Gareth Jones – Aberystwyth, Hitler and the Holodomor

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A plaque playing homage to Gareth Jones in Aberystwyth’s Old College – Photograph by Tomos Nolan

ONE OF the leading investigative journalists of the twentieth century, who exposed the Ukrainian Holodomor and was one of the first foreign journalists to have unprecedented access to German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, was an Aberystwyth alumnus and the subject of a new book by American professor Ray Gamache, entitled “Gareth Jones: Eyewitness to the Holodomor”.

Jones was born in Barry, South Wales in 1905 and studied at Aberystwyth from 1923-1926, graduating in French before attending Cambridge University and graduating in Russian in 1929.
Immediately his involvement in government and politics began, becoming secretary to David Lloyd George before becoming Foreign Affairs advisor at the turn of the next decade in 1930.

According to Gamache, this experience is what made him unique and stood him in good stead “His fluency in Russian, German and French, his understanding of World Politics thanks to his education and travels abroad, and his serving as foreign affairs adviser to David Lloyd George and public relations expert Ivy Ledbetter Lee.”

Over the following three years, he visited the Soviet Union as many times and wrote articles for newspapers regarding the conditions he observed during his travels, including the effects of Soviet Premier Josef Stalin’s Five-Year Plan.
It was not until his final visit in 1933, where he began to uncover the harsh effects of the Holodomor, considered a genocide by thirteen states in the world, including the United States and Ukraine itself. Casualty numbers are not reliable but estimate anywhere in between 1.8-5 million over one year between 1932-33. The causes still vary and are subject to much disagreement, but the collectivism employed by Stalin’s Soviet Union changed crops from the familiar crops that farmers were accustomed to and were used to feed the local population, to other crops aimed to feed urban populations across the Soviet Union; or others to make money for the wider Soviet Union through exports, such as cotton. Poor administration and lack of relevant management hamstrung the food production that still remained, with significant amounts of grain being left unharvested.

The effects of the starvation and Holodomor on Ukraine mean that it has often been proposed that it was a deliberate attack on Ukrainian nationalism that threatened the wider Soviet Union collectivism and mentality.
Immediately after  Jones bore witness to the conditions, his stories broke world-wide in American newspapers, giving the famine  much wider attention. However his accounts were slated and rebuked by several Western journalists who were resident in Moscow, including New York Times’ and 1932 Pulitzer Prize winner Walter Duranty, who wrote  “Russians Hungry, but not Starving” in the New York Times soon afterwards.

Gamache points out what was unique about Jones’ reporting “He, more than any other reporter, came into direct contact with the people who were being starved to death. He accomplished this by defying the ban on travel that had been imposed in February 1933, after two American reporters, Ralph W. Barnes and William Stoneman, were picked up in the Kuban by the Soviet secret police.”

Following the story breaking and upon arriving back into Britain, he was subsequently banned from visiting the Soviet Union again, with a complaint being made to his now friend, Lloyd George.

Banned from Russia, Jones  switched his focus eastwards, to Asia where he set upon a “Round-the-World Fact-Finding Tour”, spending six weeks in Japan, interviewing important generals and politicians before reaching Beijing. Then after visiting Inner Mongolia, and on route to the Chinese town of Kalgan, he and a German journalist in his company were detained and told that only one of the three routes to Kalgan was safe. They both took this route and were captured by bandits who demanded a ransom of 100,000 Mexican silver pesos. The German journalist was later freed, but on the eve of his 30th birthday, Jones was killed by the group in mysterious circumstances, and still today there are some who place responsibility at the feet of the Soviet NKVD as revenge for the embarrassment that Jones had caused the country.

Retrospectively looking at the legacy of his work in the Soviet Union, Gamache says “He (Jones) stands out as a model for today’s investigative journalists. By getting in direct contact with the people who were suffering and telling their stories, Jones doubtlessly helped lay the foundation for what we call today ‘the journalism of attachment’, the practise of which requires the journalist not merely to eyewitness events but to bear witness by writing stories that document the suffering of marginalised or oppressed people.”

Ten days after he was killed, Lloyd George was quoted in the London Evening Standard ,  saying about Jones “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.”

Gamache believes that there is “So much that we can learn from Gareth Jones’ reporting of the Holodomor. He paid the ultimate price by giving his life in the pursuit of truthful reporting…his reporting of the famine was ethical and courageous, for he not only challenged the might of Stalinist repression, disregarded personal safety and sacrificed personal and professional advancement, but he also endured public denigration at the hands of Walter Duranty and the New York Times. That denigration persists to today.”

His legacy lived on, being honoured with the Ukrainian Order of Merit in 2008 at a ceremony in Westminster and being awarded by the Ambassador of Ukraine to the United Kingdom in award to the country and its people.
A small tribute to Jones in Aberystwyth still remains, a plaque was unveiled in 2006 in Aberystwyth Old College, trilingually in Welsh, English and Ukranian. An apt tribute to a man who helped unveil some of the horrors of the Soviet Union regime under Stalin, and who had Aberystwyth play a large part in his life.