Adam Somerset highlights the life and work of Gareth Jones, the Welsh journalist celebrated in Ukraine for his reporting of the country’s deliberate starvation by the Soviet Union in the 1930s.
In February 2018, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and historian Anne Applebaum visited Aberystwyth to deliver a lecture on her new book, Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine. There was a good reason the American author was asked to deliver the David Davies Memorial Institute’s annual lecture at Aberystwyth University’s International Politics building. Less than a mile away the university’s Old College building holds the only plaque in the world to be written in the three languages of Welsh, English and Ukrainian.
The plaque commemorates the Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, who reported on the ‘Holodomor’ – the famine in Soviet Ukraine and southern Russia in 1932 and 1933 which claimed as many as seven million lives. It was unveiled in May 2006 in the presence of Jones’ niece, Margaret Siriol Colley, and the Ukrainian Ambassador to the UK, Ihor Kharchenko, who called Jones an “unsung hero” of his country. Two years later, Dr Kharchenko posthumously awarded Jones with the Ukrainian Order of Merit at a ceremony in Westminster Central Hall, recognising his exceptional service to the country and its people.
Applebaum’s lecture, titled ‘A Tale of Two Journalists: Gareth Jones, Walter Duranty and the Ukrainian Famine’, drew from extracts of Red Famine, one of the 2017 books of the year in The Times, Sunday Times and Financial Times. Jones plays a significant role in the book’s fourteenth chapter, which starts with the Aberystwyth graduate catching a train from Moscow to Kharkiv, only to slip off at an earlier stop and walk 40 miles to his destination instead.
The facts of the Holodomor famine, which Jones observed and reported on first-hand, were slow to firmly enter recorded history. Over time it has become known that the starvation was politically motivated as part of the Sovietisation of Ukraine – the supply of food was not mismanaged, but weaponised. Survivors who spoke of the famine in the 1950s were largely dismissed as conspiracy-mongers, driven by anti-Communism and Ukrainian nationalistic hatred of Russia.
The 1985 Ukrainian/Canadian-produced documentary film Harvest of Despair and 1986 book Harvest of Sorrow by Robert Conquest helped shed light on the truth of the famine. Applebaum’s book, aided by access to archives which were opened following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, presents a Bolshevik government bent on extracting wealth and controlling labour in Ukraine. It confiscated the last remaining food from hungry peasants and then blocked them from fleeing famine-afflicted areas. Parts of Red Famine are near-unbearable – people took to consuming grass, animal hides, manure and eventually each other.
Moscow was initially successful in suppressing all news of the deaths of around 13% of Ukraine’s population. Walter Duranty – the other focus of Applebaum’s lecture – received a Pulitzer Prize in 1932, but faced calls for that to be revoked when he later denied the mass starvation. The New York Times, which had submitted his writing for the prize, later attested that his writings denying the famine constituted some of the worst reporting to ever appear in the newspaper.
One such instance was a direct attack by Duranty on Gareth Jones in the NYT in March 1933. Jones had issued a widely published press release two days earlier, which was preceded by three articles about the famine in the Manchester Guardian. In an article entitled ‘Russians Hungry, But Not Starving’, Duranty dismissed a “scare story” in the American press from a British source. He later said any reports of famine were exaggeration and “malignant propaganda”. Fellow journalist, Malcolm Muggeridge, who was recognised alongside Jones for services to Ukraine in 2008, branded Duranty as the “greatest liar I ever knew”.
In contrast, Jones’ reporting of the famine was only ever in search of the truth and reflected a principled and determined journalist. Maxim Litvinov, the Soviet Foreign Commissioner at the time of the starvation, was interviewed by Jones and later wrote to UK Prime Minister David Lloyd George to the effect that the journalist was banned from ever entering the Soviet Union again.
It was Jones’ next career move that led to his untimely death the day before his 30th birthday in 1935. Reporting from the far east, Jones was kidnapped and murdered by Chinese Communist bandits in Mongolia, who have been linked to the NKVD, the Soviet Union’s secret police. Buried in his hometown of Barry, Gareth Jones’ life story has been immortalised in literature and media including the 2019 film, Mr Jones.
Here is an extract of Jones’ reporting from Ukraine.
“I walked along through villages and twelve collective farms. Everywhere was the cry, ‘There is no bread. We are dying’. This cry came from every part of Russia, from the Volga, Siberia, White Russia, the North Caucasus, and Central Asia. I tramped through the black earth region because that was once the richest farmland in Russia and because the correspondents have been forbidden to go there to see for themselves what is happening.
“In the train a Communist denied to me that there was a famine. I flung a crust of bread which I had been eating from my own supply into a spittoon. A peasant fellow-passenger fished it out and ravenously ate it. I threw an orange peel into the spittoon and the peasant again grabbed it and devoured it. The Communist subsided. I stayed overnight in a village where there used to be two hundred oxen and where there now are six. The peasants were eating the cattle fodder and had only a month’s supply left. They told me that many had already died of hunger. Two soldiers came to arrest a thief. They warned me against travel by night, as there were too many ‘starving’ desperate men.
“’We are waiting for death’ was my welcome, but see, we still, have our cattle fodder. Go farther south. There they have nothing. Many houses are empty of people already dead,’ they cried.”
Adam Somerset is an essayist and a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.
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Adam Somerset recounts the power of Gareth Jones’ reporting on the Holodomor, the Terror-Famine which lasted in Soviet Ukraine from 1932 to 1933, killing millions of Ukrainians.