22 June 2022

Gareth Jones and the crimes of Stalin

Three years ago I read a review of a recently released film, Mr. Jones, and I looked forward to seeing it in the cinema or at home. This past weekend we discovered that it is now being streamed over Amazon Prime and decided to watch it.

Mr. Jones was directed by Agnieszka Holland and tells the story of Welsh journalist Gareth Jones (1905-1935), who uncovered the truth about Josef Stalin's disastrous effort to collectivize agriculture in Ukraine and elsewhere, leading to mass starvation. Holland is a Polish film director and screenwriter whose family background in communist Poland and, before that, under nazi occupation has uniquely positioned her to tell the story of someone attempting to communicate truth in the midst of the ideological distortions of the day.

The film begins with the young Jones (played by James Norton), after a successful interview with Adolf Hitler upon coming to power in 1933, travelling to Moscow to secure a similar interview with Stalin. He is curious to learn why the Soviet Union, whose economic resources are so minimal, has embarked on a spending spree. How are they able to do this? As a journalist, he is seeking answers to this question and wants to go straight to the top to get them. Having previously worked as an advisor to former Prime Minister David Lloyd-George, he comes with a doctored introductory letter from his former employer, hoping that it will facilitate his efforts. Once he arrives in Moscow, he meets an old friend Paul Kleb (Marcin Czarnik), who tells him that he knows the truth about Stalin's policies. But before Kleb can divulge this information, he is murdered.

Gareth Jones
While in Moscow, Jones meets other foreign journalists, including Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard), a Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times reporter, who lives a dissolute life, associates with prostitutes, and is obviously being bought off by the communist regime to praise the Soviet Union in print. A cynical hedonist, Duranty has no desire to see the truth come out, lest it jeopardize the position of the community of foreign journalists, whose whereabouts are limited to Moscow. Despite this restriction, Jones manages surreptitiously to take a train south to Ukraine where he sees first hand the suffering of the people. Here the film offers vivid and gruesome scenes of the horrors unleashed by the regime on the innocent. At this point Jones faces a horrible dilemma as he seeks to alert an unbelieving outside world to these atrocities, which together have come to be called the Holodomor, after the Ukrainian word (голодомор) for famine.

The film is heavily fictionalized, much to the displeasure of Jones's extended family, who highlight inaccuracies here: The True Story behind the 'True Story' of Mr Jones. For example, Paul Kleb is an invented character, as is the film's love interest, Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby). Jones never met George Orwell (Joseph Mawle), whom Jones did not influence as he wrote Animal Farm, which was published ten years after his death. The family have rightly asked why a film seeking to tell the truth about a painful period in history should not be more careful to present the truth of Jones's life and work. All the same, if we accept the film as an admittedly fictionalized account of Jones's effort to uncover Stalin's atrocities, we can appreciate it on its own terms.

As I watched the film, I thought of the current atrocities that Russia is once again inflicting on the Ukrainian people. Nine decades after the Holodomor, we read reports that Russia is once again stealing grain from Ukraine and attempting to sell it overseas. In 1931-32 the Stalin regime was in the dark grip of an ostensibly egalitarian ideology for which ordinary people were deemed expendable. Nearly a century later, the Putin regime is in the grip of a similarly dark nationalist ideology bent on reconquest of former Russian territories. But once again, ordinary people—in this case Russian-speaking Ukrainians—are the victims. Whatever the defects of the film, it has painted a memorable portrait of the horrors associated with even the most idealistic of political illusions. For that reason alone, it is worth seeing.

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