The Magazine

Hunger for Truth

The silence that came with starvation in the Ukraine.

Mar 24, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 27 • By ANDREW STUTTAFORD
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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.