Mr. Jones and the Soviet Lie

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Image: Robert Palka/Film Produkcja

The socialist experiment in Russia during the twentieth century was more than a failed attempt at central planning. The Soviet experience was a lie — a crumbling façade — that required routine maintenance by a vast empire of politicians, journalists, and academics (especially economists) who believed that the New Nation was one step closer to utopia. Exploding this lie was left to daring journalists, writers, and political dissidents who risked life and limb to uncover the atrocities of Stalin’s purge and the horrors of forced collectivization.

Directed by Agnieszka Holland and based on a true story, Mr. Jones (2019) depicts a young Welsh journalist, Gareth Jones, as he travels into the Ukrainian hinterland in the early 1930s to investigate the results of Stalin’s farm collectivization. Jones’ report gave the West its first glimpse into the hellish landscape of the Ukrainian famine.  

Gareth Jones made his name as one of the first journalists to interview Adolf Hitler when he rose to power in 1933. Jones’ intrepid pursuit of the truth led him to investigate a tip he received from a fellow journalist of a potential famine in the Ukraine.

New York Times reporter Walter Duranty is also portrayed in the film. Known as “our man in Moscow,” Duranty spun Stalin’s collectivization efforts as a “dizzying success,” to use Stalin’s own words to describe the First Five-Year Plan. Duranty, and the journalists who surrounded him, encapsulated the wishful thinking of Western elites who believed the Marxist future was finally in sight.

The Ukrainian Famine of 1932–33 (the Holodomor) wasn’t an isolated tragedy, as many sovietologists assert even today. Some scholars argue that a poor harvest caused the famine. Other scholars pinned the mass starvation on Soviet attempts at crushing Ukrainian independence. None of these explanations, however, point to the fatal information and incentive failures that central planning generated. One paper by Natalya Neumenko illustrates that Stalin’s collectivization policy ultimately drove the famine. She writes that “weather explains [only] up to 8.1 percent of excess deaths, while collectivization explains up to 52 percent of excess deaths, so weather cannot be the main cause of the famine.”

Under Stalin’s First Five-Year Plan, the share of rural households in collective farms soared to roughly 70 percent in 1932, up from 3.8 percent in 1928. The mortality rate just after the height of the Ukrainian famine in 1933 spiked to 56 people per 1,000, comparable to mortality figures during the Second World War. In addition to the estimated three to five million Ukrainians who perished during the famine, an additional two to three million are estimated to have died in the North Caucasus and Lower Volga regions. Soviet officials themselves confirmed a population deficit of 15 million people, but only after these figures were revealed to the world in 1990.

By nationalizing industries and centralizing command across the Soviet economy, Stalin believed that War Communism had prepared the state for an efficient execution of grain requisitioning. As one scholar writes, “where War Communism had failed, reasoned Stalin, was not because the peasant was stronger than the state but because the state was not yet strong enough to subordinate the peasant.”

The ineffective and wasteful grain procurements that were imposed during this period caused a peasant revolt, which Stalin quickly crushed, thwarting any black market activities that could have relieved the famine. Meanwhile, Stalin’s propaganda machine controlled foreign correspondents such as Duranty like they were his puppets, blinding Western media to the human-generated famine ravishing millions of Ukrainians.

One might excuse Western sovietologists and intellectuals for believing in the Soviet propaganda, which denied the existence of any famine whatsoever. But journalists like Walter Duranty, Louis Fischer, and others who had a direct though restricted window into Soviet life, catastrophically failed to report the truth. They chose to perpetuate the lie. It was left to brave journalists like Gareth Jones and Fred Beal to uncover the bleak reality of the Soviet economy, even at the cost of their lives and careers.

Living the lie during the Soviet era didn’t just hold back a generation of Soviet citizens. The lie killed millions, froze an economy, a country’s spirit, into submission. The cold gaze of Stalin still haunts Russia today.

Not until the 1980s did the New York Times finally acknowledge Duranty’s crooked journalism. The New York Times Company states on its website, “Collectivization was the main cause of a famine that killed millions of people in Ukraine, the Soviet breadbasket, in 1932 and 1933 – two years after Duranty won his prize.” Yet the NYT hasn’t apologized for, nor revoked Duranty’s prize. “The Pulitzer board has twice declined to withdraw the award, most recently in November 2003, finding ‘no clear and convincing evidence of deliberate deception’ in the 1931 reporting that won the prize.” Clearly, living the lie hasn’t lost its luster, even after 100 years of Russian evidence to the contrary.

Socialism not only hollows out economies, but also makes truth the enemy of the people. And when silence overwhelms a nation, the few who are brave enough to speak can shape history.

In his 1970 Nobel Prize speech, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn explained that art is the antidote to living a lie. “Violence finds its only refuge in falsehood, falsehood its only support in violence,” he said. To break this cycle, let art drive the human heart past the land of lies. For “falsehood can hold out against much in this world, but not against art.” But the forms of that art are varied, with each one, when done well, speaking powerfully to the human need for truth and flourishing. Good economics is just as much an art form as it is a science. With good economics, we conquer falsehood. With bad economics, we are doomed, because we submit to the lie that power and ideology can force people into prosperity.

The day before his 30th birthday, Soviet secret agents murdered Gareth Jones on a reporting mission in Mongolia. His bravery and fearless pursuit of the truth ultimately cost him his life. But not before the world would read about Stalin’s famine.