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.