My wife and I accompanied our daughter to the Gare de Lyon in Paris for her departure to summer scout camp. Liberated from parental duties we strolled through the streets of Paris on a beautiful mild summer day. In the late afternoon we stopped near the Luxembourg Gardens at one of the many little art house cinemas in Paris. My wife asked for two tickets to the Agnieszka Holland film. As per its name, Les 3 Luxembourg has only three screens, yet the young man in the booth had never noticed that Holland was the director of L’Ombre de Staline. My wife is a typical Parisian cinofile, she knows her films (except for virtually all Hollywood movies) and can be a bit snobbish. She was incredulous that he had never heard of Holland, the Polish director has in fact been nominated three times for an Oscar. I must admit that I had had no recall of Holland myself, the winner of the Golden Globe for best foreign language film Europa Europa. I have included this little vignette because this film, called Mr. Jones in English, will certainly not receive the attention it deserves because of the subject matter and the lack of star power.
The film begins with snorting pigs in a stye, with the camera posed in the muck looking up into their snouts. As the camera pulls back over waves of grain an actor playing Eric Blair (George Orwell) begins writing the allegory Animal Farm on his typewriter. The film encompasses the voyage of Welsh journalist Gareth Jones (played by the English actor James Norton) to the Soviet Union in 1933 where he became an eye witness of the forced famine in Ukraine now called the Holodomor, (the word is from the Ukranian meaning murder by hunger). The Holodomor, which consisted of the slow tourtured murder of millions of Ukranian peasants by Stalin’s Communist Party, is barely known by the general public, especially compared to the Holocaust perpertrated by Hitler’s Nazis. Thus, the film’s depiction of this event is important. The images in the film are much like those in this gallery of the Holodomor. In fact, I believe some of the photos might have been taken by Jones but there are no attributions given. The Financial Times ran an important review of the film that included an interview with Agnieszka Holland. “The fact that so many communist crimes are neglected and forgotten and unpunished makes it possible that it will happen again. What is happening today is a consequence of what happened in the 20th century and the silence and lack of punishment.”
The statue “Bitter Memory of Childhood” with the Holodomor memorial in the background, Kiev, Ukraine.
Professor Flagg Taylor has written a trilogy of insightful articles about the Holodomor. He highlights an important revolutionary aim of Stalin that was made by Anne Applebaum in her book on the subject that is applicable today.
The aspect that Applebaum adds to previous histories is that dekulakization also included an attack on the social and moral order of the countryside in general. Holidays were banned, churches assaulted—anything related to the old ethical order of the region was targeted for destruction …. Applebaum’s account is consistent with this verdict, and she adds a wealth of evidence to suggest that the motive was indeed the destruction of Ukrainian nationalism and punishment of the Ukrainian people.
Of course, the level of violence is not nearly the same, but the aims of the cultural revolutionaries of today are similar. He also quotes what Boris Pasternak wrote in Doctor Zhivago about Stalin’s massive purge of Communist Party members that also applies equally well to the terror-famine. “To conceal the failure people had to be cured, by every means of terrorism, of the habit of thinking and judging for themselves, and forced to see what didn’t exist, to assert the very opposite of what their eyes told them.” Again, with less violence, today we are to be cured of thinking for ourselves on any number of fear filled subjects.
Holland is the rare filmmaker whose own history is especially consonant to this story. She witnessed the 1968 Prague Spring and participated in the Solidarity movement in Poland to the extent that she went into exile when martial law was introduced in 1981. Furthermore, her father, a Jewish communist intellectual, volunteered to fight with the Soviet and then the Polish army during WWII. According to this book, he had passed on Khrushchev’s secret speech about Stalin to a correspondent to the French newspaper Le Monde. Charged with espionage, during the search of his apartment in 1961 (Agnieszka was 13) he committed suicide by jumping out of the window. Many suspected murder, but again, this source confirms that it was a suicide.
Reviewers have quibbled on various aspects of the production. The film depicts Jones unwittingly participating in an act of cannibalism that by all that I could determine was not an actual event, though cannibalism has been documented as a horrific aspect of the Holodomor. There are other ahistorical episodes added such as the low octane romance with another journalist. In the film Jones has a journalist friend named Paul Kleb who is murdered by the Soviets for tipping him off to the story in Ukraine. This fictional part of the story is evidently in homage to Paul Klebnikov, a Russian-American journalist who was murdered in Moscow in 2004.
Despite the importance of the Holdomor, the film centers on the journalist Gareth Jones. And perhaps, even more relevant to today is the story about the truly heroic role of a journalist committed to reporting the truth. Holland said in the FT review that the challenges encountered by journalists such as Jones are similar to those facing the press today, with fake news and stark ideological divides. “The similarities with our time are palpable,” she says. “Of course, what the problem was then is multiplied by the internet and social media.” Jones lived a life every bit as dramatic as the fictional Indiana Jones. He was a brilliant student at Cambridge, becoming fluent in Russian, German and French. After university he served as a globe trotting advisor on foreign affairs to the former Prime Minister David Loyd George. He travelled to the United States where he appeared in a group photograph with President Hoover.
Jones in the group photo with President Hoover.
His first big scoop as a journalist was interviewing Hitler and Goebbels on their plane soon after they came to power in Germany in 1933. It was in March of that year that he went to the Soviet Union for the third time, taking an unauthorized walking tour through Ukraine. On his return to Germany he published excerpts from his travel diary in many western newspapers.
Article by Jones on the Ukraine famine.
The response from that era’s mainstream media, the foreign correspondents stationed in Russia, was akin to the cancel culture of today. Taking the lead was the Pulitzer Prize winning correspondent for the New York Times (isn’t it always the Old Gray Lady?) Walter Duranty, known as Stalin’s apologist. From the book on Duranty by S.J. Taylor the events are known. A Soviet press officer told the correspondents that their credentials would be denied unless they repudiated Jones. They even made a party out of the meeting to come up with the phrases to call Jones a liar in all but name. Duranty’s response to Jones included perhaps the most cynical excuse for power ever uttered. “But–to put it brutally–you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, and the Bolshevik leaders are just as indifferent to the casualties that may be involved in their drive toward socialism an any General during the World War who ordered a costly attack in order to show his superiors that he and his division possessed the proper soldierly spirit.” While admitting that there had been “food shortages” there was no “death from starvation” but only “widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition.” Jones responded in the Times (printed about a month later after the furor had died down, but much more from that newspaper than we could expect today) that he would stick to the facts that he had found on the ground, interviewing peasants themselves, not learned second hand through government sources. Jones even felt pity for these compromised journalists who had to be “masters of euphemism and understatement.” One of the other Western journalists in Moscow at the time, Eugene Lyons, later admitted what had happened in his book Assignment in Utopia:
Throwing down Jones was as unpleasant a chore as fell to any of us in years of juggling facts to please dictatorial regimes—but throw him down we did, unanimously and in almost identical formulas of equivocation. Poor Gareth Jones must have been the most surprised human being alive when the facts he so painstakingly garnered from our mouths were snowed under by our denials.
The denials forced Jones to retreat back to Wales, reduced to a reporter at a local paper. But the determined and indefatigable Welshman was soon publishing major exposes for a competitor to the Times, the newspaper empire of William Randolph Hearst. As explained at the website dedicated to Gareth Jones created by his descendants (which I highly recommend and where you can find the 2008 Ukranian documentary about Jones and the Holodomor) it is explained how fake news worked in the 1930s.
Instead of again trying to publicly deride Gareth’s articles, a month later, and conveniently for the Soviets, whether by accident or more probably by design, Hearst was ‘furnished’ with a series of fraudulent articles and bogus famine photo claiming an on-going Ukrainian famine in 1934, by one ‘Thomas Walker,’ a then unknown, convicted-conman who had absconded from Colorado prison. Walker, whose real name was Robert Green, was easily exposed as a complete charlatan by Louis Fischer (armed with evidence that Green had only spent 5 days in the USSR in 1934, and therefore could not [have] visited Ukraine – information readily supplied to him by the Soviet authorities). Without ever-mentioning Gareth’s name, Fischer was thus able to destroy the credibility of all of Hearst’s reporting of any Soviet famine.
Jones with William Randolph Hearst
Gareth would have been completely unaware of Fischer’s 13th March 1935 letter (entitled ‘Hearst’s Russian ‘Famine”) in the US weekly, The Nation exposing Thomas Walker’s fake reporting, otherwise one would have expected him to contribute to the debate in the US, especially as he had spearheaded Hearst’s first series of anti-Soviet articles in 1935 . The precise timing of Fischer’s article coincided with the exact start of a period when Gareth became effectively incommunicado whilst ‘back-packing’ around SouthEast Asia in Search of News. Prior to this journey and whilst residing in Japan , Gareth had been provided with free accommodation by a fellow journalist Günter Stein, who himself had just arrived in Tokyo from London . However, unbeknown to Gareth, Stein was actually an alleged Soviet spy, loosely but not exclusively associated with the famous Richard Sorge spy ring. One might perhaps wonder whether Stein not only reported Gareth’s immediate itinerary to his spy masters in Moscow, but if it possibly resulted in the ‘go-ahead’ for Fischer’s 4th March dated letter to be ‘safely ‘published (just two days after Gareth left Stein’s apartment on 11th March)?
The website highlights the circumstances of Jones’ death that implies a Soviet murder on the eve of his 30th birthday.
What is not up for conjecture is that Gareth’s Far Eastern movements were being closely monitored by the Soviets. Within five months, he had been kidnapped by ‘Japanese-controlled’ Chinese bandits and two weeks afterwards was suspiciously murdered in Inner Mongolia . His last mode of transport and from which he was kidnapped was ‘kindly’ provided gratis by a German company called Wostwag – now known to have been a trading front of the OGPU / NKVD… [He was kidnapped along with the German journalist, Dr. Herbert Mueller, who had invited him on the trip to Inner Mongolia . Mueller was ‘unusually’ released, unharmed after two days in captivity – British Intelligence records at the Public Records Office now reveal that they had a secret dossier on Mueller for 34 years citing him as; a known Communist, a representative of the Third International (Comintern) in China, at one time lived in the Soviet Consulate in Hankow, under the alias of ‘Gordon’ and also ran a covert Soviet courier business within China.]
Mr. Jones, a Polish/British production premiered in 2019 at the Berlin International Film Festival. It was just now released in France. Please go to see this movie when (if) it is released in the US. I believe in our time, that act alone is a political statement for truth.