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Front Page May 10, 2002  RSS feed

Mihajlo Mihajlov — A Dissident's Life

By Carol M. Whitney

Carol M. Whitney is executive director of the Lydia Whitney Foundation, Inc., a nonprofit organization founded in 1997 to promote Eastern European composers' classical music and American modern layered art. In a previous article, she wrote of the recent visit to Connecticut of Russian cultural expert Maria Ivusic and her husband, Christopher, a retired journalist. Maria Ivusic is the sister of writer Mihajlo Mihajlov, the foremost dissident in Yugoslavia in the 1960s and 1970s.

Mihajlo Mihajlov is author of Moscow Summer 1964, Russian Themes, Underground Notes and Unscientific Thoughts. He was born in Yugoslavia of Russian parents. In 1964 he went to Moscow as a lecturer specializing in Russian literature as it was taught in Yugoslavian universities. Because his parents were Russian, he was able to see and meet many interesting, influential and politically important literary figures in Moscow.

It was when he came back from Russia to Belgrade, Yugoslavia that he wrote his travelogue Moscow Summer 1964. He wrote about interviews with Muscovite writers, journalists and artists, but what pegged him as a dissident and caused him great trouble was his statement that Lenin had organized political labor camps long before Hitler did.

This remark was sufficient for the Soviet ambassador in Yugoslavia to complain to Joseph Tito, and "Misha"—as his sister Maria fondly calls her brother—was arrested in Yugoslavia, where he was assistant professor at Zadai University, on the Adriatic coast. "He is a warrior for freedom," states Maria, who was her brother's staunchest defender through his seven-year imprisonment and to this day.

During her recent visit to Connecticut, Maria elaborated on her brother's imprisonment. Tito had condemned Mihajlov publicly in his speeches until Mihajlov was treated like "public enemy number one." He was in prison in different areas and sometimes under very harsh conditions. Some cells, Maria explained, were so cold they were below freezing, and prisoners had no clothing; it was not unusual for political prisoners to die under such conditions. When Mihajlov asked for a Bible, fearing he was dying, the guards refused—with the justification that if they gave him a Bible, then someone else would want something too, and they could not be giving all these different things to prisoners.

Mihajlov survived. He began a long hunger strike, publicized through Amnesty International, for his right to work, to read and to write what he knew of Yugoslavian political truth. His hunger strike and seven years in prison were of great significance in those days, because such protests brought global attention to the issue of humane treatment for all prisoners, and especially for those who had exposed political problems.

During those years it was Mihajlov's sister, Maria, who petitioned tirelessly for his release. The world was supportive of Mihajlov and he became well known in both Eastern and Western circles. The number one dissident in the Soviet Union, Andrei Sakharov, was of the opinion that Mihajlov should be given the Nobel Peace Prize for his stance on political freedom. Mihajlov received a letter of commendation from Senator Bob Dole, who went to Yugoslavia to speak to Tito for his release.

Mihajlov was given amnesty by Tito in 1977 and came to America in 1978. Prince Charles of England also took an interest in Mihajlov's case, met with him several times, and corresponded with him.

Mihajlov is an important dissident voice because he understands the clash of existing ethnic groups. He foresaw political developments which others ignored and predicted the bloodbath in Bosnia following Tito's death. His reasonable assessment of the situation attracted interested parties such as author and playwright Arthur Miller.

Mihajlov has spent over 20 years in America teaching and lecturing at universities such as the University of Virginia, Ohio State University, and most recently at George Washington University, where he is highly regarded for his consulting work for their department of foreign affairs. He speaks and lectures around the world.

Last year he returned to Belgrade, where he has been forgiven his dissidence now that Yugoslavia is more liberal. He has taken on an important instructive role for Yugoslavian leadership as he gives interviews on television there and writes for publication about political, philosophical, and literary matters.

I met Mihajlo Mihajlov in Washington, DC in the summer of 1998 and found him to be an energetic man of great vitality, his eyes full of enthusiasm. He wore a full beard, neatly trimmed, and bore himself in a straight-forward fashion, holding himself to his full height. Like his diminutive sister whose petite stature is offset by assertive speech, he is a figure who is compelling to listen to. What I found most fascinating is the idea that he considers himself an "ordinary literate citizen," who found it necessary to speak out against concealment of truth by Tito's government. He continues to be an example to others: someone who speaks and teaches what is true and what concerns Yugoslavia.