Vienna, October 16 – Today marks the centenary of the birth of Pyotr Grigorenko, a distinguished Soviet general who was stripped of his rank, incarcerated in a psychiatric prison, and deprived of his Soviet citizenship because he believed that those whose rights have been violated must fight to have them restored.
That attitude led him to question Soviet apologias for Stalin’s role at the start of World War II, to become one of the founding fathers of the dissident movement in the USSR in the 1960s, and, perhaps most famously and importantly, to speak out on behalf of one of Stalin’s most punished peoples, the Crimean Tatars.
But today, despite those contributions, few of those even in countries noted for marking almost any “round” anniversary are doing much to remember a man who did so much and suffered so much for so many a generation or two ago, and almost none of those whose lives he touched outside are pausing to remember this very good man.
The National Bank of Ukraine has issued a special commemorative coin in an edition of 35,000 copies (http://www.ranbler.ru/news/0/0/1136298). And the Tatars in Crimea itself, to whose return to their homeland Grigorenko made such an important contribution, reportedly are planning a small commemoration.
But elsewhere in Ukraine, few if any events are planned. Indeed, the New York-based General Petro Girgorenko Foundation reported this week that the “unscheduled” Verkhovna Rada elections there have gotten in the way of plans to commemorate this date in any larger and more memorable way (http://www.grigorenko.org).
General Grigorenko, who died 20 years ago, described the vicissitudes of his remarkable career in two volumes of memoirs, in numerous articles and interviews, and in speeches to various groups both in the Soviet Union and in the United States, after Moscow took away his citizenship.
But in an important sense, Grigorenko’s contributions to the cause of human rights and justice for the Crimean Tatars and other nationalities in the former Soviet Union was summed up in remarks he made at a birthday party for Aleksei Kosterin in Moscow in 1967.
Speaking to Tatars of Moscow, Grigorenko insisted that “you did not commit the crimes for which you were expelled from the Crimea, but you are not permitted to return there now. Section 123 of the Soviet Constitution reads ‘any direct or indirect violation of the rights of citizens because of their racial or national origin is punishable by law.”
Consequently, he pointed out, “Soviet law is on your side. You are appealing to the leadership of the Party and the State with a conciliatory written request. But what belongs to you by right should not be asked for but demanded. So begin to demand not just bits and pieces of all that was taken from you unlawfully!”
“Demand the reestablishment of the Crimean ASSR!”
“Do not,” he concluded,” consider your cause to be solely an internal Soviet matter. Appeal for help to the world’s progressive public and international organizations. What was done to you in 1944 has a name: GENOCIDE! And that from the point of view of international law is a punishable crime. You see, international law is one your side.”
That comment sums up Grigorenko’s three most obvious contributions to the cause of human rights: an insistence that those whose rights have been violated must speak out forcefully to recover them, a belief that the aggrieved should rely in the first instance to the law, and a belief that the international community must be involved.
On what would have been his 100th birthday and despite all that has taken place across Eurasia over the last generation – and equally all that remains to be done -- Grigorenko remains a source of inspiration, a brave man who was prepared to defend his country when it was attacked but equally willing to criticize it when it was wrong.
People like the late general are a rarity. Anyone who met him – and I was fortunate enough to do so – counts himself privileged. But even more, all those living in the post-Soviet states now are his beneficiaries, even if few of them are taking the time today to remember that fact.
NOTE: I would like to thank Mubeyyin Batu Altan, of the American Association of Crimean Tatars and the Crimean Tatar Research and Information Center for sharing the statement he released in advance of this neglected centenary.