The Victims of Communism Foundation's Blog

Homeland is Freedom: The Life and Work of Mihajlo Mihajlov

Homeland is Freedom: The Life and Work of Mihajlo Mihajlov

Mihajlo Mihajlov was not a dissident from the communist movement, an outcast from the Communist Party, or a man who was destroyed in the purges as were the majority of the victims of Josip Broz Tito’s regime. With his bold intellectual resistance to communist totalitarianism, he was closer to an Eastern European dissident than to the “professional” dissidents in Yugoslavia that enjoyed state wages and pensions by serving as a façade of liberal communism. As a non-compromised fighter, he unjustly remained in the shadow of the much better known dissident Milovan Djilas—a former senior Communist Party official who, for political reasons, constantly captured the attention of the international community.

Authority and Protest

Mihajlov admitted he was not a rebel. Instead, it was public criticism that forced him into the dissident movement, leading him to invoke in his defense the Constitution, law, and international legal documents signed by Yugoslavia. While most people’s criticism of the regime was moderate (for the sake of social status and personal peace, or personal beliefs that were not substantially different from the official ideology), his rebellious actions were unreserved, consistent, and advocated with firm principles and ideals.

Mihajlov was first prosecuted on April 30, 1965 while he was an assistant professor of Russian literature at the University of Zadar for publishing an essay on the USSR’s camps for dissidents. He was sentenced to five months in prison and a two-year probation for verbal and thought delict—in fact, for his radical critique of the communist ideology.

It all began in the summer of 1964 when, as an expert on Russia and a professor of Slavic studies, he visited Moscow for the first with a Soviet-Yugoslav cultural exchange program. He spent a month as a guest of Moscow State University. He was well received by local writers, and he nearly managed to get an interview with Nikita Khrushchev, whose book—In the Tradition of Pisarev—he had criticized. The interview fell through because the Yugoslavian embassy opposed the meeting and Khrushchev’s ouster was imminent. However, the event inspired Mihajlov to write the travelogue-journal Moscow Summer 1964.

Soon after his return from Moscow in September, Mihajlov began writing the journal, completing it in October, just as Khrushchev was removed and the “re-Stalinization” of Brezhnev began. The following year, Mihajlov was charged and sentenced to several months in jail for publishing it. On his first arrest Mihajlov said:

Puzanov Soviet Ambassador to Yugoslavia had protested to Tito about the articles for slandering the Soviet Union. There was nothing subversive in the travelogue-journal Moscow Summer 1964. I think it bothered them that over many years in my articles I have been in support of the Khrushchev’s liberalization. This must have bothered them. Even a month before I went to the USSR the “Forum” magazine in Zagreb published my article on Solzhenitsyn and nobody bothered. The only thing I wrote earlier in the Yugoslav press was the first mention of the Soviet concentration camp in Arkhangelsk in 1921. On the first ten pages of the second volume of the ‘Gulag Archipelago’, Solzhenitsyn refers to my writing by saying: ‘Mihajlov was wrong! The camp near Arkhangelsk was established in 1919 not the 1921. It was the first concentration camp used to incarcerate political prisoners.’ Hence, Ambassador Puzanov protested to Tito who quickly calculated that it was an opportune time to get closer to the Soviets.” (Stavric, 2001)

In the book, Mihajlov gave a detailed review of the Russian “alternative scene”; he wrote about poets, painters, musicians, scientists and philosophers. He studied, collected, translated, recorded, and published poems and anecdotes of prisoners and dissidents, including those of Bulat Okudzhava.

After the publication of the second installment of the Moscow Summer 1964 in the Belgrade literary monthly Delo, and the publishing of Tito’s speeches to public persecutors on March 4, Mihajlov was arrested and convicted. He was arrested while preparing to send around 108 copies of his letters and responses to Rista Tošović, chief editor of NIN [Weekly Illustrated Newspaper]. The letters were his fierce response to the editor’s commissioned attacks on him ((Archives of Yugoslavia, Letter of M.Mihajlov to Risto Tošović editor of NIN-a, 1965).

Tito reacted by condemning Mihajlov’s articles as “a new form of Dijlasism.” He stated, “Did you see what happened in connection to those articles in the Delo? The public prosecutor should have immediately banned then and started an investigation against the person who wrote them raising charges against him for his reactionary activities and slandering a great idea—the October Revolution.” (US Helsinki Watch Committee, 1982:20-21).

In the report to the President’s cabinet, there was an assessment of Mihajlov’s case that made its way into Western press, particularly in the US, Germany, and France. The report insinuated that Mihaljov’s views were also the governments, otherwise they would not have been published. The report also mentioned how the Communist Party banned the magazine, how the author was prosecuted, and how the “commissioned criticism” of the Communist and other popular magazines, such as NIN and Politika, painted a picture of how the regime dealt with its opponents in the world of culture. There were also extensive citations from the incriminating articles that criticized the Soviet reality, the policy of rehabilitation, the Gulags and camps of political opponents, referring to them as “a Soviet invention.”

Mihajlov was charged in February 1965 for “committing sacrilege—challenging and criticizing, in his travelogue Moscow Summer 1964, the untouchable leader Lenin.” The third installment of the travelogue did not appear in the March issue of the Delo, in which the editor Muharem Pervić apologized to readers for the editorial faux pas. Tito’s criticism had an immediate effect: prosecutors laid charged against Mihajlov and banned the magazine. After the ban of the Delo and Mihajlov’s arrest, a storm of protest arose from from the Western press. They condemned Mihajlov’s arbitrary arrest, claiming that it followed the intervention by the Russian Ambassador on the Djilas conviction. The condemnations came mostly from the US media. The French Le Figaro, in a modest comment, quoted Mihajlov’s alleged ironic statement that he enjoyed his “forced vacation” which gave him time to complete his doctoral thesis (AJ, Foreign press on Mihajlo Mihajlov case, 1965).

The protest of Ambassador Puzanov in Mihajlov’s case is a clear example of the direct influence the head of state and the Party had on the police and the judiciary. Mihajlov was immediately arrested and detained. However, after only 37 days in jail, he was released on bail to defend himself. He was tried in the Zadar District Court for “damaging the reputation of a foreign state—the USSR—and for disseminating “hostile propaganda.” He was convicted and sentenced to nine months in prison. However, in June of 1965 PEN Club was to hold a congress for the first time in the communist country. The secretary of PEN at the time, the playwright Arthur Miller, came to Mihajlov’s defense. In a personal letter to Tito, Miller recognized Tito for his merits as a leader and called for Mihajlov’s release by arguing that his arrest for possessing a different opinion was a mistake. If Mihajlov was not soon released, Miller stated, the congress would be cancelled. (Archives Yugoslavia, Arthur Miller’s letter to J.B.Tito, 1965). Ten days before the Congress convened and the chaos caused by the articles settled down, the Supreme Court of Croatia suspended Mihajlov’s five-month prison sentence and instead he was given a 2-year probation. However, Mihajlov lost his job at the university. His colleagues were eager to show loyalty to the authorities and expelled him from work. His citizenship was revoked. He was forbidden from publishing and became a real social outcast. However, internationally, Mihajlov became an instant celebrity. His travelogue Moscow Summer was sought after and translated into many languages.