Legendary Polish director Agnieszka Holland has come out with a thoughtful, elegant new film, “Mr. Jones,” addressing the 1932-33 Ukrainian Holodomor, or forced famine. I watch a lot of movies, and I’ve seen many addressing atrocity. “Mr. Jones” wrecked me. I fought back sobs, and also the urge to thrust my fist through the screen and destroy the film’s slimy villains. Compared to numerous other films addressing humanity’s dark side, “Mr. Jones” depicts virtually no onscreen gore. This is not atrocity porn. “Mr. Jones” is two hours long, and yet scenes of the actual famine take up only about half an hour – and it’s a quiet, monochromatic half hour. This film most frequently depicts well-dressed, well-fed people talking. With just that, Holland was able to move me more deeply than many a more graphic film. In 2019, innovative horror director Ari Aster released “Midsommer,” shot almost entirely in bright sunshine. Aster wanted to see if he could terrify people without hackneyed jump scares in old, dark houses. Holland has done what Aster was trying to do. “Mr. Jones” is a lowkey, polite, non-horror movie that utterly horrified me.
Don’t get me wrong – you should see “Mr. Jones.” The film offers you as pure a depiction of heroism as you are likely to get from a movie this year. When the film ended, my friend was more exhilarated than depressed. He said that “sublime talent” and a depiction of “complex events and the best and worst of humanity” impressed him so much that he planned to watch “Mr. Jones” again, and soon.
“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,” George Orwell wrote. Genocides are not equal, and some are certainly better known than others. When I type “Holodomor,” my spellcheck underlines the word in red, as if it were unknown. I have to guess that most Americans have never even heard of the Holodomor. This ignorance helps explain why so many young Americans have a favorable view of communism, a negative view of capitalism, and report that they are likely to vote socialist.
Their view might change if they read just two short, horrifying articles. In 2011, historian Timothy Snyder chewed over “Hitler vs Stalin. Who Was Worse?” Ian Johnson’s 2018 follow-up asked, “Who Killed More? Hitler, Stalin, or Mao?“
If a student or employee were to wear a swastika or Hitler t-shirt, that person would be immediately ejected from class or the workplace. He might very well find himself in court, a therapist’s office, and on various watch lists, and he would no doubt be abandoned by friends. Were that same person to wear a red star, a hammer and sickle or the likeness of Mao, Che, or Stalin, on a t-shirt, he would likely face zero consequences. You can buy a hammer and sickle cookie cutter, a hammer and sickle refrigerator magnet, and hammer and sickle vodka. The hammer and sickle makes a regular appearance in graffiti at Black Lives Matter protests. BLM co-founder Patrisse Cullors identifies herself and her comrades as “trained Marxists.” It’s more than ironic that a movement that contains the words “lives matter” follows Karl Marx. BLM has been granted an imprimatur by the Democratic Party. I wonder if, to Party leadership, 100 million lost lives matter worth a damn.
For those unfamiliar with the Holodomor, the subject of “Mr. Jones,” a brief summary follows. Ukraine is located between traditionally autocratic Russia and Western-looking, independence-minded, Catholic Poland. It contains very fertile “black earth;” it’s one of those grain-producing regions known as a “bread basket.” Ukrainians have long been majority agriculturalists, that is, the kind of people history runs over with chariots, boots, and tanks. After the 1917 Russian Revolution, that ended the reign of the czars, there was chaos in Ukraine, and a massive peasant uprising. Many Ukrainians wanted their own country. They were defeated by Russian communists, who imposed communism on Ukraine, and incorporated it into the Russian-dominated USSR.
Beginning in 1928, the USSR began a campaign of collectivization of agriculture. Ukrainians resisted. For ten years, the USSR disseminated propaganda demonizing so-called “kulaks,” or successful farmers. Lenin described kulaks as “bloodsuckers, vampires, plunderers of the people and profiteers, who fatten on famine.” In propaganda posters, kulaks were depicted as immensely fat and greedy monsters who withheld grain from starving Russians: see here, here, here, and here. This propaganda campaign demanded, and paved the way for, the “liquidation” of the kulaks.
“They would threaten people with guns, as if they were under a spell, calling small children ‘kulak bastards,’ screaming ‘bloodsuckers!’… They had sold themselves on the idea that so-called ‘kulaks’ were pariahs, untouchables, vermin. They would not sit down at a ‘parasite’s’ table; the ‘kulak’ child was loathsome, the young ‘kulak’ girl was lower than a louse … [kulaks were] cattle, swine, loathsome, repulsive; they had no souls, they stank, they all had venereal diseases, they were enemies of the people and exploited the labor of others … there was no pity for them. They were not human beings … they were vermin.”
Grossman was with the Red Army’s westward advance. He entered Treblinka in July, 1944. He wrote the first article ever published about a Nazi death camp. He remarked on similarities between Nazism’s treatment of Jews and communism’s treatment of kulaks.
As a twenty-one-year-old, Lev Kopelev participated in the destruction of the kulaks. He later explained the communist brainwashing that enabled his brutality.
“I mustn’t give in to debilitating pity. We were realizing historical necessity. We were performing our revolutionary duty. We were obtaining grain for the socialist fatherland … our great goal was the universal triumph of Communism, and for the sake of that goal everything was permissible – to lie, to steal, to destroy hundreds of thousands and even millions of people, all those who were hindering our work or could hinder it … and to hesitate about all this was to give in to ‘intellectual squeamishness’ and ‘stupid liberalism,’ the attribute of people who ‘could not see the forest for the trees.'”
Indeed, Soviets eventually sentenced Kopelev to ten years in the Gulag for “bourgeois humanism” and “compassion for the enemy.”
Collectivization went very wrong very fast. Stalin knew that famine was on the horizon. He could have, as historian Anne Applebaum points out, asked for international aid. Stalin did not ask for aid; he did not want the world to know that communism was failing. Stalin could have stopped grain exports. He did not stop exports; those exports paid for his construction of heavy industry. He wanted the world to be impressed by communism’s gains. In autumn of 1932, the Soviet Politburo made the fateful decisions that signed a death warrant for millions of Ukrainians. They drew a cordon around Ukraine, prohibiting Ukrainian peasants from leaving the republic, and even forbidding them from going into Ukrainian cities. Teams of Communist Party activists went from house to house and removed all food, including pets. They also took money and clothes. Communists are nothing if not hypocritical. They also set up 1,500 shops around Ukraine where people traded wedding rings and czarist-era coins and medals for porridge, flour, and potatoes. This shakedown-at-gunpoint became, as Applebaum explains, “A crucial factor in Soviet international trade.”
On another front in the war against Ukrainian identity and the very bodies of kulaks, the Soviet secret police carried out a campaign against anyone in Ukraine capable of leading any kind of national movement. Priests, teachers, museum curators, writers, and artists were “vilified, jailed, sent to a labor camp.” Churches were destroyed. A letter was removed from the alphabet to make Ukrainian more like Russian. After mass death emptied out Ukrainian villages, ethnic Russians were moved into them.
Rafal Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish lawyer who coined the term “genocide,” said that what Communist Russia did to Ukraine was the “classic example.”
“the Ukrainian peasantry was sacrificed…a famine was necessary for the Soviet and so they got one to order… if the Soviet program succeeds completely, if the intelligentsia, the priest, and the peasant can be eliminated [then] Ukraine will be as dead as if every Ukrainian were killed, for it will have lost that part of it which has kept and developed its culture, its beliefs, its common ideas, which have guided it and given it a soul, which, in short, made it a nation… This is not simply a case of mass murder. It is a case of genocide, of the destruction, not of individuals only, but of a culture and a nation.”
The Soviet Union participated in crafting the internationally recognized legal definition of the word “genocide.” The USSR was careful not to allow that definition to encompass its own crimes. Rather, the USSR wanted Nazi Germany to occupy the dock in the “genocide” courtroom.
The Ukrainians faced not just the enemy in Moscow. They also faced the enemy in the United States. Walter Duranty was the New York Times Moscow bureau chief from 1922-1936. For articles misleading the public about Stalin and communism, Duranty won the 1932 Pulitzer Prize. The Nation, a progressive publication, said at the time that Duranty’s work constituted “the most enlightened, dispassionate dispatches from a great nation in the making which appeared in any newspaper in the world.” In spite of much protest, Duranty’s prize has not been revoked.
Duranty’s Holodomor denial is not a deservedly extinct species from a distastefully primitive, less evolved era. There are still powerful, scoffing voices. Grover Furr still has a page at Montclair State University. Furr calls the Holodomor a “myth,” a “fiction” and a “fascist lie,” for example in this YouTube video. Furr dismisses Ukrainians as right-wing Nazi collaborators and anti-Semites whose only interest is in denying the Holocaust and justifying Ukrainian murder of Poles. Collectivization, Furr insists, stopped famines.
In 1988, the Village Voice ran a nasty, lengthy piece by Jeff Coplon smearing Ukrainians as Nazi collaborators and “fascists,” and denying the famine as a “fraud.” The only reason anyone would mention the Holodomor is because their goal is “a denial of Hitler’s holocaust against the Jews.” Any account of the famine is “slanted,” “right-wing,” “biased,” “rumor,” “fraud” and “spin.” “Premier Sovietologists dismiss” any talk of famine. Coplon quotes scholars from several universities.
Yes, leftists suppress discussion of the Holodomor. There are other reasons it is less well known. The Holodomor occurred a decade before the Holocaust. For a variety of reasons, the Holocaust receives more attention. Germany is in the center of Europe, not on its eastern periphery. For a long time, Germany was the ancestral homeland of the largest number of Americans. Germany produces superstars, from Beethoven to Goethe to Einstein to Marlene Dietrich. Germans were obsessive record creators and there is a crushing supply of photos, film footage, and written documents of the Holocaust. There is no such mountain of documentation of the Holodomor. Too, German Nazis managed, in a few short years, to reduce the European population of Jews by over sixty percent. Depending on how death tolls are calculated, the Holodomor claimed between 3.9 and ten million lives. There were still tens of millions of Ukrainians after the genocide.
As Agnieszka Holland herself has remarked, starvation is a humiliating way to die. Nazi efficiency, the gas chambers, and the ovens exert morbid fascination. Huddled peasants taking weeks to breathe their last breaths, watching their and their children’s eyes sink in their sockets, bellies swell, skin sag, all this in cold huts in remote villages, is a very different phenomenon. Such deaths are, perhaps, the ultimate expression of human vulnerability and helplessness. As mighty as we think we are, without items as humble as potatoes and lard, we disappear. Then there is the added problem of cannibalism. Some Ukrainians did go mad and did eat their own children. According to one source, 2,500 people were convicted of cannibalism.
Anne Applebaum told an interviewer that researching the Holodomor was “unedifying” and more difficult than her previous work on the Gulag. In Gulag memoirs, she encountered those who managed, spiritually, to transcend their unjust imprisonment. She found no such material about the Holodomor. Instead, she describes searing scenes, for example, a communist kicking a starving fifteen-year-old Ukrainian girl to death. When onlookers began to cry, he berated them. “Some are getting too sentimental here. It is easy to spot enemies of the people.”
There is another reason why some might not want to extend compassion to Ukrainians – very complicated history. For hundreds of years, beginning in the Middle Ages, Ukraine was controlled by Poland. Polish nobles and Jewish managers exploited Ukrainian peasants. This exploitation was remarked upon by Nathan Hannover, a seventeenth-century Jewish historian who survived a Cossack attack. Hannover remarked that Ukrainians were “slaves” to Poles and Jews, who meted out “cruel treatment.” Ukrainians rose up against Poles and Jews in the 1648 Chmielnicki Uprising. During this uprising, Ukrainians committed atrocities. In the twentieth century, during post-revolutionary chaos, some Ukrainians carried out pogroms that killed tens of thousands of Jews. During the Nazi occupation, Ukrainians massacred approximately 100,000 Poles and tens of thousands of others collaborated with the Nazis. When mentioning Nazi collaborators, one must add that 4.5 million Ukrainians fought against the Nazis in the Red Army.
For not a few Jews, and Poles as well, Ukrainians are bad guys. Poles may tell Ukrainian jokes. Jews sometimes refer to Chmielnicki as Hitler before Hitler. Ukrainians are assigned the villain role in perhaps the most popular cultural product touching on Eastern Europe, the stage and screen classic, “Fiddler on the Roof.” Eliyana Adler, a teacher of Eastern European Jewish history, writing in the Forward, sums up how Ukrainians are too often stereotyped. “In the mythical Anatevka of stage and screen, the only Ukrainians we see are drunk pogromchiki. Arguably our simplified version of the past is even worse than theirs … we have made them into the enemy.”
One of my friends, John Guzlowski, comes from a Polish family that was horribly victimized by Ukrainian killers during World War II. I can condemn killers and torturers and yet recognize that they do not represent the entire nation. Right now is as good a time as any for all of us to transcend ancient hatreds. Not every Pole was an arrogant and oppressive nobleman. Not every Jew was a greedy exploiter. Not every peasant was a brutal sadist. They were all human beings, just like us, struggling for survival in a rigid, virtual caste system none of them invented. Each group produced wrongdoers. Each produced heroes. There were too many innocent victims in each. Now is the right time for us to feel compassion for those innocent victims, no matter their ethnicity.
Soviet dissident, Israeli politician and author Natan Sharansky was born in Ukraine. He and his co-author, historian Gil Troy, make an eloquent argument for mutual tolerance in spite of past wrongs in a July, 29, 2020 essay, and they use a Ukrainian statue to Chmielnicki as a case study in such tolerance.
“Mr. Jones” The Movie
“Mr. Jones” is an engaging film because it’s about the title character: Gareth Jones, a real man, and a real hero. He’s played by James Norton, a tall, handsome, charismatic actor. In the same way that Gareth Jones charms Soviets into doing what he wants, Norton, the powerful actor, charms the audience into following Jones into Hell.
The film opens with a hypnotic view of abundant wheat, swaying and crackling in the wind and sun. There are hogs feeding, aggressively. We hear their snorts and look into their eyes. We are forced to think about food, our need, and survival.
The first character onscreen is George Orwell. He’s writing “Animal Farm,” whose main human character is Mr. Jones. There is speculation, but only speculation, that Orwell may have chosen this name in honor of Gareth Jones. Orwell bemoans his fate. Why is he writing a political book, one he will have trouble publishing? Why doesn’t he write romance novels? One guesses that screenwriter Andrea Chalupa and director Agnieszka Holland may be asking themselves this question. Why try to tell the story of the Holodomor?
Gareth Jones is in his twenties, but he’s in a hurry to make his mark upon the world. He’s the son of a school teacher from Barry, Wales. In his own hometown, a childhood friend says to him, “We thought you would have been prime minster by now.” In the wider world, Jones is a small town boy without credentials. He travels to Germany and through sheer audacity manages to share a plane with Hitler. Back home, he tries to tell colleagues of former prime minster David Lloyd George that war is coming. Jones is laughed out of the room. This is the first of many times that Jones is dismissed, laughed at, and taken as a rube. And then he’s fired. “You need me,” Jones tells his boss. “I’m the only one who tells you the truth.” Maybe that’s why he was fired.
Jones never mopes; this unemployed twenty-eight-year-old moves on to his next obsession: Stalin. How is Stalin paying for the industrialization of his five-year plan, during the depths of a worldwide depression? Is communism the miracle its supporters insist it is? Jones finagles a hard-to-obtain journalist visa to Moscow.
I just used the English word “finagle” but inside my head a voice keeps repeating, “No, the real words are ‘zalatwic‘ and ‘kombinowac.'” These two words encapsulated daily life in the Soviet Empire. Nothing was possible, rational, or fair. To get things done, those living under communism had to learn how to break rules, make connections, and pull rabbits out of hats. In that, Jones has experience. He’s young, he’s from a humble family in the provinces, and he’s smarter than the stuffed shirts who laughed at his predictions about Hitler and war. A spunky underdog, he will amp up his finagling to outwit communism. To get a visa, to get a hotel room, and to get to Ukraine all require the craftiness and boldness of a folklore hero. “Gareth Jones was almost an Icarus-type character, who knew how close to the sun he was flying, but couldn’t seem to resist the temptation to expose tyrannical abuse of power,” said one of his biographers.
Once in Moscow, Jones meets Walter Duranty. Peter Sarsgaard, in an Academy-Award-worthy performance, milks every droplet of evil from this creature, like a snake handler milking venom from a cobra. Sarsgaard is, by turns, as contemptuous as Nero, buck naked at a heroin-fueled orgy, and revealing the sweaty stink of fear. Scriptwriter Andrea Chalupa, who says she was inspired by her Ukrainian grandfather, admits that the film could have been much crueler to Duranty. She’s correct. Allegations against Duranty include necrophilia. Why did Duranty lie? Perhaps because he was being blackmailed by the Soviets, holding him hostage with his sexual proclivities. Duranty was an occasional sex partner of occultist Aleister Crowley, who self-identified as “The Beast 666.” Crowley wrote poetry in praise of necrophilia.
The reason for Duranty’s perfidy may be more prosaic. The Soviets gave him an apartment, a driver, and daily deliveries of fresh caviar. He was famous and feted. During the Depression, people were craving a miracle cure. Stalin seemed to be providing one. Duranty was Stalin’s court praise poet. They both sold to the world the shiny Utopian trinket the world wanted to buy.
Duranty lost his leg to gangrene. The film’s Duranty carries a cane tipped with a white rabbit, visually similar to John Tenniel’s depictions of the white rabbit in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Like that white rabbit, Duranty is a guide to an upside world: communist Russia. Also like that white rabbit, he is a contrast to the main character. Lewis Carroll wrote that Alice, like Gareth Jones, was young, audacious, vigorous, and possessed swift directness of purpose, while the white rabbit was Alice’s opposite. Like Duranty, he is pompous toward underlings and groveling and obsequious to superiors.
Duranty insists that the Soviets are working miracles. Jones suggests that they are deranged. “What is deranged in a deranged world?” Duranty asks, expressing his own moral relativism, which contrasts with Jones’ insistence on truth as the absolute value.
Ada Brooks (a fictional, composite character, played by Vanessa Kirby) is Durante’s beautiful, young protegee. She and Jones spend the night talking. Ada is clearly torn. Unlike Duranty, she could still be brought over to the good side. She asks Jones what his agenda is.
“I don’t have an agenda,” he insists. “I am a journalist. The most noble profession. Loyal only to truth. Unless you call truth an agenda.”
Ada scoffs. “Whose truth?”
“There is only one truth,” he replies.
“That is so naïve.” We want to like her, but she’s sounding too Duranty. She tells us her backstory. Her story is a microcosm of what is happening on the world stage. One must choose: Hitler or Stalin. “I grew up in Berlin,” she says, remarking on how free and modern Berlin was. “The Nazis destroyed everything so quickly. I’m afraid for my friends. They’re arresting everyone in the Communist Party. We have to succeed.”
“You sound like you work for Stalin,” he protests.
“I don’t believe in Stalin,” she says, earnestly. “I believe in a movement that is bigger than any one person There are cycles of history just like there are cycles of nature. We have a chance to fight for the future for the real people, the workers. This movement is bigger than any one of us.” She argues that even if people have to be killed for communism to succeed, it’s worth it.
“Do you hear yourself?” he asks.
A Soviet minder, Leonid (Oleg Drach) accompanies Jones on his trip to Ukraine, ostensibly to visit a factory showcasing communism’s economic miracles. Alas, many Western viewers will not grasp the significance of Leonid’s scenes. He eats with gusto on the train. He boasts how much communism has improved his life and the life of his family. His home is full of food. Real food, he emphasizes. His daughters go to the movies for free. Life is beautiful now. The Party takes care of all of our needs. Leonid drinks much vodka and falls asleep. Jones gives Leonid the slip. After Leonid awakes and discovers that Jones has escaped, the look on Leonid’s face is devastating. He knows his life is effectively over, and his wife and daughters will suffer, too.
The movie Jones, as the real Jones did, traverses famine-struck Ukraine on foot. There is heavy snow. The film stock is now desaturated, almost black and white. An exception: Jones attempts to eat an orange. The orange’s color is true. He tosses the peel to the ground. Starving Ukrainians lunge at the peel. This is based on a real incident from Jones’ journals. The scene calls to mind “Schindler’s List.” In that black-and-white Holocaust film, there is only one touch of color. The red of a little girl’s coat.
One of the stations of the cross in Jones’ pilgrimage to famine-struck Ukraine is a very quiet, five-minute scene involving a child named Kolya. There is no gore; there is no screaming; no soundtrack violins pull at the heartstrings. The scene broke my heart and I will never forget it.
Jones returns to the West, and tries, again, as he did after his plane trip with Hitler, to tell the truth.
“The Soviet Union is not the worker’s paradise,” Jones says. “It is not the great experiment that you read about in the press. Stalin has no stunning new achievement unless you consider killing millions of innocent people an achievement. If we let him get away with this manmade famine, there will be others like him.”
“What about the free schools and the free hospitals?” he is asked.
“At what cost?” he replies.
“A more egalitarian society does exist, but not perfectly. Experiments take time.”
“An egalitarian society?” Jones scoffs. “It’s the same system of exploitation that exists here, only it’s worse. Unimaginably worse. I know what I saw. Stalin is not the man you think he is.”
“Are you saying there’s no hope?”
Jones is, again, shut down. Duranty is a star; Jones is a non-entity who is stealing people’s hope. He moves back in with his father and is mocked by local children. Eventually he finagles – there’s that word again – a meeting with William Randolph Hearst, who publishes his work. That same year, 1935, Jones will be killed in Mongolia, probably by a Soviet agent. With time, Jones is forgotten, and the Holodomor, once a coverup, becomes a non-story, a word that spellchecks underline in red. Walter Duranty is shown receiving a standing ovation at the White House. His advice has convinced FDR to recognize the Soviet Union. And, yes, that did happen in real life.
Jones’ obscure fate may help us to understand why Orwell is included in this movie. Jones’ work on the Holodomor didn’t get far or last long, but it did reach some readers. It’s possible that one of those readers was Orwell himself. Orwell, through the disguised truth of a “fairy story” (“Animal Farm’s” original subtitle) managed to tell, to millions of readers, the tale of the hunger and rot at the heart of a false Utopia.
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery