BBC News | 18Nov2009 | Svitlana Pyrkalo

Welsh hero of Ukraine recognised

A British man who became a hero in Ukraine for highlighting the famine there in the 1930s is being recognised by his former university.

Journalist Gareth Jones was born in Barry, Wales, and graduated from Cambridge in England.

His name, until relatively recently, has been virtually unknown in the West.

But in Ukraine, he is held in the highest regard.

Ukraine suffered a terrible man-made famine between 1932 and 1933. Between seven and ten million people are thought to have died.

Ukraine now uses Gareth Jones's ground breaking reports in its efforts to secure international recognition of the famine, known in Ukrainian as the Holodomor, meaning genocide.

Now, for the first time, visitors to the Wren Library in Trinity College, Cambridge, can see the journalist's personal diaries chronicling what he saw. 

They consist of several small books of his observations, and notes of conversations with Ukrainian peasants, interspersed with the odd Russian or Ukrainian word.

A typical entry reads: "There is no bread -- they have had no bread for over two months -- many are dying. The first village had no potatoes left, and even the beetroot was running out."

The diaries were discovered by Jones's niece Dr Margaret Siriol Colley in 1990, in their old house in Wales.

At the time, in Britain, and in the West, the Holodomor, like other tragic chapters in Soviet history, was hardly acknowledged outside the Ukrainian community.

Even in Ukraine itself, people only began to speak about "The Great Famine" in final years of Communism.

To this day, Holodomor remains a sensitive subject not only for politicians, but for some Western historians as well.


Gareth Jones's reports from the villages around Kharkiv, then the capital of Soviet Ukraine, help tell a story very different from the official Soviet accounts.

Jones left Cambridge in 1929. His First Class Honours Degree in French, German and Russian proved invaluable in later years.

His Russian - even his adversaries agreed - was excellent, and his ear good enough to communicate with Ukrainian-speaking peasants of eastern Ukraine. (These days the area is predominantly Russian-speaking.)

Upon graduation, he became a foreign affairs adviser to former British Prime Minister Lloyd George.

Jones visited the Soviet Union three times between 1930 and 1933.

His reports on Stalin's Five Year Plan and the general situation in the Soviet Union grew more and more critical.

In March 1933 he crossed the border into Soviet Ukraine without permission to see for himself whether the reports of famine in territory popularly known as the "bread-basket of Europe" were true.


He found a terrifying situation.

His articles in The Times, however, did not stir public opinion, nor did the articles in The Manchester Guardian by another British journalist, Malcolm Muggeridge.

Many Moscow-based foreign correspondents chose instead to publish similar-sounding denials of the famine, which was part of Joseph Stalin's programme to crush the resistance of the peasantry to the collectivisation of farming.

The British journalist, Walter Duranty, for example, writing for The New York Times, in his article "Peasants Hungry, Not Starving" denied Jones's reports of famine and claimed that Stalin's Five Year Plan was a great success despite "some minor difficulties".

Duranty is now recognised to have given uncritical, often biased coverage to Stalin's propaganda. Many Western historians consider him to have been a liar.


Nobody came to the public defence of Jones following Duranty's article.

Indeed, the New York Times did not publish Jones's reply to it until over a month later. 

America, still recovering from the Great Depression, did not want to listen to the unlikely story of a government, even a Communist one, deliberately starving millions of its own people.

Furthermore, many pro-Soviet Western intellectuals at the time, including the writer George Bernard Shaw, were vocal in their admiration of the Soviet Union.

Jones's reports of expropriations, famine and deaths at a time when the West was buying cheap Soviet grain and other foods did not change their minds.

Despite his reports having little impact, Jones was accused of espionage and banned from the Soviet Union.

He went to the Far East and, according to his family, was murdered in suspicious circumstances in Inner Mongolia in 1935.

He was just 30 years old.

It wasn't until decades later, in 2008, that he and Malcolm Muggeridge were posthumously awarded the Ukrainian Order Of Freedom medal in a ceremony at Westminster Central Hall in London.