Masked men storm Moscow screening of film about Stalin-era famine

Authorities question staff of Russian NGO Memorial after mob disrupts screening of Mr Jones at its office

James Norton in Mr Jones James Norton in Mr Jones, which tells the story of a Welsh journalist who documented the Holodomor. Photograph: Allstar/Film ProdukcjaJames Norton in Mr Jones, which tells the story of a Welsh journalist who documented the Holodomor. Photograph: Allstar/Film Produkcja

Pjotr Sauer in Moscow

A group of masked men stormed the offices of a renowned human rights organisation in Moscow on Thursday to disrupt the screening of Mr Jones, a British co-produced film about the Holodomor, the Stalin-era famine that killed millions of peasants in Soviet Ukraine during the 1930s.

The 2019 movie, starring the British actor James Norton and directed by the Polish film-maker Agnieszka Holland, depicts the real-life story of Gareth Jones, a Welshman who is widely considered to have been the first journalist to document the famine, after repeated visits to the Soviet Union.

In footage posted online on Thursday evening, about 30 people are seen entering the office of Memorial, Russia’s oldest NGO, which documents Soviet-era repressions. The men are heard shouting “shame” and ordering viewers to leave because “the screening is over”.

Irina Sherbakova, Memorial’s lawyer, said that after the police were called, the authorities handcuffed the entrance doors to Memorial’s office and locked its staff and attenders inside for hours.

“It was strange, the police started to question us and not the ones who actually disrupted the movie. This looks like a planned attack on us to scare us away, approved by the authorities,” she said.

Nationalist activists frequently disrupt liberal, feminist and LGBT events, and Kremlin critics say the activists are able to freely operate with tacit approval from the authorities. “This isn’t the first and it won’t be the last attack on us,” Sherbakova said.

Memorial, which also speaks out about present-day human rights violations in Russia, has found itself under growing pressure from the authorities in recent years. In 2015 it was one of the first organisations to be labelled as a “foreign agent” under a 2012 law that obliges groups considered to have international funding to submit extensive documents every three months outlining their finances.

The screening of Mr Jones comes at a time when a growing number of Russians view Stalin in a favourable light. In a poll in May by the independent Levada Center, 56% of respondents agreed with the statement that the Soviet dictator was a “great leader” – double the number in 2016.

Scholars believe between 4 million and 7 million people perished during the famine, which was partly triggered by Soviet-led mass collectivisation. Ukraine has labelled the Holodomor as a genocide, an assertion rejected by the Kremlin, and interpretations of the famine’s causes have caused friction between the two countries.

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