalinism, although brutal, was necessary because the Soviet Union couldn’t be governed any other way, claimed that there was no famine and that Jones and the others were talking rubbish, and played a big part in Roosevelt’s decision to recognise the Soviet regime.  In the film, Duranty’s presented as a big baddie, forcing people to lie.  But what were his motives?  It’s certainly known that he did know about the famine.  Did he genuinely believe that Stalinism was a good thing?  Was he keen to promote good relations between the USSR and the West, to avoid war or promote trade?  Was he maybe, as some people have suggested, being blackmailed because he was gay?

There’s so much we don’t know.  But we do know that the famine happened, that it was the fault of the Stalinist regime, that millions of people died, and that Gareth Jones and other brave Western journalists tried to expose it.  People are very critical of the media these days: we shouldn’t forget what an important job journalists do.   And the Holodymyr, usually referred to as the Holodomor in the Russian rather than Ukrainian translation, is still little-known in the West.  Sad story all round.