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.
But the reemergence of Jones does not diminish the darkness that accompanied his original eclipse, a darkness that runs through Gareth Jones: Eyewitness to the Holodomor. Ray Gamache’s work does not pretend to be a comprehensive biographical study, although it features enough helpful detail to act as a reasonable introduction to Jones’s extraordinary life. And it handily knocks down a few myths along the way. To name but two, the notion of a plot by the Moscow correspondents (such as it was) should not be overstated. And Jones did not sneak onto that train to Kharkov (his journey had official approval); it was where he got off—in the middle of nowhere, into the middle of hell—that was unauthorized.
That said, this fine book’s central focus is something more specific, a perceptive, methodical, and diligently forensic examination of the articles that Gareth Jones wrote about the Soviet Union, the circumstances in which they were written, the message they were designed to deliver, and, critically, their overall reliability. The reader is left in no doubt that this courageous, intensely moral man, an exemplar of the Welsh Nonconformist conscience at its best, saw the horrors he so meticulously chronicled in his notebooks and to which he then bore witness in his journalism: “This ruin I saw in its grim reality. . . . I saw children with swollen bellies.”
This is an academic book and thus not entirely free of jargon (“journalism texts are linguistic representations of reality”) or the contemplation of topics, such as the journalistic ethics of Jones’s giving food to the starving, likely to be of scant interest off-campus. That said, Gamache’s shrewd, careful work gives an excellent sense of Jones’s powerful analytical skills and the layers of meaning contained in his plain, unvarnished prose.
Above all, this book forcefully conveys Jones’s foreboding that something wicked was headed towards the peasantry. A leftish liberal in that early-20th-century way, he had had a degree of sympathy with the professed ideals of the Bolshevik Revolution; but then, as he wrote later, “I went to Russia.” And while he found things to admire in the Soviet Union, the underlying structure of its society appalled him. He saw a ruthless Communist party astride a hierarchy of which the peasantry—relics of the past who were of use, mainly, to feed the industrial proletariat—were at the bottom. With the dislocation, the fanaticism, and the failures of the first Five Year Plan becoming increasingly obvious, Jones knew who would pay the price. References to the danger of famine begin to surface in his reporting, and by October 1932, he was writing two pieces for Cardiff’s Western Mail under the headline “Will there be soup?” In March 1933, Jones returned to the Soviet Union to find out. The rest is history.
That it took so long to be recognized as such, however, was due to more than Soviet disinformation and Walter Duranty’s lies. For as dishonest and influential as that campaign by Duranty was, some of it, even on its face, did not ring quite true—not least the tortured circumlocutions with which he buttressed his denials of famine. Writing in the New York Times, Duranty conceded that, yes, there had been an increase in the death rate, but “not so much from actual starvation as from manifold disease due to lowered resistance.”
Phraseology like that is only sufficient to fool those who wanted to be fooled, and there were plenty in the West ready to give the Soviet Union the benefit of the doubt. Many more simply did not care. The broad outline of what was happening, if not its details, was there for anyone prepared to look. To take just a few examples, there was the reporting of Jones and a handful of others (including Malcolm Muggeridge, whose role vis-à-vis Jones was, as Gamache reminds us, a complex one); there were the stories filtering out through the diaspora; there was the relief effort being attempted by Austria’s Cardinal Innitzer. But few took much interest. After all, said Duranty later, the dead were “only Russians,” a faraway, alien people who didn’t, apparently, count for a great deal.
And there was something else. Gamache records how the Foreign Office, which had access to good information of its own about the famine, deliberately kept quiet, worried about some British engineers then being held by the Soviets—by July 1933, all had been released—and, more broadly, about damaging Britain’s relations with the USSR, a concern sharpened, Gamache suggests (perhaps too charitably), by Hitler’s arrival in power earlier that year.
Looking across the Atlantic, Gamache notes, it has been argued that plans by the Roosevelt administration to extend diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union may well have led Washington to downplay the famine. In any event, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to establish formal diplomatic relations in November 1933, an event fêted with a lavish dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria, where Walter Duranty was a guest of honor. In a nod to the cuisine of the Soviet homeland, borscht, a traditional Ukrainian dish as it happens, was on the menu. That evening, at least, there was soup.
Andrew Stuttaford works in the international financial markets and writes frequently about cultural and political issues.