Janos Gereben
Janos Gereben

Fellowship Title:

From The Moon to a Land Yet Stranger…

Janos Gereben
November 16, 1969

Fellowship Year

Lerchengasse 28/43

1080 Wien, Austria


BELGRADE—Freedom is chaos. At least here, in East Europe. (And there are some people who feel that way even in America.)

But there is no question about the chaotic qualities of freedom here, especially in comparison with the splendidly rigid discipline of East Germany or Bulgaria or Romania. Bucharest was OK for Nixon, “safe” as it could be—but Belgrade is not recommended. Even the astronauts were in a bit of jeopardy from the crowd.

Yugoslavia is considered to be the freest of Communist countries (and there is a question in the mind of the visitor here if this is a Communist country at all) — an opinion which becomes visibly justified by an apparently complete lack of regimentation.

Balkanic passions explode here freely, uninhibited by Party, social, or police discipline.

The astronauts of Apollo 11 (here Oct. 18-20 on the 13th stop of their tour around the world) learned of these conditions as soon as they stepped down from Air Force One. They were surrounded immediately by officials, journalists, children, and people—plain, everyday people who just wanted to get closer. They did get closer, very close, so freely, so easily that cannot be imagined even in a “Western democracy.”

It was a beautiful free-for-all: the astronauts and their wives were pushed and shoved a bit in the process, but who cared? Friendship and enthusiasm!

Armstrong, Collins, and Aldrin stood tired and bewildered, but obviously happy with the reception—even the ticker tape parade down Broadway was nothing like this.

Then came the motorcade into the city, something right out of the Keystone Cops, incredible, chaotic, fun, and. very dangerous.

Joyriders drove in and out, alongside, in front and behind the official row of limousines, policemen stopped the press bus, but let old jalopies right through. The daredevil driver of the bus stepped on the gas and tore down at top speed between the flag-waving people who broke through the police cordon (what there was of it), crossed the road in front of the cars, leaned out to touch the astronauts. There could have been a dozen deaths as people jumped back or brushed against the speeding cars. Fortunately, there were no injuries, but only Mother Luck could take credit for that.

As the astronauts arrived at their hotel, the spanking-new “Jugoslavija,” the airport scene was repeated while a group of old, high-ranking Russians generals sneaked into the hotel, ignored by everybody, here to help celebrate the 25th anniversary of the country’s liberation from German occupation. What other country known as “Communist” would (or could) treat three-star Russians generals that way?

The general organization of the tour was so loose that the astronauts’ party was arriving to the hotel two hours late on the very first morning of their visit, to Yugoslavia.

And this pattern kept up for their entire three-day visit. It was a chaotic and wonderful event, very non-European and un-Communist, giving the astronauts and their party of officials and journalists a funny feeling about this big, unruly and somewhat unrulable country.

Had the astronauts had more time, they could have learned about strange things happening in Yugoslavia today, things that defy the labels of “Communist,” “Socialist,” “neutralist,” and all the other cliches used freely in the shorthand of journalists to characterize the country.

The purpose of this report is to give a few brief glimpses at events, which don’t merit space in American newspapers. These are not “news stories” beyond the country’s borders, but put together, it is hoped, they give a picture completing memories of that airport reception or the motorcade.

**Photos by Janos Gereben

  • There was trouble with some teenagers in Maribor, in Slovania near the Austrian border, and the city council decided to bring “law and order” to the city: a curfew was declared for all under 18 after 9 p.m.

No teenagers on the streets at night—no trouble, the city fathers thought.

The ordinance was appealed and the appeal went all the way up to Yugoslavia’s Constitutional Court, a kind of institutionalized Ombudsman.

The court decided that the ordinance was unconstitutional because it violated the teenagers’ rights.

So, in Maribor, the kids are back on the street at night and “law and order” must be maintained through more complicated and less dictatorial methods.

  • Radio Zagreb is located in an old building, slowly falling apart especially after the frequent earthquakes in the area.

The management of the station decided to move into a new building whose construction will cost millions of dollars.

Where to get the money?

They went to a bank and took out a loan—the loan is backed by the government, but there is no question of subsidy, the station must pay back each dinar by itself.

Yugoslav and East European firms bid for the job of installing new equipment for the studios, but Radio Zagreb’s management decided to give the contract to a West German company because “they made the best offer.”

Radio and TV stations in Yugoslavia are completely independent—editorially and financially—from the federal government, from each other.

Radio Zagreb, for example, has its own foreign correspondents in six major capitals and these journalists are competing with the representatives of Radio Belgrade or Borba or Tanjug. There is an exchange of programs, but the stations are as independent as their American colleagues.

A big puzzle in this picture is where the money comes from. Advertising and subscription (for operating radio or TV sets) cannot possibly cover the expenses. If the manager’s claim of getting absolutely no subsidy was true then the only explanation may be in the low overhead and still-lower salaries.

Still, the news media in Yugoslavia seem to enjoy an autonomy and freedom from a technical point of view that surpasses conditions even vis a vis Western Europe’s radio and TV stations—especially the government-owned ones.

Politically, of course, there is “self censorship,” meaning that smart people stay out of trouble by anticipating what is expected of them.

  • The trade unions—the only bodies deserving to use that name in East Europe where unions are merely organizations of the Party—are seething with discontent in Yugoslavia.

Printing workers, for example, quit their union in Titograd because their complaints about the automatic dues check-off system were not remedied.

The vice president of the council of all trade unions, Voja Skendzic, resigned his office “on the grounds of political motives.” He tried to introduce new methods in the central organ and ran into the opposition of the “conservatives.”

Union members published a statement that “an organization (the trade unions in general) which should be the main support of workers and should unmask all undemocratic and demagogic behavior, is itself sinking into the same practices.” Strong words, these. One wonders if the Teamsters would go that far.

  • During the past year, there were about 1,700 strikes in Yugoslavia. Repeat: STRIKES. Slovenia led with more than 500 work stoppages, Serbia had 400, Croatia, 350.

The metallurgical industry alone had 98 strikes, involving over 10,000 workers. There were even strikes of the employees of a communal court and of two communal organizations.

What’s more, Yugoslavia is reaching the point of justifying strikes officially. Party leaders recently stated that “strikes in a Communist country should no longer be considered inimical anti-socialist actions, but rather a reasonable effort on the part of the workers to defend their own interests vis a vis bureaucratic state and Party apparatuses.”

What can Marxist ideologists say about that?

  • Tito decided to “leave aside the case of Czechoslovakia” in Yugoslav-Soviet relations. He said in a press conference on Oct. 4, broadcast by Radio Zagreb, that “we no longer wish to raise and dramatize this question” in talks with Soviet officials.

The strange thing is that not one single Yugoslav paper published this statement the next day.

  • The top Party organization, the Presidium of the League of Communists, passed a resolution providing for a greater role for the workers in deciding what should be done with profits.

The central government investment funds were abolished and the money made available to republics, provinces, and communities. A “socialist market economy” is being established with a Western system of banking and credit and strong support for private business.

  • A capital fund of $12 million is backing a joint corporation of Yugoslav and Western banks established recently for the purpose of attracting more Western investment to the country.

Foreign companies can now invest on the basis of equal sharing of risks and profits and the new Investment Corporation will help bringing together potential partners from Yugoslavia on the one hand, the United States, Western Europe, and Japan on the other.

  • On Nov. 6, an assembly composed of 15 representatives of the faculty, the administration, and STUDENTS elected Belgrade University’s rector and his deputy. Each group had five votes and if the students and the administration got together on a candidate, they could have defeated the professors’ candidate—or the faculty and students against the administration, to consider another possibility, which would be dear to the hearts of many American students.
  • Tito is having problems with both pro-Russian and anti-Russian Yugoslavs. His 21-year-long juggling act could not have succeeded if he let either group gain the upper hand. But instead of cracking down on leaders of the two groups, Tito decided to plead with his people to see things his way—a most unusual way for a Communist leader to handle dissent.

Dragoslav Mihajlovic’s play, “When the Pumpkins Were Blooming,” compared the persecution of Comintern Communists in Yugoslavia to the fascist years during the war and Tito reacted to this in a remarkable Speech at Zrenjanin:

“Look, such things disturb us. People from among us are spitting on us; they are spitting on our achievements, on our sacrifices… however, we must not take administrative measures. Damn it! There are a million of us, a million Communists, and we should attack them (the pro-Russians) from below. I do not now request his (Mihajlovic’s) arrest. On the contrary, everything must remain public.”

On the other hand, Tito was much tougher dealing with the anti-Soviet intellectuals. Zoran Gluscevio got six months for an article protesting the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia and Milovan Djilas’ “The Unperfect Society” has been banned in Yugoslavia.

***Publication of a Djilas-like book was permitted on the other hand, in October. This is Svetozar Stojanovic’s “Between Ideal and Reality” and it attacks the “Stalinist class” in East Europe, saying that under the Soviet dictator, Soviet and East European Communism had degenerated into a system in which workers were subjugated and exploited.

Stojanovio, a professor of philosophy at Belgrade University, got away with what Djilas was sent to jail for because he said he is a Communist and Djilas called himself a Social Democrat. But Stojanovic’s message is just as clear as Djilas’ was.

He writes about “the horrible nightmare of Stalinism” and compares it to feudalism:

“In Stalinism not only has the labor force in general become the subject of exploitation, but to a certain extent also the workers as individuals. Stalinism does not recognize any independent organizations created by the proletariat in order to protect workers’ rights. The workers’ organizations which nominally exist have been practically etatized; they have been turned into the instruments of the etatistic class and party.”

Stojanovic goes on from his attack on Stalinism to criticize the entire Communist idea. He writes that the Communist Parties, as they exist now, cannot help people to achieve Socialism. It is impossible to believe, he says, that Marx succeeded in providing the general laws for the whole world’s conversion to Socialism. Consequently, all parties, basing their theory and practice, on Marxis ideas, are wasting their time in trying to put into practice in the 20th Century something which was theoretically worked out in the l9th Century, and which is now completely outmoded.

  • From ideological negation of Marxism, the next, practical, step is logical. And so, Yugoslavia today is moving in the direction of “people’s capitalism.” The Ljubljana furniture company Slovenija Les and the Fiat-licensed Crvena Zastava automobile firm both issued bonds ($8 million each) to be sold to individuals, including foreigners.

Bond owners are to become part owners of the companies as share holders and will have the right to influence the work of the company and meet annually to discuss business.

Mitja Ribicic, the prime minister, warned the two companies to go slow and not to violate the self-management system, but he did not veto the issue of bonds.

The shareholding system already started last year with an abortive attempt. A group of workers in Serbia and Croatia pooled their savings amounting to about $200,000 to construct their own textile factory in Slavonska Orahovica. The Party cracked down, however, and arrested a number of people involved in this enterprise for trying “to enrich themselves in an illegal way.”

But that was last year and if the present bond issue is not voided, “people’s capitalism” (which, except for the name, is pretty close to the “decadent and imperialistic American” variety) may yet revolutionize Yugoslavia’s social and economic system.

Ana all the astronauts could find on the moon were a few crummy rocks!

Received in New York on November 17, 1969.

Mr. Gereben is an Alicia Patterson Fund award winner, on leave from the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.  This article may be published with credit to Janos Gereben, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, and the Alicia Patterson Fund.