Hunger for Truth
The silence that came with starvation in the Ukraine.
Mar 24, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 27 • By ANDREW STUTTAFORD
For decades, the notebooks of Gareth Jones (1905-35), a brilliant young Welshman murdered in Japanese-occupied Manchuria, were stashed away in his family’s house in South Wales, only to be retrieved by his niece, Siriol Colley, in the early 1990s. By that time, Jones, once a highly promising journalist and an aide to a rather better-known Welshman, David Lloyd George, had largely vanished from history. But two books that appeared around then, Robert Conquest’s The Harvest of Sorrow (1986) and Sally J. Taylor’s Stalin’s Apologist (1990), gave a hint of what was to come.
In the first, a groundbreaking account of the manufactured famine that devastated Soviet Ukraine in 1932-33, Conquest told how Jones had gotten off a Kharkov-bound train, tramped through the broken Ukrainian countryside, and, on his return to the West, sounded the alarm about what Ukrainians now call the Holodomor (literally, to “kill by hunger”). Conquest explained how Jones’s “honorable and honest reporting” was trashed not only by Soviet officialdom, but also by Western journalists in the Soviet capital, a squalid episode discussed in more depth in Stalin’s Apologist, a biography of Walter Duranty, the New York Times’s Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent in Moscow.
Duranty, whose relationship with the Stalin regime fueled a very well-paid career, took the lead in discrediting Jones. Claims of famine were “exaggeration” or, worse, “malignant propaganda.” Jones hit back, but to little avail. With just two years of life remaining to him, the path for his descent into historical oblivion was set. As for those three, four, five, maybe more, million deaths—well, so far as the West was concerned, nothing on that scale had happened. Sure, something bad had taken place, but to borrow Duranty’s term, there’s no omelet without breaking eggs; that’s how it goes.
It says something about the extent to which the Ukrainian genocide had been erased from Western memory that when Colley went through her uncle’s notebooks—the scribbled source material for the best English-language eyewitness reports of the famine—what caught her eye most (admittedly it had long been the source of family speculation) were later sections relating to what would ultimately be his murder in Manchuria. That was the topic that became the subject of Colley’s first book, Gareth Jones—A Manchukuo Incident (2001), a privately published volume in which only a page or two was reserved for Ukraine.
Times change. The reappearance of Gareth Jones was accelerated by the determination of many Ukrainians—free at last from imposed Soviet silence—to understand their own history. The investigation of a family tragedy broadened into an effort, helped by supportive members of the Ukrainian diaspora, to rediscover a journalist whose long-forgotten writing could be used to shape this newly independent nation’s sense of self and, more specifically, to help pull it away from Russia’s grip. It is no coincidence that Gareth Jones was posthumously awarded Ukraine’s Order of Merit at a time when Viktor Yushchenko, the most pro-Western of Ukraine’s presidents up until now, was in charge.
By then, Siriol Colley had written More Than a Grain of Truth (2005), a biography (again self-published) of her uncle, offering a fuller portrait of a man who was a blend of Zelig—on a plane with Adolf Hitler, at San Simeon with William Randolph Hearst, you name it—and Cassandra, warning of nightmares to come. Meanwhile, a website (Garethjones.org) developed by Colley’s son Nigel had evolved into an invaluable online resource for anyone wanting to know more. Interest in Jones has continued to grow. A steady flow of stories in the British press, a documentary for the BBC, an exhibition at his old Cambridge college, and much else besides, were evidence that Jones was re-entering history beyond the frontiers of Ukraine—history that (as related in the West) finally had room for the Holodomor. This shift boosted interest in Jones, but was also, in a virtuous circle, partly the product of the rediscovery of his account of that hidden genocide, an account written in accessible English rather than a Slavic tongue.