July 22, 2020   7 mins

“In the summer of 1921, luck broke my way in the shape of the great Russian famine which then threatened to cost about 30,000,000 lives, and probably did cost 5,000,000 or 6,000,000 including deaths from disease.”1

For Walter Duranty, who as the Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for the New York Times led the cover-up of the 1932-3 famine in Ukraine, mass starvation was a career opportunity. In order to dispel damaging reports of the famine, the Bolshevik government had decided to admit a number of western journalists into the Soviet Union. Duranty was probably last on the list, if he appeared on it at all.

A year earlier, he had written that Bolshevism was “a compound of force, terror and espionage, utterly ruthless in conception and execution”. The Bolsheviks had not forgotten or forgiven Duranty’s attack, but always a charmer, he overcame their hostility with a flattering article on Lenin’s New Economic Policy. Duranty was allowed into the country, and began his career as an apologist for Soviet crimes.

In the Polish director Agnieszka Holland’s film Mr Jones, now released on Netflix after its US cinema release was cancelled by Covid-19, Duranty is played with understated subtlety by the American actor Peter Sarsgaard. If the portrayal fails to reveal Duranty’s true motives, that is because they were extremely murky. At some points he appears as a cynical opportunist, at others he projects the image of a partisan of the Soviet cause who accepts that millions of dead are the price of progress. (Infamously, the late British historian Eric Hobsbawm took the same line.) On occasion Duranty was each of these things, but his underlying motivations may have been darker. As well as illuminating a murky passage in history, Holland’s superb film may cast a light on the cultural convulsions we are going through today.

Born in 1884, Duranty had become a disciple of Aleister Crowley in 1913, joining with the self-appointed Satanist messiah in Paris in opium consumption and “sex magic”. Crowley’s motto was “Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law”, and Duranty seemed to have followed this immoralist maxim throughout all of his life. For the elite of Übermenschen — to which the British-born, Cambridge-educated journalist imagined he belonged — morality was a fetter to be cast off.  Anything was permitted, truth was a fiction and a superior few were entitled to live “beyond good and evil”. When Duranty described Bolshevism as a ruthless creed he may have been praising, not condemning it.

Duranty’s career was based on this philosophy. Freedom from ethical restraint, he believed, guaranteed success. In the end, however, his philosophy failed him. After FDR’s death in April 1945 Duranty found himself neglected and forgotten: during the Cold War, his skills in white-washing Soviet totalitarianism were no longer in demand. Like Crowley, whose last words when he was dying in a Hastings boarding house in 1947 were reported to have been “I am perplexed,” Duranty seems to have been baffled by his fall from grace. He died practically penniless in Orlando, Florida ten years later.

The larger mystery, which is explored deeply in the film, is why so many in the West were so keen to believe Duranty’s lies. Gareth Jones, the Welsh journalist (and former private secretary to Lloyd George) who revealed the famine in Ukraine, was not the only person to tell the truth. So did the English journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, who visited the Soviet Union as a fellow-traveller only to have his illusions shattered around the same time. An American trade unionist named Fred Beal, sent to the country by the American Communist Party, visited Ukraine and found silent villages and fields littered with unburied bodies.  No mainstream newspaper would publish Beal’s report, which eventually appeared in Yiddish in the New York Jewish socialist paper Daily Forward.

The scale of the famine — which according to recent estimates cost the lives of somewhere between four and seven million people — was widely suspected in Ukrainian and Russian émigré communities, though no one bothered to consult them. Duranty himself told British officials in the Moscow embassy that around ten million may have died, but the matter was taken no further. After a campaign against him organised by the authorities — spearheaded by Duranty and supported by the rest of the Moscow correspondents, who feared having their visas withdrawn and being sacked by their newspapers — Jones was expelled from the Soviet Union.

The campaign against Jones was a response to a question. How could the Soviet state afford its vast programme of industrialisation in the midst of the Great Depression? As the film shows, it was this question that fired Jones’s dogged persistence in search of the truth. The answer was the export of grain. The Ukrainian famine was manufactured in Moscow as a by-product of the Soviet need for hard currency. (It was the same imperative that drove gold mining in slave labour camps in the Russian Far East, where hundreds of thousands of Gulag prisoners were worked to death.) Ukrainians starved not because there was no food, but because the food they produced was taken from them at gunpoint.

Gareth Jones’s achievement, which is well captured in James Norton’s powerfully expressive performance, was to discover the answer to a question that hardly anyone wanted to ask. Western resistance to his inquiry, which cost Jones his job and possibly his life, was partly a result of the belief among western intellectuals that the Soviet state was the last best hope of humankind, which must be defended at any cost.

Many will argue that in a time when fascism was on the rise, this was an understandable response. But Jones had no illusions about the dangers of Nazism; he was one of the first western journalists to fly with Hitler after he came to power, and secured an interview with Goebbels that left him in no doubt of the deadly threat posed by the Nazi regime. Even so, he refused to condone or pass over in silence the crimes of the Soviet state.

At this point we reach the nub of the film. A scene features Jones in conversation with George Orwell, arguing that the truth must be told. Orwell responds with a question of his own: if the Soviet regime is as bad as Jones claims, what hope is there? There is no evidence that any such encounter ever occurred, but in the context of the film it is an effective device. The choice Jones faced was between hope and truth, and Jones — like Orwell himself in Animal Farm, published in August 1945 — chose truth.

After presenting his findings in the Hearst press, Jones was a marked man, and he would be murdered in 1935 on a journalistic tour of a remote part of China. He may have been a casualty of mercenary bandits, or become unwittingly entangled in Sino-Japanese espionage. Lloyd George believed Jones simply knew too much. However, circumstantial evidence suggests the involvement of the Soviet secret services, which may have wanted to send out a warning to any other western journalist who might have a taste for truth.

Mr Jones is a rich, vivid and irresistibly gripping film. At times one cannot bear to look; but neither can you turn away. Like Paweł Pawlikowski in Cold War (2018), Holland renders the human experience of communism with unflinching authenticity. The film reveals a kind of horror that can hardly be spoken, only shown — as when the Welshman joins famished children in eating stew, only to retch when he discovers what it is made from. It is also a story of simple human nobility. In a time when much of journalism has become crude agitprop, Jones’s unwavering pursuit of fact is refreshing and inspiring.

Yet it is doubtful whether this or any similar film will have much impact in the current climate of opinion. In the 1930s the western Left resisted the facts regarding Soviet crimes because it undermined the hopes of a new society. Today the woke movement questions the very idea of truth. Intermixed with millenarian frenzy and American Puritanism, Maoist mob rule and hyper-liberal culture war, there is a strand that echoes Duranty’s crypto-Nietzschean philosophy.

Probably Duranty’s style of active nihilism is confined to a small minority. Some may be using the movement as a career strategy, as Duranty used communism; the ignorant, mis-educated woke masses may actually believe they can shape an undefined new society. What all share with Duranty is their contempt for ordinary humankind.

Here another difference from the leftism of the ’30s emerges. With all its lies and crimes, communism was a universal movement. In contrast, woke movements are pretty much confined to decaying liberal societies. The demonstrations of the past months have had few serious reverberations beyond the post-Reformation West, and cancel culture is largely limited to the English-speaking world.

A movement that hardly exists in Eastern Orthodox cultures, Islamic societies, most of Asia and Africa and at least half of Europe can scarcely be described a global phenomenon. With its epicentre in the United States, wokery is essentially a spasm in formerly liberal cultures, which assert a peculiar sense of their own superiority by turning on themselves and their history. Cultures of this kind can hardly be expected to take any serious interest in other times and places. Films like Mr Jones are unlikely to disturb the introverted parochialism of the hyper-liberal mind. But for anyone willing to watch and learn, they are of inestimable value as warnings.

More than anything else, Soviet communism was a westernising movement. True, it had precedents in Russian history — Peter the Great’s modernisation from above, for example — and it expressed a strand of apocalyptic politics that was distinctively Russian. But as Lenin’s fondness for American-style production methods and Stalin’s obsession with breakneck industrialisation demonstrated, the Soviet project was always to turn Russia into a modern western state.

The experiment failed, at colossal human cost. Russia is now a Eurasian state that defines itself by its difference from the west. Unlike Xi’s China, which paradoxically remains more western because it continues to be a Soviet-style party-state, Russia is ruled through personal authority, with Putin acting as something between a tsar and a mediaeval baron. If the purpose of starving millions of Ukrainians to death was to build a modern Russia, they died for nothing.

The woke movement faces a similar debacle. As they become more hyper-liberal in their values, formerly liberal societies are becoming more fearful and authoritarian. Renouncing the idea of truth for the sake of some hopeful political project isn’t just immoral. It doesn’t work.

  1. See S.J. Taylor’s incisive and exhaustive study, Stalin’s Apologist: Walter Duranty, The New York Times’s Man in Moscow, 1990, p. 97. I discussed Duranty’s part in covering up the Ukraine famine in The Immortalization Commission: the strange quest to defeat death, 2011, pp. 194-199.

John Gray is a political philosopher and author. His books include Seven Types of Atheism, False Dawn: the Delusions of Global Capitalism, and Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and The Death of Utopia.