The propaganda of the old Soviet Union referred to it for decades as the “Great October Socialist Revolution,” the momentous event that brought Vladimir Lenin to power and gave birth to seventy-four years of Communist Party rule. We are presently on the eve of its centennial.
It is not an anniversary that anyone should celebrate.
For decent people everywhere, nothing about the Russian tragedy of 1917 is worth commemorating. Everything about it, however, is worth remembering—and learning important lessons from. The carnage wrought by the ideology that ascended to power a century ago may forever stand as an evil unsurpassed in the annals of human depravity. If you’re not sure just what that ideology was, or what to call it, perhaps this article will help.
I first became an activist for liberty 49 years ago, in response to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. So in part for personal reasons, I could not let this centennial milestone pass without noting it in some way.
The victims of the Soviet regime and the other tyrannies it spawned in the 20th Century approach 100 million in number, but can any article, book, or voluminous collection of both ever adequately do justice to the stories of their agony and sacrifice? Of course not. So with that limitation in mind, I choose to note the occasion by telling you a little about just two of those 100 million. Their names are Gareth Jones and Boris Kornfeld.
Gareth Richard Vaughan Jones was born in Wales on August 13, 1905. Both his parents were middle-class educators determined that their son would get the best education possible. By his 25th year, young Gareth had earned degrees in French, German and Russian from the University of Wales and Trinity College at Cambridge University. Former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George hired him almost immediately as his Foreign Affairs Advisor, a remarkable assignment for a 25-year-old.
Gareth must have thought the world was his oyster. Little did he know he would soon be a celebrity journalist of international standing, and dead before his 30th birthday.
In the early 1930s, Jones undertook two fact-finding missions to Stalin’s Soviet Union. He published several well-received articles in major Western newspapers about his observations. Before a third visit in March 1933, he picked up credible information that conditions in Ukraine, then one of the 15 Soviet republics, were dire. He resolved to find out for himself and scheduled a third mission for March 1933.
A month before that fateful journey, Jones found himself invited by officials in Germany to cover a political rally in Frankfurt. Adolf Hitler had just been named Chancellor in January. Three days before the February 27 burning of the Reichstag, Jones was one of a small handful of people on a plane bound for that rally with Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels. As he witnessed the popular adulation of the man who would soon assume the mantle of “Fuhrer,” Jones sensed the troubles ahead. If only the plane in which he flew with Hitler and Goebbels had crashed, he later wrote, the history of Europe would have been very different.
With his assignment in Germany behind him, Jones arrived in Moscow in March. Travel from there to Ukraine was forbidden, but that didn’t prevent him from eluding Soviet authorities and making his way there anyway. What he saw and heard horrified him. By the end of the month, he was back in Berlin and reporting to the world. In an article published in the New York Evening Post, Britain’s Manchester Guardian and many other papers, he wrote:
I walked along through villages and twelve collective farms. Everywhere was the cry, “There is no bread. We are dying.” … I tramped through the black earth region because that was once the richest farmland and because the correspondents have been forbidden to go there to see for themselves what is happening.
In the train, a Communist denied to me that there was a famine. I flung a crust of bread which I had been eating from my own supply into a spittoon. A peasant 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.
I stayed overnight in a village where there used to be two hundred oxen and where there now are six. The peasants were eating the cattle fodder and had only a month’s supply left. They told me that many had already died of hunger. Two soldiers came to arrest a thief. They warned me against travel by night, as there were too many ‘starving’ desperate men.
“We are waiting for death” was my welcome… “Go farther south. There they have nothing. Many houses are empty of people already dead,” they cried.
Jones had walked into one of the Great October Socialist Revolution’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. From Stalin on down, Communist officialdom engineered it to crush Ukrainian resistance to the forced collectivization of agriculture. Two years and millions of deaths later, Stalin would declare in a speech, “Life has improved, comrades. Life has become more joyous.”
In Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, historian Timothy Snyder refers to the widespread cannibalism during the disaster:
Survival was a moral as well as a physical struggle. A woman doctor wrote to a friend in June 1933 that she had not yet become a cannibal, but was “not sure that I shall not be one by the time my letter reaches you.” 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.
Twenty-seven year-old Gareth Jones was the first journalist to reveal the infamous Ukrainian famine to the outside world. No credible person today denies that it occurred. But in March 1933, Jones was shocked to find his revelations met with denunciation from some veteran and highly-respected journalists.
Chief among the deniers was reporter and Soviet sympathizer Walter Duranty of the New York Times. On March 31, Duranty penned a piece for The Times in which he claimed Jones’s report to be a fabrication. He even cited Kremlin 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 “coverage” of the Soviet Union. Decades later, The Times conceded that his articles amounted to “some of the worst reporting to appear in this newspaper.” Duranty was a classic example of what Vladimir Lenin disdainfully labeled “useful idiots.” (They’re still around, by the way, in disturbing abundance. You can learn more about them in the works of sociologist Paul Hollander, here, here, and here.
Moscow despised the fact that Jones had found a way to get into Ukraine against its wishes. Telling the world about conditions there put him on the official black list. Soviet Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov (whom Jones had interviewed in Moscow) wrote a personal letter to Lloyd George, informing him that his colleague Jones would never be allowed entry into the Soviet Union again.
Two years later, 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 under mysterious circumstances on August 12, 1935—the day before his 30th birthday—Jones was shot to death. As a BBC documentary suggests, the evidence tying the murder to the Soviet secret police is very strong.
Two weeks after Jones’ killing, David Lloyd George paid tribute to his young friend:
That part of the world is a cauldron of conflicting intrigue and one or other interests concerned probably knew that Mr Gareth Jones knew too much of what was going on… 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.
Exactly when Boris Nicholayevich Kornfeld was born, no one seems to know now for sure. We might know nothing of him today were it not for a few paragraphs in a famous book by a man—for the moment, let me simply refer to him as Mr. X—whose life he hugely affected and perhaps even helped save.
We do know that in the late 1940s, Kornfeld was a prisoner incarcerated at Ekibastuz, a notorious forced-labor camp in Soviet Siberia. We know that Kornfeld was a doctor by profession and was sometimes ordered to tend to other prisoners. He was Jewish, but was apparently so affected by the faith and stoicism of Christian prisoners in the camp that he converted. He felt a powerful compulsion to tell others about Christianity, at great risk to himself.
In his famous book, Mr. X writes this about his encounter with Dr. Kornfeld:
Following an operation, I am lying in the surgical ward of a camp hospital. I cannot move. I am hot and feverish, but nonetheless my thoughts do not dissolve into delirium, and I am grateful to Dr. Boris Nikolayevich Kornfeld, who is sitting beside my cot and talking to me all evening. The light has been turned out, so it will not hurt my eyes. There is no one else in the ward.
Fervently he tells me the long story of his conversion from Judaism to Christianity. I am astonished at the conviction of the new convert, at the ardor of his words.
We know each other very slightly, and he was not the one responsible for my treatment, but there was simply no one here with whom he could share his feelings. He was a gentle and well-mannered person. I could see nothing bad in him, nor did I know anything bad about him. However, I was on guard because Kornfeld had now been living for two months inside the hospital barracks, without going outside. He had shut himself up in here, at his place of work, and avoided moving around camp at all.
This meant that he was afraid of having his throat cut. In our camp it had recently become fashionable to cut the throats of stool pigeons. This has an effect. But who could guarantee that only stoolies were getting their throats cut? One prisoner had had his throat cut in a clear case of settling a sordid grudge. Therefore the self-imprisonment of Kornfeld in the hospital did not necessarily prove that he was a stool pigeon.
It is already late. The whole hospital is asleep. Kornfeld is finishing his story…I cannot see his face. Through the window come only the scattered reflections of the lights of the perimeter outside. The door from the corridor gleams in a yellow electrical glow. But there is such mystical knowledge in his voice that I shudder.
Those were the last words of Boris Kornfeld. Noiselessly he went into one of the nearby wards and there lay down to sleep. Everyone slept. There was no one with whom he could speak. I went off to sleep myself.
I was wakened in the morning by running about and tramping in the corridor; the orderlies were carrying Kornfeld’s body to the operating room. He had been dealt eight blows on the skull with a plasterer’s mallet while he slept. He died on the operating table, without regaining consciousness.
Who was the “famous” Mr. X who penned those words? None other than Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, ten years a prisoner in what he would later immortalize as “The Gulag Archipelago” in the title of one of the greatest literary and historical works of the 20th Century. The future Nobel laureate Solzhenitsyn acknowledged that Kornfeld played a key role in his mental and spiritual resolve to endure ghastly circumstances. When the Gulag manuscript was smuggled out and appeared in print in the West in 1973, it blew away whatever was left of the myth of Soviet socialism’s “workers’ paradise.”
Boris Kornfeld was not just a number. He, like the other 80 or 90 or 100 million victims of the Great October Socialist Revolution, was a real human being. He had a name, a family, plans and ambitions, likes and dislikes, joys and sorrows. Thankfully, he had more than a little decency too. He shared truth and inspiration and suffered for it. But we have good reason to believe that in his courage, channeled to the soul of another man, he helped bring an end to a truly Evil Empire.
Gareth Jones would, I’m quite sure, be very pleased with that outcome.
These further words of Solzhenitsyn provide me with an appropriate conclusion. Think about them:
Socialism of any type leads to a total destruction of the human spirit and to a leveling of mankind into death.
In different places over the years I have had to prove that socialism, which to many western thinkers is a sort of kingdom of justice, was in fact full of coercion, of bureaucratic greed and corruption and avarice, and consistent within itself that socialism cannot be implemented without the aid of coercion.
The Great October Socialist Revolution was a calamity of the first order. Let us make no excuses for it. Ever.
Lawrence W. Reed is President of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE).