The deaths in Ukraine of several foreign journalists covering Russia’s war hit many people like a punch in the gut in 2022. We rightly respect those who take risks to bring us the news and when they suffer or die, we know that the truth does too.
The tragedies in Ukraine remind me of another journalist who lost his life on the front lines. Coincidentally, he is most revered for his coverage of events in Ukraine some 90 years ago.
Gareth Richard Vaughan Jones was born in Wales on August 13, 1905. Both his parents were middle-class educators, and they were determined that their son receive the best education possible. By his 25th year, young Gareth had earned degrees in French, German, and Russian.
He must have thought the world was his oyster. He would soon be a celebrity journalist of international standing, but also dead before his 30th birthday. Though largely forgotten today, he deserves to be remembered as a hero.
In the early 1930s, Jones undertook two fact-finding missions to Stalin’s Soviet Union. He published articles in major Western newspapers about his observations. Before a third visit in March 1933, he picked up credible information that conditions in Ukraine were horrific. He resolved to find out for himself and scheduled a third mission for March 1933.
Travel to Ukraine was forbidden, but that didn’t prevent Jones from eluding Soviet authorities and making his way there anyway. What he saw and heard horrified him. Back in Berlin, he reported to the world,
I walked along through villages and twelve collective farms. Everywhere was the cry, “There is no bread. We are dying.”
Jones had walked into one of Soviet communism’s most heinous crimes: the Holodomor of 1932-33. Known also as the Terror-Famine and the Ukrainian Genocide, it was an intentional, man-made, planned-from-the-top catastrophe that claimed the lives of between four and ten million people. It was engineered by Joseph Stalin to crush Ukrainian resistance to forced collectivization of agriculture.
In his book, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, historian Timothy Snyder refers to the widespread cannibalism during the disaster:
The good people died first. Those who refused to steal or to prostitute themselves died. Those who gave food to others died. Those who refused to eat corpses died. Those who refused to kill their fellow man died. Parents who resisted cannibalism died before their children did.
No credible person today denies that this holocaust occurred. But in March 1933, Jones was shocked to find his revelations denounced by veteran and highly-respected journalists.
Chief among the deniers was reporter and Soviet sympathizer Walter Duranty of the New York Times. Duranty claimed Jones’s report to be a fabrication. He even cited communist government sources (as if they were to be trusted), who labeled Jones a flat-out liar.
Duranty never apologized for his allegations against Jones, nor did he ever retract his “there is no famine” propaganda. He would later win a Pulitzer Prize for his deceitful “coverage” of the Soviet Union. Duranty was a classic example of what Lenin labeled “useful idiots.” He was fake news on steroids, and his hands were drenched in the blood of millions. He is portrayed as the villain he truly was in the chilling 2019 film, “Mr. Jones.”
The 2012 documentary, “Hitler, Stalin and Mr. Jones,” is also well worth your time. (You can watch it free here.)
Two years after his Ukraine adventures, Gareth Jones and a German journalist covered events in turbulent China. They were captured by bandits who released the German within two days but held on to Jones for sixteen more. Then on August 12, 1935—the day before his 30th birthday—Jones was shot to death. The evidence tying the murder to the Soviet secret police was overwhelming.
Shortly after Jones’ killing, former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George paid tribute to his young friend:
He had a passion for finding out what was happening in foreign lands wherever there was trouble, and in pursuit of his investigations he shrank from no risk... I had always been afraid that he would take one risk too many. 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. He had the almost unfailing knack of getting at things that mattered.
Gareth Jones didn’t live to see his courageous reporting vindicated, but his memory is celebrated today in Ukraine, where he is a national hero. He deserves to be celebrated everywhere.