Ukraine: reporter’s notes from WWII shows how Russia used claims of fascism to stem independence

Alongside the horrors of the war in Ukraine, many in the west have been confused by the insistence from Russian president Vladimir Putin that he is trying to free the country from “Nazi control”, accusing his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, and his supporters of crimes against the people of Ukraine.

On the face of it, Putin’s allegations seem bizarre, not least because Zelensky is Jewish and has said that members of his family were killed during the second world war. While it’s true Ukraine has had issues with the far right within its borders, there is no evidence to support what seem wild claims.

But for students of 20th-century history, Putin’s rhetoric should be no surprise. It stems from the end of the second world war and in some ways was anticipated in 1945 by a British foreign correspondent who had spent the key years of the war reporting from Moscow.

Paul Winterton was the Moscow correspondent for the News Chronicle and a regular contributor to the BBC World Service. He was among the first to report the Holocaust, filing an eyewitness account of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis at Majdanek as it was liberated by the Red Army in August 1944 – some eight months before Richard Dimbleby’s famous broadcast about Belsen. In his unpublished memoirs, Winterton wrote:

The worst place, because of its scale, was the death camp at Majdanek. We were shown the huge gas chambers where the victims were herded naked and gassed with Zyklon B. We were shown the ovens, at the top of a slope, where the corpses were incinerated. We saw a great field of cabbages where the ashes and bones were scattered.

The cover of Paul Wintertons’s book reporting from Russia during WWII.
Author provided

The report – which he filed twice to make sure it had been received – went on to give more and graphic detail. “Experiences like these colour one’s view for life,” he said.

The BBC held back his report for some weeks, concerned that any suggestion that British lives were being sacrificed to save Jewish people in Europe might cause a surge in antisemitism in the UK.

Winterton was also among the first to report from Stalingrad in 1943 when the battle was over, calmly describing the devastation he found there.

Reports censored

At the end of the war he returned to London and reflected on his experience reporting from behind Russian lines. During the war his reports had been censored – something he had to accept in order to keep his accreditation. He warned his paper:

The sinister thing about all this is that of course when we can’t get first-hand news … we try and justify our existence here by rewriting the tripe which the Russian newspapers print, dressing it up attractively and sending that. The Russians are more than satisfied that we should do this for news thus served has the desired flavour.

In his books Report on Russia and Inquest on an Ally he was at last free to speak his mind. His observations of the Russians during the war – and the growing tensions with the west – resonate today in the context of Putin’s attack on Ukraine.

In Inquest on An Ally, Winterton reports that Pravda had accused the American and British zones of becoming “a refuge for notorious criminals, for Hitler-ite hangers on”. There was deep suspicion of the western allies and their motives.

In spite of such frictions, Roosevelt saw US-Soviet collaboration as the necessary basis of post-war peace, hoping Russians might be weaned away from suspicion and dogma. But of course any pro-Soviet appeasement did not work and the cold war began.

Discussions were opened in Yalta in Crimea about forming the UN. Stalin demanded three seats – for the USSR, Byelorussia (now Belarus) and Ukraine. This was intended to give the Soviet Union three votes and three opportunities to speak on any topic. Ukraine and Byelorussia did join the UN as founding members, even though they weren’t independent states.

Either a friend or a ‘fascist’

Winterton emphasises in Report on Russia that any Ukrainian or Byelorussian asserting independence would be arrested as an enemy of the state or – significantly – a “fascist”:

The loose use of words by the Russians does not arise from ignorance or stupidity. Stalin well understands the meaning for the word ‘independence’. But the Russians know that if you say a thing often enough a lot of people will believe it whether it is true or not. The word ‘fascist’, for instance has rightly become a word of abuse and shame throughout the world. Very well, argue the Russians, if anyone attacks us or offends us or effectively disagrees with us, we will call him a fascist. Some people are bound to take up the cry.

In this observation from 75 years ago we see the root of Putin’s attitude to Ukraine, his use of the fascist label, which reflects Soviet-era paranoia about the west and grievances about its losses, and early signs of the “fake news” policy of dezinformatsiya (disinformation) – or active measures – which have mushroomed since the advent of digital media.

Winterton went on to offer advice on how the west should handle the Soviet Union:

We should, in agreement with the Kremlin, have a clear idea where the Anglo-American sphere of influence begins and the Russian ends … we should not seek to prevent the spread of Russian influence in places where we are in any case powerless to halt it without a major war. On the other hand there should be no day-to-day appeasement … we should be firm leaving the Russians in no doubt that any attempt to overstep the line would be met by force.

What seemed clear advice in 1945 of course became more complex in the following 75 years with the cold war, the fall of the Berlin wall and Soviet communism, the development of Nato and the European Union. But it offers a valuable perspective, from an eyewitness to history, on today’s diplomatic dilemmas and Russian rhetoric. Läs mer…

Reporting Ukraine 90 years ago: the Welsh journalist who uncovered Stalin’s genocide

Ninety years ago, a young Welsh investigative journalist uncovered the Soviet Union’s genocide in Ukraine, Stalin’s attempt to stamp down on rising nationalism in its neighbouring country. The Holomodor, as it became known, was responsible for the deaths of some 4 million Ukrainians through deliberate starvation.

Gareth Jones’ eyewitness reports, gathered at significant risk, were initially disbelieved and dismissed at a time when many in the west were supportive of Stalin as a potential ally against the growing Nazi threat in the early 1930s. It was only later, after the journalist was murdered in murky circumstances, that the full scale of what had taken place was recognised.

Jones, a linguist and political advisor before he turned to journalism, has become the subject of a feature film, several documentaries and numerous biographies. Yet his achievements, which hold lessons for today’s reporters, are still not well known.

Gareth Jones when he was a student at Cambridge University.
The Gareth Vaughan Jones Estate, Author provided (no reuse)

Jones was born in Barry, south Wales, in 1905. His mother had worked in Ukraine as a tutor to the Hughes family, Welsh steel industrialists, who had founded what is now the city of Donetsk.

He had a talent for languages and graduated from Aberystwyth University with first class honours in French and then later from Cambridge with another first in French, German and Russian. In 1930, he was hired as a foreign affairs advisor to the MP and former prime minister David Lloyd George while also developing his freelance journalism.

In early 1933, Jones was in Germany covering Hitler’s rise to power. He was there on the day Hitler was pronounced chancellor and flew with him and Goebbels to Frankfurt where he reported for the Western Mail, a Welsh daily newspaper.

In March 1933, he made a third and final trip to the Soviet Union. He had earlier reported more explicitly than most on the economic crisis and starvation that was emerging. This time, he went undercover into Ukraine and kept notes of all he saw:

I walked along through villages and twelve collective farms. Everywhere was the cry, “There is no bread. We are dying.” This cry came from every part of Russia, from the Volga, Siberia, White Russia, the North Caucasus, and Central Asia. I tramped through the black earth region because that was once the richest farmland in Russia and because the correspondents have been forbidden to go there to see for themselves what is happening.

The report was denounced by the Soviets and also in the New York Times by its Moscow correspondent, Walter Duranty. It was an early example of crying “fake news” to undermine uncomfortable truths.

Starved people on a street in Kharkiv, Ukraine in 1933.
Famine in the Soviet Ukraine, 1932–1933: a memorial exhibition, Widener Library, Harvard University.

Jones rebutted the criticism with a detailed analysis of the famine and its causes – but the mud stuck. He was banned from the Soviet Union and returned to Wales, unable to find work with major newspapers until he met the American press magnate William Randolph Hearst. Hearst had bought St Donat’s castle, a few miles from Jones’ home in Barry and supported him by publishing his articles in full.

The following year, he embarked on a world tour, focusing on Asia.
He spent time in Japan and then went to China, moving on to Inner Mongolia with a German journalist. The pair were kidnapped by bandits and held hostage.

Jones’ body was found in August 1935. He had apparently been shot the day before his 30th birthday. Biographers have pointed to circumstantial evidence that the Soviet secret services, the NKVD, were involved in his kidnap and murder as revenge for his reporting. But there is no concrete proof of this.

Lloyd George paid tribute to himin the London Evening Standard newspaper following news of his death:

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.

Today, as another generation of journalists reports on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Jones’ story holds a number of relevant lessons. Even as we are swamped with digital media, there is no substitute for eyewitness reporting and for reporters taking the risks to see for themselves what is happening.

Attempts to hold power to account will often be meet with denial – including from other media – but cries of “fake news” must be countered with hard evidence.

Reporting can be a dangerous occupation. The press watchdog, Committee to Protect Journalists, reported that 67 journalists had been killed last year – including 15 in Ukraine after Russia’s invasion in February 2022.

Despite the risks, international reporting is as essential today as it was in the 1930s when Gareth Jones set out to tell the world what he had seen. Läs mer…