A former Western Mail reporter who exposed a 1930s famine in the Soviet Union that took up to 10 million lives has been hailed as one of journalism’s greatest “eyewitnesses of truth”.
Now the testimony of Gareth Jones is being used in a bid to have the famine, most of whose victims died in Ukraine, recognised officially as a “Holodomor”, or genocide.
This week American university professor Ray Gamache, from King’s College, Pennsylvania, has been addressing meetings in Aberystwyth and Cardiff about his new book Gareth Jones: Eyewitness to the Holodomor.
Born in Barry in 1905, Jones graduated from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth in 1926 with a first class degree in French, and from Trinity College, Cambridge in 1929 with a first class honours degree in French, German, and Russian.
In January 1930 he began work as foreign affairs adviser to former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George.
In the summer of 1931 he toured the Soviet Union with HJ Heinz II of the food company dynasty, producing a diary which probably contains the first usage of the word “starve” in relation to the collectivisation of Soviet agriculture.
In 1932 Jones returned to work for Lloyd George, helping him write his memoirs of World War I.
In March 1933 he travelled to Russia and Ukraine, issuing on his return an article that was published by newspapers across the English-speaking world. Its best known passage read: “ I walked along through villages and 12 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 200 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.”
Jones’ testimony was not generally welcomed, with most not prepared to believe that Stalin would deliberately create a famine in which so-called enemies of the people starved to death.
On March 31 the New York Times published a denial of Jones’ testimony by Walter Duranty under the headline “Russians hungry but not starving”. On May 13, Jones published a strong rebuttal to Duranty in the New York Times, standing by his report.
In late 1934 Jones left Britain on a round-the-world fact-finding tour.
Travelling with a German journalist in Japanese-occupied China, Jones and his companion were captured by pirates.
The German journalist was released after two days, but 16 days later the bandits shot Jones on the eve of his 30th birthday.
There were strong suspicions that Jones’ murder was engineered by the Soviets, as revenge for the embarrassment he had caused them with the famine report.
Discussing the significance of Jones’ famine testimony, Gamache said: “As a special correspondent, Gareth Jones produced some of the most profoundly important journalism on the USSR’s Five-Year Plan, which eventually led to one of the most catastrophic events of the 20th century, the famine of 1932-33, an event that killed more than four and a half million people and left many others exiled and imprisoned.
“It was a moment in history that Jones witnessed himself.
“Eyewitnessing has special significance in journalism mythology, for to have been there, to preserve for posterity something of the individual human experience within historical events and conditions gives journalists an authority that no training can impart.
“Most importantly, Jones gave voice to people who in all likelihood would not survive the famine. Only by keeping their experiences alive through the discursive act of writing his newspaper articles did Jones assure access to truth and authenticity.”
Gamache concluded: “If he had lived into his 30s and beyond, perhaps we would have a greater understanding of his motivations and what he thought about reporting on this catastrophic famine.
“Ultimately, the legacy of Jones must be judged on his reporting, which was shaped by an understanding of the political and economic realities that ultimately precipitated the famine of 1932-33.
“Jones’s reporting of the famine anticipates today’s ‘journalism of attachment’, the ontology of witnessing a disaster and bearing witness to it through a series of newspaper articles that satisfy the injunction to care for people who had no way to communicate what was happening to them, whose voices were being muffled by official denials which were echoed by journalists like Duranty, and whose only recourse was through personal correspondence.
“Gareth Jones’s reporting of the famine was indeed ethical and courageous, for he not only challenged the might of Stalinist repression, disregarded personal safety and sacrificed personal and professional advancement, but he paid the ultimate price for his profession when he ventured into hostile territory in 1935.
“His death serves as a reminder of the journalist’s moral responsibility to cover distant suffering with an injunction to care.”
Last week the British Government refused to acknowledge the 1930s Soviet famine as a Holodomor, saying its policy was only to acknowledge atrocities as genocide when there has been a judicial ruling to that effect.
Moves are now expected to get the Welsh Assembly to recognise what happened as a Holodomor.
Gareth Jones: Eyewitness to the Holodomor is published by Welsh Academic Press at a special launch price of £35