Monday, December 07, 2015

Rise and Fall

Yugoslavia did not play a large role in my life until I came to Sarajevo for work.  I was too young, really, for the 1984 Olympics to mean anything.  I vaguely remember the old, small, black-and-white television showing ice skating competitions from the games.  Later, I learned that Yugoslavia was part of the Communist bloc.  Beyond that, I knew nothing of it and heard nothing of it until the 1990s, when it all, quite literally, blew up.  War, ethnic cleansing, and genocide are probably not what the peoples of this Balkan region wanted to have help them get on the map, so to speak, but it did.  There has been no shooting here for twenty years, but when people learn that I am working in Sarajevo, 90% of the time, they ask about the war and if that makes it a problem to live, work, and play in Sarajevo.  The effects, of course, do, but the war, of course, does not.

Book cover.Rise and Fall by Milovan Djilas (ISBN: 0-15-177572-9) provides one man’s (Djilas (Đilas) himself) view of the Communist rise to power in Yugoslavia.  Since he was one of Tito’s closest aides and advisors, he provides an inside perspective that is largely unrivaled.  He also chronicles what he considers the falling away of the Yugoslav Communists from their revolutionary ideals.  As he comes to realize that Communism, as implemented in Yugoslavia, isn’t what was promised, he becomes disillusioned with it, enough so that he published material critical of Tito and the Communists, leading to nine years as a political prisoner.  Djilas covers a lot of ground in a little over 400 pages.  He gives a short account of the wartime Communists, but mostly focuses on life under Tito after the war.  He talks about foreign relations, internal politics, bizarre Communist Party perks like special stores for the elite party members, the cult of personality surrounding Tito, and the oppressive nature of a totalitarian or dictatorial political system.  Interestingly, Djilas’s falling out was not with Communism; it was with what Communism had developed into in Yugoslavia.  The reader even gets a small glimpse into Djilas’s personal life as he discusses his marriages.  Finally, the totalitarian oppression claims the once high-ranking government official and he spends almost a decade as a prisoner because of his ideas, not necessarily even that radical.

If one wants to study Yugoslav history at all, this is likely not the appropriate place to start.  Djilas made his name in the West because he was considered a dissident in a system that the West saw as inherently evil (rightly so) even though he was not proposing anything radical and certainly not a departure from Communism.  While that contributes to my thinking that Djilas was not the best person to take up as any kind of symbol or hero of the opposition in Yugoslavia, that is what happened, and this book is one of the results.  It assumes a certain level of familiarity with the history of Yugoslavia, which, if one lacks, results in a rather dry read in places.  On the other hand, the intimate insider view of things is appreciated and unique.  I found his discussion of Yugoslavia’s short-lived falling out with Russia fascinating.  Many modern Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians paint Yugoslavia as different from many of the other Eastern bloc countries for a few different reasons.  One of those reasons, they proudly proclaim, is that they weren’t just a puppet state of the U.S.S.R., like the Warsaw Pact nations.  Reading Djilas’s take, Yugoslavia towed the line set by Moscow as much as it could, so things really weren’t that different.  Those types of insights made for an interesting read.

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This work, including all text, photographs, and other original work, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives 3.0 License and is copyrighted © MMXIV John Pruess.

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