War in Ukraine: understanding the conflict with the film The Shadow of Stalin

Released in 2020, “The Shadow of Stalin” was an all too rare evocation of one of the most terrible mass crimes of the 20th century in Ukraine, committed by Stalin. A memory so painful that it also carries the seeds of the current conflict…

Robert Palka / Film Produkcja

“Young man, study history. History is where all the secrets of statecraft are to be found.” Winston Churchill once said to the teenager James Humes, future speechwriter for several presidents of the United States. If understanding the present by the yardstick of the past is interesting, it is because it actually provides useful keys to better understand certain facts and events, which sometimes have their roots far back in time. And the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine is no exception to this observation.

It is in this calm setting that we must see or re-watch the formidable film The Shadow of Stalin, released in 2020, and signed by the great Polish director Agnieszka Holland. She has also made several films on the dark chapters of contemporary history in Europe; and was revealed to moviegoers by a remarkable film released in 1990, the moving Europa Europa, which took place during the Second World War.

In Stalin’s shadow, it tells a part of the authentic life of the British journalist Gareth Jones, who told, at the risk of his life, in 1933, what was the terrible genocide by hunger organized by Stalin in Ukraine, known under the name of Holodomor. Passed by the Berlin, Dinard (British film) and Pessac (historical film) festivals, the film is carried by a very solid cast, starting with James Norton in the title role, supported by Vanessa Kirby, and the always impeccable Peter Sarsgaard.

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“With the screenwriter, Andrea Chalupa, we wanted to describe in an evocative way, in all simplicity and without detours, the mechanics of Jones passing successively through all the circles of hell, colliding his idealism, his youth and his courage with a brutal reality “No journalistic or informational evidence, no sentimental blackmail or explicit happy endings. No one wanted to hear the truth about the atrocities perpetrated by Stalin that Jones was uncovering.” explains the filmmaker.

The British, like other Western chancelleries, had no interest in it. “The truth about Soviet reality, as well as the truth about the Holocaust, has been suppressed by a politically and morally corrupt West” let go of the director.

A transgenerational suffering

In fact, the memory of this period is so painful for Ukraine – a transgenerational suffering even – that it is one of the causes (and obviously not the only one, it must be emphasized) of the collaboration of some Ukrainians alongside the Nazis, before and during World War II. A period whose geopolitical extension can be found in the tensions between the country and Russia, which have culminated in recent years with the creation of the People’s Republic of Donetsk and the armed conflict in Donbass, indirectly supported by Moscow. And now a war.

“The unspeakable reality of those years remains relevant in a Ukraine at war with Stalin’s successors, and in a Europe plagued by multiple internal and external threats, unable to face the truth and to unite in order to protect its values” says the director.

Beyond its terrible subject, the film also finds a singular current resonance with regard to “fake news”, whistleblowers – what Gareth Jones was -, disinformation, media corruption, their meaning or their lack of ethics, the cowardice of governments, the indifference of people.

The Holodomor, genocide by starvation

If the Holocaust is a fact known to the general public, the same is not true of the Holodomor. This term therefore designates the genocide by hunger, knowingly organized by Stalin in Ukraine. In the space of two years, from the summer of 1931 to the summer of 1933, nearly 7 million Soviets, the vast majority of them peasants, died of starvation during the last great European famine that occurred in peacetime: 4 million in Ukraine, 1.5 million in Kazakhstan and as many in Russia.

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Robert Palka

“Unlike other famines, those of 1931-1933 were not preceded by any meteorological cataclysm. They were the direct consequence of a policy of extreme violence: the forced collectivization of the countryside by the Stalinist regime for the dual purpose of “to extract from the peasantry a heavy tribe essential to the accelerated industrialization of the country, and to impose political control on the countryside, which had hitherto remained outside the regime’s “value system” explains Nicolas Werth, French historian specializing in the history of the Soviet Union, and director of research at the Institute of History of the present time; author of the book “The Great Soviet Famines”published at PUF in 2020.

Worse: this famine was intentionally aggravated by Stalin from the autumn of 1932; the “little father of the peoples” seeking to break the resistance of the Ukrainian peasants to collectivization, and at the same time to eradicate Ukrainian nationalism, which according to the authorities in Moscow posed a serious threat to the unity and integrity of the huge territory of the USSR. If the Russia of today is not the USSR of yesterday, the recent comments by Vladimir Putinsaying to himself “determined to continue without compromise its fight against the Ukrainian nationalists”, resound like a disturbing echo…

A famous press conference

On March 31, 1933, on his return to Western Europe, Gareth Jones gave a famous press conference in Berlin, in front of an audience of journalists from all over the world. His confessions stunned the audience. “I passed through villages and a dozen collective farms. I saw only suffering and tears. […] This suffering extends everywhere in Russia, from the Volga to Siberia, from the North of the Caucasus to Central Asia. I went to Central Chernozem because it was one of the most fertile regions in Russia, and also because most foreign correspondents in Moscow forgot to go there to see with their own eyes what was happening there.

On the train, a communist to whom I asked the question of the famine, denied its existence. I threw a crouton of bread into a spittoon. A peasant who shared our compartment took it as if he hadn’t eaten for days. Then I threw in the peel of an orange, and this peasant devoured it.

I spent the night in a village that once raised 200 oxen. There were only 6 left. The peasants ate what was left of the fodder of the cattle. They told me that many of them had already starved to death.

Two soldiers came to arrest a thief. They advised me to avoid traveling at night because of the many “hungry” men prowling around. “We are waiting for death. But at least we still have hay left. Go further south. There they have nothing left. Many houses are empty. Their inhabitants are dead”, they said to me. crying”.

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Robert Palka

Jones drives the point home in an article published in the London Evening Standard on March 31, 1933, under the title “Russia under the yoke of famine”. An article that he concluded with a lapidary formula: “The Five-Year Plan has built many beautiful factories. But it is bread that keeps the factories going; and the Five-Year Plan has destroyed the breadbasket of Russia.”

Far from sharing his views, some colleagues even attacked his conclusions with great violence, such as Walter Duranty (played by Peter Sarsgaard in the film), Moscow correspondent for the prestigious New York Times, from 1922 to 1936.

In accordance with Moscow’s propaganda, he denied the existence of a generalized famine in the region. “Russians are hungry but not hungry” he headlined in a reply, March 31, 1933; explaining that the high mortality rate was due to illnesses linked to malnutrition, and that only Ukraine was affected by this supply problem.

“Russian and foreign observers have no reason to believe in a humanitarian catastrophe” dared to write the one who was nevertheless winner of the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in 1932. In 1990, a editorial by New York Times Foreign Affairs journalist Karl E. Meyeracknowledged that Duranty was the author of “some of the worst stories ever to appear in this newspaper”whose backlights on the famine in Ukraine were a sad symbol.

Stalin’s shadowavailable on VOD for rental or purchase.

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War in Ukraine: understanding the conflict with the film The Shadow of Stalin