Yugoslavia’s Past

Robert Kee

The story runs that the reason Tito lived so long in his last illness was that no one in the Presidential Council dared be the first to suggest that the various life-supporting machines should be switched off. Maybe in the end someone dared. Or maybe Tito, whose body in life had done so much to reconcile the politically irreconcilable in Yugoslavia, performed its final patriotic service in death.

Apocryphal or not, the story is a useful reminder of one of the realities of Yugoslavia easily forgotten when it is its freedom from the ugly rigour of the rest of the Communist world which catches the eye. This is a state in which a Communist Party which once subscribed to the dogmatic terror of the Comintern as rigidly as any party in Europe is still techncially the most powerful force. For all the Party’s conversion from dogma to pragmatism through painful experience, it still retains some myopic ambivalence towards its earliest past. The deadening effect of the jargon in which the heretical doctrine of ‘self-management’ is often formulated by aging exponents of a former orthodoxy is not wholly eradicated by the considerable success of the policy in practice. Yugoslavia’s finest writer, the former Party hard-liner Milovan Djilas, though free to attend and talk at dinner parties in Belgrade, is still an official unperson, and the present reviewer has seen even him draw a small old revolver from his desk and stroke it with a sort of ghostly nostalgia. Tito went to his plain tomb to the strains of the ‘Internationale’.

It is an unheralded bonus of these uniquely important diaries of Tito’s ambassador to Moscow In the Fifties that, white affording a fascinating and historically invaluable insight into the mind and personality of Khrushchev himself and into the whole character of the Kremlin power structure during those years, they also serve as an incidental reminder of the existence of this Yugoslav psychological double-speak. Contemplating the difficulties of the task before him on his appointment to Moscow after ten years’ work in Belgrade on Yugoslav-Soviet relations (for part of which time the Yugoslavs were dutifully conformist), Micunovic comments: ‘Here I have been a member of an enormous Yugoslav collective which in the nature of things enables the individual to display the greatest political initiative while at the same time guarding him against making major political mistakes in his work.’ The incompatibility between ‘the greatest individual political initiative’ and some overriding political super-ego which knows a political mistake when it spies it seems unperceived. Similarly, Micunovic praises the internal plurality of the Yugoslav party just because it makes it ‘practically impossible for anyone to get “out of line” ’. Though the book is full of the most subtle insights into Khrushchev and other Kremlin leaders, there is not even a suggestion that it might be possible to have insights into Tito, and there are none.

It is, of course, this very inbuilt psychological ambivalence of the old-guard Yugoslav Communist when exposed to the Soviet Union that gives these diaries their sharpness. There is a flavour of gamekeeper turned poacher. As a Montenegrin, Micunovic was emotionally conditioned to look to Russia with affection in any case; as a Marxist, he went to the Soviet Union in fulfilment of ‘my life’s ambition, my most cherished dream’. Yet with the long quarrel between Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union since 1948 also conditioning his mind, the scales were able to fall from his eyes with a particularly resounding thud.

On his very first landing at Lvov he manages to be struck by the disturbing thought that the line of the Polish-Soviet frontier he has just crossed in fact owes its existence to the Soviet Union’s acquiescence in the war plans of Hitler. Dealing with the problems imposed by bugging devices in his embassy is one of his first concerns (19 microphones had been found there just before his arrival), and it is not long before he discovers that the quickest way for himself and his wife to get an additional blanket for their bed, when on official travels with a Soviet guide, is to mention to each other in the middle of the night that they are cold. On one occasion he has to hold a bizarre conference in whispers in a candle-lit corridor of the embassy, though he is never subjected to anything so crude as the device reported to him by a colleague from Sofia who had a ceiling-thumping machine installed by the Bulgarian secret police on the floor of the apartment above him: it was designed to drive him mad by striking once every ten seconds 24 hours a day. They succeeded to the extent of making him stand on a chair and thump back, even though he knew perfectly well there was no one there.

When Tito first sent Micunovic to Moscow, he told him neither to quarrel with the Russians nor to give way to them, and when Micunovic said that not giving way to people usually led to a quarrel, Tito replied that that was precisely why they were sending him. The choice was one for which not only Yugoslavs but historians owe the great man a great debt. Clearly there was something so subtly attractive about Micunovic’s personality and intellect that it enabled him to walk that particular political tightrope with a skill on which, before long, the Kremlin leaders, but especially Khrushchev, developed a strange sort of dependence of their own.

The suggestion comes up at one point in these diaries that the continuously intimate conversations Khrushchev had with Micunovic may have been part of a design to convince the West that relations between the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia were much better than they really were. Refuting this, Khrushchev himself insists that they are simply part of his design to put things between the two countries right. But what the record seems to show here is that even more important was Khrushchev’s need for some confidant onto whom he could unload the personal tensions of power within the Central Committee.

The marvellous set-pieces of this book are the fly-on-the-Kremlin-wall revelations thus available on the Hungarian, and to a lesser extent the Polish, crises of 1956, and on the expulsion of the Malenkov-Bulganin-Molotov anti-party group in June 1957. But the revelations as to the general nature of the regime, and in particular those contradictions and confusions within a Kremlin which too often appears to the West as opaquely monolithic, are no less interesting. Something at least about the present Soviet Union becomes clarified by the appreciation here of what Khrushchev really meant by his denunciation of Stalin and of how he never intended it to be turned into ‘anti-Stalinism’. Nine months after his secret 20th Party Congress speech, he is declaring that to be called a ‘Stalinist can only be for all of us a term of praise and approval’.

It should be mentioned that there are other aspects of the book which make for no more than a routine read. ‘One always hopes,’ runs one passage, ‘that the New Year is going to be better than the old one, which is why one greets it in a good mood and with hope.’ And of a letter Micunovic sends to ‘Comrade Tito’ he writes: ‘it was so long and I had no time to shorten it, because its contents were such that I couldn’t have decided what to leave in and what to cut out of it.’ But you can’t have a book from a faithful member of a totalitarian party (even the Yugoslav Communist Party) and find everything enchanting. The translation is excellent.