Sunday, March 7, 2010

Mihajlo Mihajlov (1934-2010)

There's sad news from Belgrade tonight: Author and dissident Mihajlo Mijhajlov is dead at the age of 76.

I got to know Mihajlov a few years ago on a visit to Belgrade. Other than forcing Russian horseradish vodka on me, he was a wonderful host.

His book, Moscow Summer, was an instant sensation. It holds up terrifically even today. It also set him on a collision course with the Yugoslav establishment.

I wrote a profile of Mihajlov for The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2007. It's behind a paywall, but I've cut and pasted it below for the interested parties who read this blog:

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The Path of Most Resistance

Mihajlo Mihajlov rose to international prominence as a dissident in Yugoslavia in the 1960s and 1970s, but Russia and its literature remain at the heart of the 73-year-old thinker's life and work.

"He sees himself as a Russian," says Myron Kolatch, editor of The New Leader, an influential labor magazine that helped make Mr. Mihajlov famous. "He is thoroughly embedded in Russian culture."

That Russophilia extends to hospitality. On a recent visit here, Mr. Mihajlov served homemade horseradish vodka (to be downed in one fiery gulp) and puffed contentedly on stalinki, small, filterless cigarettes from Herzegovina, which were, he says, the preferred tobacco of Stalin. When I confessed that I don't speak Russian, Mr. Mihajlov and his other guests, all Russian speakers, pointedly wondered aloud why I had chosen to learn Serbian instead.

Mr. Mihajlov's parents emigrated after the Russian Revolution, eventually settling in Belgrade. He grew up speaking Russian fluently.

Russia also helped drive him into the role of dissident. In late 1964, as a junior professor of Slavic languages and literature at the University of Zagreb's campus in the Croatian city of Zadar, Mr. Mihajlov wrote a three-part travelogue for the Yugoslav magazine Delo about his trip to the Soviet Union that summer.

The first part — a slyly acidic survey of the Soviet literary scene — was published in January 1965 without incident. But the second part, published the following month, sparked an indignant protest from the Soviet Union's ambassador to Yugoslavia. The reason? Mr. Mihajlov's startling assertion that "the first 'death camps' were not founded by the Germans, but by the Soviets."

At that time, President Josip Broz Tito was steering his nonaligned Communist country between East and West during the cold war. He took a stern line against Mr. Mihajlov, confiscating the magazine and attacking him by name in a speech. The professor was arrested and tried for "slandering a foreign state" and on other charges. He was found guilty and sentenced to nine months in prison.

In an e-mail message after his visit to Washington, Mr. Mihajlov recalls himself as a "young and impudent man" who inadvertently published the pieces at a key moment in Soviet politics — the sudden end of the thaw begun by Premier Nikita Khrushchev. "In my book, I wrote very positively about Khrushchev's 'liberalization.' But it so happened that Khrushchev was, in October 1964, overthrown by a triumvirate — [Leonid] Brezhnev, [Aleksey] Kosygin, and [Nikolai] Podgorny — who immediately started "restalinization." Of course, I could not know that this would happen, and that my text would provoke such a political storm."

As Mr. Mihajlov pondered his imminent loss of freedom, his work took a different path, making its way into the Western press. His travelogue appeared in The New Leader in March 1965. It was published as a book, Moscow Summer, by Farrar, Straus & Giroux that same year.

The writer's case became an instant cause célèbre. Editorials were written. Literary figures, including the playwright Arthur Miller, came to his defense. In June 1965, the Yugoslav government suspended his sentence.

But that first brush with the law — which cost him his job and prevented him from formally obtaining his Ph.D. — "spiritually liberated" him, he says. He was arrested again, in 1966, for attempting to start an independent magazine, and sentenced to three and a half years in prison.

Mr. Mihajlov served that full sentence and was imprisoned again, in 1974, after yet another personal attack by Tito. Once again his case became a rallying cry. The trial and his prison hunger strikes received worldwide coverage. The Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov nominated Mr. Mihajlov for the Nobel Peace Prize. His work was cited by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago.

Tito's personal interest in Mr. Mihajlov had one unexpected effect. "The fact that I was attacked personally by President Tito, and then arrested after his attack on me, protected me through almost seven years of prison," the scholar writes in response to an e-mailed question. "If I had been arrested on the initiative of the local secret police, I would for sure have been severely beaten and maybe tortured. But who could dare to do this with 'Tito's prisoner?' … So, paradoxically, his attacks on me were also my best protection."

Much of Mr. Mihajlov's later work is concerned with spirituality, a faith reinforced by his spells in prison. In choosing that path, he has followed a long line of 20th-century dissidents, including Solzhenitsyn and the Polish poet Aleksander Wat.

While in prison, Mr. Mihajlov wrote a book of aphorisms called Unscientific Thoughts — as yet unpublished in English — that he smuggled out in letters to his family. "The important thing is not to build heaven on earth, but to discover it," he wrote. "Heaven already exists and doesn't need our help."

In late 1977, quite unexpectedly, Mr. Mihajlov was released. The Yugoslav authorities allowed him to emigrate in May 1978. He came here to Washington, where his sister lives, and was pressed into a lecture tour that took him to colleges all over the United States. On his recent visit, after a few hours of vodka, cigarettes, and talk, I asked him what first impressions of America he had gleaned from that tour.

"It all looked the same," he said with a sigh, before growing silent.

Mr. Mihajlov was more expansive in a later message, writing that "I traveled for almost two months from university to university, visiting about 30 states. Unfortunately, I did not see too much, in fact, only airports, hotels, university halls, and some professors' houses."

His nomadic life continued after the lecture tour. Banned from Yugoslavia, he took a string of visiting professorships through the late 1970s and early 80s, including stints at the University of Virginia, Ohio State University, and the University of Glasgow. He also worked for a time as an analyst for Radio Free Europe and held a fellowship at the Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University.

After Tito died, in 1980, Mr. Mihajlov's opinions on Yugoslavia's future were highly sought after. Already the former dissident had struck a pessimistic — and prescient — note, telling Newsweek in 1978 that there would be a "bloodbath" after the longtime leader's death.

Looking back, Mr. Mihajlov writes that "it was natural to come to the conclusion that after the departure of Tito, the illness of nationalism would blow up if democratization did not occur. Of course, I am not a prophet like Nostradamus; I could not describe precisely what the ethnic 'bloodbath' would be like. But it was logical [to think] that this would occur just from an observation of social development."

In essays and op-ed essays published during Yugoslavia's collapse, Mr. Mihajlov was an outspoken voice against nationalism. In 2001, a year after the final collapse of the nationalist Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic's rule, he moved back to Belgrade.

Today Mr. Mihajlov holds a unique position in Serbia: a prominent former dissident to both Titoism and nationalism.

His sister Marija Ivusic says his ability to influence public debate in Serbia was one reason that he moved home. "Misha is a celebrity in Yugoslavia," she says.

In newspapers and on radio and television there, Mr. Mihajlov continues to write and speak about Russia and the role of spirituality in a global political renewal. "To put it briefly," he wrote in one recent essay, "it is impossible to fight pseudoreligiosity with nonreligiosity. Against an evil spirit, only true spirit can fight successfully, not the lack of spirit which is flooding the present-day world."

Mr. Mihajlov takes a modest view of what he and other Yugoslav dissidents accomplished. "I do not think that dissidents seriously affected the situation in Communist countries, especially in Yugoslavia," he writes. "Of course, it was important that they exist, but they did not overthrow one-party dictatorship. Western governments were more influential in such matters."

But Mr. Kolatch, the labor-magazine editor, says Mr. Mihajlov has, in fact, "made a real contribution to how the world has been shaped. He was one of many dissidents to do so. He is, in his mind, still doing that."

(Photo of a young Mihajlo Mihajlov at the Pushkin Statue in Moscow, about the time he wrote his classic literary travel diary, Moscow Summer.)

2 comments: said...

I just learned of the passing of my long-time friend and colleague, Mihajlo Mihajlov, whom I met shortly after his arrival in the U.S. in 1978. We were both passionately interested in freedom of speech and thought, abridged even in "liberal" Titoist Yugoslavia. He was flattered that I wrote my M.A. Thesis on Milovan Djilas and Mihajlov, entitled: "The Third Revolution: Intellectual and Spiritual Ferment in Yugoslavia" (Claremont Grad. University, Dec. 1966). We agreed on many things Slavic, Soviet, and Yugoslav. One thing he could not admit is that Tito was both Periclean and Stalinist, the conclusion of my interdisciplinary study, The Yugoslav Search for Man (J.F. Bergin, 1983). Mihajlov wrote the Foreword to the anthology, which I co-edited with Karen Rosenblum-Cale, Human Rights in Yugoslavia (1986), and contributed an essay, "The Return of the Grand Inquisitor: A Critique of Solzhenitsyn," in the very first thematic volume of the Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies (1989: 85-102). Mihajlo will be sorely missed as an intellectually-engaging friend, colleague, and International Editorial Board member of the Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies: The world of letters just lost one of its most dedicated champions of human rights and basic freedoms--speech, thought, assembly, association, philosophical, political and religious persuasion--that many in the West take for granted. May his soul rest in peace.
Oskar Gruenwald, Ph.D., JIS Editor

Robert R. Calder said...

I have found out only belatedly about the passing of this great man, a fact which rather echoes what happened some considerable time ago now, when I learned on visiting my friend Rene Beermann at Glasgow University that Mihajlov had been there until a matter of months before. Rene (1903-1997) was himself a great man on a modest scale, a former pupil of Tsarskoe Selo I met first when researching the German and Austrian exiles Abenheimer and Schorstein, of whose discussion group he was a valued member. To another friend I made in this connection, Susan Heimler Golombok, an Auschwitz survivor, I gave a copy of the essay on experience of the prison camps. She rang me immediately on reading it, saying with astonishment that this had set out perfectly her own experience, beginning when she was standing naked in Mengele's office. I wish I could have told Mihajlov about this, and even about the Scottish sometime Princeton professor A.A. Bowman, whose own "experience of spirit" was by all accounts the same and inspired the writing of some considerable work in metaphysics. The enormous estaam in which I have long held Mihajlov I can't overstate. His work is one of those inspirations permanently awaiting new discovery.
Thank you for the essay, and for this opportunity,
Robert R. Calder, freelance author.