Dissident Writer Mihajlov Is Released from Yugoslavian Prison

After years of intermittent captivity and international notoriety in the struggle for political freedom, Yugoslav writer Mihajlo Mihajlov was freed under a general amnesty. However, Tito’s political move was well timed, and the impact of Mihajlov’s release was, to a certain degree, illusory.

Summary of Event

Josip Broz, widely known by his military code name Tito, gained the support of England and Russia in 1943. After World War II, he was chosen to head the newly formed federal republic of Yugoslavia, comprising the republics of Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Macedonia. The nation fell generally within the orbit of the Soviet Union, but in 1948 Tito asserted a more independent course in the formation of foreign policy and internal affairs. Tito, considered a renegade within the communist-socialist world, watched as the Soviet Union cracked down on liberal policies in its satellites—Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968—and managed to tread a thin line between serving his own national goals and placating his neighbor to the east. Human rights abuses;Yugoslavia
Yugoslavia;human rights abuses
[kw]Dissident Writer Mihajlov Is Released from Yugoslavian Prison (Nov. 24, 1977)
[kw]Writer Mihajlov Is Released from Yugoslavian Prison, Dissident (Nov. 24, 1977)
[kw]Mihajlov Is Released from Yugoslavian Prison, Dissident Writer (Nov. 24, 1977)
[kw]Yugoslavian Prison, Dissident Writer Mihajlov Is Released from (Nov. 24, 1977)
[kw]Prison, Dissident Writer Mihajlov Is Released from Yugoslavian (Nov. 24, 1977)
Human rights abuses;Yugoslavia
Yugoslavia;human rights abuses
[g]Europe;Nov. 24, 1977: Dissident Writer Mihajlov Is Released from Yugoslavian Prison[03010]
[g]Balkans;Nov. 24, 1977: Dissident Writer Mihajlov Is Released from Yugoslavian Prison[03010]
[g]Yugoslavia;Nov. 24, 1977: Dissident Writer Mihajlov Is Released from Yugoslavian Prison[03010]
[c]Human rights;Nov. 24, 1977: Dissident Writer Mihajlov Is Released from Yugoslavian Prison[03010]
Mihajlov, Mihajlo
Djilas, Milovan
Carter, Jimmy
[p]Carter, Jimmy;human rights

The fear of Soviet domination was not Tito’s only concern. The six distinct republics of the federation had their own languages, cultures, and, more important, feelings of nationalism. Tito had embarked the nation on a unique economic plan, less explicitly socialist and more devoted to “self-management” of enterprises under the socialist umbrella. Tito proclaimed nonalignment and was a leader in the Nonaligned Movement Nonaligned Movement of the early 1960’s. Yugoslavia’s independent political and economic stance allowed the government to deal with the specific challenges of its ethnic diversity and geographic situation, standing between the Eastern and Western blocs and commanding a four-hundred-mile seacoast on the Adriatic and, by extension, the Mediterranean seas. During modern Yugoslavia’s first three decades, the constitution was changed four times, in 1946, 1953, 1963, and 1974.

Like the other Soviet-influenced regimes, Yugoslavia under Tito did not tolerate opposition parties or vociferous criticism of government policy. Milovan Djilas, a close friend of Tito, was a dissident who had been a partisan leader during World War II. He had served as vice president in the early years of the republic but was demoted, harassed, and imprisoned when he began to question and criticize Tito’s course for the nation. His example provided Yugoslavia with a vivid image of the precariousness of its political freedom.

One citizen keenly aware of that situation was Mihajlo Mihajlov. Born on September 26, 1934, in Pančevo, a city near Belgrade, to Russian émigré parents, Mihajlov was an authority on Russian language and literature. He worked as a translator, writer, and lecturer, and in December, 1963, at the age of 29, was elected assistant professor of Russian literature and language on the philosophy faculty at the Zadar branch of the University of Zagreb. Through his position, he had the opportunity to travel, and in the summer of 1964 he spent five weeks in the Soviet Union on an exchange program.

While in Moscow and Leningrad, Mihajlov met with prominent Soviet writers and learned about Soviet social and political life. Upon his return, Mihajlov wrote a travelogue describing his impressions of Russian literary trends. The piece, which appeared in the January and February, 1965, issues of the Belgrade monthly Delo, included references to the labor camps established under Vladimir Ilich Lenin, ballads of camp life, conversations with literary figures, and charges of genocide under Joseph Stalin.

In Yugoslavia in 1965, three dangerous topics were ethnic distinctions and nationalistic tendencies among the six republics, the possibility of establishing a multiparty system, and criticism of Soviet influence or policy. At a meeting with public prosecutors on February 11, 1965, Tito denounced Mihajlov and called for seizure of Delo. On March 4, after a formal protest from the Soviet ambassador, Mihajlov was arrested. On March 27, he was dismissed from the university, and on April 23, he was tried in Zadar for making false charges against a friendly government and for distribution of his banned articles. At the time, the PEN Club, the international writers’ organization, was having a conference in Slovenia and heard of the case. Mihajlov wrote and personally delivered to the press an open letter to Tito protesting his Soviet-style repression. Adverse publicity and protests from PEN and others led the Supreme Court of Croatia, on April 29, to give Mihajlov a five-month suspended sentence.

Mihajlov’s appeal was denied. He found himself with no job and no passport, supported by his wife’s modest salary as a proofreader. He wrote articles for New Leader magazine in New York, and, in a relatively liberalized period in the summer of 1966, took the legal steps necessary to begin an opposition journal, Slobodni Glas (voice of freedom), as a seed for an opposition party.

Mihajlov was arrested again for his publications abroad. On August 22 and September 1, 1966, Tito delivered speeches denouncing him and his colleagues as foreign agents. Mihajlov was sentenced to a year in prison at his second trial, in September. In April of 1967, he was brought from prison to Belgrade to be tried for circulating his articles to his friends. He was sentenced to another forty-two months, seven of which he spent in solitary confinement.

Upon release on March 4, 1970, Mihajlov was barred from publishing in Yugoslavia or leaving the country to accept lecturing positions at Western universities. Over the next four years, he published dozens of articles in foreign periodicals such as The New York Times, New Leader, and Posev, a strident anti-Soviet, Russian-language journal published by Soviet exiles in Frankfurt, West Germany.

In 1974, Tito was eighty-three years old, and concern was growing over the issue of succession. A new campaign was initiated to suppress ideological opposition, and in October Mihajlov was arrested again. On the eve of his trial in the city of Novi Sad, Tito denounced him in a nationwide broadcast. Facing judges who were all Communist Party members, Mihajlov openly condemned the one-party system. His lawyer was Jovan Barovic, the premier civil rights advocate who also represented Djilas, Vladimir Dapcevic, and other prominent dissidents. In February of 1975, Mihajlov was convicted of disseminating hostile propaganda and associating with foreign émigré groups. He was sentenced to seven years imprisonment with hard labor.

In December of 1974, Djilas came out in the international press in Mihajlov’s support. In March, 1975, Newsweek reported that the Soviets considered Mihajlov a primary enemy. World attention, however, turned to human rights violations. In 1975, thirty-five nations signed the charter of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Helsinki, Finland, which contained provisions regarding human and civil rights. The U.S. center of PEN fought for two years on Mihajlov’s behalf with letters and petitions. With increased publicity, his case garnered the attention of Helsinki Accords Helsinki Accords (1975) watchdog organizations. In 1976, Jimmy Carter was elected president of the United States and initiated an American foreign policy based on human rights (although he remained silent regarding Mihajlov). The East-West Commission on Security and Cooperation was to meet in Belgrade in late 1977 to discuss implementation of the Helsinki Accords.

Meanwhile, Mihajlov endured prison life. He saw in Carter’s election hope for political prisoners under repressive regimes. He was deprived of books, a radio, and a typewriter, and forbidden to associate with other political prisoners. He waged three hunger strikes Hunger strikes protesting the conditions of his imprisonment. During his second hunger strike, in 1976, he was transferred to a different prison and force-fed. On December 10, 1976, he stopped eating for the third time; seven weeks later, on January 17, 1977, his wife, Milica, personally delivered a note to Vice President Vidoje Zarkovic asking for Mihajlov’s transfer to a hospital. He had lost forty pounds and was, as reported in The New York Times, seriously ill. His demands were finally met, and he ended his strike.

With incessant international pressure on Mihajlov’s behalf and the Belgrade human rights conference focusing attention on Yugoslavia, Tito declared, in honor of Yugoslavia’s National Day (November 29, 1977), a general amnesty that would affect 723 prisoners. On November 24, 1977, Mihajlov was released from Sremska Mitrovica Prison, having served half of his sentence.


The release of Mihajlov from prison in 1977 had both tangible and symbolic repercussions on both personal and global levels. In personal terms, Mihajlov’s release gave him a new beginning in life at the age of forty-three. In 1974, denied a passport to leave the country for foreign teaching engagements, he had addressed a plea to Tito: “Either enable me to live normally in this country, or allow me to leave the country.” Three years later, his request was granted. He received a passport and made his first visit to the United States, where his mother and sister had already emigrated, in the summer of 1978. During the following year, he delivered lectures throughout the United States, Europe, and parts of Asia. Throughout the 1980’s, Mihajlov accepted the positions at Western universities that he had had to turn down in years past. He held visiting professorships at Yale University, the University of Virginia, Ohio State University, the University of Siegen in Germany, and the University of Glasgow in Scotland. He joined dozens of organizations focusing on literature, international affairs, and human rights, including the French and American Centers of PEN and the International Helsinki Group. More important, Mihajlov began writing and speaking without restriction, with free and full access to the world intellectual community and the publishing and broadcasting industries. He received numerous awards, including the International League for Human Rights Award in 1978 and the Ford Foundation Award for the Humanities in 1980. His release from prison gave to the world a powerful and uncompromising voice in the struggle for freedom and human rights.

On a larger scale, Mihajlov’s release had great symbolic importance. His case had become a cause célèbre; he had come to represent for many observers the repression practiced by regimes in both the Soviet satellite nations and, given Yugoslavia’s unique identity, the nonaligned nations of the Third World as well. Immediately following the amnesty, President Jimmy Carter expressed praise for Tito’s decision and the progress it represented. Mihajlov’s freedom accentuated the continued plight of other political prisoners, and more attention was focused on such cases as the imprisonment of Soviet dissidents Yuri Orlov, Anatoly Shcharansky, Aleksandr Ginzburg, and Viktor Petkus for monitoring violations of the Helsinki Accords.

It must be noted, however, that the impact of Mihajlov’s release was, to a certain degree, illusory. Mihajlov’s notoriety, and that of such figures as lawyer Djuro Djurovic, retired judge Franc Miklavcic, and Croatian nationalist Marko Veselica, provided Tito with impressive media coverage and gave the general amnesty magnitude. Not immediately apparent, however, was that many of the 723 prisoners affected by the amnesty were not freed and that less than one-third were political prisoners. Tito had seized the moment, highlighted by the international conference in Belgrade, to suggest a general and permanent liberalization.

As Mihajlov himself cynically noted, apparent relaxation in communist nations was often a tactic that would be followed by a wave of renewed repression. In August, 1979, Yugoslav authorities issued a warrant for Mihajlov’s arrest, discouraging him from returning to his native land. When Djilas moved in the following month to launch a mimeographed journal titled Casovnik (clock), featuring substantial contributions from Mihajlov, the government immediately stopped the publication as subversive propaganda. Six years later, the writings of Djilas and Mihajlov were still among the categories of material proscribed for publication in newspapers.

Nevertheless, the 1980’s and 1990’s brought dramatic changes throughout Europe. The Soviet policy of glasnost (openness), the reunification of Germany, and the political democratization of the satellite nations changed the political face of Europe. Although Yugoslavia welcomed the relaxation of Soviet pressure and much-needed political and economic reform, with openness came internal troubles. Toward the end of the 1980’s and in the early 1990’s, the general liberalization and the examples set in the independence-minded Soviet Baltic and Caucasian republics revived the specter of ethnic tension and nationalist separatism in Yugoslavia, leading to de facto balkanization of the Balkans, as Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, gained independence in the midst of civil wars that grew increasingly intense. Human rights violations in the civil wars were widespread. Even after the Dayton Accords that restored peace to Bosnia, Serbia experienced further conflict in Kosovo in 1998. It also lost the province of Montenegro, which sued for independence in May of 2006. Human rights abuses;Yugoslavia
Yugoslavia;human rights abuses

Further Reading

  • Beloff, Nora. Tito’s Flawed Legacy: Yugoslavia and the West Since 1939. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1985. Analysis of Yugoslav history by a well-informed author with a definitely slanted viewpoint—anti-Tito but not specifically pro-American. Aims to persuade American readers that American policy should be shifted.
  • Carter, April. Democratic Reform in Yugoslavia: The Changing Role of the Party. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982. Exhaustive academic study focused specifically on the Yugoslav Communist Party in the decade 1961-1971. Appendix provides a broad statistical profile of the party.
  • Clissold, Stephen. Djilas: The Progress of a Revolutionary. New York: Universe Books, 1983. Well-documented biography of one of the two most fascinating figures of modern Yugoslavia. Smooth and lively narrative maintains a balanced tone and avoids excessive praise.
  • Djilas, Milovan. Conversations with Stalin. Translated by Michael B. Petrovich. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962. Written during the author’s short period of freedom between political imprisonments. Covers the eventful years 1943-1961 and gives a good sense of Djilas’s fluctuating political position, his personal feelings, and his hopes for the future.
  • Doder, Dusko. The Yugoslavs. New York: Random House, 1978. Personalized survey of Yugoslav life, culture, and attitudes by a Yugoslav American journalist. Includes portraits of leaders, intellectuals, and dissidents as well as material from interviews with thousands of Yugoslavs, including Djilas.
  • Mihajlov, Mihajlo. Underground Notes. Translated by Maria Mihajlov Ivusic and Christopher W. Ivusic. Kansas City, Kans.: Sheed Andrews & McMeel, 1976. Collection of nineteen essays on literary and political topics written during the period 1972-1975. Mihajlov is erudite and articulate, and these essays express his strong religious faith and his hope for a reconciliation of Christianity with socialism.
  • Pavlowitch, Stevan K. Tito: Yugoslavia’s Great Dictator—A Reassessment. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1992. Balanced biography of the influential leader. Includes illustrations, bibliography, and index.
  • Ramet, Sabrina P. Balkan Babel: The Disintegration of Yugoslavia from the Death of Tito to the Fall of Milošević. 4th ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2002. Revised and updated look at the political history of Yugoslavia. Supplemented with maps, bibliography, and index.
  • Rusinow, Dennison. The Yugoslav Experiment, 1948-1974. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977. Detailed, at times overly speculative history by an author with long personal involvement in the Adriatic region. Focuses on political developments and the major figures and events that caused them. Easy to read.
  • West, Richard. Tito: And the Rise and Fall of Yugoslavia. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1995. Survey of the history of Yugoslavia under Tito. Includes maps, bibliography, and index.

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