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Petro G. Grigorenko — Review of a life and a book.

"I have lived a long and complicated life, through turbulent, tempestuous, and horrible times. I witnessed death, destruction and awakening. I met a great number of people. I searched and got involved, erred and reformed myself. I lived with the people and for the people. I accepted their help, took advantage of their advice and instruction. Many of them left a visible mark on my life, influencing its formation. This book is first and foremost about them. Among them are those without whom I could never have been the way I am."

So begins a moving and revealing self-portrait of a very unusual person — Major General of the Red Army, military science professor, and later an oppositionist jailed in Soviet mental hospitals and eventually exiled to the West, Petro Grigoryevich Grigorenko. 

Making of a young Communist

He was born in 1907 in a Ukrainian village near the industrial areas of Donbas. These areas were bitterly fought over during the Civil War: the majority of the peasants supporting the Reds or the Greens (anarchist petty bourgeois partisans), enclaves of better off Armenian and German settlers sitting out the hostilities, and invasions from the German supported Ukrainian Rada, and from the White Guard armies from the Don and Kuban' sweeping over the villages. Young Petro was deeply revulsed by the atrocities of the White monarchist generals, that and the promise of a new bright future in a land ruled by the toilers themselves attracted him to the Bolsheviks.

Petro joined the Komsomol, the Communist Youth League in 1922, at the age of fifteen, founding a cell in his village when a roving agitator left a copy of Bukharin's and Preobrazhensky's ABCs of Communism as a gift. Communists were spread thinly in Zaporozhe, his village was a day's walk away from the nearest Party organization. This was a confusing time: Civil War had ended, but the country was in ruins. Industry suffered the most from the destruction and dislocation caused by two wars and the economic blockade of the young Soviet Union. European revolution sputtered after 1919, as Social Democratic leaderships united with the ruling classes to prevent working class victory. Lenin and Trotsky proposed that while the Communist International turns to building mass revolutionary parties to prepare for further upheavals of international capitalism, the Communists inside the USSR stage a tactical retreat to the New Economic Policy. They proposed that the Bolshevik Party retreat from the economic policies of War Communism, entrench itself in the commanding central points of the Russian economy, control foreign trade, banks, railroads and shipping, the heavy and fuel industries, direct the economy through its tax and investment policies, but allow the peasants and small proprietors to reestablish their independence, let the laws of supply and demand to resume operating and restore the production of consumer goods, ravaged by seven years of the World War and the Civil War.

Young Petro Grigorenko and his comrades were confused. The leadership was turning away from theoretical discussion of the contradictory phenomenon of the proletarian dictatorship in a predominantly peasant country. Although he read Trotsky's 'Lessons of October', he did not understand the crucial distinction between international (Trotskyist) versus national (Stalinist) perspectives.

"The struggle against Trotskyism was taking place and I could not stay on the sidelines. I read 'The Lessons of October' and I read the periodical press. I was uneasy. Could Trotsky possibly be right? Might the creation of a socialist society be impossible? Would we perish if the world revolution did not come to our aid? At just this time Stalin's essay Trotskyism or Leninism appeared in The Workers' Newspaper. With characteristic simplicity (today I would call it oversimplicity) Stalin refuted Trotsky's affirmations one by one. We could, he wrote, succeed at building socialism in our country. The delay in world revolution must not stop us. We were obliged to carry out the cause of the world revolution ourselves." (p. 25)

Party work

Grigorenko joined the Communist Party in 1927, the year when the defeat of the Chinese Revolution at the hands on Chiang Kai Shek (who was protected by Stalin from Communist resistance) allowed the right wing of the Bolshevik party to definitely defeat and expel Trotsky and the Left Opposition. Significantly, here and throughout his story Grigorenko pays scant attention to the international atmosphere surrounding all events.

The book describes the period of forced collectivization when economic methods of influencing the direction of the economy were thrown overboard, the working class was used as a club to crush the resistance of the peasantry and the ruling bureacracy grew like a cancer to lord over all aspects of society. Since Grigorenko still had ties to his village and his family, he is able to provide details of some aspects of this process. He talks of the mismanaged State farms and how innocent people were blamed for government and policy errors, how his uncle was arrested and disappeared, how in December of 1931 he rescued his father from starvation in the Ukrainian village where he lived, of the corpses he saw on village streets in the Ukraine. Grigorenko wrote to the Central Committee and in this case was able to get some help for his village of Borisovka, but throughout 1931, 1932, and 1933 people died of starvation in hundreds and thousands of villages in some of the best farming areas of USSR.

In 1931 Petro Grigorenko entered the Military Technical Academy in Moscow and from then on embarked on a military career. As a cadre specialist he was removed from the day to day life and problems of the workers and peasants. He had a series of demanding and challenging assignments organizing military industry, building fortifications and defence zones, doing demolition work. Grigorenko had to solve numerous problems caused by the basic fallacy of Stalin's order and task oriented economy. One of his most unpleasant assignments in 1934, was demolishing some Orthodox churches in Byelorussia. Blowing up churches was a Stalinist method of fighting the influence of religion.

In March of 1936 Grigorenko was assigned to build fortifications along the western frontier of the Soviet Union in Byelorussia. Much effort and ingenuity went into the building of these defence areas in Byelorussia and the Ukraine. Workers and collective farmers sacrificed for years to build defences, to strengthen the Red Army. Later in the spring of 1941, three months before the Nazi invasion, these expensive and formidable fortifications were demolished as the Soviet leadership and Stalin in particular tried to placate Hitler, to convince him of Soviet amiability.

The Purges

1936 saw the beginning of Stalin's Great Purge. International defeats of the working class, particularly the rise of Hitler threatened the survival of the Soviet Union. In 1924 Stalin revised the basic purpose of the Comintern from being the organizer of socialist revolutions to being a political tool of the Soviet diplomacy, backing its maneuvers in a capitalist world. The Communist International, misled by Stalin and his lackeys, still played lip service to world revolution, but the underlying assumptions of Stalinist doctrine of 'socialism in one country' led it from one defeat to the next; Communist parties became weaker, lost members, prestige and influence.

Internally the regime came into greater conflicts with the masses. The forced tempos of the Five Year Plans caused dislocations in the economy, shortages of food, housing, clothing. Rationing was in effect for the great majority, yet the privileged elite was segregated, and enjoyed special housing, shops, and other bonuses. The founding program of the Fourth International analyzing the development of USSR declared: "The Soviet Union emerged from the October Revolution as a workers' state. State ownership of the means of production, a necessary prerequisite to socialist development, opened up the possibility of rapid growth of the productive forces. But the apparatus of the workers' state underwent a complete degeneration at the same time: it was transformed from a weapon of the working class into a weapon of bureacratic violence against the working class and more and more a weapon for the sabotage of the country's economy." "The Moscow Trials…grew out of the unbearable conflicts within the bureaucracy itself, which in turn mirror the contradictions between the bureaucracy and the people, as well as the deepening antagonisms among the 'people' themselves."

Grigorenko, who was a military engineer, tells of the havoc and destruction wrought on the Red Army by these persecutions. He cites examples of whole unit staffs being decimated as arrests spread in circles, of the gaps in command structure filled in with inexpirienced junior officers, of the toadies and yes-men promoted, of professional discussion and research nipped out and stifled. From other sources we know that rates of arrests and executions reached 80% for the regimental commanders, 90% for the army and district commanders; the General Staff of the Red Army and Fleet, staffs of military academies, defence industry leadership, were all bloodied and destroyed.

Grigorenko's brother Ivan, an engineer at an agricultural machinery plant at Zaporozhe in the Ukraine, was arrested and released after a month's interrogation. Ivan Grigorenko discovered his cell to be full of people, all like himself brought in from responsible positions in the economy and the government, all like himself innocent of any wrongdoing. Petro went to the Prosecutor General of USSR, Vishinsky to lodge a complaint about these abuses of power. He was received by Vishinsky himself and the petition was accepted. In retrospect, Petro Grigorenko thought that his attitude of reckless self-assurance saved both him and his brother, since the lower authorities were afraid to touch the Grigorenkos assuming that the brothers had some secret powerful protectors.

The Great Patriotic War

In 1939 major Grigorenko was sent to Mongolia where the Japanese Manchurian Army was probing the Soviet Far Eastern frontiers and skirmishing with the Red Army for positions and influence in the Far East, in China, Mongolia, and India. Grigorenko was mainly concerned with the problem of supplies, building additional rail capacity, terminals, spurs, and supply depots. Grigorenko was thousands of miles away from the front when the war broke out. He was, however, terribly concerned and driven to investigate the reasons for the total surprise with which the Red Army was taken in that fateful June of 1941. He details the orders and counter-orders, the intrigues in the General Staff, the deceptive public pronouncements which deceived the Soviet population, but not the Germans. The Far East was still a danger spot after Germany attacked, since Japan could have also launched an attack. Grigorenko remained there, building up the defences, marshaling new divisions of the Red Army, training new cadres, until the end of 1943.

The front

Grigorenko applied for a transfer to the front many times during this time, finally at the end of 1943 he was released from the Far East and sent to the 10th Guard Army fighting near Leningrad. He was appointed as a divisional chief of staff and stayed there until a serious wound sent him to the hospital. After release from the hospital he was sent to the Fourth Ukrainian Front which was liberating Western Ukraine, driving the Germans and their Hungarian allies out. He finished the war as commander of a division in the Carpathian mountains. His sense of honor and self respect drove him into conflicts with the various politico-military chiefs like Bulganin, who was always drunk, the ignorant and pretentious Mekhlis, and Brezhnev, who liked to meddle in military decisions and posed as a hero. Grigorenko paints a depressing picture of the conditions prevailing in the Red Army leadership: ignorance, unprofessional personal relations, verbal and physical abuse of subordinates, hierarchical jealousies among commanders, staff officers, and the political chiefs, and the deep gulf separating the officers and the enlisted men. He gives some examples of the heroism and initiative of the rank and file, but does not do enough to help the reader understand how the Red Army defeated the huge German war machine.

The war ended later here than in Berlin or on the Western Front. Nazi leaders kept hoping for an agreement with the British and the Americans against the Red Army. Therefore they resisted Soviet advances to the last, refused to surrender and kept fighting even after the May 8th cease-fire. Grigorenko's last battle occurred on May 12th in Czechoslovakia.

Academy years

After the war had ended, Grigorenko took a teaching position in the Frunze Military Academy in Moscow. He lived with his wife, her father, their children, nine people in all, in his wife's old apartment in one of the older workers' neighborhoods of Moscow. He therefore had personal experience of the privations and the shortages suffered by the common people in Russia, he was not segregated from them as he would have been in a military cantonement or if he had lived in a special apartment building for the cadres. His character put him into conflicts with the authorities time and again; he refused to accept ignorant advice from respected professors and his doctoral thesis was held up for years, he criticised overt anti-semitism of a Party secretary and earned the hatred of Stalinist functionaries. 

20th Congress of the CPSU and Khruschev's speech on the 'cult of personality' was a milestone in the life of the Soviet Union. The bureaucracy was staging a calculated retreat, it was maneuvering in the face of rebellions throughout Eastern Europe, and the rising and largely unfulfilled expectations of the Soviet workers. Stalin was personally blamed for the terror, privations, and mistakes of the last twenty years, his police chief Beria was executed, most political prisoners were finally released. The regime of naked terror could not be sustained in the face of mass pressure of the grown, better educated, and cynical to authorities Soviet working class. In Grigorenko's words: "These years were very strained, in both my service and civilian lives. My attitude toward the actions of the leaders became increasingly critical. It was more and more difficult for me not to react to the illegalities and pompous trivialities of the rulers of my country." (p.231)

First rebellion

Grigorenko finally could not restrain himself any longer. After he finished setting up a new course for the Academy, he decided to speak up at an upcoming local district party activists' conference. His speech hit the assembled delegates like a bombshell. He talked of democratization needed in the Party and throughout the country, of the lingering effects of 'cult of personality'. Although the speech was carefully circumspect, it went directly against the efforts of the leadership to sweep all burning issues aside and restrict the discussion to rubber stamping and general platitudes. He was applauded spontaneously and the conference leaders had a hard time muzzling open discussion of these issues. Support from many delegates from factories, schools, and from Grigorenko's own Academy colleagues prevented the authorities from overtly punishing Grigorenko. He was, however, removed from the Academy staff and sent with a decrease in responsibility to serve on the staff of the Fifth Army in Siberia. His departure to his new appointment was a scene of public support as dozens of colleagues and high ranking officers saw him off at the station.


Grigorenko was silenced but not for long. He turned to the studies of Lenin and to Marxist classics to understand the process of degeneration in the Soviet Union. "More and more, the idea entered my head that the social structure created in our country was not a socialist one, that the ruling party was not communist. Where were we going, what would become of the country and of the cause of communism, and what had to be done to return us to the right path — these questions plagued me." (p. 265)

Grigorenko studied Lenin's works and came to conclusions that Lenin contradicted himself on the problems of democracy, freedom of the press, freedom of association, that Lenin himself had sowed the seeds of dictatorship. At that point Grigorenko proceeded to extract from Lenin's writings only those which supported the notions of 'true democracy'. He set up a study circle with his son Georgy, who was studying at the Artillery Engineering Academy at the time, calling it the 'Alliance for Struggle for the Rebirth of Leninism', writing and distributing leaflets among students and workers. The positions of the Alliance were that the Soviet Union had deviated from Leninist norms, that workers and peasants were oppressed by the privileged bureacrats, that the people "…should struggle for the ousting of the government bureacrats and parasites, for free elections, for control over the government by the people, and for frequent replacement of all persons of high position, including the very highest." (p. 272)

Within a few months the KGB secret police were on their track, Grigorenko was arrested on March 12, 1964 and when he refused to recant, they placed him in a psychiatric hospital. His speech of 1961 was still so memorable that the Party chiefs were reluctant to try him as a criminal. Grigorenko spent more than a year being shunted between prisons and mental hospitals. He was expelled from the Party, his military rank and pension were taken from him by a special decision of Khruschev and the Politburo. During that time, the economy of USSR experienced another crisis, Khruschev's Virgin Lands program proved a failure, and bread rationing was reintroduced for a while. In the fall of 1964, Brezhnev and Kosygin removed Khruschev from power in a bloodless coup. In the resulting bureaucratic confusion, Grigorenko's wife Zinaida was able to secure his release and on April 14, 1965 she finally took him home from the hospital. In a large measure his release was due to the widespread admiration and support he received from the rank and file Communist Party members, from non-Party citizens, and even among the middle and low echelon bureaucrats.

Grigorenko was free, but after 33 years of service in the Red Army, two wounds at the front and many decorations, he was deprived of his pension and blacklisted from any permanent jobs. He was supporting his wife and one of their sons who was suffering from epilepsy. For the next year the Grigorenkos survived working at odd menial jobs; Petro Grigoryevich worked as a janitor, tour guide, warehouseman at a grocery store. He was finally granted a pension of 120 rubles a month which permitted Petro and Zinaida to stop working, but left them in poverty.

From 1966 until his arrest in May of 1969, Grigorenko tirelessly fought against the bureacratic oppression. In 1967 he published a letter in defense of a military-historical work by Professor Nekrich, which blamed Stalin and the top leadership for the lack of preparedness before Hitler's invasion of 1941. Grigorenko's treatise is still a valuable piece of research on that touchy subject; at that time it became well known through the Samizdat (literally 'self-publishing', underground publications) and formed an important component of uncensored political and historical research in the USSR. He also defended civil and national rights of the Crimean Tatars who were organizing to force the authorities to let them return to their homeland. At the end of World War II Stalin blamed a number of nationalities, accusing them of collaborating with the Germans. He exiled whole nationalities, like the Crimean Tatars, the Volga Germans, the Chechens, and others from their native lands, destroyed their national political autonomy, their cultural institutions, physically liquidated large numbers of people.

Grigorenko's defense of the Tatars was the cause of his next arrest. He was arrested on May 7, 1969 in Tashkent, the capital of Kazakhstan, and after spending a year in prisons, was once again railroaded to a special mental hospital. He spent four years in different mental hospitals, the ruling clique was still afraid to try him in court. Grigorenko's fame and personal appeal disposed both inmates and doctors to his aid, his wife Zinaida was allowed to see him once in a while and brought news of support from his family and co-thinkers, but it was mainly his strong physical and mental constitution, his stubborn convictions in the face of his anonymous jailers which sustained him during the four years and prevented him from actually going insane. His case was publicised both inside the USSR and in the West, Solzhenitsyn and Nixon demanded his release as part of the detente. He was finally released on June 26, 1977. Richard Nixon came to Moscow the next day to seal the deal between USA and the Soviet Union in the current phase of the holding action between these superpowers. The release of Grigorenko and another mental hospital detainee, Shikhanovich, was the bit of window dressing needed in the deal where USSR (unsuccessfully) used its influence to prevent the victory of the NLF in Vietnam in return for US concessions on the export of grain and SALT.

For the next two years Petro Grigorenko turned to right wing activities the main focus of which was to induce the Western governments to pressure the Soviet Union to liberalize itself. He got involved in petitions, court cases, emigration applications, press conferences with Western correspondents, etc. His plans to write a truthful story of the Great Patriotic War (World War II) were shelved, work of political and historical analysis was subsumed by petty dissident activities. In 1977 Petro Grigorenko, his wife and invalid son Oleg flew to the US ostensibly for Petro's hospital operation, in reality into permanent exile.

The book ends with Grigorenko's impressions of US as a too liberal and permissive society. During the years of his exile he lived in New York City, supported by the Solzhenitsyn fund and other right-wing organizations, made some speeches for the Radio Liberty, a State Department propaganda network, and headed an association of ex-Soviet war veterans.


Petro Grigoryevich Grigorenko is a difficult man to summarize. He was never a Marxist, his 40-year Party membership notwithstanding. He drew his initial inspiration and strength from the October Revolution, from the boost it gave to the economic and political development of Russia. His disillusionment with the Soviet reality did not lead him to a historical examination of the class forces which shaped the Soviet Union, its relation both to the international working class and to imperialism. His break with the ruling bureaucracy, although at first assuming a left-wing form was never thoroughgoing and theoretically thought out. The 'turn to Lenin' of the early sixties, was not followed with a turn to the Soviet working class, to the only force in the Soviet Union that would both be able to effect, and would gain from such a turn.

Without a basic theoretical underpinning, Grigorenko fell prey to the pervasive pressures of bourgeois public opinion. Leaving the question of the class nature of the Soviet Union open, he in actuality went along with all those critics of USSR who would turn it into a colony of imperialism, as Hitler tried to do. He finishes by writing:

"The West must never forget the Soviet Union's goal — world domination. It [West] must at all times attempt to pull the teeth from the beast of prey. Without war there is only one way to do this, and that is to stand firmly in defense of the human rights defenders in communist countries, not surrendering to demagogic appeals to detente or to provacatory screams of noninterference in internal affairs." (p. 453)

Petro Grigorenko died in a New York City hospital on February 27, 1987. Russian emigre newspapers published his obituaries alongside those which they regularly publish of the White Guard officers and the Russian fascists who fought in Hitler's SS formations. Grigorenko's tenacity in resisting the jail and the mental hospitals are admirable, a testament to his strength of will, to his love of truth and justice. The persecution of Grigorenko by the ruling clique of the self-styled 'communists' had nothing to do with 'defending the Soviet Union and socialism'. The filthy act of branding a man insane because of his convictions weakened the Soviet Union disorienting workers and dragging the idea of socialism through the muck.

Grigorenko's transformation from a leftist critic of the bureacracy to a proponent of imperialist intervention testifies to the need to rebuild sections of the Fourth International in the USSR. Only Trotskyism with its history since 1923 of a continuous struggle to resolve internationally the national problem of an isolated workers' state can lead a real liberation of the Soviet workers, can link their struggle for Soviet democracy with the struggle of workers around the world for socialism.