Few countries in the world suffered more than Ukraine in the twentieth century. One of the nations of the Soviet Union favoured with fertile soils and bountiful agriculture, geography made it an unlikely place to be afflicted by famine. Yet Ukraine was the scene of at least three periods of mass starvation, during the civil war of 1918-21, again in 1932-33, and yet again under German occupation in 1941-44.
The ghastly truth of the most catastrophic and terrifying of these famines, known in Ukraine as the Holodomor of 1932-33 – its causes, extent, in fact its very existence – were largely concealed by the Stalin regime at the time, and have received little recognition outside of Ukraine itself ever since. It was with this in mind that I went to see Mr Jones, a movie by Polish director Agnieszka Holland, which dramatizes the journalism of Gareth Jones. Jones was a Welsh newspaper reporter who deserves credit for being one of the few who attempted to bring the Holodomor in Ukraine to world attention.
Unfortunately, the film only adds to the confusion and misinformation about this catastrophe. Although Jones’s reporting certainly had its weaknesses, it was on a higher plane than this wretched film.
The Holodomor took place at a time of rapprochement between the Soviet Union (of which Ukraine was then part) and the imperialist governments of Western Europe and the United States. Having failed to overthrow the 1917 Bolshevik revolution by force of arms in the civil war of 1918-21, with their multiple invasion forces driven from Russian soil by 1921, the imperialist powers switched to the methods of economic isolation and sanction in their efforts to grind down the world’s first workers’ state. Under the economic blows they inflicted, combined with the failure of revolutions elsewhere in Europe, the revolution degenerated; a parasitic bureaucracy developed with Stalin at its head, which overthrew many of the conquests of the revolution. Stalin set up a monstrous police-state apparatus to drive the workers and peasants out of political life once and for all.
The imperialist governments liked what they saw in the degeneration of the revolution, and acted to strengthen Stalin’s hand against the workers and peasants, and to widen the field of capitalist economic relations within the Soviet Union. Britain re-established stable diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union in 1929, and trade between the two countries began to grow. Rapprochement with the United States was slower, but by 1933 a substantial fraction of the US capitalist class favoured re-opening diplomatic relations and trade, and campaigned for it in their newspapers.
The little group of ‘foreign correspondents’ of the big-business newspapers in Moscow, and the increasingly favourable tone of the reports they filed on Soviet Russia, were therefore an important component of this campaign for rapprochement. A key figure in this clique – and chief villain in the movie – was Walter Duranty, Moscow correspondent for the New York Times, and leading ‘Friend of the Soviet Union.’
One scene in the movie shows the utterly corrupt, generously-rewarded liars of the ‘foreign press corps’ that gathered around Duranty in the Hotel Metropole in Moscow. More like diplomats furthering the intrigues of the governments of their respective countries than fact-finding investigators, these journalists furnished reports on the situation in Russia which suited the designs of their bourgeois masters. In Duranty’s case, that meant trumpeting the Stalin regime’s claims of economic progress and playing down the reports of hunger that were beginning to come in. Nominated by the Times, he won the Pulitzer Prize for some of these reports.
(I myself had an analogous experience with the ‘foreign press corps’ in revolutionary Nicaragua. Visiting the country in 1983 to report on the Sandinista revolution for Socialist Action, I was advised by a friend that it would be advantageous to obtain official credentials as a reporter. That required visiting the government’s press accreditation office, located in the Intercontinental Hotel in Managua, which served as the headquarters of the foreign press. I spent a thoroughly unpleasant morning in the company of these types as I waited for my press card. The scene in Mr Jones showing the journalists, cloistered in the hotel, being plied with prostitutes and drugs may be somewhat exaggerated, but is essentially true to type.)
The Holodomor in Ukraine was the product of both the imperialist encirclement and of a double blow struck by the Stalinist leadership against the political foundations of the Russian revolution.
In a country where the working class was a small minority of the population and peasants constituted the vast majority, the revolution had been built on the alliance between workers and peasants. Under Bolshevik leadership, the revolutionary forces throughout the old Russian empire confiscated the great estates of the landlords and divided the land among the peasants who worked it. Without this policy, and this worker-peasant alliance, the revolution would never have been able to defeat the counter-revolutionary armies in the civil war. Nothing aroused the hatred of the peasantry, and brought them to support the Bolsheviks, more than when the white Admiral Kolchak returned the estates to their former owners in the regions he conquered from the Bolsheviks, and organised public floggings of the rebellious peasants.
The Red Army emerged victorious, but at a colossal cost. Industry was ruined, its reserves depleted. The dictates of ‘War Communism,’ which had included the forced requisition of the peasants’ grain by armed detachments of workers, were severe. By 1921 industrial production had fallen by 80%, the grain harvest by 40%, foreign trade by more than 90%.1 The first famine occurred in Ukraine later that year. It was necessary to revive the capitalist market, within constraints: the New Economic Policy of 1921 achieved that, and industry and agriculture revived. Industrial production doubled by 1923, and by 1926 had recovered its pre-war levels; harvests also increased. 2
But this revival, too, came at a cost. Together with the revival of economic life in the villages – in fact, galloping ahead of it – came the rise of a new layer of rich peasants, called kulaks, who dominated the grain trade and cornered the bulk of agricultural credit. The Stalin leadership retreated before the kulaks. Dismissing the urgent warnings of Trotsky’s Left Opposition – who advocated taxing this exploiting layer to fund investment in industry – Stalin permitted the hiring of labour and the renting of land in 1925, and moved towards de-nationalisation of the land. Before long, industrial production was choking, and the cities were being subjected to a grain blockade; the kulaks were holding the revolution by its throat.3
From the start of the revolution, peasants had been encouraged to form co-operatives and to combine their small plots into larger collective farms on a voluntary basis, with the expectation that more would join the co-operatives and collective farms as they demonstrated their greater productivity over the tiny individual plots that hampered Russian agriculture. But up to 1930, this had involved only a tiny proportion of total agricultural land. The extreme technical and social backwardness of Russian farming, reflected in the minute parcellisation of the land, had now become a matter of life and death.
After 1928, the agricultural policy of the Stalin leadership underwent a sharp turn to its opposite extreme: a programme of rapid industrialisation and ‘liquidation of the kulaks as a class.’ Opportunism flipped into adventurism, built on commands from above, a deepening reliance on police repression, and on a massively inflated circulation of paper money. Central to this policy was a programme of rapid collectivisation of agriculture. Having comprised less than 2% of farms in 1929, collectives comprised 24% in 1930, 53% in 1931 and 62% in 1932. 4
Trotsky comments, “The real possibilities of collectivisation are determined, not by the depth of the impasse in the villages and not by the administrative energy of the government, but primarily by the existing productive resources – that is, the ability of the industries to furnish large-scale agriculture with the requisite machinery. These material conditions were lacking…
“Twenty-five million isolated peasant egoisms, which yesterday had been the sole motive force of agriculture – weak like an old farmer’s nag, but nevertheless forces – the bureaucracy tried to replace at one gesture by the commands of two thousand collective farm administrative offices, lacking technical equipment, agronomic knowledge and the support of the peasants themselves.” 5
Millions of peasants responded by slaughtering their animals for meat and hides rather than hand them over to the collective. The number of horses fell by more than half, from 35 million in 1929 to 16 million in 1934. The number of horned cattle fell by 40%, pigs by 55%, sheep by 66%. Without cattle and horses to pull the plough, sowing was impossible. Many more cattle died when the beets grown as cattle fodder had to be used to feed humans. 6
Trotsky comments: “The destruction of people – by hunger, cold, epidemics, and measures of repression – is unfortunately less well tabulated than the slaughter of stock, but it also mounts up to millions. The blame for these sacrifices lies not upon the collectivisation, but upon the blind, violent, gambling methods with which it was carried through.” 6
The disastrous consequences for both agriculture and industry brought mass starvation not just to Ukraine but to the Volga region, Kazakhstan, and elsewhere, bringing the workers’ state once again to the brink of collapse. Only the deep crisis in trade and industry in the capitalist world held the hand of imperialist military intervention to overthrow the revolution.
While the famine was not limited to Ukraine, its effects were worst there. For in Ukraine, the forced collectivisation coincided with another critical blow by Stalin: overthrowing the right of the oppressed nations to self-determination. Along with land to the peasants, freedom of the oppressed nations of the czarist empire – which Lenin famously denounced as a ‘prison-house of nations’ – had been a keystone of the Bolshevik revolution. The right of self-determination included the right to secede from the empire, and this right was exercised by Ukraine, the Baltic peoples, the peoples of the Caucasus and Central Asia, and others. They joined a federation of socialist republics, and later a union of these republics – the Soviet Union – voluntarily, without ever forfeiting their right to self-determination.
This was one of the first conquests of the revolution to be lost to the Stalinist counter-revolution (and the first question on which Lenin confronted Stalin, in his last political fight in the months before his death.) By the early 1930s, the prison-house of nations and the czarist policy of Russification had been restored, with a vengeance, in ‘Soviet’ guise. Expressions of national sentiment were denounced as bourgeois nationalism; leaders in the ‘independent republics’ who insisted on their right to independence – supposedly guaranteed in the Soviet constitution – were persecuted savagely. Ukraine, among many other oppressed nations, found its national aspirations trampled in the mud of the new Russian ’empire.’ National resentment towards their Russian oppressors magnified the resistance to the ill-prepared collectivisation in Ukraine, and this in turn led to increased retaliation from their Russian oppressors.
The Ukrainian word Holodomor roughly translates as ‘murder by starvation,’ and it is an accurate term. Wars of national extermination, properly called genocide, were not unknown in the colonial world, but were without recent precedent in Europe itself. The deliberate use of famine as a weapon of genocide was almost entirely without precedent, yet there is ample evidence that exactly that is what made the Holodomor so especially devastating in Ukraine. Forced requisitions of grain from Ukraine were taken at a level which cost the lives of four million people who depended on that grain for food, to the point where some people were driven to kill and eat their own children. It was one of Stalin’s most vindictive and despicable crimes. Small wonder, then, that a few years later some Ukrainians would welcome Hitler as a liberator.
The film Mr Jones shows us the catastrophe accurately enough – including the cannibalism – and it shows those who lied about it. It dramatizes quite effectively some anecdotes from Jones’s writings, such as in a scene where he is travelling on a train in the company of peasants, and eats an orange, discarding the peel. Starving peasants grab the discarded peel and eat it.
Where the film obscures the situation is in relation to the causes.
According to the film, Jones visits the Soviet Union with a question on his mind: “Where is the money coming from? How is it that when the rest of the world is in a depression, Moscow is on a spending spree?” As the plot unfolds, he discovers that “grain is the Russians’ gold,” in other words, the industrialisation of the Soviet Union is being financed by the theft of the grain from Ukraine. This idea is at the heart of the film.
Such facile and ridiculous explanations of the rapid industrialisation of the Soviet Union were ridiculed by Trotsky eighty years earlier. “The learned economists of capital … confine themselves to remarks about an extreme ‘exploitation of the peasantry.’ They are missing a wonderful opportunity to explain why the brutal exploitation of the peasants in China, for instance, or Japan, or India, never produced an industrial tempo remotely approaching that of the Soviet Union.”
In this respect the film is not even faithful to what Jones himself said about the causes of the famine. According to a report of the press conference where he first announced his experiences of the famine, “Jones attributes the famine chiefly to the collectivization policy and the peasants’ hatred of it. Other causes are bad transportation, the lack of skilled labor, the bad state finances and government terror.” This was much closer to the truth.
Jones himself was as much involved in the imperialist intrigues surrounding the Soviet Union as were the rest of the foreign press corps in Moscow – in fact, he worked closely with David Lloyd George, William Randolph Hearst, and other major capitalist political figures. The main difference was that he sided with those imperialists who favoured tightening the noose around Moscow. The film shows him in tears of anguish when the United States announces that they are resuming diplomatic relations – as if continuing the isolation and blockade of the Soviet Union would somehow help the starving peasants of Ukraine!
It is true nonetheless that Jones had a modicum of concern for truthful reporting. His eyewitness reporting of the Soviet Union came at a time when Stalinist censorship meant that there was little first-hand reporting from the Soviet countryside, and it retains some interest on that account. (Jones resisted the political pressure from Moscow sufficiently that the Kremlin found it necessary to organise his assassination in northern China a few years later.) Most of his writing is available online at this website dedicated to his memory. See, for example, this article on the famine from April 1933.
The true horrors of the Holodomor deserve wider recognition, but above all, knowledge and understanding of its nature and causes. Gareth Jones also deserves respect and recognition for his honest and courageous attempts to report the catastrophe, and to confront the bribes, blackmail, and overwhelming political pressure brought to bear by the murderers in the Kremlin. This film contributes little to either of these causes.
For a deeper insight into the history of Soviet economy and politics from the time of the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism up to 1936, there is no better place to begin than Trotsky’s Revolution Betrayed, from which most of the facts in this article are sourced.
- The Revolution Betrayed – What is the Soviet Union and where is it going? By Leon Trotsky. Pathfinder Press, fifth edition, 1972. Page 22
- ibid, p24
- ibid, p26
- ibid, p37-38
- ibid, p38-39
- ibid, p40