Monday, November 30, 2009

Milovan Djilas

Milovan Djilas

One of the richer literary genres related to communism is that produced by disillusioned practitioners. Milovan Djilas has produced at least one masterpiece of theoretical critique, but his Conversations with Stalin is a more human and therefore literary account of the problems inherent in Russian communism. The title of the book is somewhat misleading, for although Milovan’s personal reflections about Stalin are central to the book’s thesis, Djilas met with Stalin fewer than a handful of times. The book by a highly educated, highly influential Yugoslav patriot (imprisoned by two regimes for his principled stands) does provide readers with a wonderful analysis of Stalin the man, and historians have paid careful attention to his observations about the decision-making style of Stalin and his inner circle near the end of his thirty year political tenure. As importantly, Djilas describes his personal transformation from a stalwart believer in communism to a man with serious reservations about Russian leadership in the socialist world, if not about socialism itself.

Djilas’ personal growth takes place against the backdrop of the incredibly complex, pivotal, and fluid world that emerged during the final months of the Second World War and last until the Soviet Union had solidified its hold over most of Eastern Europe, excluding Yugoslavia. Although Soviet power soon answered most (but, significantly, not all) questions by the application of power or the threat of force, every chapter of the book testifies to the confusion that faced Eastern Europeans as the Germans withdrew from one country after another. Should the Western powers be placated or confronted? Where should German treasure go? What should happen to railroad stock that had originally been looted in Yugoslavia? What treaties were appropriate between socialist countries? Was nationalism compatible with communism, and, if so, in what circumstances? What prerogatives belonged to Russia, home of the original revolution? Did multiple sites of revolution make the October Revolution somehow less significant? Did Stalin alone speak for Lenin? Did Eastern Europe owe the Russian economy anything in return for liberation?

Conversations with Stalin opens with Djilas’ depiction of the heroic, communist-led Yugoslav revolt against Nazi occupation. Djilas reminds readers that this Yugoslav revolt reminds readers that no other country in Europe made such a significant and successful attack against its occupiers. He also points out that this revolt involved a social transformation as well as a political one. As the war against the brutal, genocidal Nazi occupiers proceeded, communists were busying overhauling the very structure of pre-war society in favor of the poorer classes. Yugoslav partisans grounded in bourgeois or princely political ideals were rendered irrelevant by the success of communist resistance and the devastation that resulted from German atrocities. In the midst of the war, Djilas, like many other socialists throughout occupied Europe, looked to Stalin’s Soviet Union as the embodiment of forward-thinking politics, economic progress, human equality, and social justice.

As Djilas now admits, he and most other socialists in Eastern Europe forgave Stalin, or accepted official Soviet rationalizations, for everything, including the invasion of Finland, the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, the occupation of the Baltic States, and the Purges. Slavic nationalism coupled with the heroic successes of the Red Army reinforced Djilas’ enormous respect for the U.S.S.R. After all, Yugoslavs and Russians were the only forces at war with Hitler’s Empire on the continent of Europe for a long stretch of the war.

Both before and after the war, Djilas met with Stalin on behalf of Tito and the communist movement in Yugoslavia. By and large, Djilas remained in awe of Stalin, who had directed the forces of socialism for so long. But the Stalin that emerges from Djilas’ recollections was complex. His intelligence and benevolent authority were matched by his craftiness, ribald sense of humor, and crude sense of power politics. Djilas’ reflections are of course highly colored by his nationalism, which was slowly but steadily developing in opposition to Soviet hegemony in the rest of Eastern Europe. Overall, the book argues that Stalin and the Soviet Union were more concerned about power than about socialist theory, communist brotherhood, or the equality of nations. With some prudishness in the arena of alcohol, Djilas also became disappointed that following the war Stalin demonstrated a penchant for cynicism, drunkenness, crude humor, gluttony, game-playing, anti-Semitism, and self-serving flattery.

In one vignette, Stalin says he supports Yugoslavia’s interest in “swallowing” Albania, and puts his fingers to his mouth to illustrate the destructive aspect of the proposed aspect of the event. Elsewhere, Stalin defends his army against charges of rape and pillage in Yugoslavia saying that soldiers were human and needed some kind of emotional release. (With malevolent brilliance, Stalin follows up the comment on another instance by kissing Djilas’ wife and saying that he did so despite the fact that he might later be accused of rape.)

Notwithstanding Stalin’s personal foibles, Djilas presents his conversations has he heard them, and these conversations show off some of Stalin’s unique talents, including a sense of realism in international relations, a capacity for accepting at least limited disagreement within the socialist bloc, a sense of humor, and an ability to understand what motivates people. In one vivid scene, Djilas, a gifted intellectual, is able to discuss Russian literature with Stalin in some depth. Although Stalin’s crimes are unpardonable, one can’t but admire any ideology that regards literature as worthy of discussion in the midst of global war and reconstruction.

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