“Tell England we are dying of hunger”

| March 13, 2023

Ninety years ago, a young Welsh investigative journalist uncovered the Soviet Union’s genocide in Ukraine, Stalin’s attempt to stamp down on rising nationalism. The Holomodor, as it became known, was responsible for the deaths of some 4 million Ukrainians through deliberate starvation.

Gareth Jones’ eyewitness reports, gathered at significant risk, were initially disbelieved and dismissed at a time when many in the west were supportive of Stalin as a potential ally against the growing Nazi threat in the early 1930s. It was only later, after the journalist was murdered in murky circumstances, that the full scale of what had taken place was recognised.

Jones, a linguist and political advisor before he turned to journalism, has become the subject of a feature film, several documentaries and numerous biographies. Yet his achievements, which hold lessons for today’s reporters, are still not well known.

Gareth Richard Vaughan Jones

Jones was born in Barry, south Wales, in 1905. His mother had worked in Ukraine as a tutor to the Hughes family, Welsh steel industrialists, who had founded what is now the city of Donetsk.

He had a talent for languages and graduated from Aberystwyth University with first class honours in French and then later from Cambridge with another first in French, German and Russian. In 1930, he was hired as a foreign affairs advisor to the MP and former prime minister David Lloyd George while also developing his freelance journalism.

In early 1933, Jones was in Germany covering Hitler’s rise to power. He was there on the day Hitler was pronounced chancellor and flew with him and Goebbels to Frankfurt where he reported for the Western Mail, a Welsh daily newspaper.

In March 1933, he made a third and final trip to the Soviet Union. He had earlier reported more explicitly than most on the economic crisis and starvation that was emerging. This time, he went undercover into Ukraine and kept notes of all he saw:

“I walked along through villages and twelve 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.”

The report was denounced by the Soviets and also in the New York Times by its Moscow correspondent, Walter Duranty. It was an early example of crying “fake news” to undermine uncomfortable truths.

People lie strewn in a black and white scene. Other people walk past looking at the bodies.

This is what Russian rule looks like.  Starved people lie dead or dying on a street in Kharkiv in Ukraine in 1933. Famine in the Soviet Ukraine, 1932–1933: a memorial exhibition, Widener Library, Harvard University.

Jones rebutted the criticism with a detailed analysis of the famine and its causes – but the mud stuck. He was banned from the Soviet Union and returned to Wales, unable to find work with major newspapers until he met the American press magnate William Randolph Hearst. Hearst had bought St Donat’s castle, a few miles from Jones’ home in Barry and supported him by publishing his articles in full.

The following year, he embarked on a world tour, focusing on Asia. He spent time in Japan and then went to China, moving on to Inner Mongolia with a German journalist. The pair were kidnapped by bandits and held hostage.

Jones’ body was found in August 1935. He had apparently been shot the day before his 30th birthday. Biographers have pointed to circumstantial evidence that the Soviet secret services, the NKVD, were involved in his kidnap and murder as revenge for his reporting. But there is no concrete proof of this.

Lloyd George paid tribute to him in the London Evening Standard newspaper following news of his death:

“That part of the world is a cauldron of conflicting intrigue and one or other interests concerned probably knew that Mr Gareth Jones knew too much of what was going on. He had a passion for finding out what was happening in foreign lands wherever there was trouble, and in pursuit of his investigations he shrank from no risk. I had always been afraid that he would take one risk too many. Nothing escaped his observation, and he allowed no obstacle to turn from his course when he thought that there was some fact, which he could obtain. He had the almost unfailing knack of getting at things that mattered.”

Today, as another generation of journalists reports on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Jones’ story holds a number of relevant lessons. Even as we are swamped with digital media, there is no substitute for eyewitness reporting and for reporters taking the risks to see for themselves what is happening.

Attempts to hold power to account will often be meet with denial – including from other media – but cries of “fake news” must be countered with hard evidence.

Reporting can be a dangerous occupation. The press watchdog, Committee to Protect Journalists, reported that 67 journalists had been killed last year – including 15 in Ukraine after Russia’s invasion in February 2022.

Despite the risks, international reporting is as essential today as it was in the 1930s when Gareth Jones set out to tell the world what he had seen.

This article was published by The Conversation UK.