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What links Orwell, the Ukrainian famine, Animal Farm, fake news and Trump?

Up to five million people died in the Ukrainian famine in the 1930s. This is the twisted story that links those events to the authoritarian threats of today

Ukraine being used as a pawn between super states will come as no surprise to anyone who went to school with Andrea Chalupa. By the age of 12 she was giving talks to her bewildered classmates about the Holodomor, the Ukrainian famine that killed between three and five million people in the early 1930s.

Andrea and her sister Alexandra grew up in northern California hearing stories about how her family suffered under Joseph Stalin’s regime and survived the Second World War.

“I knew as a child that there was widespread cannibalism in Ukraine, that when a mother was driven mad by hunger she ate her own children,” she says. “All around me, people had never heard of it and that really deepened the tragedy for me.”

Chalupa’s parents were born in refugee camps in 1945. Her grandfather Olexji had seen the Russian Revolution fought on his farm in Donbas, east Ukraine, survived the Holodomor, and was arrested and tortured in Stalin’s purges. To Andrea as a young girl, he was her hero.

“As children we all had that person who meant the world to us,” Chalupa says. “My grandfather would take me out for doughnuts and hot chocolate and I would sing songs from The Little Mermaid at the top of my lungs and he thought I was amazing. He was my everything.

“When he died it was my first big loss in life. I took a very long time to get over it. When I graduated from university I was feeling very lost, so to stabilise myself I went to Ukraine with my grandfather’s memoir.”

Not long before he died aged 83, Olexji had written down his life story. Chalupa recognised parallels with what he had lived through and the events allegorised in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a thinly veiled attack on the risks of socialism. Napoleon the pig leads a rebellion to create a fairer society for all, but the idyllic dream becomes a nightmare as power corrupts and some animals become more equal than others.

Chalupa became determined to find out more about her grandfather – and the history of Ukraine at that time – and learned about Gareth Jones. A former foreign adviser to ex-prime minister David Lloyd George, he was also a journalist who in March 1933 had been the first to bring the famine in Ukraine to the world’s attention.

Jones had a busy start to 1933. He was present when Adolf Hitler was made chancellor of Germany and flew on a newly developed aircraft with him and Joseph Goebbels in February that year. He wrote prophetically: “If this aeroplane should crash then the whole history of Europe would be changed.” The following month Jones headed to Moscow to bag another great dictator. His ambition to interview Stalin was thwarted but he discovered on an unauthorised trip to Ukraine that the region known as the bread basket of Europe – its vast fields and fertile conditions were responsible for growing 25 per cent of Soviet crops – was being starved as new state-implemented production methods failed and successful harvests were exported to prop up Stalin’s base of power in Moscow.

But, like today, fake news took over. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Walter Duranty, the New York Times’ man in Moscow, rebuffed Jones’s accusations, calling them “an exaggeration or malignant propaganda”.

“He was very effective at muddling the truth,” Chalupa says. “You don’t have to deny that something happens, you have to create enough confusion so people lose a sense of urgency and interest.”

Sorting fact from fiction drove Chalupa, now a writer, activist and filmmaker, to develop a script about Gareth Jones and how his reporting inspired George Orwell. It’s no coincidence that the main human in Animal Farm is called Jones.

“There was such a strong belief that the Soviet Union was a great experiment that was helping usher in a new age of socialism,” Chalupa says. “A lot of George Orwell’s motivation behind his great works, especially Animal Farm, was to open up the eyes of the West.

The world needs examples of heroes who do the right thing simply because it is the right thing. Our film is black and white because sometimes the truth is black and white

“It takes all of us to get the truth out. Gareth’s story is tragic [in 1935 he was killed in China the day before his 30th birthday; the suspicion persists that it was Stalin’s revenge] but George Orwell and others picked up the torch. That’s how you resist authoritarianism. It takes a chain of resistance, even over generations, to finally take them down.”

While working on the film, Chalupa uncovered her own link to the chain. Orwell struggled to find a publisher for Animal Farm in the 1940s, when the Allies were relying on Stalin to defeat Hitler. Secker & Warburg printed a relatively small run in 1945 and six months later a copy was read by Ukrainian refugee Ihor Ševčenko, who recognised what the book had to say about the dangers of totalitarianism.

Ševčenko wrote to Orwell and the pair produced 5,000 copies translated into Ukrainian to be distributed in refugee camps. Only in the preface to this edition did Orwell outline explicitly his attitude to the Soviet regime:

“I have never visited Russia and my knowledge of it consists only of what can be learned by reading books and newspapers. Even if I had the power, I would not wish to interfere in Soviet domestic affairs: I would not condemn Stalin and his associates merely for their barbaric and undemocratic methods. It is quite possible that, even with the best intentions, they could not have acted otherwise under the conditions prevailing there.

“But on the other hand it was of the utmost importance to me that people in western Europe should see the Soviet regime for what it really was. Since 1930 I had seen little evidence that the USSR was progressing towards anything that one could truly call socialism. On the contrary, I was struck by clear signs of its transformation into a hierarchical society, in which the rulers have no more reason to give up their power than any other ruling class.”

The majority of copies of the Ukrainian translation of Animal Farm were destroyed by American personnel fearing criticism of Stalin, but one copy was kept and is still owned by Chalupa’s uncle.

The coincidence pushed Chalupa to get the film made. More than a dozen years in development, Mr Jones is released this week, starring James Norton, Vanessa Kirby and Joseph Mawle as Orwell. It was directed by Polish-born, Oscar-nominated Agnieszka Holland, who has helmed episodes of The Wire, The Killing and House of Cards.

“She kept commenting to me that Hollywood became obsessed with an anti-hero narrative and now you have anti-heroes in power,” Chalupa says. “The world needs examples of heroes who do the right thing simply because it is the right thing. Our film is black and white because sometimes the truth is black and white.”

Holland adds: “We knew when shooting this film that we are telling an important, timeless story. But only after I realised how relevant is today this tale about the fake news, alternative realities, corruption of the media, cowardness of governments, indifference of people.

“The clash of Jones’s courage and determination against Duranty’s cynical opportunism and cowardice is still valid as well. Today, we don’t lack corruptible conformists and egoists; we lack Orwells and Joneses. That is why we brought them back to life.”


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Spin forward to Donald Trump’s impeachment pantomime. “I JUST GOT IMPEACHED FOR MAKING A PERFECT PHONE CALL!” he tweeted in January. Opponents hope the trial uncovers some inconvenient truths that will cripple his re-election campaign. Trump’s almost inevitable acquittal will likely legitimise every shady tactic he has employed so far, just in time for him to take aim at whichever candidate wins the Democratic nomination.

The impeachment trial hinges on the “perfect” conversation Trump had with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky last July. Zelensky rose to fame in his home country playing a fictional president in the TV show Servant of the People (available on Netflix) before deciding life could imitate art. Some 73 per cent of voters agreed and he assumed office in May last year. 

When the pair of TV stars-turned-presidents spoke, topics included Trump asking Ukraine to investigate financial dealings of former vice-president Joe Biden (and his son Hunter) and whether the Ukrainian government interfered with the 2016 US election. “Do us a favour,” asked Trump on the phone call. In return, he allegedly offered not to freeze $391m of military aid to the country.

Suspicion of overseas influence in domestic politics has been a massive concern in the US recently, so unsurprisingly, after hearing the president openly encouraging another country to dig up dirt on a potential opponent, a White House insider blew the whistle, leading to the trial.

Foreign interference in the 2016 election has dogged Trump since he took office, with Russia always being the prime suspect. Why now cast aspersions on Ukraine?

In March 2016, Paul Manafort was recruited to Trump’s election campaign and in June that year he became its chairman. An endless parade of rogues have come and gone from Trump’s inner circle, but Manafort was one of the more significant. 

For most of the previous decade he had worked as an adviser for Viktor Yanukovych, the Kremlin-backed president of Ukraine from 2010 to 2014. Manafort was a proponent of shooting protesters, a “strategy that was to cause that, to send those people out and get them slaughtered”, in his own daughter’s words. Yanukovych is accused of being responsible for $100bn disappearing from the Ukrainian budget while in power, some of it ending up in Manafort’s account. Manafort is currently serving time in a Pennsylvania prison for tax and bank fraud and conspiracy to defraud the United States.

When Manafort was recruited to Trump’s team, there was one person who did what they could to raise awareness of his crookedness: Andrea Chalupa’s sister Alexandra.

A pro-Ukrainian activist and campaigner, as early as January 2016, Alexandra was warning that Manafort was Putin’s “political brain for manipulating US foreign policy and elections”. Working with the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Ukrainian embassies, Alexandra investigated Manafort’s political activities and financial dealings. By December 2016, Russia’s foreign ministry spokesperson accused Ukraine of trying to sabotage Trump by exposing Manafort’s attempts to hide millions of dollars paid for his work with Kremlin-backed Ukrainian politicians. It was Alexandra at the centre of this accusation, and a conspiracy theory built up around her.

She received notifications that someone was trying to hack her emails. She emailed the DNC to raise the alarm and that email became one of thousands of DNC emails published by WikiLeaks. Her phone was hacked; it would randomly start to play a heavy metal song called Regret [by Swedish band Avatar] about a dead owl.

It is so surreal that there is a parallel to today and it’s the simple fact that authoritarianism is not creative. It’s the same playbook – how a dictator rises to and consolidates power – it’s all the same

Some Trump supporters still believe Alexandra Chalupa acted as intermediary between the Democrats and the anti-Putin Ukrainian government that followed Viktor Yanukovych to undermine Trump’s campaign. Then they all conspired to frame Russia for election interference. The proof, some conservative commentators say, is that visitor logs place her at the White House several times during 2015. A picture from one of the visits shows her standing next to a man who was later identified as the person who blew the whistle after Trump’s “perfect phone call” with President Zelensky.

Trump has said plenty of stupid things, but the reason this phone call matters lies in history between Ukraine, Russia and the US that goes back decades. “There’s the saying that Russia with Ukraine gives it the power of the United States, because Ukraine is so rich in natural resources,” Andrea Chalupa explains. “You have an imperialist Kremlin that doesn’t see any issue with openly attacking Ukraine and bombing civilians in Syria to create a refugee crisis that further divides Europe.

“Ukraine is Putin’s number one target. Kiev is now a hotbed for the Russian opposition. You have a lot of great organisers living in exile keeping the flame of revolution warm for when Russia is ready.”

More than a decade ago, when Chalupa started turning the story of Jones and Orwell into a film inspired by her grandfather, she couldn’t have imagined themes from nearly a century ago would be rising again.

“It is so surreal that there is a parallel to today and it’s the simple fact that authoritarianism is not creative. It’s the same playbook – how a dictator rises to and consolidates power – it’s all the same.

“Dictators come to power through Animal Farm and then they produce 1984. That’s why Orwell remains relevant.”

Mr Jones is in cinemas now. Andrea Chalupa hosts the podcast Gaslit Nation,