The killing of George Floyd led to protests and demands for the removal of monuments and place names that glorify Confederates, slave owners, and European colonial oppressors. In the past, such deaths or shocking revelations provided compelling reason to correct history, as did the fall of the Iron Curtain. Now, a just-released, historically-informed film simply called “Mr. Jones” casts a darker version of a terrible history, and necessitates a settling of scores.
Mr. Jones is Gareth Jones, an earnest Welsh journalist, who unmasked the appalling scale of Josef Stalin’s mass murder in Ukraine in 1932 and 1933, following a sojourn of one month among its victims. He was an outside witness to the Holodomor (Ukrainian for “death by starvation”) in which untold millions died. This has been unearthed since the fall of communism, but what’s pertinent today—in an era of “fake news”—is that the film underscores the complicity of The New York Times’ Moscow bureau chief Walter Duranty, who whitewashed Stalin’s predation and even received a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for his Soviet “coverage.”
Today’s context amplifies the film’s significance. Russia continues to abuse and kill Ukrainians, and others, and now has an army of bots and cyber warriors that whitewash its crimes, spread disinformation, seed violence, and cause unrest in democracies around the world. These are the Kremlin’s current digital apologists who are as venal as was Duranty.
The film, by award-winning director Agnieszka Holland, is part political thriller, as Jones unpeels the truth, then a harrowing journey into a heart of darkness. A Russian-speaker, Jones smuggled himself into Ukraine. For months, Stalin had cordoned off the place from the press and outside world, and some portions of Russia and Kazakhstan, in order to confiscate their grain and livestock, bolster his regime, and crush any political resistance to collectivization.
Russia hid its crimes officially for decades. In 1991, after Ukraine declared independence, Soviet archives were opened and the revelations eventually led to a 2003 United Nations Joint Statement, signed by Russia, that declared the starvation had taken seven to ten million innocent lives. Then, on October 23, 2008, the European Parliament adopted a resolution recognizing the Holodomor as a crime against humanity.
In Spring 1933, Jones was finally arrested in Ukraine and released, with the help of Britain, after promising to never divulge what he had witnessed. But he ignored that directive and issued a press release with details, spoke out publicly, and searched for a publisher. His former employer and Prime Minister David Lloyd George cautioned him to remain silent, and only a handful of newspapers picked up his comments. And the Kremlin firmly denied his allegations, as did Duranty in The New York Times under the headline “Russians Hungry, But Not Starving.”
The film portrays Duranty as a debauched cynic, likely on Stalin’s payroll. But it excludes his role as Stalin’s “ambassador.” He accompanied Soviet officials to the White House and helped convince Franklin Delano Roosevelt to officially recognize the Soviet Union. On November 24, 1933, the Soviet Union hosted a lavish dinner at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel for 1,500 in honor of its recognition. The special of honor was Stalin’s apologist, Duranty, who received a standing ovation.
In a 1985 documentary, British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, who also wrote a few pieces about the famine under a nom de plume, condemned Duranty. He was “the biggest liar of any journalist I have met in 50 years of journalism”, he said.
Duranty covered up the tragedy, but also shamed writers who wrote about it. “This is the most terrible thing I’ve ever seen precisely because of the deliberation with which it was done and total absence of any kind of sympathy.”
In 1934, Jones convinced the sensationalist and anti-communist Hearst chain of newspapers to publish his heart-rending series about the man-made famine. But neither the Russians nor Duranty even bothered to comment. Shortly after, he went to Asia to investigate another bellicose and ruthless nation, Japan, and was kidnapped and held for ransom. On August 12, 1935—the day before his 30th birthday—he was murdered, likely by Soviet agents. After his death, his former employer and British Prime Minister David Lloyd-George said: “That part of the world is a cauldron of conflicting intrigue and one or other interests concerned probably knew that Mr. Gareth Jones knew too much of what was going on. He had a passion for finding out what was happening in foreign lands wherever there was trouble, and in pursuit of his investigations he shrank from no risk. I had always been afraid that he would take one risk too many.”
In 1990, British biographer S. J. Taylor published Stalin’s Apologist, which documented Duranty’s duplicitousness. In response, The New York Times examined his archive then wrote that Duranty’s later articles denying the famine constituted “some of the worst reporting to appear in this newspaper.” That year, the Pulitzer Prize Board reconsidered the award, but decided to preserve the status quo. In 2003, a second attempt to have him stripped of the Prize, led by the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association, failed.
This release of “Mr. Jones,” in the light of Russia’s contemporary marauding and media malpractice, is reason enough to revisit the tragedy. Meaningfully, in 2008 Mr. Jones was posthumously awarded the Ukrainian Order of Merit for his exceptional services to the country. But it is not too late to correct the record. Duranty’s Pulitzer Prize should be rescinded, and any remaining monuments and heroic mythologies erected around Stalin’s place in history deserve demolition once and for all.