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14.11.2009

Diaries of “the man who knew too much” go on show

   

The diaries of a heroic British reporter who sacrificed his reputation, and perhaps his life, to expose Stalin’s “terror famine” in Soviet Ukraine are to go on public display for the first time.

Gareth Jones was the only western writer who successfully unmasked the true horror of "Holodomor" - the man-made famine that killed millions of people in Ukraine, the North Caucasus, and the lower Volga region in 1932 and 1933.

His stories appeared in British, American and German newspapers, revealing how millions of peasants in Ukraine were starving to death while the Soviet regime exported grain to the West and failed to deliver aid. Jones recorded meetings with desperate villagers who were subsisting on cattle fodder, too weak to work in the fields.

But despite their shocking contents, the articles were rubbished by other western journalists in Moscow, many of whom had access to Stalin’s government, which carefully concealed the true scale of the atrocity.

Jones ended up being publicly discredited and was banned from the USSR. Two years later, while working in China, he was murdered by bandits in circumstances that suggest possible Soviet involvement. He was just 29.

Now, for the first time, the diaries that Jones kept as he trekked across Ukraine and used as the basis of his reports are being put on display by Trinity College, University of Cambridge, where he was a student.

The documents have been kept by his family and are going on show to coincide with a new, feature-length documentary about Jones and the famine by the director Serhii Bukovs’kyi. The film, called "The Living", will receive its British premiere on Friday (November 13th) as part of the Second Annual Cambridge Festival of Ukrainian Film, organised by the University’s Department of Slavonic Studies.

"These diaries are the only independent Western verification of what was arguably Stalin’s greatest atrocity," Jones’ great nephew, Nigel Linsan Colley, said.

"Jones was the only journalist who risked his name and reputation to expose Holodomor to the world," Rory Finnin, Lecturer in Ukrainian Studies at the University of Cambridge, added. "His diaries are a stirring historical record of an often forgotten tragedy of the 20th century."

Within Ukraine, where Holodomor is formally recognised as an act of genocide, Jones has been declared a national hero. Historians still dispute whether the famine was a deliberate act to combat Ukrainian nationalism, or a result of Stalin’s 1928-33 "Five Year Plan", in which farms were forcibly collectivised and grain stocks requisitioned for urban areas or export.

What is clear is that Stalin allowed the famine to occur, sealed off the Russia-Ukraine border, and ruthlessly punished starving peasants accused of ’hoarding grain.’ Modern estimates suggest that 4 million people died in the famine in Ukraine alone. In recent years the United Nations and the European Parliament have recognised it as a crime against humanity.

Jones’ own short career was impressive even before he recorded his experience of the atrocity. By that stage, he had already been an assistant to the former Prime Minister, David Lloyd-George, visited Russia twice and witnessed first-hand Hitler’s installation as German Chancellor. Jones even wrote to Lloyd-George to warn him about Hitler and the threat he posed.

He returned to Moscow in March 1933, determined to investigate rumours of famine on behalf of the newspapers with whom he was starting to forge a career as a talented correspondent. In defiance of the Soviet authorities, Jones then slipped across the border into Ukraine, which was off-limits to western journalists. Once there, he began walking from village to village.

His diaries reveal some of the horror of what he saw. Dying families begged him for bread, while other peasants advised him against walking alone at night because there were too many "desperate, starving" people in the area. Many, he wrote, were hopelessly weak, their last supplies of potatoes and beetroot running out. Their cattle and other livestock were already dead or dying.

Returning to Berlin, Jones filed a "press release" to British and American newspapers on March 29th. The story described the situation in graphic detail. "Everywhere was the cry, ’There is no bread. We are dying.’" Jones wrote.

The world paid little heed to Jones’s report, which was attacked by other journalists. Days later, the New York Times writer Walter Duranty, a respected Pulitzer prize-winner, produced a denial headlined: "Russians Hungry, But Not Starving". Duranty labelled Jones’s report a ’scare story’ and suggested that Jones’ judgement had been "hasty", naïve and based on inadequate evidence.

Jones fought back, arguing that western correspondents in the Soviet Union were spending their time largely in Moscow where their copy was heavily censored by the Soviet authorities. With Duranty and other reporters against him, however, there was little he could do.

Dismayed and barred from Russia, he turned his eye eastwards, where Japan was beginning to expand its Empire in Manchuria in similarly underreported circumstances. While working in Inner Mongolia in August 1935, however, Jones was captured by bandits. He and his German travelling companion were held for ransom. After 16 days, Jones was murdered.

Although the circumstances of his death remain unclear, investigations have uncovered a trail of Soviet involvement. A flat Jones had used in Tokyo in 1934 was connected with a Soviet spy, his vehicle in China was owned by the NKVD and his companion, Dr. Herbert Mueller, who was released unharmed, had known Soviet connections.

After his death, Lloyd-George wrote: "That part of the world is a cauldron of conflicting intrigue. One or other interests concerned probably knew that Mr. Gareth Jones knew too much of what was going on."

Gareth Jones’ diaries will be displayed at the Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge, from November 13th to mid-December. The library is open at specific times during the week. For details, visit: http://www.trin.cam.ac.uk

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