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.