12.8 Foreigners in defence of Soviet political prisoners

No 12 : 28 February 1970

In January 1970 in Leningrad and Moscow there were three demonstrations by foreign citizens who are members of various committees for the defence of civil liberties.

In Leningrad a Norwegian, Gunnar Ghenjseth from Oslo, handcuffed himself to the railing of the upper floor of the hall of the Leningrad House of Trade (LDT). He began to scatter leaflets with an appeal by the Norwegian, Danish and Swedish Smog Committees in defence of civil rights, addressed to the Chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers A.N. Kosygin. It requested the release from detention of General Grigorenko, Yury Galanskov, and all who had been imprisoned for their convictions. It was not the books of Grigorenko, Galanskov, Marchenko, Solzhenitsyn and Sinyavsky which put weapons in the hands of the enemies of socialism, the appeal emphasised: it was the activities of the KGB and the courts in flouting the Soviet Constitution, which guarantees citizens freedom of speech and freedom to publish, assemble, hold street processions and demonstrate.

Ghenjseth announced in this leaflet that he was beginning a hunger-strike, and that he would continue until he received an assurance that the Soviet government condemned infringements of the Soviet Constitution, whoever was responsible.

In Moscow Valtenio Tacchi and Teresa Marinuzzi, members of the Italian youth committee for the defence of liberty and the rights of man “Europa Civilita”, did something similar in the building of the Central Department Store (TsUM). In the leaflet they threw into the crowd, an open letter to A.N. Kosygin, it was stated that infringements of Article 19 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights were occurring in the USSR, a document that the Soviet Union had recognised as binding on itself. (The text of Article 19 is [always] printed on the first page of the Chronicle.) The authors of the appeal asked A.N. Kosygin to release  P. Grigorenko, A. Krasnov-Levitin, N. Gorbanevskaya and Yu. Galanskov from detention, to restore full rights to them, to grant them the possibility of answering in the Soviet press charges laid against them, and, if a trial should still be necessary, to guarantee full publicity for the conduct of the trial and strict observation of all procedural norms. In the opinion of the authors of the leaflet, this would in no way undermine the position of the government and the Party. On the contrary, it would evoke the sympathy of the Soviet people and of world public opinion. The appeal culminated in a call to the students and workers of the USSR to fight for the observance of legality and against any kind of terror, from whatever quarter — whether from the secret police or from anarchistic elements. Since any terror would lead to a counter-terror, the struggle should be carried on only by legal methods.

On 18 January in the Moscow Operetta Theatre, at the beginning of the interval following the first act, a Belgian from Ghent, Viktor van Brantegem committed a similar act: he handcuffed himself to the railing of the balcony and scattered an appeal of the Flemish Catholic Students’ Union and the Flemish Committee of Solidarity with Eastern Europe, addressed to the composer Shostakovich. The appeal expressed sympathy with Shostakovich’s call for the formation of a committee to save Mikis Theodorakis. The appeal called for a campaign to obtain the release of all those being persecuted for their convictions in different countries — the Spanish Basques, Brazilian and Greek democrats and Soviet fighters for legality. In addition to Shostakovich, the appeal called on others active in the cultural field to support the Soviet Action Group for the Defence of Civil Rights, to defend the Ukrainian historian Valentin Moroz, Yu. Galanskov, P, Grigorenko, I. Gabai and the Tatar scientist Rollan Kadyev, all of whom had been sentenced for their convictions. In seeking to obtain their release, people active in culture and the arts would at the same time be defending their own rights, as granted to them by the Constitution of the USSR.

On the same day, 18 January, leaflets were distributed in Athens with the text of an open letter from the same Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Flemish and Italian committees for the defence of civil liberties, addressed to the head of the Greek government and demanding that Mikis Theodorakis and other Greek democrats be released, and that the rule of law be restored in Greece.

A few minutes after they began scattering their leaflets G. Ghenjseth in the Leningrad DLT, V. Tacchi and T. Marinuzzi in TsUM and V. van Brantegem in the Operetta Theatre were arrested . They were all charged with malicious hooliganism.

At the trial of Victor van Brantegem the witness Malov testified that he had started to search Brantegem’s pockets for the key to the handcuffs, in order to open them and at the same time save Brantegem from the crowd, which had started beating him up. The other witnesses expressed their indignation either at the act itself, or at the content of the leaflet. (“I saw the word ‘freedom’ – and knew it meant some kind of provocation.”)

Van Brantegem is the son of a chef, and a student of the faculty of law. He is twenty-three years old. He stated in court that he had come to the USSR at the suggestion of one of the members of the Flemish Catholic Students’ Union, Roger de Bie and at the expense of the organisation, for the express purpose of distributing leaflets, as their content corresponded to his own convictions. He pleaded not guilty to malicious hooliganism, maintaining that the distribution of leaflets was not an offence in his country, and furthermore should not, in his opinion, be an offence in the Soviet Union, in accordance with Article 125 of the Soviet Constitution [1]. In answer to the question from the procurator Beregova, whether he would have come to distribute leaflets if he had known he would be arrested, Brantegem answered that he probably would have acted in the same way.

The judges in Leningrad and Moscow found G. Ghenjseth, V. Tacchi and T. Marinuzzi, and V. van Brantegem guilty of malicious breaches of public order, and sentenced them to one year’s imprisonment each. Later all of them were deported from the USSR to their own countries.