The man who knew too much

Diaries of the man who reported on Stalin's "terror famine" made public

They call it the "Holodomor" in Ukraine -- the "terror famine" administered by Stalin that caused the deaths of millions of people in 1932 and 1933. Very little news of the horror made it out of the Soviet Union. But one western journalist who did manage to get the story to the outside world was a young Welsh reporter named Gareth Jones. Jones visited Ukraine twice in 1932 and 1933 and wrote a number of articles describing the disaster unfolding in the Caucasus.

Little notice was taken of Jones's reports by other western journalists; indeed, he was publicly attacked by Walter Duranty, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter from the New York Times. He made one further, ill-starred visit to the Soviet Union in 1934, but died in murky circumstances in Inner Mongolia the following year. Soviet involvement in his death was suspected, but never proved. But after Jones died, his former employer 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."

Happily, Jones's diaries from his visits to the USSR were saved, and have been put on public display at his alma mater, Trinity College, Cambridge. Besides the diaries on show at the Wren Library at Trinity is a press release that he wrote on 29 March 1933:

Everywhere is the cry: "There is no bread. We are dying." This cry came from every part of Russia . . . 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.

Jones never wrote for the New Statesman, though he did write to his parents in 1932 that he'd had lunch with Kingsley Martin, then editor of the magazine:

Yesterday I lunched with Kingsley Martin, the editor of the New Statesman, with Dr Thomas Jones [ex-parliamentary private aecretary to the prime minister, David Lloyd George], Walter Eliot, the Minister of Agriculture and others. I was able to be of great help to Kingsley Martin by translating after lunch, some passages from Russian newspapers. He went to Russia with Low of the Evening Standard. He spent a month in Russia this year.

We don't know if Jones tried to persuade Martin to take a piece on the famine in Ukraine, but the intellectual climate at the time, inside and outside the magazine, was such that his chances of success would in any case have been slim. In October 1934, the New Statesman published the verbatim transcript of a conversation, held in Moscow, between Stalin and H G Wells:

WELLS: I only arrived yesterday, [but] I have already seen the happy faces of healthy men and women, and I know something very considerable is being done here. The contrast with 1920 is astounding.

STALIN: Much more could have been done had we Bolsheviks been cleverer.


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Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Poem: "When the Americans came"

“Do you have vampires around here?”

When the Americans came,

they didn’t take to our gardens:

the apple orchard smelling of wild garlic,

foxgloves growing among the runner beans.


“Do you have vampires around here?”

a visitor from Carolina asked me.

It was a shambles, Wilfred knew that,

nodding wisely as though apologising


for the ill manners of King George,

the clematis purple in the thatched roofing.

But come the softe sonne,

there are oxlips in Fry’s woods,


forget-me-nots in the shallow stream,

lettuce and spring onions for a salad.

It’s certain that fine women eat

A crazy salad with their meat*


I tried to tell them. But they weren’t women,

and didn’t care to listen to a boy.

They preferred the red rosehips

we used for making wine.


Danced outside the village church

round the maypole Jack Parnham made.

Now they’re gone,

the wild garlic has returned.


* W B Yeats, “A Prayer for My Daughter”


William Bedford is a novelist, children’s author and poet. His eighth collection of verse, The Bread Horse, is published by Red Squirrel Press.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood