Friday, November 13, 2009

There is no bread

The handwritten diaries of the Welsh journalist Gareth Jones have just been put on display at the Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge. It is thought these diaries might represent the only independent Western verification of Stalin’s Ukrainian famine-genocide, known as the Holodomor, in the early 1930s. And Jones himself is now considered a hero in Ukraine for having brought the tragedy to the attention of those in the West. A large amount of material about Jones, including the diaries, is freely available online thanks to a lively website run by Gareth’s niece, Dr Margaret Siriol Colley, and his great nephew, Nigel Linsan Colley.

Gareth Richard Vaughan Jones was born in Barry, Wales, in 1905. His mother had been tutor to some of the grandchildren of John Hughes, a Welsh industrialist who had founded the town of Yuzovka, modern day Donetsk, in Ukraine, and it was this connection that inspired Jones’ interest in the country. He studied French at Aberystwyth University and then added German and Russian while at Trinity College. In 1930, he began work as a foreign affairs advisor to former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George.

In 1931, a group of American companies invited Jones to research a book on the Soviet Union, and that summer he toured there with H J Heinz II (of food company fame). Heinz then published a diary of the trip - Experiences in Russia 1931. Wikipedia’s biography of Jones suggests (but without reference) that this diary ‘probably contains the first usage of the word ‘starve’ in relation to the collectivisation of Soviet agriculture’. The diary is narrated by Heinz, but has a preface by Jones. Here is one day’s entry, taken from the Gareth Jones website.

‘Twenty-fifth Day
We were supposed to sail down the Volga yesterday and found today that we could not have done so - yesterday’s boat had not sailed yet. We got on our steamer - a side-wheeler. It was supposed to sail at 11:00am. It did - across the river, and it was nine hours later when we finally left Nijni. It was cold and rainy and there was no place to sit except on our bunks.

Jones struck up a conversation with a mechanic on the boat. ‘I am a Party man,’ the stranger said. ‘There are only four of us on board and only six candidates, and we have a crew of forty-six. On some boats, there is only one Communist. Why? Because the boatmen are mostly of peasant origin and believe in things like private property. The peasants do not like the collective farms because they do not understand. A lot think they are something foreign and not truly Russian. They are superstitious, too.’

It was difficult to get food all day, but finally by the use of some more cigarettes we got the lone waiter interested. The food was not good, although it was very expensive.

The boat was crowded in the third and fourth-class sections. Peasants with huge bundles, dirty clothes, and many babies lay around on every square inch of floor space. There must have been a thousand of them. Smell!

A doctor’s wife on the boat said to Jones: ‘Exiles? The peasants have been sent away in thousands to starve. They were exiled just because they worked hard all their lives. It’s terrible how they have treated them; they have not given them anything; no bread cards even. They sent a lot to Tashkent, where I was, and just left them on the square. The exiles did not know what to do and many starved to death.’

Although there were a fine comfortable lounge and a dining room forward, we could not get the steward to unlock them. He kept insisting that it was against orders to have them open before the boat left port. We finally wore him down with arguing and cigarettes.

So to bed, with rather grim prospects for this trip!’

In 1932, Jones returned to work for Lloyd George even helping him write some memoirs. In early 1933, he went to Germany to cover the Nazis accession to power and was in Leipzig when Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor, and flew with him to Frankfurt for a speech there. In March, he travelled to Russia and Ukraine, and on his return to Berlin issued a press release which was published by some newspapers and has since became famous. It started: ‘I walked along through villages and twelve collective farms. Everywhere was the cry, ‘There is no bread. We are dying.’ ’

Jones’ claim was denied by many in the West and by the Russian authorities who, in 1934, banned him from returning to the country. He continued to travel, though, this time in the East, but was captured by bandits in Japanese-occupied Inner Mongolia, and was murdered, some believe by Soviet agents, in August 1935 just a few days before his 30th birthday. It was only with the fall of Communism, more than half a century later, that many Ukrainians became aware of the truth of the famine, that an estimated four million people had died because of Stalin’s decision to impose farm collectivisation and then to seal the Ukrainian border to punish peasants for supposedly ‘hoarding grain’.

More than 70 years after Jones’ death, in 2006, a plaque was unveiled in his memory in the Old College at Aberystwyth University. The Ukrainian Ambassador to the UK, Ihor Kharchenko, was present and described Jones as an ‘unsung hero of Ukraine’. And two years later, Jones and Malcolm Muggeridge (who had also reported on the Ukraine famine) were posthumously awarded the Ukrainian Order of Freedom.

And today - 13 November 2009 - the Wren Library, of Trinity College, Cambridge, is opening an exhibition which includes Jones’ diaries alongside some other rare items connected to past students at Trinity College (such as Isaac Newton, AA Milne, and Ludwig Wittgenstein). The story has been widely reported in the British press today - see The Guardian or Associated Press.

However, it is the Gareth Jones website (put together by his relations, Dr Margaret Colley and Nigel Colley) which has the most information on the diaries (and much else about Jones’ life). It says that perhaps they represent ‘the only independent verification of arguably Stalin’s greatest atrocity’. The website provides a book-length power point presentation entitled The Gareth Jones Diaries with legible images of some of his diaries and transcriptions of those images. Here is an (undated) extract from the diaries, as transcribed by Dr Margaret Colley (with some words added by Colley, and some Russian words left out by me).

‘In the Ukraine. A little later. I crossed the border from Great Russia into the Ukraine. Everywhere I talked to peasants who walked past - they all had the same story; ‘There is no bread - we haven’t had bread for over 2 months – a lot are dying.’ The first village had no more potatoes left and the store of [beetroot] was running out. They all said ‘the cattle is dying. [Nothing to feed.] We used to feed the world now we are hungry. How can we sow when we have few horses left? How will we be able to work in the fields when we are weak from want of food? Then I caught up [with] a bearded peasant who was walking along. His feet were covered with sacking. We started talking. He spoke in Ukrainian Russian. I gave him [a] lump of bread and of cheese.

‘You could not buy that anywhere for 20 roubles. There just is no food.’ We walked along and talked; ‘Before the war this was all gold. We had horses and cows and pigs and chickens. Now we are ruined. [We are] [the living dead]. You see that field. It was all gold, but now look at the weeds. The weeds were peeping up over the snow.’

‘Before the war we could have boots and meat and butter. We were the richest country in the world for grain. We fed the world. Now they have taken all away from us. Now people steal much more. Four days ago, they stole my horse. Hooligans came. There that’s where I saw the track of the horse.’

‘A horse is better than a tractor. A tractor goes and stops, but a horse goes all the time. A tractor cannot give manure, but a horse can. How can the spring sowing be good? There is little seed and the people are too weak. We are all weak and hungry.’

‘The winter sowing was bad, and the winter ploughing [was] also bad.’ He took me along to his cottage. His daughter and three little children. Two of the smaller children were swollen. ‘If you had come before the Revolution we would have given you chicken and eggs and milk and fine bread. Now we have no bread in the house. They are killing us.’

‘People are dying of hunger.’ There was in the hut, a spindle and the daughter showed me how to make thread. The peasant showed me his shirt, which was home-made and some fine sacking which had been home-made. ‘But the Bolsheviks are crushing that. They won’t take it. They want the factory to make everything.’ The peasant then ate some very thin soup with a scrap of potato. No bread in house. The white bread [of Gareth’s] they thought was wonderful.’

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