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7 February 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 4:21pm

Mr Jones: how a Welsh journalist exposed the horror of Stalin’s Ukraine famines

A new film on the Soviet-era tragedy resonates powerfully in an age of political deceit. 

By Dorian Lynskey

As a child in California, the journalist Andrea Chalupa heard from her Ukrainian grandfather the story of Walter Duranty. As the New York Times’ man in Moscow, Duranty dismissed reports of Stalin’s man-made famine in Ukraine between 1932 and 1933 as a “big scare story” and licensed the west to ignore an atrocity that was killing around 10,000 Ukrainians a day. (Credible estimates of the total death toll range from three to seven million.) Chalupa’s grandfather was a survivor of the famine that Duranty smoothly euphemised as “widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition”: the Holodomor.

While studying Soviet history in 2005, Chalupa learned about another dimension to the story. In March 1933, it was a young Welsh journalist called Gareth Jones who first exposed the extent of the catastrophe. “Everywhere was the cry, ‘There is no bread. We are dying,’” he told a press conference in Berlin. This was the report that Duranty denounced, and the man whose reputation he ruined. Chalupa began thinking that this “David-and-Goliath story” would make a good movie but it was hard to sell a screenplay about an event that no movie had covered before. “The initial reaction [from producers] was: why haven’t I heard of this before?” she remembers. “Even if they rejected the project they still wanted to meet with me, just to learn more about the history.”

Years went by. During the “Euromaidan” revolution against the Russia-backed Ukrainian president Vikor Yanukovych in 2014, Chalupa and her sister Alexandra organised the Digital Maidan, a social media campaign to rebut Kremlin propaganda against the uprising. The assassination of liberal Russian politician Boris Nemtsov in 2015 enraged her that she rewrote the whole screenplay in a furious rush, “grabbing the reader by the throat and saying: How dare you not care about this?”

That new version impressed the Polish director Agnieszka Holland. Like HBO’s TV series Chernobyl, Mr Jones addresses the vast human cost of a system whose survival depended on industrial-scale deceit. “I’m really glad that popular art has started to be interested in communist crimes,” says Holland, 71, whose long career includes three acclaimed films about the Holocaust. “They are practically forgotten. A few years ago some survey [in Russia] asked, ‘Who was the greatest Russian leader?’ and Joseph Stalin came first place. What would we be thinking if a similar survey in Germany gave Adolf Hitler first place?” The self-described pessimist gives a chilly laugh. “We’d feel like we’re in deep trouble, right?”

The film, with James Norton as Jones and Peter Sarsgaard as Duranty, operates in two contrasting modes. Jones’ journey through Ukraine is characterised by a haunting absence. “Famine is dying alone and in silence,” says Holland. “You disappear, you know? It’s like a terrible dream.” The scenes among the Moscow press corps have a sickly decadence that in the move the United Press correspondent Eugene Lyons (Edward Wolstenholme) compares to Edgar Allan Poe’s 1842 short story The Masque of the Red Death. Apart from Malcom Muggeridge, who covered the famine for the Manchester Guardian, the Moscow correspondents conspired with Duranty and the Kremlin to shut down Jones’ story. Chalupa calls it gaslighting.

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In his self-flagellating memoir, Lyons remembered Jones, a 27-year-old former adviser to David Lloyd George, as “an earnest and meticulous little man”. Only an unclubbable, incorruptible outsider could have stepped outside the Moscow bubble and taken the risks that he did to get the real story about the Ukraine famine. The motives of Duranty, whom Muggeridge called “the greatest liar I have ever met in journalism,” were more complex. In his infamous New York Times article, Duranty popularised the phrase, “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” Yet far from being a true believer in communism, he was a cynical hedonist, in love with money, celebrity and influence: he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for covering Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan for the economy. In expat Moscow, access was power. “He could reign there as a king,” says Chalupa.

Mr Jones features another, considerably more famous journalist. When Chalupa’s grandfather migrated to the US after the war he brought with him a rare Ukrainian translation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945), which alludes to the famine and the cover-up. Holland remembers reading a samizdat copy as a teenager in 1960s Poland: “We read it like a Bible. We recognised ourselves in his dystopias.” Passages narrated by a grim-faced, chain-smoking Orwell (played by Jospeh Mawle) function as a framing device in the film. More contentiously, one scene depicts Orwell encountering Jones in London. In March 1933 Orwell was a was a schoolteacher whose writing career had barely begun so it’s unlikely that he ever met Jones, and definitely not in these circumstances. Chalupa justifies the scene as a metaphor for solidarity: “It symbolised what I’d learned in my own work: it takes a team of people to get the truth out.”

As Mr Jones took shape, the world changed for the worse. Chalupa remembers Holland predicting not only that Donald Trump would win the 2016 US presidential election but that he would set up internment camps once in office. Having witnessed the rise of the Law and Justice Party in her home country, Holland had no illusions. “In Poland the media is so divided that it’s called identity media,” says the director, whose parents were both journalists. “It is very difficult to keep objectivity because society is polarised and it’s more commercially effective to take sides than to just report the facts.” This made telling Jones’ story feel painfully necessary. “When the media is not serving truth and when governments are conformist and when public opinion is indifferent to the truth, anything can happen.”

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Under the name The Price of Truth, Holland’s film has been a cause célèbre in Ukraine, where Kiev city council voted to name a street after Jones. (There is currently no prospect of its release in Russia.) It is an inspiring tale, yet fundamentally tragic. In a movie such as All the President’s Men (1976) or Spotlight (2016), the work of brave, tenacious reporters shocks the world, but in Jones’ case the whitewash succeeded. He was smeared by his peers, ostracised by Lloyd George, and murdered by Chinese guerrillas while reporting from Mongolia in 1935. Duranty, meanwhile, was feted as “one of the great foreign correspondents of modern times” for his role in President Roosevelt’s official recognition of the USSR, and lived to the age of 73. His Pulitzer has never been revoked. Perhaps that makes Mr Jones a more representative story.

“Look at all the great journalism exposing Trump,” says Chalupa. “Does it matter? Look at Syria. All these excellent documentaries haven’t stopped the atrocities.” She rallies. “For me, with my family history, what Gareth Jones did really matters because it gives dignity back to the victims. The truth always matters.”