Recently the Moscow publishing house Russian Political Encyclopedia (ROSSPEN) presented a book Kazhdyi vybiraet dlia sebia… Pamyati vydaiushchegosia pravozashchitnika generala P. Grigorenko (“Everyone Chooses for Themselves. In Memory of Outstanding Human Rights Activist General Grigorenko”). It contains materials and reminiscences of the renowned participant of the dissident movement, founder of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group Soviet Major General Petro Grigorenko, demoted to the rank of an ordinary soldier. The Day decided to interview one of the authors of the book, the General’s son Andrew Grigorenko, about it.
Andrew Grigorenko emigrated even before his father did. He has been living in the US for about 40 years, but nevertheless keeps on actively participating in Ukraine’s social life, in particular, he keeps close contact with activists of the Crimean Tatar movement. Among all other things, his father and he dedicated many years to the struggle for the rights of Crimean Tatars. Besides the book proper, the conversation touched upon the latest events in Crimea and in the east of the country. Also, Andrew Grigorenko told about his vision of the common past and separate future of Ukraine and Russia, and shared his thoughts about the diseases of the post-Soviet society.
What motivated you to start working on the new book about your father?
“Ironically, the collection entitled Everyone Chooses for Themselves... was published in Moscow simultaneously with Russia’s attack on Ukraine and the following second Russian annexation of Crimea. It seems to be a coincidence, but it is nevertheless symbolic, since my late father applied a lot of effort to defend the long-suffering Crimean Tatar people.
“I regret that a full version of the collection, which is prepared for print in Ukraine, has not appeared in bookstores yet. It will be published under another original title: A Man Who Could Not Remain Silent (Petro Grigorenko through the Eyes of Contemporaries). Due to a much larger volume, the Ukrainian book will be more likely published in two volumes. The new book is composed of reminiscences of various people about one of the key figures in the human rights movement in the former USSR, veteran of the World War II, army general, publicist, and public activist Petro Grigorenko. The vast majority of the authors knew the general personally. Exceptions to that rule are made to let people who never met Petro Grigorenko in person express their opinion of his public activity. Initially it was supposed that the book would be published on the 100th anniversary of Petro Grigorenko’s birthday. However, various circumstances, including my prolonged illness, delayed the publishing of the book for more than five years. There are several reasons that motivated me to create this book. The most important one is that in the years after the collapse of communism, a generation of young people grew up, who did not know the times of the communist totalitarianism. The new generation reached maturity and managed to loudly declare that they are not satisfied with everything concerning the regimes that were established on the post-communist space. The new generation is looking for the answers to what their future should be like and in what way that future should be reached. At the same time, it became obvious that the post-communist society often has a very vague idea about those who resisted the Moloch of totalitarianism, despite the draconian repressions, slander and defamation in the state-owned mass media. Nevertheless, I hope that the experience of the Soviet-time resistance to totalitarianism may be useful for human rights advocates today and in the future.
“Another incentive was the necessity to counter the distortions of the facts with the actual evidence of the fighters for human dignity and a right to be oneself, rather than a homo sovieticus (in common parlance, sovok).
“The book contains articles by both Russian and Ukrainian authors. I find the last detail important, since Ukraine national democratic thought is rarely properly covered. It should be noted here, by the way, that the original texts were written in English, Russian, and Ukrainian, and so far the book will be published in Russian only. My translations of the Ukrainian and English texts are published. I hope that the book will be published in Ukrainian and English, too.
“The evolution of Petro Grigorenko’s views was a long and complicated process. The underground thinking was imposed by the government structures and it is no wonder such type of thinking was prevailing, and I am afraid, is still prevailing in the public life of many countries. In communist countries the identity of views, carried to the point of absurdity, simply pushed all the beginning of free thinking into the underground, where it was easy for punitive bodies to deal with such rebels. Besides, the underground, being a flip side of dictatorship, often uses methods of doubtful morality. Not having the feedback of the public control, underground organizations have a tendency to turn into dictatorships, as it has happened many times in the history of the humankind.
“Of course, these are only my deliberations. I do not argue that these are the views of my late father, but nevertheless, I imagine he was guided by similar reasoning. I also have no doubts that my father’s personal experience played the role of a catalyst in his evolution. When he spoke at the Moscow party conference in 1961, the talks and rumors about it were spread all over the USSR. When we spread leaflets in 1963 in several cities, our activity did not become known. Even today little is known about the activity of our underground group. In other words, personal experience suggested that public resistance to totalitarian government is more effective than the underground one.
“And finally, the question of moral principle, aptly formulated by Petro Grigorenko himself: ‘The regime which is born underground tends to operate in the shade. But we strive to bring it in the light of the day, under the rays of truth.’ I think that this offers a great opportunity to switch to the current situation in Ukraine. The Ukrainian revolution of 2013-14 has become a vivid example of public confrontation with the corrupt political system, slipping into authoritarianism. In other words, Ukrainian society reached a point of civic maturity and rejected the system repressing the individuals’ inherent civil rights. Has the broad popular protest brought forward leaders capable of guiding the nation along the way of overdue, yet probably painful reforms? The question is still to be answered. I am convinced that I am not the only person who clearly sees the urgent necessity to liberate the society’s initiative, introduce corruption-free legislative support for small business, secure real division of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of power, the society’s effective control over the activities of all governmental institutes, insure the society against arbitrary alterations to the Constitution, unauthorized by the society, start nationwide subsidized courses of Ukrainian for all willing to learn the language, and introduce the Ukrainian language and literature as obligatory subjects in all schools in this country.”
As a person with the first-hand knowledge of Soviet propaganda, how do you see its similarity or difference from the information war which Russia is waging today against Ukraine? Why do you think this war proves so efficient, despite the presence of the Internet and alternative sources of information?
“The first most conspicuous thing is the shameless lie which was inherent in Soviet propaganda and dominates its Russian counterpart today. Both share a propensity to xenophobia and instill ‘siege mentality’ in the masses. What makes the contemporary Russian propaganda different is an open nationalist and imperial propaganda. Of course, these two components were present in the Soviet Union, but they were disguised with internationalist mob oratory.
“There are a number of reasons which make Russian propaganda efficient. Firstly, most people who are influenced by it have no access to alternative sources of information, or will not look for such information. Russian propaganda against Georgia and Ukraine is largely based in age-old prejudices, which were cherished by Russian imperial and Soviet propaganda. Anti-Ukrainian prejudices were also cultivated outside the empire. Here is just one example: in 1975 I and my wife were attending a course of German. Once the teacher, a German lady, asked the students to name their nationality. When I said I was Ukrainian she replied that there was no such nationality. I would like to remind that Ukraine has been a member of the UN from the very beginning. When my wife and two Canadian fellow-students protested and made the headmaster of the course apologize to me in front of the class. And this was by far not a single instance.
“The second serious reason is the weak counter-propaganda. Alas, Ukraine is losing in the information war with Russia. You may have noticed that Russia argues that it is not waging any war against Ukraine, while Ukraine seems to take this nonsense for granted. How should we take the occupation and annexation of Crimea, may I ask? As a joke? What are Russian mercenaries doing in the eastern oblasts of Ukraine? Having a holiday? Let’s call a spade a spade. Russia has formally declared a war on Ukraine, and it is waging it seriously and professionally. And those who argue that a war between two brother nations is impossible should open the Bible and carefully read the story of two brothers, Abel and Cain.”
What do you think made the occupation of Crimea possible? How do you assess the situation in which the Crimean Tatars find themselves today?
“An analysis of Russia’s foreign policy clearly shows that a very conspicuous role there has always belonged to the destabilization of Ukraine. To a certain moment (maybe, due to the pro-Russian component in Ukraine’s foreign policy) the Kremlin withheld an open aggression against Ukraine, believing that it could rule Ukraine without a direct occupation. The Ukrainian revolution of 2013-14 not only shattered the status quo between Ukraine and Russia. It caused a panic fear that Ukraine might break free from Russia’s influence. We should not forget that Putin’s popularity rating has been dropping in the recent years, and a short victorious war, with little losses on Russia’s part, was the only safe option. In the Kremlin’s opinion, Crimea offered exactly such an opportunity. The Yanukovych administration’s criminal policy resulted in a shady deal with Russia, giving the latter access to a military base on the peninsula without any control on Ukraine’s part. Putin also counted on a considerable support on the part of Crimea’s population, most of which settled in the peninsula only in the second half of the 20th century, after the deportation of Crimean Germans, Tatars, Greeks, and Armenians. I suspect that Putin miscalculated the extent of support from Crimea’s population, since the so-called referendum was totally boycotted by Crimean Tatars and a considerable part of citizens with other ethnic origins. The number of those willing to take part in Russia’s farce failed to reach 35 percent.
“On Russia’s domestic consumer market the Crimean affair only brought a momentary success to Putin’s popularity. The Russian longing for the empire is obviously deeply rooted in the national consciousness. As far as Crimea is concerned, one should not expect great triumphs there. Over the past century Crimea’s economy has been tightly intertwined with that of continental Ukraine, and at the moment it is undergoing a painful transformation. We should also keep in mind that Crimea is a region desperately in need of economic aid. Today, when tourism has shrunk, economic prospects look especially bleak.
“Crimean Tatars found themselves in a fix. In Ukraine the problem of the deported nations was not solved, but nevertheless, the process of rehabilitation of Crimean Tatars’ national life was underway. Under Russia’s occupation the prospects of Crimean Tatars’ revival give no grounds for optimism. Political assassinations and preparations for framed, politically motivated criminal persecution: this is what Russian bayonets have brought to Crimea. I consider it unethical to advise the Crimean Tatars’ national movement from my relatively safe exile. I only know that my heart is bleeding for this much-beleaguered, heroic nation. I am also convinced that Crimean Tatars, hardened by decades of fighting for their legal rights, will find optimal ways to confront the occupants, and see the back of the last Russian soldier leaving the peninsula.”
Why do you think your father took the fate of Crimean Tatars so close to heart? Do you keep any contacts with their representatives?
“My parents were essentially sympathetic people and could not stay indifferent to someone in need. And need is just what befell Crimean Tatars. I would like to mention that others in need also received reasonable support from our family. And there was no lack of people in need in the communist paradise. It was communists, and not Nazis (despite a widespread misconception), who started deportations based on ethnicity. Fourteen minor nations were deported from their traditional national territory. Crimean Tatars were one of the 14, but virtually the only nation which never enjoyed complete rehabilitation and the right to repatriation.
“My life is also connected to Crimean Tatars’ struggle. I have always taken part in this nation’s fight for their rights. Since mid-1960s I have been lucky to participate in several Crimean Tatar rallies and disseminate information about their situation. I continue my human rights advocacy in emigration as well. I was summoned as a witness on the Crimean Tatar question at the first Sakharov hearing. An Austrian television station made a documentary about the fate of Crimean Tatars, based on my script. I am one of the founders of Foundation Crimea. I have published numerous articles about Crimean Tatars in various international media and organized petitions to defend repatriation activists. Thanks to Professor Peter Reddaway’s altruism, I was able to organize a broad public campaign in defense of Mustafa Dzhemilev.
“Now I keep a constant contact with Crimean Tatar activists both in Crimea and outside it. Since the very first days of Ukraine’s independence I have regularly visited this country and taken part in the memorial events on May 18. I also had planned to visit Crimea on the 70th anniversary of the deportation, but the second annexation of Crimea by Russia frustrated my plans. Ironically, on that day Dzhemilev and I took part in a symposium dedicated to that sad event. The symposium was organized by the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute and was held in Boston.”