I attended college with a young man whose parents, along with much extended family, had immigrated from Ukraine. The details of his immigration story he never shared with me; I wish I would have thought to ask. From his stories, I have to assume that they came post-World War II, possibly as part of the massive displacement resulting from the fighting that took place throughout their country.
Some of the stories he did tell about his family is what happened when, now living in the States, they gathered. When the men got together, they drank. They drank vodka. After drinking vodka, his uncles would rage against the Russians and against the Soviet Union (still a thing, in those days) and, as more vodka was poured, get ever more detailed about what sort of vengeance they would exact should they encounter a Russian. Sometimes weapons were produced.
My friend, himself, was also prone to anti-Russian tirades if he drank enough. I was impressed with his passion but I didn’t give too much thought to the details behind it. I knew, of course, that Ukraine was treated horribly by both the Russians and the Germans during the war and that Ukraine continued to be controlled and exploited by Moscow under the guise of a “Union” of cooperating states. In those times, popular culture was vehemently anti-Nazi but mildly pro-Communist and the contrarian in me liked hearing him opine that “Nazis may be bad, but the Communists were worse.” To what extent I believed that, I don’t know, but I didn’t seek out the evidence to back it up.
Fast forward to today.
The Soviet Union is no longer and Russians are now somewhat willing to criticize the likes of Stalin. The “evil empire” that was the Russians or the Soviet Union, depending on how you phrase it, has always been the enemy of the right side of the political spectrum but now, no matter who you are, Russians have become the bad guys. For conservatives, we still see Russia as attempting to revive and spread communism. The left blames them for electing Donald Trump. You have something bad to say about Russians? Bring it on!
While the Berlin Wall still stood, I was aware of the famines in Ukraine during the early 1930s. I had not, however, heard it described as a genocide. For mainstream thinkers, that a nation would suffer deprivation during the height of the depression didn’t seem remarkable. That parts of the Soviet Union had it worse that what we experienced in the West also made sense, given the inability of Communism to provide for its people. Even factual knowledge that Moscow tried to cover-up starvation in Ukraine would seem par for the course from a totalitarian state who used propaganda at every turn. Knowing a little, and being satisfied with that knowledge, obscured the bigger picture.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, more hard data became available to the rest of the world. The incongruity of farmers starving to death while the fruits of their labor was sent elsewhere, which perhaps should have been obvious from the get go, has backed by additional facts and testimony. In the decades since, nations have begun to use terms like “genocide” and “crime against humanity” to describe what the Ukrainians call Holodomor, or “murder by hunger.” Although some still defend Stalin, many of us see a clear political intent – the slaughter of some 4 million people who held a national identity that might challenge the hegemony of Moscow and their Russian-centric rule of the Soviet Union.
So this is the environment into which Mr. Jones was released. It was introduced in Poland (where it created and filmed, at least in part) and to festivals roughly a year ago, in October and November of 2019. In the USA, it was released in May, 2020 via streaming and other virtual substitutes for theater-going, and it is only over the summer that I first heard about it.
This is another in a line of films that I might rank higher, considering is social implications, that I might purely on entertainment value (if that’s even a phrase one dares associate with famine and genocide). The fact remains that much about this historical event remains unknown or unappreciated by the vast majority of the public; a tragedy and an insult to the memory of the millions that perished. The films title character, Gareth Jones, is a largely-unsung hero. The movie doesn’t show it, but Jones actually made three trips to the Soviet Union. The film portrays his third visit when he risked his life to uncover the horror unfolding in Ukraine. Ultimately, he was kidnapped and killed in China in 1935 in an incident that bears the fingerprints of Soviet intelligence. While Ukraine has acknowledged his sacrifice, he is mostly unknown outside of Ukraine and, perhaps, his native Wales.
Mr. Jones lets the rest of us know who Gareth Jones was and what he accomplished. It also exposes the way that the governments of England and the United States turned a blind eye to Soviet misdeeds, either out of sympathy to the socialist philosophy or simply a desire to profit from the industrialization of Russia. More importantly, it shows the complicity of those like Walter Duranty, Englishman and Moscow-based writer for the New York Times, who willingly aided Stalin’s deceit of the West. As with any historical-based drama, the story deviates from the pure facts. I think, once again, those differences can be overlooked and forgiven.
Granted, the film has made some odd choices. I wonder about the decision to show Ukraine’s plight interspersed with George Orwell’s composition of Animal Farm. The movie suggests that they met and may have shared an agent or a publisher, but I was unable to find a substantial connection between the two. At the time shown in the film, the writing of Animal Farm is still a decade into the future. Orwell is shown, appropriately, as a supporter of Socialism. It was Stalin’s totalitarianism (and Hitler’s) to which he objected, not the concept of a socialist society if it could be facilitated through democracy. Are we seeing an attempt to separate the evils of Stalin with the present-day acceptance of socialism’s goodness? I don’t know.
Whatever flaws this film might have, they pale in comparison to the service done by showing the world what happened almost 90 years ago. Defenders of Stalin remain to this day and many more defend communism against its crimes. Even the film refrains from definitively declaring whether the famine was deliberate or happenstance. One really must wonder how one might think Stalin “innocent” if you thought that it was mismanagement rather than political and ethnic targetting that killed millions of people. Personally, I see the latter motivation being so consistent with much else during his time in power that it seems obvious, but the famine was a horror no matter how you look at it.