"Mr. Jones" Shows Fake News Has Always Been a Weapon Against UkraineRoundup
tags: film, Soviet Union, famine, Ukraine, Stalinism, journalism, Walter Duranty
Walter G. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University. His most recent book is An Age of Progress?: Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces (2008). For a list of all his recent books and online publications, including many on Russian history and culture, go here.
I recently viewed Mr. Jones (2019) on Amazon Prime. It is based on actual events that occurred in 1933 and is just one indication that “fake news” is nothing new, whether coming from the Right or Left.
The film’s main character, Gareth Jones, is played by an excellent James Norton, who appeared as an English vicar in the first few seasons of the PBS Masterpiece series “Grantchester.” Jones is a Welsh reporter, and most of the film is set in the USSR in 1933. His chief non-Soviet rival is The New York Times journalist and Moscow bureau chief Walter Duranty, who had received a 1932 Pulitzer Prize for his earlier reporting. Peter Sarsgaard, who had appeared in the Hulu series “Dopesick” as one of the “good guys,” here convincingly portrays Duranty as a spewer of false information regarding the USSR and its famine of the early 1930s.
The film (Mr. Jones) reminded me that a Russian attack on Ukraine and “fake news” was nothing new. “Reminded” not discovered, for already in 2005 I had written, “Stalin was also mainly responsible for a famine of 1931–1933 that killed millions of additional people, a famine he refused to acknowledge publicly or seek foreign help to alleviate….Many Ukrainians perceive it as a ‘terror-famine,’ famine-genocide, or Holodomor (a unique term emphasizing the Ukrainian suffering and mass starvation of 1932–1933) and believe it resulted almost entirely from Stalin’s collectivization policies and hostility to the peasants and Ukrainians, who suffered a disproportionate number of deaths.”
After indicating some scholarly difference about the exact causes of the debate, I added, that it “is overshadowed by the inconceivable suffering, which all scholars admit occurred, and which the writer Vasili Grossman….described well in his novel Forever Flowing”: “Everyone was in terror. Mothers looked to their children and began to scream in fear. They screamed as if a snake had crept into their house. And this snake was famine, starvation, death….Only famine was on the move. Only famine did not sleep. The children would cry from morning on, asking for bread. And what could their mothers give them—snow? And there was no help. The Party officials had one answer to all entreaties: ‘You should have worked harder, you shouldn’t have loafed.’”
One of the most horrifying parts of Mr. Jones is the depiction of famine suffering and death as seen through the eyes of Jones, who travels to Ukraine in early 1933. The film, directed by the Polish director Agnieszka Holland, does pretty well depicting some of the suffering that Grossman described and part of which Jones himself wrote about later in 1933: “In almost every village, the bread supply had run out two months earlier, the potatoes were almost exhausted, and there was not enough coarse beet, which was formerly used as cattle fodder, but has now become a staple food of the population, to last until the next harvest. Many cottages had not even cattle fodder, and the peasants assured me that the occupants of those cottages were dying of hunger. In each village I received the same information–namely that many were dying of the famine and that about four-fifths of the cattle and the horses had perished….One word was drummed into my memory by every talk. That word was ‘golod’ – i.e., ‘hunger’ or ‘famine.’ Nor shall I forget the swollen stomachs of the children in the cottages in which I slept.”