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Remembering Misha

Max Singer

Mihajlo Mihajlov, “Misha “ to his friends, was one of the most attractive figures of the Cold War. Exiled in 1978 by the former Communist regime of Yugoslavia, he was hailed as a national hero when he died this month in Belgrade at the age of 76.

Having begun his career writing and teaching about his first loveRussian literature and philosophyMihajlov got into politics by accident. His travel memoir “Moscow Summer “ describing Soviet dissident camps earned him a three-and-half-year prison sentence in 1966 “for damaging the reputation of a foreign state. “ While criticizing the Soviet Union was not normally controversial in Yugoslavia, Mihajlov’s book infuriated the Kremlin just when Tito was trying to improve relations with Moscow.

One reason Mihajlov was so widely admired is that he had a knack for illustrating how the Communist regime affected the human spirit. His essays brought out remarkable, often surprising aspects of the human spirit in socialism, in prison, and in dissidence. His philosophy, like his life, was not dry or abstruse, it was alive and direct, his transcendentalism earthy, infused with a sense of meaningfulness. His sense of humor ensured that despite the seriousness of his topics, his writing was never heavy.

Mihajlov’s prison experience and later writings led him to become, after Milovan Djilas, Yugoslavia’s leading dissident. He won awards from the International League of Human Rights, support from the International PEN Club and Amnesty International, and a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize by Andrei Sakharov. Sentenced again in 1975 for “disseminating hostile propaganda, “ he was released in 1977 to avoid the embarrassment of having him in jail while Belgrade was hosting a Helsinki Process meeting.

Tito exiled Mihajlov to the West in 1978, and his passport wasn’t returned to him until after the fall of Communism. In the decades in between, he taught at Western universities from Glasgow to Yale, and worked at Radio Free Europe as a commentator. While a staunch enemy of the Soviet Union, he never shared the nationalist, anti-Russian feelings of many of his East European colleagues. The fullest expression of his political ideas was the organization he founded in exile, the Democracy International (TDI). It brought together democratic opponents of both right- and left-wing dictatorships from Asia and Latin America and from across the Soviet bloc. The Chinese Alliance for Democracy joined the TDI en masse as a national section during the 1989 Tiananman protests.

Philosophically Mihajlov was close to those religious idealists among the dissidents, such as Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, who cited Mihajlov in his work. But Mihajlov never put his Christian religion at the center of his politics. He was part of the mainstream dissident movement: democratic, pro-Western, and internationalist. He believed that freedom was every person’s birthright, and that every culture contained democratic elements. Yet he also believed that, in many countries, it would take time to achieve a modern, moderate, liberal democracy.

He held a unique position in Yugoslav politics after that country’s breakup following Tito’s death. As a Russian by birth, he was neither Serb, nor Croat, nor Muslim, and was on good terms with the democrats in all the ethnic communities of the country. He did what he could to prevent Yugoslavia’s breakup in 1990-91, and to get the West to intervene more quickly and decisively to bring the bloodshed to an end during the 1991-94 war. His main post-Communism battle was thus against the authoritarian nationalist regime of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia.

When Milosevic finally fell, Mihajlov moved back home to Belgrade. He was welcomed as a national literary and philosophical figure, and as a pillar of the democratic civil society movement. His death on March 7 was mourned throughout the country. He was buried in Belgrade’s main cemetery, in the section known as the Avenue of Citizens of Outstanding Service.

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