REEEC New Directions Lecture: Martin Previsic, “The Yugoslav Gulag: The Goli otok (Barren Island) Labor Camp, 1949-1956”

Martin Previsic (Assistant Professor of History, University of Zagreb) gave the REEEC New Directions Lecture entitled “The Yugoslav Gulag: The Goli otok (Barren Island) Labor Camp, 1949-1956” on April 17. His presentation, part of a larger study on prison camps and the Tito-Stalin split, centered on Goli otok, the largest and most notorious prison in Yugoslavia. Goli otok was a public secret and a huge taboo in Tito’s Yugoslavia that is only recently being studied in detail. Previsic began his lecture by explaining why it was built. On November 11, 1945, when the Communist Party of Yugoslavia took power, Soviet methods were used in all spheres of economic life . However, on June 28, 1948, Tito was expelled from the Cominform, an organization of socialist countries led by the Soviet Union, because he had proposed a more independent approach to communism and a break from Soviet hegemony.

Martin Previsic speaking on violence in Goli otok and Tito’s communism

Previsic argued that the split was not unanimously supported within the Yugoslav Communist Party. While some party members were supporters of Stalin and opposed Tito’s action, the question of who were Stalin’s supporters was ambiguous. Anyone who did not completely agree with Tito’s position could be labeled a Stalinist and imprisoned, likely in Goli otok. It was a purge of anybody who was not considered a genuine Tito supporter.

At its height, Goli otok held 30,000 people and incarcerated 75 percent of alleged Stalin supporters. The main purpose of the prison was reeducation. Stalin supporters would be persuaded by pro-Tito prisoners to abandon their views in a non-violent environment. In reality, violence and humiliation were everywhere. The “bandits,” the lowest class of prisoners and those who were not sufficiently pro-Tito, could be tormented for months, and were assigned the hardest and most meaningless work.

To Previsic, Goli otok was a classic example of Yugoslav Stalinism, an “Anti-Stalinist Stalinism” that was designed to eliminate Tito’s party opponents in order to consolidate his power. Though Tito proclaimed that Yugoslav communism was a purer, better form of communism, Goli otok represented how Tito’s brand of communism also killed its own people for political reasons. By 1981, dozens of novels described Goli otok figuratively, signaling the crumbling of Tito’s persona and system. Through his study of Goli otok, Previsic tried to give the prison’s survivors a way to voice their experience in interviews and oral history. Even after Goli otok officially closed in 1987, released prisoners continued to be humiliated and subject to surveillance. They had to work for the secret police and pledge to not talk about their experience there.

Goli otok exemplifies the complexity of Yugoslavia’s communist heritage. It remains a well-kept secret without much documentation. In Croatia, many still say that only “bad people” were sent there. Previsic argues that memories of Goli otok reemerged periodically in the 1990s and 2000s in different contexts. The prison camps of the Bosnian War resembled Goli otok. “Spanish swimming,” a torture method the UDBA used to force prisoners to give up names, reemerged as waterboarding during the U.S. war on terror. Yet, there is no memorial or museum at Goli otok. Though tourists visit from time to time in the summer (and write articles for travel blogs about it), it remains a largely abandoned, crumbling place that still hovers over Croatian society.

Stephanie Chung is the Outreach and Programming Coordinator at REEEC and a Ph.D. Candidate in Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research interests are in Soviet literature and culture, Russian women’s writing, and Czech literature. She received her B.A. in Plan II Honors/Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies in 2007; and her M.A. in Slavic Languages and Literatures in 2009 from the University of Texas at Austin. She is currently writing a dissertation on Soviet women’s memoirs as literary and media texts.

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