Millions of peasants were starving. Children were turned against adults as they were recruited to expose people accused of hoarding grain. Stalin sealed the border between Russia and Ukraine to ensure that news of the famine would not spread, but one journalist was able to break through to discover the truth.
Gareth Jones, who revealed the story of the forced famine that claimed the lives of four million people in Ukraine in the 1930s, recorded the words of Stalin’s victims in his diaries, which he then used to prepare his dispatch.
The public can see the diaries for the first time today as they go on display at the University of Cambridge.
One entry from March 1933 describes how Jones illegally sneaked across the border from Russia to interview peasants. “They all had the same story: ‘there is no bread; we haven’t had bread for two months; a lot are dying’,” he wrote.
They all said: ‘The cattle are dying. We used to feed the world and 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?’ ”
Jones escaped without being detected and sent a “press release” from Berlin, which was printed in Britain and America. The report included an encounter on a train with a Communist, who denied that there was a famine. “I flung a crust of bread which I had been eating from my own supply into a spittoon. A 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.”
Despite his first-hand account of the starvation, the story of what has become known as the Holodomor (Ukrainian for “the famine”) was not widely followed because it was disputed by other Western journalists based in Moscow who wished to placate their contacts. Walter Duranty, a British-born correspondent for The New York Times, opined that Jones’s judgement had been “somewhat hasty”. He suggested that Jones had a “keen and active mind” and that his 40-mile trek near Kharkov had been a “rather inadequate cross-section of a big country”.
Jones, who wrote occasionally for The Times, was forced to leave the Soviet Union and was dead within two years after a mysterious encounter with bandits in China. He was 29.
Jones’s relatives, who discovered his diaries in the 1990s, believe that his kidnap in China may have been arranged by Soviet spies. David Lloyd George, who consulted Jones on foreign affairs after he stepped down as Prime Minister, hinted that Jones was killed because of something he knew. The diaries, which are on display at the Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge until mid-December, lay forgotten for more than 50 years.
Then Gwyneth Jones, who was 94, discovered a suitcase containing her brother’s belongings. Margaret Siriol Colley, 84, Jones’s niece, said: “I remember when he was captured, and the 16 days of awful agony as we waited to learn whether he would be released.”
Rory Finnin, lecturer in Ukranian studies at Cambridge, said that Jones’s diaries finally give a voice to the peasants who died as a result of Stalin’s collectivisation policies. Grain was requisitioned for urban areas and for export to countries including Britain.
Historians continue to debate whether Stalin was deliberately punishing Ukranian nationalists, but it is clear that he allowed the famine to occur. He sealed the border between Russia and Ukraine and punished peasants accused of “hoarding grain”.
Mr Finnin said: “There were a smattering of stories here and there [but] but I don’t know if Western historians gave [the famine] the serious attention that it receives today.”
“With a bearded peasant who was walking along. His feet were covered with sacking. We started talking. He spoke in Ukranian Russian. I gave him a lump of bread and 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.’”
“He took me along to his cottage. His daughter and three little children. Two of the smaller children were swollen... ‘They are killing us.’ ‘People are dying of hunger.’ There was in the hut a spindle and the daugher 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.”
“Talked to a group of peasants. ‘We’re starving. Two months we’ve hardly had bread. We’re from Ukraine and we’re trying to go north. They’re dying quickly in the villages.’”
“[In Karkhov] Queues for bread. Erika [from the German consulate] and I walked along about a hundred ragged, pale people. Militiamen came out of shop whose windows had been battered in and were covered with wood and said: ‘There is no bread’ and ‘There will be no bread today’.”