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In this unpublished translation from Mirosław Wlekły’s “Gareth Jones: The Man Who Knew Too Much”, ...
2019-12-11 09:00:00
Non-Fiction

Tell Them That We Are Starving

Still from Agnieszka Holland’s “Mr Jones”. Photo by Robert Pałka
Tell Them That We Are Starving
Tell Them That We Are Starving

In early March 1933, British journalist Gareth Jones crossed the border of the USSR, and headed for Moscow. His trip would later form the basis for a series of newspaper articles, which were some of the first to expose the reality of the Holodomor in Soviet Ukraine. In the capital of the Soviet Union, where at first sight everything seems in perfect order, Jones meets with officials and talks to regular people. He learns from people standing in line for bread of rumours about the situation in the Ukrainian countryside, where eggs have become a luxury, and where there is practically no meat or butter. There are also no seeds for sowing. Despite the travel ban on journalists and warnings from the officials of the British Embassy, who claim that in the Ukrainian villages the peasants are starving and will steal whatever they can get hold of, he decides to go anyway.

Read in 13 minutes

“Disregarding this warning, I piled my rucksack with many loaves of white bread, with butter, cheese, meat and chocolate which I had bought with foreign currency at the Torgsin stores, Jones will write in a piece for “The Daily Express”, the most widely read newspaper in the world, which at the time sells over two million copies. At the station he wades through a crowd of dirty, unkempt peasants lying on the floor. A moment later he is in a compartment with hard benches of the slowest train heading from Moscow to Kharkiv. “To see Russia one must travel ‘hard class’, and go by a slow train,” Jones remarks. Peasants carrying sacks filled with bread also enter the carriage. A distinctly looking man sits opposite Gareth: in his leather cap and jacket, he looks well fed. “Your communists are put in prison,” he starts the conversation upon finding out that his travel companion is British. Gareth hears again that in his homeland everybody is put in the Tower of London and that the Scotland Yard crushes the British working class and strictly controls people’s views. But Scotland Yard won’t be able to stop the outbreak of the revolution. And the revolution is coming. You should create a cheka, a police force as ruthless as ours, the man thinks. Freedom in Great Britain, according to him, is only the freedom of speech. Could you, for example, organise an army to fight against the king? Surely not. And that proves that there is no freedom in England.

Haggard-looking passengers listen to this monologue of the well-fed man, nobody dares to go into a dispute with the communist. He says with conviction that there is no famine and that this year’s harvest will surely be good.

While listening to the communist, Gareth pulls bread out of his backpack. He breaks a piece off and, as if by accident, drops it to the floor and then throws it into a spittoon. One of the peasants immediately jumps up, picks up the dirty crumbs and eats them. A moment later Jones also pulls out an orange, peels it and throws the peel into the spittoon, the peasant again picks it up and eats with greed. A while later the same happens with an apple core.

There is another man sitting nearby, staring at the floor with glassy eyes, repeating over and over again, “They took my bread away from me, they took my bread away from me”. He went to Moscow to get bread, bought it and then it was confiscated before he boarded the train. He was going back to his family with just a few potatoes. Others tell Jones, “Many are dying. We are hungry. There are little cattle left. They take all the grain away.”

Gareth manages to speak privately with a young communist in the corridor. The Russian man says that there are many like him who are more and more embittered with Stalin because of the lack of bread. He himself has not eaten for a week. He earns sixty rubles a month, but recently he has only been paid forty or fifty. The rest is taken for subscribing to the Five-Year Plan. When he left home a few days ago, he left his mother with two glasses of flour. His brother died of starvation.

Then a street vendor from Armenia tells Jones that the authorities have kicked him out of Leningrad, didn’t give him an internal passport and now, when he gets to Ukraine, they will probably kick him out of Kharkiv too. They call him scum, they have removed his rights because he trades in the streets.

A Red Army soldier walks up and down carriages, selling lottery tickets – you can win a car – and every passenger finds a ruble to buy them, even though most of them don’t have any bread. Gareth asks a young communist why he pays for the ticket if he only earns sixty rubles a month. “Well,” he shrugs, “I reckon it’s compulsory.”

Another passenger, a man wearing a khaki coat, looks ruthless and cruel. He clenches his fist while saying, “We’ll smash the kulak and we’ll smash all opposition.” He is a member of the political department, one of thousands of activists – the best, strongest, half-military – who are sent from Moscow to the countryside to brutally force the peasants to work. “We who are now going into the villages are the chosen ones, the strongest, and we are all workers, mainly from the factories. We shall show the peasants what strict control means,” he explains. It chills Gareth. This desperate man leaves Moscow to start a holy war and will surely not hesitate to shoot, should he think it necessary.

The slow train with hard seats stops at every little station. One man approaches Gareth at one of them and whispers in German, “Tell them in England that we are starving, and that we are getting swollen.” Several stations later, when the train gets closer to Ukraine, some seventy kilometres from Kharkiv, probably near Belgorod – a town with a population of more or less thirty thousand at the time – Gareth reaches for his backpack and suddenly leaves the train.

“Be careful. The Ukrainians are desperate,” he hears another warning, this time it’s a farewell from the young communist. If people find out that Jones has bread in his backpack, they will steal it from him immediately.

The slow train rambles away towards Kharkiv and Gareth is left on a snow-covered platform. He decides to trek through “the black earth region because that was once the richest farm land in Russia and because the correspondents have been forbidden to go there to see for themselves what is happening.” As far as he can see there is a plain covered with white fluff.  On Friday, 10 March, he starts his march from Russia to Ukraine. He can have a firsthand experience of the effects of yet another European dictatorship.

*

The first person he meets is a woman walking along the tracks, who tells him, “There is no bread. We have not had bread for over two months and many are dying here.” Gareth takes his first steps towards the village cottages. Under the weight of the backpack filled with food, his steps are heavy in the snow.

People say, The cattle are dying, nechego kormit [there’s nothing to feed (the cattle with)].” “We are starving.” In the region, where the land is the most fertile in the whole of the USSR, Gareth hears it again and again from all the peasants. They usually also add, “vse pukhli” – “All swollen.”

He wants to know what they eat. They tell him that there is no more bread, that they were eating potatoes, but they have run out too. All they have left is beetroot and animal fodder.

How long can this go on? People say it might be another month, but some are dying already. They have not seen bread for two months in any of the villages he passes.

One bearded old man has his feet wrapped in sacks instead of shoes. He stops Gareth, points towards the fields and says in Ukrainian Russian, “Before the War this was all gold. It was all gold, but now look at the weeds. Before the war we were the richest country in the world for grains. We fed the world. Now they have taken all away from us.” He invites Jones in and immediately starts apologising: “In the old days I should have bade you welcome, and given you as my guest chickens and eggs and milk and fine, white bread. Now we have no bread in the house. They are killing us,” he says. Four days earlier his horse was stolen. Jones gives him a piece of bread and cheese and the old man says, “You couldn’t buy that anywhere for twenty rubles. There is just no food.”

In the bearded man’s cottage nine people are cooped up in one room, his grandchildren’s bellies swollen with hunger. “Fear of death loomed over the cottage”, Jones will write later on. The only food the family has is a watery slush with one or two slices of potato, which they all eat from the same bowl with wooden spoons. Potatoes are running out, death knocks on the door. Gareth pulls bread, butter and cheese out of his backpack and offers it to the household members. One of the women says, “Now I have eaten such wonderful things I can die happy.”

Most people here are religious, but the churches have been closed down, the old man complains. They have burned down a granary in one village, a community centre in another. When you ask children if they believe in God, they usually say, “Of course not. There is no God.” They also say, “There is no bread. There is no God.” “When we all believed in God, we were happy & lived well. When they tried to do away with God, we became hungry,” somebody tells Jones several days later.

Gareth enters a village school. He reads, “The Soviet school is the most important of all schools in the world.” On the school bulletin board run by children there is an article about temporary difficulties in kolkhozes: “The kulaks, opportunists are trying to smash the plan for spring sowing but the iron muscles of the Kolkhozniki must reply to those self-seeking tendencies.” Further down, the piece talks about horses dying of hunger and dirt, and that they need to be kept well until full industrialisation of agriculture is achieved.

In another kolkhoz visited by Gareth there are no horses any more. All have been eaten. This is an important piece of information, Jones writes down, because Russians have never eaten horse meat before, more, they looked down on the Tatars who have. Several years earlier when there was a rumour that horse meat was being sold at markets, people were scared to buy meat.

At dusk Russians met by Jones warn him again against continuing his journey: Ukrainians further down will surely take his coat away, as well as the food and anything else he has. Men invite him to the local selsovet. The room is filled with peasants, amongst them one child with a swollen belly. Upon hearing about the foreigner, others start joining them. They are impressed with his knowledge about the world, the fact that he is so well-read. They even ask him about Japan, America and China. Jones figures out that they all must be quite well educated.

There is only one communist in the crowd, the others openly declare, “We had two hundred oxes, now we only have six.” “Our horses and cows are dead, we only have a tenth of them left.” “If Lenin had lived, we’d be living fine. He knew what was going to happen. Here they’ve been chopping and changing policy & we don’t know what’s going to happen next. Lenin would not have done something violently & then said that it was a mistake.”

But the head of the neighbouring kolkhoz explains to Jones that these are only temporary difficulties which will soon be overcome.

In the evening two soldiers arrive. They are looking for a peasant who sneaked into his neighbour’s cottage to steal potatoes and when he was caught red-handed, stabbed the householder into his heart. There are more and more incidents like this one, according to the Red Army soldiers. As a by the bye, they ask a lot of questions about England where – as they heard – the working classes are oppressed, demonstrators shot at, communists put behind bars and the government wants to start a war against Russia.

“You’d better not go further,” one of the soldiers warns him, saying that the area is full of wild and hungry people who are prepared to do anything to get food.

But Jones stubbornly continues southwards along the train tracks. The endless white plain is filled with black dots. When he comes closer, he can see that they are crows and ravens. Sometimes a fast sleeper train linking Moscow and Sevastopol wheezes past, most likely full of people from the party. Gareth travels from one village to the next, never missing a chance for a conversation. He visits a dozen or so kolkhozes and hears the same story everywhere. The locals tell him that all their livestock are dead, so now people are treated like livestock. The ones taken to hard labour in Siberia are considered the lucky ones. At least they have something to eat.

In Krasny Khutor, the last village on the Russian side, Jones eats dinner with a local teacher, a Marxist, the owner of one of the last cows in the village. His wife, serving potatoes with a few groats, announces with pride that there are almost no children there anymore who believe in God.

That same day Gareth reaches his destination, the border of Great Russia. In his notebook he writes down, “Wagons, oil, timber, towards the S. [Slatyne - M.W.]. Most important railway in Russia. Now in Ukraine.”

In successive villages – altogether he visits twenty of them – in kolkhozes and sovkhozes, he talks to the residents. Some recall wonderful old times: sweets, meat, merry-go-rounds, joy, laughter, jokes, vodka and freedom. Others tell him about gigantic price tags on food and about the authorities taking away their harvest, giving nothing in return. One boy’s father has just been taken away to a prison in Kursk for travelling without an internal passport.

Others still talk about life in towns and cities. Recently, unemployment has been on the up, thousands of workers are dismissed and their bread ration cards taken away. Male workers in Kharkiv get six hundred grams of bread a day, female workers – only two hundred. On top of that, monthly: one kilogram of millet, a quarter litre of sunflower oil, half a kilogram of sugar, a bit of fat and eight hundred grams of fish, usually rotten. Meat or milk for children was unheard of for a long while. On top of that there is one meal in a factory: usually cabbage that is off with a spoonful of groats.

A year earlier the authorities said that the surplus of produce will be allowed to be sold on the free market, but then they took everything away from the peasants. And now they say that they will only take fifteen poods of grain per hectare, but most likely they will take everything again, only leaving beetroot. Nobody will have the strength to work by springtime.

People everywhere tell Jones, “We are waiting for death.” They also say, “It is terrible here and many are dying, but further south it is much worse. Go down to the Poltava region and you will see hundreds of empty cottages. In a village of three hundred huts only about a hundred will have people living in them, for the others will have died or have fled, but mainly died.”

Somebody says that down south thirty per cent of the population has already died of starvation, that there are villages where half of the recent residents are dead.

 

Excerpt from Chapter 13 of “Gareth Jones. Człowiek, który wiedzał za dużo” [Gareth Jones: The Man Who Knew Too Much] by Mirosław Wlekły, published in Polish by Wydawnictwo Znak and translated from the Polish by Anna Błasiak. A bibliography is provided in lieu of the extensive citations in the original Polish excerpt.

Courtesy of Wydawnictwo Znak
Courtesy of Wydawnictwo Znak

Bibliography

Margaret Siriol Colley, More Than a Grain of Truth, Nigel Linsan Colley, 2005

Gareth Jones, Soviets Confiscate Part of Workers’ Wages, “The Daily Express”, 5 April 1933. Available online: https://www.garethjones.org/soviet_articles/soviets_confiscate_wages.htm

Gareth Jones, Nine to a Room in Slums of Russia, “The Daily Express”, 6 April 1933. Available online: https://www.garethjones.org/soviet_articles/nine_to_a_room.htm

Gareth Jones, Famine Grips Russia Millions Dying. Idle on Rise, Says Briton, “Evening Post Foreign Service New York”, 1933. Available online: https://www.garethjones.org/soviet_articles/millions_dying.htm

Lubomyr Y. Luciuk (ed.), “Tell Them We Are Starving”. The 1933 Diaries of Gareth Jones, Kashtan Press, 2015

 

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