Unwavering struggle: Petro Hryhorovych Grigorenko (16 October 1907 – 21 February 1987)

16 October 2007 marks the centenary of the birth of Petro Grigorenko, Soviet General, friend and defender of the Crimean Tatars, founding member of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group, Moscow dissident and later voice for the Ukrainian dissident movement in the West.  Such labels invariably limit a human being and the broader the stature of the man, the more confining we feel them to be.  On the other hand, they can help us to understand why this is no mere circled date for a very large number of people.

Soviet General

He died stripped of all military honours, and in forced exile, however it would be wrong to pass by this part of his history. 

Petro Griigorenko, born in the Zaporizhya region, was a young lad during the years which followed the October Uprising.  He saw barbarism from all sides, and placed his trust in the Communist Party, being active in the Komsomol and later a Communist Party member.  He was a professional military man from 1931 and was a Major General during World War II.  In short, he was apparently the sort of person who in later years could have rested on his accolades and lived a privileged Soviet life. He didn’t. 

Another time – or now

It was his son’s 16th birthday, Grigorenko recalls in his memoirs and one of those Party conferences where nothing original is said and you have plenty of time for your own thoughts.  This time, though, one main thought was “do I or don’t I?”  He could run through lots of excuses and it was simply easier to “put it off”.  He didn’t, however.  The “daringness” of his words may not, almost half a century on, seem clear, but the Party’s response to his criticism was swift. He was shut up, and on that occasion issued a severe reprimand, and soon transferred to the Soviet Far East.  The first arrest came three years later, in 1964, when he was stripped of his rank and incarcerated in a special psychiatric hospital.  Lest anyone be misled by the terminology, these were penal-medical institutions under the control of the KGB (or its predecessors).  He was released in 1965.

No other time

There was no going back now, and Petro Grigorenko soon became one of the main voices of conscience in the Soviet Union. He met and worked with dissidents investigating punitive psychiatry, wrote appeals, defended many of those arrested, spoke out over Czechoslovakia.  The list is very long, and all is very much worthy of mention.

With limited space, however, I will focus here* on his efforts to right the terrible wrong committed against the Crimean Tatars, deported en masse from their native Crimea in May 1944.  General Grigorenko speaks of the influence which the Russian writer Alexei Kosterin had on his thinking with regard to the Crimean Tatars.  Whether or not such influence would have been needed is immaterial here. Suffice it to say that both Alexei Kosterin and Petro Grigorenko occupy a very special place in the hearts of all Crimean Tatars, and with cause.

In a Decree issued on 6 September 1967 and from then on, while the foul charges of treason against the Crimean Tatars were revoked, the latter were labelled “citizens of Tatar nationality, previously living in the Crimea”.  Their return to their homeland was made dependent on the passport regime where without registration you could find no work, housing etc.  This effectively meant that those Crimean Tatars who chose nonetheless to return lived in terrible conditions and without any proper status.

According to Gulnara Bekirova, 13 February 1968 is seen by many specialists as marking the beginning of close cooperation between the Crimean Tatar and human rights movements, with Petro Grigorenko playing a special role. It was a birthday gathering with a sad difference, organized by Crimean Tatars in honour of Alexei Kosterin who was too ill by then to attend.  Petro Grigorenko spoke therefore for himself and for his friend.  After speaking of the terrible injustice perpetrated against them and pointing to the Soviet Constitution to demonstrate that “the law is on your side”, he warned against underestimating their opponent and the means the latter would use.  He then gave the following advice:

So begin to demand. And demand not just parts, pieces, but all that was taken from you unlawfully—demand the reestablishment of the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic

Don’t limit your actions to the writing of petitions. Fortify them with all of those means which the Constitution provides you—the freedom of speech and of the press, of meetings, assemblies, of street marches and demonstrations

And in your struggle do not shut yourselves in a narrow nationalist shell. Establish contacts with all the progressive people of other nationalities of the Soviet Union. Do not consider your cause to be solely an internal Soviet matter”.**

It is easy to understand why those present were so enthusiastic in their support.  It was indeed a programme statement not for the Crimean Tatars alone, but for all those fighting a lying and repressive regime.  Resist, defending your rights as enshrined in your constitution. 

The hard battle

The words were uplifting, but General Grigorenko was quite right in his assessment of the enemy. He himself was arrested in 1969 over his defence of the Crimean Tatars and was this time held in a psychiatric “hospital” until 1974, with his release in large measure due to pressure from the international community.

It must be mentioned that among those most vocal in their protest were Crimean Tatars both in the Soviet Union and abroad.  There were demonstrations in Moscow, and a petition was signed by what in Soviet times was an incredible number of people.  

Following his release, Petro Grigorenko plunged straight back into human rights work.  Among those whom he defended were Crimean Tatars, including Mustafa Dzemilyev, who will be attending all events in honour of the General next week.

One unwavering path

As well as continuing his support for the Crimean Tatar cause, Petro Grigorenko played a crucial role in the Helsinki movement, being a founding member of the Moscow Helsinki Group and from November 1976 the Ukrainian Helsinki Group. 

The human rights and Crimean Tatar movements are indeed closely intertwined, in no small part thanks to the General. The Helsinki movements were after all aimed at using the laws and international agreements which the Soviet Union had signed in thoroughly bad faith to force the latter to stop violating human rights.  “Obey your own laws!” was not a sign of naivety; it was the deliberate stand of courageous people whose conscience and striving for justice would not allow them to stay silent and who believed that their government must protect their people, not crush them.

People have sought freedom from oppressors in many ways over the centuries, most often with violence.  It is significant that both the Crimean Tatar and the human rights movements in Ukraine and the Soviet Union were peaceful, stressing non-violence and referring to the law. Gulnara Bekirova mentions that this was of importance to General Grigorenko who in later years said of the Crimean Tatars:

“There would seem to be an antidote to terrorism coded within this nation… I thank God that a people so terribly oppressed, who as the result of the regime’s terror lost hundreds of thousands of their sons, have not themselves descended to terror.”***

In 2004, when Ukrainians came out onto the streets to uphold their democratic choice, the world quite openly awaited bloodshed.  They watched stunned as “orange” supporters provided food to those supposedly from the other side of the barricades who’d been brought to Kyiv and left to their own devices.

There was no bloodshed.  There are doubtless many reasons for this however the legacy and vital work of people like Petro Hryhorovych Grigorenko should not be underestimated. 

They knew the enemy they were fighting.  The enemy, on the other hand, was incapable of understanding the strength of conscience and integrity which guided the actions of those like Petro Grigorenko to whom we all owe a very great debt of gratitude.

Вічна пам’ять  Eternal Memory

Halya Coynash

Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group

*  A very special thanks to Gulnara Bekirova, whose articles, including The Role played by Petro Grigorenko in the Crimean Tatar National Movement , were of invaluable help for writing this article

** The full text of the speech, published in his memoirs, can be found here:

*** Cited in The Role played by Petro Grigorenko in the Crimean Tatar National Movement

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