My new movie review is of Mr. Jones, the story of Gareth Jones who helped break in 1933 the story of the Ukraine famine that was being covered up Walter Duranty of the New York Times and the rest of the Western press corps in Moscow. Peter Hitchens writes:
But in some ways the most telling account of it comes in ‘Assignment in Utopia‘, by Eugene Lyons, first published in 1938. I see from my scribblings in my copy of the book (London, Harrap, 1938) that I first read it in 1985, when I was just beginning to be a regular reporter on Eastern Europe, and five years before my own assignment in Utopia, which began in June 1990. It greatly influenced me at that time and since.
Lyons, a disillusioned Communist (disillusioned by his experience of the USSR) was the Moscow Correspondent of the United Press, then one of the great international news agencies, in the Soviet Capital in in 1933. It is fairly certain that the totally cynical New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty, an Englishman not mentioned in this account, had other deeper reasons for helping to suppress the story – an approaching diplomatic recognition of the Soviet regime by Franklin Roosevelt, which he wished to encourage, or had in some way been persuaded to support.
But most of the correspondents knew they had to please The Soviet State, which could have kept them from reporting the approaching trial of British engineers, working for Metropolitan Vickers of ‘Metro-Vick’ on absurd charges of espionage. This would of course have wrecked their careers. In those days the Soviet State’s all-encompassing nature was confined to the USSR and other despotisms. Nowadays modern Western states also have their own ways of rewarding or punishing those media and journalists who please or annoy them.
Here is Lyons’s account, which is on page 574 (my emphases) :
‘The need to remain on friendly terms with the censors at least for the duration of the [Metro-Vickers] trial was for all of us a compelling professional necessity.
‘Throwing down [Gareth] Jones was as unpleasant a chore as fell to any of us in years of juggling facts to please dictatorial regimes – but throw him down we did, unanimously and in almost identical formulas of equivocation. Poor Gareth 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.
The reporters in Moscow knew there was a famine in Ukraine, they just weren’t trumpeting it to their readers. Lyons felt that Jones over-emphasized his personal trip to Ukraine as the source of his facts rather than mention that he’d heard a lot about the Ukraine famine from Lyons and other reporters in Moscow. But, also, Jones had been to Ukraine a couple of years before when the hunger was getting going. Plus the Ukrainian exile press was covering the story in the West.
Still, Jones’ announcement on March 29, 1933 of a famine in the southern Soviet Union caused a bit of a sensation in the West.
‘The scene in which the American press corps combined to repudiate Jones is fresh in my mind. It was in the evening, and Comrade Umansky [the Kremlin censor], the soul of graciousness, consented to meet us in the hotel room of a correspondent. He knew that he had a strategic advantage over us because of the Metro-Vickers story. He could afford to be gracious. Forced by competitive journalism to jockey for the inside track with officials, it would have been professional suicide to make an issue of the famine at this particular time.
The Soviets, after inviting in Western firms, like Ford and Metro-Vickers, had just arrested a half-dozen British Metro-Vickers engineers as spies to hold as hostages. Presumably, the Soviet logic was that if anybody decided to burn their future career in reporting from the Soviet Union over the Ukraine famine, their employers would be extra-mad if they did at a time when they were supposed to be reporting on this M-V trial.
There was much bargaining in spirit of gentlemanly give-and-take, under the effulgence of Umansky’s gilded smile, before a formula of denial was worked out.
‘We admitted enough to soothe our consciences, but in roundabout phrases that damned Jones as a liar. The filthy business having been disposed of, someone ordered vodka and zakuski [Russian hors d’oeuvres], Umansky joined the celebration, and the party did not break up until the early morning hours. The head censor was in a mellower mood than I had ever seen him before or since. He had done a big bit for Bolshevik firmness that night.’