In 1932, Joseph Stalin engineered a famine in The Ukraine, which killed millions of people. Historians still argue whether the famine, called in Ukrainian the Holodomor (Голодомор) or “death by hunger”, was a deliberate act of genocide, a way to counter the independence movement, or a part of the Soviet collectivisation strategy. Probably all of the above. The peasants were forced to give all their grain, including seed for the following year, to gangs from Stalin’s Komsomol youth groups. In 1928, the USSR was exporting 100,000 metric tons of grain; by 1931 it was over 5,000,000 metric tons. There was literally nothing left for the peasants to eat, and one commentator has written that cannibalism was more widespread at this time and place than anywhere else in history. More than 2,500 people were convicted of cannibalism and sentenced to ten years in the Gulag or execution, but this must have been just the tip of the iceberg.
Into this maelstrom comes a mild-mannered reporter named Gareth Jones (James Norton), who had gained some international recognition by interviewing Adolf Hitler soon after he took power in Germany. Jones wants to interview Joseph Stalin as well, to ask about the enormous sums of money the Soviets are spending on modernisation, in the middle of the Depression – where’s the money coming from?
Jones speaks Russian: his mother had worked in Hughesovka, renamed Stalino, now called Donetsk. He rings his friend, the journalist who got him the Hitler gig and is now in Moscow. The friend tells him he is is working on a huge story. The friend is soon found dead, and Jones discovers the story was : The Ukraine.
Jones escapes his minders and travels to The Ukraine to see for himself the horrors unfolding there.
He is made to carry sacks of grain that are being shipped out, past the starving locals.
He is almost shot as a spy, kids sing him a sweet song about being cold and hungry, then steal his food.
“Nothing to eat, nowhere to sleep.
And our neighbour has lost his mind, and eaten his children.”
Like the peasants, Jones eats bark from the trees. He finds a barn that was in a picture his mother gave him, meets three young children there and helps them carry firewood home. They make him a meal, with real meat.
Who is Kolya? Kolya is their brother. Jones asks if Kolya is a hunter. They just look at him. Where is Kolya?
Yes, Kolya is involuntarily providing for his family. Jones, who has walked past corpses in the streets and taken photos of starving children, is now violently ill at the thought he has partaken of Kolya. Go figure. Incidentally, Jones’ relatives have attacked the film’s depiction, saying that he did not witness or take part in cannibalism.
Jones returns home and tells his story, but the Russians deny the existence of a famine, and are backed up by their apologists. Western intellectuals such as George Bernard Shaw and Upton Sinclair travelled to the Soviet Union, swallowed the propaganda, and returned home to praise Stalin and Soviet progress. One such convert is shown in the film: Walter Duranty (played by Peter Sarsgaard) who was the pulitzer prize-winning New York Times resident journalist. Duranty threw depraved parties in Moscow while writing that all was well in the workers’ paradise.
Others were less sanguine, and early reports of the famine had been written anonymously by Malcolm Muggeridge. The film starts with George Orwell (Joseph Mawle from Game of Thrones) penning his famous novel Animal Farm, in which he called the farmer, his chief antagonist, “Mr Jones”, perhaps in tribute to Gareth Jones. Orwell appears throughout the film, at first supporting Stalin, and later accepting Jones’ story and, disillusioned, writing Animal Farm.
The Holodomor is a very important part of cannibal mythology. For example, Russian cannibal serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, the “Rostov Ripper“, was a small child during the Holodomor and his mother told him that cannibals had kidnapped and eaten his brother, and would do the same to him if he didn’t behave, a traumatic story that helped explain his slaughter and cannibalisation of at least 52 women and children between 1978 and 1990.
The film has a creditable 84% on Rotten Tomatoes. The Director, Poland’s Agnieszka Holland, was arrested by the Soviets, during the Prague Spring. She knows the way political leaders eat their own people. Whether Jones ate Kolya or not, he certainly witnessed one of the worst famines in history, deliberately engineered by the government. The starving ate anything they could find – grass, hay, bark from trees, corpses dug up from cemeteries, even their own children.
The question is: who were the monsters?