Commentary Magazine

Memoirs, by Petro G. Grigorenko


by Petro G. Grigorenko.
Translated by Thomas P. Whitney. Norton. 462 pp. $19.95.

The memoirs of former Red Army General Petro Grigorenko are a remarkable byproduct of this century’s most influential political invention—totalitarianism. They are based on Grigorenko’s lifelong relationship with the closed society: first as a loyal and worshipful Stalinist, then as a more skeptical military leader, later as a Leninist critical of the regime, still later as a leading activist in the Soviet human-lights movement, and finally as an exile in the United States, stripped of his citizenship by a vindictive act of the Soviet legislature.

Born in 1907 into a poor Ukrainian peasant family, Grigorenko spent his formative years in the village of Borisovka. Most of the village’s young men had gone off to join the Red Army or Nestor Makhno’s rag-tag band of anarchists. Communism exerted a strong appeal. As Grigorenko observes, through the Bolshevik leaflets and posters which found their way into town, “the concepts of freedom, brotherhood, and the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ entered into my consciousness. . . . I wanted to build a new life, to struggle for the ideas the Communist party and Lenin were bringing into the world.”

It was not only the romance of Communism and its promise of a radiant future that won the teenage Grigorenko’s loyalty. The revolution provided substantial opportunities for personal advancement. Indeed, as Grigorenko’s memoirs remind us, the significant social mobility which resulted from this era of great upheaval was an important reason for the residual loyalties Communism and Stalin were able to claim from many Soviet citizens even after they lost most traces of political commitment or ideological fervor.

As a bright, young, true believer of poor peasant stock, Grigorenko quickly scaled the totalitarian occupational ladder. He was a local leader of the Young Communist League, devoting “every free minute to the cell, working, arguing, discussing.” He studied construction engineering and eventually opted for a military career. By the early 30’s Grigorenko, a commissioned Red Army officer, was well on the way to becoming a successful member of the Soviet establishment.

Already in these early years, Grigorenko was witness to the devastation caused by Stalin’s rule. On a furlough in the Ukraine, he observed first-hand the human misery caused by the forced famine of 1932-33 which claimed between 4.5 and 7 million victims. Yet the strength of his commitment was such that he deluded himself into believing that he was viewing isolated instances of local mismanagement. As he notes, “We were deceived because we wanted to be deceived. We believed so strongly in Communism that we were ready to accept any crime if it was glossed over with Communist phraseology. . . .”

During the war, Grigorenko served with distinction on the Ukrainian front, in the Far East, and in the Caucasus. Despite his early doubts about Stalin’s wartime leadership, by the end of the conflict Grigorenko was convinced anew of the dictator’s military genius. After the war, a much decorated hero, Grigorenko was assigned to duty at the Soviet equivalent of West Point and promoted to the rank of general.

As deputy director of the Scientific Research Section of the Frunze Military Academy, and director of its cybernetics department, Major General Petro Grigorenko occupied an important place in Soviet society. But he did not begin to occupy an indispensable place until September 7, 1961, the day he addressed a Moscow district Communist party conference and condemned Stalin’s personality cult, suggested that concrete steps be taken to preclude the dangers of a similar cult unler Khrushchev, argued for the strengthening of internal democratic procedures within the party, and warned of the dangers of bureaucratization.

Grigorenko’s account of this pivotal event is filled with a quiet dignity and a populist’s strong faith in fundamental human decency:

I realized that my speech had penetrated the hearts and minds of the listeners. A normal person is quite sensitive to nobility and courage. These were normal people who, though they had party cards in their pockets, had realized that this enormous and cruel machine was going to roll over me and that I was not retreating but instead was standing up firmly for my rights, and by this token for their rights too. Most sympathized with me.

His speech created a sensation within the Moscow political community. Grigorenko was soon thereafter dismissed from the Frunze Military Academy and transferred to duty in the Far East. The open break with the system behind him, his political activism quickened, as did the speed of his descent into hell. He created a small clandestine organization, “The Alliance for Struggle for the Rebirth of Leninism,” which circulated samizdat political tracts. By 1964 he was arrested, interrogated by then KGB chairman V.E. Semichastny, and examined by KGB psychiatrists, who ruled that he was insane. Released from detention as a result of Khrushchev’s fall from power, Grigorenko continued to take an active part in Moscow’s burgeoning human-rights movement; this led to renewed arrests and nearly five years of detention in Soviet psychoprisons.



A life as tumultuous and rich as this would in and of itself be of abiding interest. What distinguishes Grigorenko’s memoirs are their exceedingly valuable and colorful glimpses into the inner workings of the Soviet establishment and, even more, their deep insights into the totalitarian mind. To judge by his testimony, the closed society is nowhere more closed than in the higher circles of the Soviet hierarchy. Indeed, one of the most frightening aspects of these memoirs is the view they offer of a consciousness—Grigorenko’s own—that has been shaped almost entirely by totalitarianism. Grigorenko’s intellectual sources are almost exclusively Russian, Ukrainian, or Marxist-Leninist. Invocations of Marx, Bukharin, Lenin, and Stalin abound. By contrast, the only Western writer cited is Clausewitz, and the only Western figures mentioned at all in the text are Churchill and Roosevelt (in connection with Teheran and Yalta) and Richard Nixon (in connection with his 1974 visit to the Soviet Union). Of some 600 entries in the index, the only other instances of Western influence are references to Radio Liberty, Radio Canada, and the Voice of America.

So total is Grigorenko’s immersion in Soviet culture that one finally wonders what there was in his experience that allowed for his break with Soviet reality. How to account for his Pauline conversion? A central role, of course, was played by the effects of totalitarian rule. Even the mind of an important military official cannot perpetually suppress the plentiful evidence of the destructiveness and human degradation caused by the Soviet system. Then, too, in Grigorenko’s case, there was his wife Zinaida, who strongly rejected Soviet values—a rejection born of the extermination of two sisters and a brother by Stalin’s Leviathan. A final important factor was Grigorenko’s national background. As a Ukrainian, the general belongs to a nationality which is regarded by many Russians as somehow second-rate. Moreover, the language taught him in the schools, the language of his professional life, the language in which he issued battle orders, was not the language of his childhood. As a consequence of his background, Grigorenko was ever the minority member, the perennial outsider. There is something particularly moving, even wistful, about Grigorenko’s understated evocations of his ethnic roots.

It is this identification with the lot of the outsider that makes Grigorenko unique among Soviet dissidents as a persistent defender of the rights of the small non-Russian nationalities—the Crimean Tatars and Volga Germans. And this aspect of Grigorenko’s life also points us toward a deep source of discontent in Soviet society. We learn from him of the emergence in the 1960’s of a new generation of human-rights activists in the Ukraine, and of the massive protests of Crimean Tatars who in 1967 collected three million signatures on petitions urging their resettlement. These non-Russian nationalities, who by the year 2000 will make up the majority of the USSR’s population, constitute a major latent threat to the Soviet empire.

Grigorenko’s memoirs end on a note of caution, born of experience. The Soviets, Grigorenko warns,

are in a state of hostile relations with the entire world. . . . In the beginning they waged war against the old government, then with democracy and the higher classes, then with the prosperous peasants and the organized portion of the working class, then with the entire people of their own country, and finally with the world. The West must never forget the Soviet Union’s goal—world domination. It must at all times attempt to pull the teeth from the beast of prey.

Will we heed the old general’s words?

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.