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Opinion If Hollywood wants to help Ukraine, it should start by telling these stories

Members of the territorial defense rest in a movie theater in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 7. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
4 min

As filmmakers and film studios struggle to find ways to address the ongoing humanitarian crisis that is Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, one thing they could do is ameliorate one of the more puzzling gaps in Hollywood’s base of knowledge: the near-complete dearth of films about Soviet atrocities.

After all, Hollywood loves telling stories about historical tragedies. From “The Diary of Anne Frank” to “Schindler’s List” to “Marathon Man” to “The Inglourious Basterds,” the Holocaust has served as either a setting or a motivation or a backstory for more films than I can count. And Nazis are practically stock villains at this point.

But Hollywood depictions of Soviet crimes against humanity are less common. The 1984 TV movie “Sakharov,” about the famed dissident and nuclear scientist Andrei Sakharov comes to mind. “Cold War,” Pawel Pawlikowski’s film about doomed Polish lovers falling under the heel of Communist Russia, is about the soul-crushing nature of totalitarianism, but on a smaller scale. Armando Iannucci’s “The Death of Stalin” is an amazing (and amazingly dark) look at Stalin’s purges, but it focuses more on Soviet leadership than on the ordinary people affected by Stalin’s rule.

And then there’s “Mr. Jones,” currently streaming on Hulu. “Mr. Jones” is one of the few movies to address one of the most horrifying events of the 20th century: Joseph Stalin’s man-made famine in Ukraine that resulted in the death of between 3.3 million and 3.9 million people. Known as the Holodomor, the starvation of Ukraine was the result of Soviet efforts to collectivize farms and siphon grain from Ukraine to fund Russian modernization in the early 1930s ahead of World War II.

The truth of the Holodomor was hidden from the West for years by Stalin’s useful idiots. Journalists such as the New York Times’s Walter Duranty willingly lied about the catastrophe to gain favor with Soviet commissars. When Welsh journalist Gareth Jones reported the truth about the situation, Duranty took to the pages of the Times to denounce him.

Duranty would win a Pulitzer for his efforts in 1932. Jones would be killed on assignment three years later in Mongolia, where he was loaned a car by a known agent of the Soviet secret police.

While knowledge of the Holodomor has increased over the years thanks to books such as Timothy Snyder’s “Bloodlands” and Anne Applebaum’s “Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine,” “Mr. Jones” screenwriter Andrea Chalupa told me that when she was pitching the film, producers would call her in for a meeting just to learn more about the topic.

“A lot of the academic departments that were established during the time of the Soviet Union were done so by Western academics who were given access to the Soviet Union because of their friendly position towards the Soviet Union. So they would come back and teach new generations of academics the understanding of the Soviet Union through a Moscow lens,” she said. As a result of this bias, atrocities such as the Holodomor were for decades dismissed as figments of Ukrainian nationalist fervor designed to denigrate the U.S.S.R.

Hollywood could help westerners understand what Eastern Europeans see when they look at Vladimir Putin leading a resurgent Russian empire — and give us some insight into how Putin sees himself and his place in Russian history.

“There needs to be more films. I think ‘The Death of Stalin’ does a brilliant job in showing the absurdity of the Soviet Union. And obviously HBO, ‘Chernobyl’ — that series opened up a lot of people’s eyes,” she said. “‘Chernobyl’ and my film did a lot to raise awareness of Ukraine abroad. So, the more we can have films that give voice to these unheard of dark chapters in history, the better it is for us to be aware of the dynamics we’re up against today.”

Filmmaking is a business, of course, and an embattled one at that: The Holodomor isn’t exactly a feel-good topic or the kind of atrocity that can be defeated by a spandex-clad hero. No executive wants to risk their job by alienating one of the world’s biggest movie markets. Plus: Sending a message is Western Union’s job, as mogul Sam Goldwyn was fond of saying.

But stories of sacrifice and bravery in the face of Soviet repression abound. And filmmakers can entertain and educate simultaneously. From student protests to uprisings in Romania and Czechoslovakia, to sports drama like the Hungarian water polo team’s efforts in 1956, to the Solidarity movement in Poland, there are plenty of vibrant stories Hollywood could tell about the past that also illuminate the present.

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