Last week, more than thirty masked young men broke into a public meeting at the human rights NGO “Memorial” in Moscow. They shouted “Scum!”, “Fascists!” “Get out of Russia!”, and “There’s no room for foreign agents!” They ordered members of the audience to lie down on the floor. They were there to stop the showing of a film, “Mr. Jones”.
The 2019 film tells the story of Gareth Jones, a Welsh journalist who stumbled upon the story of the 1932-33 Ukrainian famine in which millions died. At the time, the Soviet regime denied there was a famine and they were assisted in this by New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty. It was only many years later that the regime admitted that the famine had taken place, and indeed that it was man-made.
Stalin had wanted to crush the Ukrainian peasantry, who he considered to be deadly enemies of the Soviet state and his policy of collectivisation of agriculture. It was one of the worst genocides of the twentieth century and the Ukrainians today call it the “Holodomor”.
The advertising tag line for the film was “The truth can’t be hidden forever.”
So why today, ninety years later, do young Russian nationalists feel the need to suppress the showing of this film in Moscow? Why were they trying to hide the truth about Ukraine’s “terror-famine”?
In Russia today, history has been weaponised by the Putin regime. It is now illegal to publish books that criticise the role of Stalin during the Second World War. There is a national mythology originally crafted by Stalin which Putin has fully embraced. In it, the peace-loving Soviet Union was brutally attacked by the Nazi barbarians and Stalin rallied the whole nation to rise up and defeat the aggressor.
There is no mention of the Great Purge in the late 1930s when Stalin decapitated the Red Army, leaving it leaderless just in time for the outbreak of the war. Nor is anyone encouraged to talk about the infamous Hitler-Stalin pact that divided Poland into German and Soviet zones, and handed over several other countries to Soviet hands. And of course the initial collapse of the Red Army in 1941, and the surrender of literally millions of its soldiers in the opening weeks of the German invasion, is another taboo subject.
Today a film that exposes one of the greatest crimes of the Stalin regime is not welcome in Putin’s Moscow. Nor, it turns out, is the organisation that hosted it — Memorial. Memorial has been doing outstanding work for decades to keep alive the memory of Stalin’s victims. It preserves a history that the current rulers of Russia would prefer be forgotten.
I was in Memorial’s offices early in 2020. We were doing a launch event for the Russian edition of my book on independent, democratic socialist Georgia. This too is a subject that the Russian leaders would rather not discuss. Fortunately when I was there, one could still hold such meetings in Moscow, and Memorial’s offices were an island of sanity and intellectual freedom in an increasingly authoritarian country.
In the end, the thugs who broke up the film showing last week will not prevail. For more than thirty years, Russians have been able to read about the history of the Soviet Union and to learn about the crimes of the Stalinist regime. It will not be easy to put the genie back in the bottle.
Or as the producers of “Mr. Jones” would put it, the truth can’t be hidden forever.
• Eric Lee is the founder-editor of LabourStart, writing here in a personal capacity