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In Memory of Petro Grigorenko whose voice in defence of Crimean Tatars is again desperately needed

Halya Coynash

It is the 109th anniversary today of the birth of Petro Grigorenko, Soviet General, Soviet dissident, victim of punitive psychiatry and defender of the Crimean Tatar people.  His friend Mustafa Dzhemiliev is now again in exile, and the Crimean Tatars facing persecution in their homeland under Russian occupation.

Petro Grigorenko served as Major General during World War II and could have remained a respected war hero to the end of his life.  From 1961, he refused to be silent and paid a high price, first being subjected to repression and then exiled in 1980.  From exile he continued to represent the Ukrainian Helsinki Group, and remained a voice for those persecuted in the Soviet Union until his death on Feb 21, 1987. 

He was a very special friend to the Crimean Tatars who had been forcibly deported from their native Crimea in May 1944.  His first open defence of their right to return to their homeland dates back to February 1968. 

The Crimean Tatar community had prepared a birthday gathering for Alexei Kosterin, a Russian writer and one of the few people who spoke publicly in their defence.  Alexei Kosterin was gravely ill, and asked Petro Grigorenko to attend on his behalf.

Speaking for both Kosterin and himself, Grigorenko spoke of the injustice that had been perpetrated against the Crimean Tatars.  He referred to the Soviet Constitution, stressing that the law was nonetheless on the side of the Crimean Tatars.

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”.

Grigorenko was arrested in 1969 for his human rights position and his defence of the Crimean Tatars and held in a psychiatric “hospital” [effectively a KGB prison] until 1974, with his release in large measure due to pressure from the international community.

Shortly after his release, he sent a plea to  Mustafa Dzhemiliev to end his life-endangering hunger strike, and then publicly spoke out against the conditions that the leader of the Crimean Tatar national movement was being held in.  

Mustafa Dzhemiliev spent 15 years in Soviet labour camps, but was able finally, after Ukraine’s Independence to defend his people already in their native homeland.  Just 6 months old at the time of the Deportation, he was banished from Crimea again in April 2014, following Russia’s invasion and annexation. 

The link between the Soviet human rights movement and the Crimean Tatar national movement was extremely strong, in large part thanks to both Petro Grigorenko and Mustafa Dzhemiliev.   Both movements were peaceful, stressing non-violence and resistance through reference to the laws that the Soviet Union had passed, but never intended to honour.

Historian Gulnara Bekirova wrote of the significance this had for Petro 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

They have not now either, but they are facing persecution again, this time from the Russian occupation regime. 

The Crimean Tatar Mejlis, or self-governing body and vast majority of Crimean Tatars did not support Russia’s occupation.  It is very likely that the Deputy Head of the Mejlis, Akhtem Chiygoz, together with two other Crimean Tatars Ali Asanov and Mustafa Degermendzhy are in prison because it was mainly Crimean Tatars who prevented Russia from carrying off a coup without having to send in troops. 

From the outset, the occupation regime banned traditional remembrance events marking the 1944 Deportation, then moved to silence all Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian language media.

The offensive against the Mejlis initially targeted leaders like Mustafa Dzhemiliev and Refat Chubarov, but soon turned into an attack on this representative body, which has now been banned completely.

Other Crimean Tatars are facing possible 5-year prison sentences for stating, as does the international community, that Crimea is Ukraine. 

19 Crimean Muslims, most Crimean Tatar, are imprisoned on grotesque ‘terrorism’ charges over alleged involvement in an organization which is legal in Ukraine.

Crimean Tatars are certainly not the only victims of Russia’s invasion and occupation of Crimea.  All Ukrainians who do not remain silent and accept Russian rule are in fact at risk.  Nonetheless, through its targeting of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis and offensive against Muslims,  Russia is following the worst Soviet tradition and declaring war against the Crimean Tatar people. 




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