LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 25, No.2 - Summer 1979
Editor of this issue: V. Stanley Vardys
Copyright © 1979 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
THE CASE OF THE LITHUANIAN HELSINKI GROUP LEADER VIKTORAS PETKUSSoviet suppression of any attempts at freer expression in Lithuania continues unabated and, if anything, has further increased, despite the signature Leonid Brezhnev affixed to the Helsinki international agreement that guaranteed, among other matters, protection of civil rights. While massive deportations are no longer fashionable as they were in Stalin's day, the Kremlin has used individual arrests, inquests, trials and peer pressure, especially at working places and particularly in the literary field, to keep in line any possible or actual deviationists. Thus, after the trials of priests and lay people in 1970-71 which sent them to prison for teaching religion to children (1) there followed the trial of selected workers and students (the masses were too large to all be tried) who in 1972 mourned the self-immolation of Romas Kalanta by a march of thousands through the main thoroughfare of the city of Kaunas, chanting "freedom for Lithuania." (2) Then came the trial of "ethnographists," that is, young Lithuanian students of folklore and local history. (3) Next the regime held a little noticed trial of two men accused of clandestinely duplicating Catholic prayerbooks. (4) This went on almost hand in hand with four trials of the supporters of the underground Chronicle of the Catholic Church of Lithuania who had duplicated and distributed this oldest Lithuanian samizdat publication (5) (despite these arrests, the Chronicle continued periodic publication and since then has been joined in by half a dozen other samizdat periodicals (6)). During the same time span, the rulers unleashed their anger and frustration against several intellectuals and literary figures, accusing them of heresies in their writings or actions. These representatives of the intelligentsia were not put on trial; however, the Kremlin chose to remove them from positions to confine them to psychiatric hospitals, thus driving at least one of them to death, (7) to publicly criticize them, and at least in one case, to require a public confession of sins in a Stalinist style. (8) The accused man redeemed himself by publishing a denunciation of his own truth and by apologizing to insulted bureaucrats who persecuted him.
In 1978, the court in Vilnius sentenced Balys Gajauskas, connected with Alexander Ginzburg, a Russian dissident writer, and with Solzhenitzyn's foundation for aid to political prisoners. Amnesty International declared Gajauskasan alumnus of twenty-five years of Gulag camps where he suffered for participating, as a very young man, in the post-war Lithuanian guerilla movement prisoner of conscience in October, 1978.
But even before this month arrived, Lithuania witnessed still another trial which was recorded in a long and vulgar article of the Communist party's Tiesa. This was the case of Viktoras Petkus, tried before the Supreme Court of the Lithuanian republic.
Who is Viktoras Petkus? Until then virtually unknown though prominent in dissident circles, Petkus was associated with the Catholic dissident movement and with the Lithuanian Helsinki group which monitored Moscow's compliance with the civil rights provisions of the Helsinki agreement of 1976. Arrested on August 28, 1977, and illegally held for many months, he was tried on July 10-13, 1978, that is, at the same time as Anatolii Shcharanski in Moscow and Alexander Ginzburg in Kaluga, Russia. This threefold eventShcharanski's trial on espionage charges, Ginzburg's punishment for administering Solzhenitzyn's aid fund and Petkus' condemnation for his work with the Lithuanian Helsinki group has been reproved by Western press and statesmen, including West German Chancellor Helmut Schmid who singled out Petkus, and our own President Jimmy Carter, though many of the American Catholic publications and congregations, it is sad to say, still have to discover the case of their co-religionist.
The Lithuanian Helsinki group, however, is not exclusively Catholic, but composed of Lithuanian believers and unbelievers; Lithuania's minorites in the group are represented by a Jewish scholar. Its purpose is to monitor Soviet compliance to the Helsinki agreements. The group subscribes to the philosophy or rights very akin if not identical with that of Academician Andrei Sakharov who for years has maintained close ties with Lithuanian dissidents, including, apparently, Petkus himself. Sakharov came to the trial of Sergei Kovalev who was sentenced in Vilnius in 1975 for editing Moscow's Chronicle of Current Events and for aiding Lithuanian dissidents. In 1978, Tatiana Velikanova, a representative of the Moscow Helsinki group, tried but was forbidden to attend the trial of Petkus. The Lithuanian group took up cases of non-Catholic believers as well as of other than Lithuanian nationalities. Created in November of 1976, the group has published twelve documents exposing Soviet violations of civil rights which include a long statement on the condition of the Catholic church. Among the documents that reached the West, there also was the, in the West rarely available, Russian text of the new Soviet Lithuanian law on religious associations (translated in Lituanus, Vol. 25, No. 1, pp. 61-72). In 1977, the Soviets moved in force against this and other Helsinki groups. First to be eliminated was the Moscow committee and Iuri Orlov, a Russian scientist, who had organized it. Then the KGB, with the compliance of Soviet courts, destroyed the Ukrainian, Georgian and Armenian monitoring groups. Hitting the Lithuanians, the Kremlin chose to break Petkus, the leader.
For Petkus, participation in the Helsinki group represented a high point of his life-long struggle for individual and national freedom. In 1947, still a high school student, he was arrested for organizing a Catholic youth group "Ateitis" (Future). Sentenced to ten years of hard labor, he was nevertheless released in 1953 as a result of a post-Stalinist amnesty. He was, however, rearrested in 1957 for distributing "anti-Soviet propaganda" which consisted of religious-philosophical works published before World War II by authors who at the end of this war had chosen "to vote with their feet," that is, to leave Lithuania for the West. This second time he was sentenced to eight years which he suffered in full. Between and after prisons he was able to graduate from Vilnius University, majoring in Lithuanian literature. Considered a competent literary historian (the 1978 PEN conference in Stockholm listed him among imprisoned writers), he could never get work in his speciality but had to earn a living by working as a hospital attendant, a church sexton or just a blue collar employee.
At the trial, Petkus was charged with the violation of the notorious articles 68 and 70 of the Criminal code that punish "defamation" of the Soviet state and social system. As it came out during the court proceedings, the government regarded as slanderous Petkus' activities as member of the Helsinki group and also accused him of organizing the National Movement of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Latvian and Estonian witnesses were brought in from Riga, Tartu and other cities, and a deposition by a Latvian witness who was already allowed to emigrate was permitted into the record of the court. In addition, to compromise his personality, the KGB "organized" against him charges of homosexuality. The witness, a young soldier who incriminated Petkus, in tears told Petkus' friends during the second day of the trial that he was forced to sign charges when drunk and that he did not have enough strength to deny them after sobering up. Seduction is supposed to have occurred in 1973. If this were the case, Petkus could have been long ago removed from the dissident scene on criminal charges. Petkus himself refused to cooperate with the court, did not answer any questions and had to be forcibly brought into the courtroom. Called by witnesses, the other members of the Lithuanian Helsinki group declined to act in this capacity. Mrs. O. Lukauskaitė-Poškienė, a poet, denied Petkus' guilt and refused to answer any further questions. Father Karolis Garuckas, a Jesuit priest, and Eitanas Finkelšteinas, a doctor of sciences, refused to function as witnesses and instead offered to share the charges of guilt against Petkus. Finkelšteinas refused to attend the trial altogether. (The remaining member of the group, Tomas Venclova, a poet, had been allowed to go to the West in January of 1977 and was stripped of Soviet citizenship in June of the same year.)
By these rigged indictments and proceedings, Petkus was sentenced to three years of prison plus seven years of hard labor and an additional five years of exile. That is a total of 15 years, a term harsher than the one imposed on Ginzburg or even Shcharanski. Whatever the formal charges, Petkus actually was punished for monitoring the government's internationally pledged implementation of civil rights, for seeking to establish permanent contacts with Baltic dissidents, and for organizing young people into reading circles for the study of religious beliefs and of national Lithuanian history. (See Documents, pp. 68-75 of this issue of Lituanus). The militarily powerful Soviet rulers again showed themselves afraid of a few pages of frankly but politely written words and of discussions of government behavior by their own young people. Some of those young people who publicly protested the government's persecution of Petkus, were as a result thrown out of schools, thus forever losing academic educational opportunities.
After the arrest, Petkus was sent to the notorious Vladimir prison. About half a year ago he was transferred to Chistopol prison in the Tatar republic on the Volga river. His new address is 422950 Tatarskaia ASSR, g. Chistopol E-148 st-4.
Since he was sentenced and arrested for monitoring information on Soviet government's compliance with a public international agreement signed both by the Soviet Union and the United States, Viktoras Petkus should not have been sentenced in the first place, and now he should be entitled to help from Washington and other signatory powers. Only aid from the West rendered in form of appeals and publicity can help Petkus' release. The Soviets are known to respond to such appeals and publicity. American Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians, American Catholics and all people of good will who support the struggle for civil rights in the Soviet Union have an opportunity to express an interest in Petkus' freedom by writing to him in prison. While most letters from abroad will not reach him, these letters, nevertheless will register for the Soviet government Western interest in Petkus fate. Letters to Petkus may be sent either to prison at the above indicated address or to: Viktoras Petkus, Moskva J. J., 5110-I-UE.
On April 28, 1979, after this short essay was already set to type, the news came of the American-Soviet exchange of two Soviet citizens convicted of spying in the United States for five Soviet political prisoners held in camps on various charges usually applied to Soviet dissidents. The five liberated prisoners were: Mark Dymshits, Alexander Ginzburg, Edward Kuznetsov, Valentin Moroz, and Georgii Vins. American Catholic leadership and American Lithuanian community apparently need to double their efforts to be heard mainly in Moscow but also in Washington to help the release of Helsinki group leader Viktoras Petkus. We salute those who reached freedom on April 28
1 Rev. Antanas Šeškevičius, Rev. Juozas Zdebskis, Rev. Prosperas Bubnys, Ms. Kleopą Bičiučaitė.
2 Vytautas Kaladė, age of 25; A. Kačinskas, 24; R. Baužys, 18; V. Žmuida, 24; J. Macijauskas, 19; V. Urbonavičiūtė, minor; J. Prapuolenis, 21; V. Truškauskas, (?).
3 Dr. Izidorius Rudaitis, Šarūnas Žukauskas, Antanas Sakalauskas, Vidmantas Povilonis, Antanas Mackevičius.
4 Boleslovas Kulikauskas, J. Ivanauskas.
5 Petras Pluira-Plumpa, Povilas Petronis, Jonas Stašaitis, Virgilijus Jaugelis, A. Patriubavičius, Juozas Gražys, Nijolė Sadūnaitė, Jonas Matulionis, Vladas Lapienis, Ona Pranckūnaitė; Russian scientist Sergei Kovalev.
6 Aušra (The Dawn) Aušrelė (Little Dawn) Dievas ir tėvynė (God and Fatherland), Laisvės šauklys (Herald of Freedom), Tiesos Kelias (Way of the Truth), Perspektyvos (The Perspectives), Varpas (The Bell, liquidated), and others.
7 Mindaugas Tamonis. Under suspicious circumstances, the internationally known Baltic linguist Professor Jonas Kazlauskas mysteriously perished in the river Neris.
8 Further see V. Stanley Vardys, The Catholic Church, Dissent and Nationality in Soviet Lithuania (Boulder/New York: East European Quarterly/Distributed by Columbia University Press, 1978), pp. 172-179.