Journalism doesn’t have to stifle the truth in the service of fashionable causes and personal narcissism. It’s a choice.
By Izabella Tabarovsky
October 23, 2020
A short while into Mr. Jones, a film by the Polish director Agnieszka Holland, the protagonist, Gareth Jones, who has come to Moscow to learn about Soviet collectivization efforts, says he has no agenda other than finding the truth. It is 1933, and two totalitarian powers are unleashing their competing visions of the world on the Eurasian continent. Jones’ interlocutor, Ada Brooks, a Moscow-based foreign reporter, asks Jones, with not a small touch of cynicism, whose truth he is seeking to uncover. He says that he is looking for “the truth. There is only one kind.”
The question of truth is at the heart of the story Holland tackles—the deadly famine, engineered by Stalin’s regime, that swept through Ukraine, the Volga Basin, the Kuban and Don regions of the North Caucasus, and Kazakhstan in the winter of 1932-1933. In Ukraine alone, where it is known by its Ukrainian name of Holodomor and often referred to as the terror-famine, it took an estimated 4 million lives. In this exceptionally fertile land, Stalin imposed impossible production demands, expropriating all available grain and livestock and using the ensuing starvation to break the back of the peasantry, whose resistance to collectivization threatened to undermine his industrialization efforts.
But Stalin’s crime was only one face of the story. The other face was the extraordinary failure on the part of the world to report and acknowledge the facts. Many were complicit in this failure, but the starring role undoubtedly belonged to the Moscow-based Western journalists, who misreported, underreported, and failed to report about what was plainly happening under their noses. Walter Duranty, the New York Times’ man in Moscow, outright lied about the events, deliberately misleading his readers. In 1932, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for reporting. Holland’s exploration of the complicity of the press in one of Joseph Stalin’s greatest crimes lends the film an unexpected relevance to our current moment, when the role and purpose of the media and of journalism itself seem to be under attack—from both would-be dictators and people for whom virtue is the arbiter of truth.
When we first meet the 27-year-old Jones, he is a foreign adviser to former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and is doing some freelance writing on the side. He just scored a major win—an interview with Hitler—and is now hoping to interview Stalin. Listening to Soviet radio reports, he is trying to solve a puzzle: How can the Kremlin, which he assumes is broke, possibly be going on a spending spree to support its industrialization effort? The numbers don’t add up. Laid off from his job—it’s the Great
Depression, and budgets are being cut—he resolves to go to the Soviet Union in search of answers.
Arriving in Moscow in early March, he makes the rounds of the foreign journalists and quickly learns they are not permitted to travel outside the capital. He also hears that what pays for Stalin’s industrialization drive is grain—“Stalin’s gold.” But when he asks about Ukraine—“the bread basket of Europe” and presumed source of that gold—he is given to understand that too many questions on that subject can cause premature death: On the eve of Jones’ arrival in Moscow, a foreign reporter was found near the Metropole Hotel with four bullets in his back. His new acquaintance, Ada Brooks, tells him that the reporter had worked on a Ukraine story and was afraid to talk about it. Jones packs some food and gets on a southbound train to investigate.
Holland uses some artistic license to dramatize the story: The murder, the mystery, and the silences help move the narrative forward. In real life, however, there was no murder of a journalist preceding Jones’ arrival, and there was no mystery at all about the starvation in Ukraine, even within the Moscow foreign press corps. The famine “was the big story in all our talks in Moscow. … Anyone you were talking to knew that there was a terrible famine going on,” Malcolm Muggeridge, then a reporter for the Manchester Guardian, told an interviewer years later. Even the Soviet press acknowledged that people were eating “seed grain and cattle.” You didn’t have to be a genius, Muggeridge said, to understand that people in the region were starving, or to see that “all the correspondents in Moscow were distorting” the story.
For a reporter with some guts and curiosity, a ban on travel would serve as a challenge to overcome rather than an insurmountable obstacle, and Muggeridge was just such a reporter. Questions about the hunger had plagued him for a long time. Arriving in Moscow in the fall of 1932 as a confirmed communist who had married into the family of the prominent British socialist and sociologist Beatrice Webb (she coined the term collective bargaining), he had planned to give up his British citizenship, become a Soviet
citizen and join in the galvanizing effort of building the first workers’ state. But as he started venturing beyond Moscow’s ex-pat bubble to investigate what life was like for ordinary Russians—he planned to live among them, after all—he confronted a reality that forced him to review his assumptions.
In his fictionalized account, A Winter in Moscow, Muggeridge described an encounter with a peasant in one of Moscow’s markets. The peasant flung himself onto a piece of sausage he had just purchased, then started “retching.” In his face, the protagonist—Muggeridge himself—saw something “animal, desperate, fearful.” It was then that he began to wonder. “The man is starving, he thought. Were the others starving? Was there the same look in their eyes as in his?” Suddenly he “saw hunger everywhere”—in the “pale agonized faces” around him, in the “patient queues” lining up for basic food items, and in empty shops that had nothing but stone busts of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin. Over dinner, made from foodstuffs his wife had purchased at a well-stocked, hard-currency store only foreigners could access, he asked himself how it could be that “the
Dictatorship of the Proletariat would serve such an excellent meal to him, a foreigner, if their own people were going short.”
Muggeridge decided to follow his journalistic instincts. “Without making any kind of plans or asking for permission,” he purchased a train ticket for Kyiv and Rostov. “The Soviet security is not as good as people think it is,” he would say later. “If you once duck it, you can go quite a long way. At least you could in those days.” And that is how he arrived in the North Caucasus and Ukraine (likely right before Jones appeared in Moscow) traveling in a comfortable Pullman car, plied with endless amounts of tea and enjoying all the comforts afforded by his Western salary and privilege.
The sight that greeted him on his arrival was crushing, and would end his romance with socialism for good. “The population is starving,” he wrote in one of three dispatches he filed for the Guardian after the trip. “Hunger was the word I heard most. … Cattle and horses dead; fields neglected … all the grain that was produced taken by the government; now no bread at all, no bread anywhere, nothing much else either; despair and bewilderment.” He described little towns and villages “just numb and the people in too desperate a condition even actively to resent what had happened,” their bodies often swollen from hunger. He noted that “only the military and the G.P.U. [secret police] are well fed, the rest of the population obviously starving, obviously terrorized.”
Noting that the soldiers and the secret police were tasked with preventing the hungry people from leaving the area, Muggeridge concluded that the famine “was an organized one” and compared it to a “military occupation; worse, active war.” He would later call the whole scheme “diabolical.” Visiting a German private agricultural concession, which,
in contrast to the surrounding area, enjoyed a good harvest, with both animals and people well-fed and thriving, only confirmed his analysis.
On returning to Moscow, Muggeridge reported his findings to the British Embassy and asked the embassy to smuggle his dispatches out by diplomatic pouch. On March 25, March 27, and March 28 the Guardian ran them, without attribution (possibly to prevent Muggeridge from being expelled from Moscow). Muggeridge judged them to have been “mutilated” and watered down by his editors. Nonetheless, even in their redacted state, they created a stir.
Jones, for his part, set out on his journey to Ukraine on March 10, just as Muggeridge would have been completing his own. Neither knew of the other’s travels until they had returned. The two traveled different paths and likely visited different places, but they came to the same conclusions. In contrast to Muggeridge’s, Jones’ trip wasn’t forbidden: He wasn’t a journalist as far the Soviets were concerned, and thanks to his connections to Lloyd George, he managed to secure official permission to travel to Kharkiv, then Ukraine’s capital. But instead of traveling all the way to his nominal destination, Jones got off the train 40 miles short of it and walked the rest of the way.
On his walking tour of the Ukrainian countryside, Jones visited 22 villages, interviewing farmers who were starving and dying. He talked to hundreds of peasants, one-on-one, in
Russian, carefully recording their conversations. He also talked to peasants who had temporarily moved into local towns in search of food. (“Peasants from the richest parts of Ukraine coming into the towns for bread!” he would later write in disbelief.) Back in Moscow, he interviewed some 20 to 30 members of the foreign diplomatic corps. Like Muggeridge, he discovered that the government-imposed starvation was an open secret. Jones left the USSR at the end of March, and on his way back, on March 29—a day after Muggeridge’s last report ran in the Guardian—he gave a press conference in Berlin. A variety of newspapers carried the story. It was the first time that reports of the famine could be attributed to a specific individual, one who had seen it with his own eyes.
The one-two punch of the Muggeridge-Jones reporting was too much for the Soviet Press Office to bear. It pressured Western reporters to rebut. And whether or not an outright collusion took place, as one reporter alleged later, a high-profile rebuttal did appear—and at the hands of no lesser a figure than Walter Duranty, the New York Times’s celebrated,
Pulitzer Prize-winning Moscow correspondent and the reigning Western popular authority on all things Bolshevik. On March 31, the Times carried Duranty’s now-infamous piece, “Russians Hungry but Not Starving,” in which he disputed the facts of the famine—facts that he himself knew to be true, and had frequently discussed in private conversations.
Yes, there was hunger, Duranty wrote, but the deaths were due to diseases associated with malnutrition rather than to starvation itself. Shortages existed, but larger cities had food. The “novelty” of collective farming had simply “made a mess of food production.”
To bring the point home, Duranty drew on a catchphrase that by then had become his trademark: “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs”—a line that he likely transposed from its Russian equivalent, “When timber is cut, chips fly.” That saying was widely used inside the country at the time to brush aside concerns with the disruptions and excesses of the revolution. (Stalin himself is believed to have used it.) It came to acquire a sinister undertone in the country, forever associated with the millions of lives sacrificed on the altar of the revolution. But to Duranty’s audiences, the phrase seemed proof of his genius, scoring him numerous points with the admirers of the Soviet experiment.
But Duranty’s job didn’t end with denying the famine; it was also necessary to discredit the messenger. Duranty painted Jones as something of a youngster with an overactive imagination, suggesting that his entire Russia experience began and ended with a three-week hike through the Ukrainian countryside. (This was inaccurate: Jones had studied Russian at Cambridge and visited the country twice before.) He distorted and misrepresented Jones’ arguments.
In the end it was Jones standing alone against the “great Duranty” and the newspaper of record. The media scorned his reporting. Lloyd George distanced himself from him. Making it even harder for many to accept the truth of his and Muggeridge’s reports was the fact that Hitler was just then using the famine in Ukraine in his propaganda, attacking German Social Democrats and implying that “Marxists” everywhere were responsible for Stalin’s mass crimes. It became “controversial to note that starvation was taking place at all,” wrote historian Timothy Snyder.
Thus chastised, Jones had nothing left to do but go back home and join Western Mail and South Wales News as a junior reporter. In the following months, he focused his reportorial efforts on Nazi Germany. Traveling there in May, he could see that his earlier prophesy about Germany “going full speed” toward a fascist dictatorship had come true. He was appalled by Hitler’s “death blow” to the German democracy. He was also
shocked by, and discussed at length, his “ruthless” and “medieval” campaign of hatred against the Jews.
For his part, Muggeridge, who left Moscow shortly after his trip to Ukraine, also found himself under attack. Beatrice Webb, the famous socialist and his wife’s dear “Aunt Bo,” called his articles “a hysterical tirade,” dismissing him publicly and setting the tone for left opinion. Already a few weeks earlier George Bernard Shaw had sent an open letter to the Guardian, signed by 20 more, to decry what they perceived as right-wing slander against the workers’ state. Muggeridge continued to write about the famine, now under his own byline, but for all intents and purposes, he was now “canceled”: slandered, ostracized, ignored, and unable to find employment.
In the following decades, the once-aspiring English Soviet immigrant was regularly dismissed as a reactionary, a cold warrior, or an opponent of détente—whatever term was in fashion at the time. For the rest of his life, Muggeridge was “baffled that such a horror could have happened and then just fallen away, ignored by everyone.”
The failure of the vast majority of the Moscow-based foreign press to cover the cruel and murderous famine that Stalin deliberately induced in Ukraine raises numerous uncomfortable questions. Why did so many journalists choose to ignore a huge story that was staring them in the face? Why did they prove themselves so pliable in accepting the limitations on movement and reporting imposed by Soviet authorities? Why did so many fail even to report that such limitations were in place?
Undoubtedly, the Soviet Press Office exerted a powerful influence over Western journalists. Its officials easily manipulated their need for access and played on their competitiveness. Only the most pliant could hope to get the plum assignments that guaranteed front-page placements back home, and around the time of the famine, a competing story—the arrest of six British engineers on charges of sabotage—required that they be on their best behavior. Censorship also played a role. Obliged to submit every piece of writing to Soviet censors, reporters quickly learned to censor themselves: Why waste time to write an objectionable piece that would never see the light of day? Then too, some likely feared they might lose their privileged “hardship post”: No one wanted to be sent home without a job during the Great Depression.
But other factors assuredly played a role as well, including individual character and personal convictions. In that deeply polarized time, it took an exceptionally independent-minded individual to see the whole picture—and dare to write about it. Muggeridge and
Jones both saw the profound danger inherent in both the Nazi and the Soviet regimes—the former of which was often praised by the right while being loathed by the left, which saw the Stalin regime as the last, best hope of mankind.
With exceptional foresight, Muggeridge predicted that the Soviet state would not stop with the “enslavement” of the old aristocracy and the bourgeoisie—people that nobody among his fellow socialists shed tears for. (“They had had their day, abused their privileges, and it was fitting that they should cut timber and dig canals for the proletariat.”) The problem, he wrote, was that the state would not stop until it dominated the lives “of the whole population.” Stopping over in Berlin on his way from Russia, he realized with blinding clarity that the Nazis marching along the Unter den Linden were no different than the “Comsomols”: They are “the same people, the same faces. It’s the same show.”
Jones, too, saw striking similarities between the two opposing movements and regimes. It only took him a few hours in Germany to get a sense of déjà vu. Where did he experience “a similar atmosphere of idealism combined with fear, of unbounded hope on one side and of whispered despair on the other”? He knew the answer immediately: It was Soviet Russia and Fascist Italy. He concluded that “the methods of the Nazis and of the Fascists are the same as those of the Bolsheviks, however much their aims may differ.”
In the film, Holland reflects on the importance of trying to discern the whole truth in a poignant dialogue between Jones and Brooks. Having lived in Berlin prior to her Moscow assignment and having seen the Nazis destroy everything she held dear, her Communist Party friends arrested, Brooks views herself as part of the anti-Nazi resistance. She is in the Soviet Union to join a movement that is bigger than herself. The Soviet government cares about people—“the real people, the workers,” she tells Jones. Incredulous, Jones asks her how she can believe in a regime that would put four bullets in her friend’s back, discarding him like a broken egg or a wood chip.
And what of Walter Duranty, the man who denied the famine in America’s most high-profile and respected news publication? Surprisingly or not, the only cause Duranty was ever truly devoted to was himself. An elitist by nature, and probably not a little bit of a narcissist, he liked being the center of attention. His takes on the Soviet regime assured him a celebrity status among the cultural and social elites in Paris and New York, and that is what truly mattered to him. Just then he was positioning himself as the facilitator-in-chief of the coming American diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union, and he was hardly going to tolerate some young whippersnapper ruining his party. In 1941 he would briefly acknowledge that he had underestimated the famine and would even go so far as to call it man-made, but would quickly reverse course.
Yet if Duranty was unquestionably a primary culprit in weaving the “blanket of silence” over the famine, few others among “the Moscow colony” were “in any hurry to cover the story.” It’s likely as a commentary on that that Holland entrusts the film’s most idealistic lines about journalism to Jones—a young freelancer and an outsider—rather than an
accredited member of the press corps: “Journalism is the noblest profession,” he tells Brooks. “You follow the facts, wherever they lead. You don’t take sides.”
It is this meditation on the role and mission of journalism that gives Mr. Jones such a contemporary feel. The shoddy “first rough draft of history” that Duranty and his fellow reporters left behind influenced the world’s understanding of the famine and the entirety of Stalin’s crimes for decades. What kind of rough drafts of history are being written in the here and now as prominent media outlets and individual journalists take up positions on the barricades in our own polarized times? The 90-year-old story of Stalin’s famine offers an unusually pertinent case for exploring these questions.
Izabella Tabarovsky is a contributing writer at Tablet and a researcher with the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center focusing on the politics of historical memory in the former Soviet Union.