The question of truth is at the heart of the story Holland tackles—the deadly famine, engineered by Stalin’s regime, that swept through Ukraine, the Volga Basin, the Kuban and Don regions of the North Caucasus, and Kazakhstan in the winter of 1932-1933. In Ukraine alone, where it is known by its Ukrainian name of Holodomor and often referred to as the terror-famine, it took an estimated 4 million lives. In this exceptionally fertile land, Stalin imposed impossible production demands, expropriating all available grain and livestock and using the ensuing starvation to break the back of the peasantry, whose resistance to collectivization threatened to undermine his industrialization efforts.
But Stalin’s crime was only one face of the story. The other face was the extraordinary failure on the part of the world to report and acknowledge the facts. Many were complicit in this failure, but the starring role undoubtedly belonged to the Moscow-based Western journalists, who misreported, underreported, and failed to report about what was plainly happening under their noses. Walter Duranty, the New York Times’ man in Moscow, outright lied about the events, deliberately misleading his readers. In 1932, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for reporting. Holland’s exploration of the complicity of the press in one of Joseph Stalin’s greatest crimes lends the film an unexpected relevance to our current moment, when the role and purpose of the media and of journalism itself seem to be under attack—from both would-be dictators and people for whom virtue is the arbiter of truth.