Nigel Colley died last week, far, far, too soon. His is not a name that will be known to many readers of this Corner, but, in his own modest, determined way, he played a part in changing the course of history. He did so by a making a significant contribution to the way that a terrible story is now remembered, with results that not only changed how we see the past, but will also help shape the future.
The story begins with Gareth Jones, a young Welsh journalist murdered under mysterious circumstances in Japanese–occupied Manchuria in 1935. For decades he’d been forgotten outside his immediate family and then, well, I’ll quote myself from an article I wrote for NRODT back in 2004:
The notebooks — worn, creased, and drab, but haunting nonetheless — lay carefully set out on a table in the lobby of a New York hotel. Their pages were filled with notes, comments, and calculations, jotted and scribbled in the cursive, spiky script once a hallmark of pre-war Britain’s educated classes.
Their author had, it seems, wandered through a dying village deep within Stalin’s gargoyle empire. “Woman came out and started crying. ‘They’re killing us. In my village there used to be 300 cows and now we only have 30. The horses have died. How can I feed us all?’” It was the Ukraine, March 1933, a land in the throes of a man-made famine, the latest murderous chapter in Soviet social engineering. Five, six, seven million had died, maybe more. As Khrushchev later explained, “No one was counting.”
But how had these notebooks found their way to a Hilton in Manhattan? Some years ago, in a town in Wales, an old, old lady, older than the century in which she lived, was burgled. As a result, she moved out of her home. When her niece, Siriol, came to clear up whatever was left, she found a brown leather suitcase monogrammed “G.V.R.J.” and, lying under a thick layer of dust, a black tin box. Inside them were papers, letters, and, yes, those notebooks (“nothing had been thrown away”), the last records of Gareth Jones — “G.V.R.J.” — Siriol’s “jolly,” brilliant Uncle Gareth, a polyglot traveler and journalist. In 1935 he had been killed by bandits in Manchuria, or so it was said..
In an appreciation of Siriol, who died in 2011, that I posted here, I wrote how, in the years following the discovery of that suitcase, she had worked relentlessly for the belated recognition of this brave, and extraordinarily prescient, journalist, a man who had not only gone to investigate the famine that the Soviet regime had deliberately unleashed upon Ukraine, but had then gone on to tell (or try to tell) the world about it. I also noted how Siriol had been aided by one of her sons, the “no less indefatigable, no less tenacious” Nigel. And so she had been.
It was Siriol who discovered those papers and who had begun the research into the career—and the fate—of Gareth Jones. And it was Siriol who had known Jones while he was still alive. But it was Nigel who did so much to take the rediscovery of Jones far further, in particular through the creation and the maintenance of a website, Garethjones.org, which became and remains the definitive source of all things Gareth.
It was a website that Nigel was forever enlarging and refining, uncovering leads that had lain dormant for, sometimes, more than three quarters of a century, and discarding others that, however intriguing, did not stand up to scrutiny. It was a task he undertook with characteristic thoroughness and characteristic cheerfulness, but with seriousness too: He was determined to reinsert his great-uncle into the historical record and, alongside that, to do his part to make sure that the genocide Jones had witnessed should never again be allowed to be ‘forgotten’ in the way that its perpetrators – and their successors – have tried to ensure. Nigel wanted to do right by Jones and he wanted to do right by Ukraine. He succeeded on both counts.
Two of the finest books on this terrible era in Ukraine’s history to be published in recent years are Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands and Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine: Both include a detailed discussion of Jones – I doubt if that would have been the case had they been written two decades ago.
Nigel’s activities in this area were not confined to working on his website. He spoke frequently on the topic of Jones at conferences in the UK, North America and Ukraine, appeared on the radio and in a major Ukrainian documentary on what Ukrainians call the Holodomor, a term derived from the Ukrainian words for hunger and for extermination. The last time we met, which was in November, we had both spoken at a congressional briefing in Washington D.C on the Holodomor and had then driven back to New York with an Ukrainian-American friend, who had himself played a crucial role in bringing Gareth Jones back into the .public eye. As always, Nigel was terrific company, engaging, entertaining, and endearingly eccentric.
Some hours later I emerged from our car in Manhattan. Wreathed in the clouds generated by his industrial-looking e-cigarette, Nigel waved goodbye until the next time: Neither he nor anyone else knew that he was ill, let alone mortally ill.
Nigel was given the bleak diagnosis just a little while later by his doctors and took the news with typical aplomb. He died suddenly, after a happy weekend with his children and his loved ones. He will be badly missed. RIP.