LONDON – The diaries of a British reporter who risked his reputation to expose the horrors of Stalin's murderous famine in Ukraine were put on public display for the first time Friday.
Welsh journalist Gareth Jones sneaked into Ukraine in March of 1933, at the height of a famine engineered by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Millions of people starved to death between 1932 and 1933 as the Soviet secret police emptied the countryside of grain and livestock as part of a campaign to force peasants into collective farms.
Jones' reporting was one of the first attempts to bring the disaster to the world's attention.
"Famine Grips Russia — Millions Dying" read the front page of the New York Evening Post on March 29, 1933. "Famine on a colossal scale, impending death of millions from hunger, murderous terror ... this is the summary of Mr. Jones's firsthand observations," the paper said.
As starvation and cannibalism spread across Ukraine, Soviet authorities exported more than a million tons of grain to the West, using the money to build factories and arm its military.
Historians say that between 4 million and 5 million Ukrainians perished in what is sometimes referred to as the Great Famine.
Walking from village to village, Jones recorded conversations with desperate people scrambling for food, scribbling brief interviews in pencil on lined notebooks.
"They all had the same story: 'There is no bread — we haven't had bread for two months — a lot are dying,"' Jones wrote in one entry.
"We are the living dead," he quoted a peasant as saying.
Jones' eyewitness account had little effect on world opinion at the time. Stalin's totalitarian regime tightly controlled the flow of information out of the U.S.S.R., and many Moscow-based foreign correspondents — some of whom had pro-Soviet sympathies — refused to believe Jones' reporting.
The New York Times' Walter Duranty, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, dismissed Jones' article as a scare story.
"Conditions are bad, but there is no famine," Duranty wrote. Other correspondents chimed in with public denials, and with his colleagues against him, Jones was discredited.
Eugene Lyons, an American wire agency reporter who gradually went from communist sympathizer to fierce critic of the Soviet regime, later acknowledged the role that fellow journalists had played in trying to destroy Jones' career.
"Jones must have been the most surprised human being alive when the facts he so painstakingly garnered from our mouths were snowed under by our denials," Lyons wrote in his 1937 autobiography, "Assignment in Utopia."
Lyons' admission came too late for Jones, who was killed by bandits in 1935 while covering Japan's expansion into China in the run-up to World War II. The full circumstances of his death remain murky.
Britain's World War I-era prime minister, David Lloyd George, whom Jones had once served as an aide, said the intrepid journalist might have been killed because he "knew too much of what was going on."
"I had always been afraid that he would take one risk too many."
Jones' handwritten diaries are on show at the Wren Library at Trinity College at the University of Cambridge, where he was a student, until mid-December. The university said it was the first time that the documents — which had been in the care of Jones' family — were being publicly displayed.