Waiting by the prison gate on a visit to see his father, Aleksa Djilas passed the time chatting with a Romany boy, who was waiting to see his own father. The boy could not believe that Aleksa's father was in prison because of a book. "Did he steal a book?" the boy asked in disbelief. He could not understand that one could be in prison for writing a book.
That was Milovan Djilas's crime. His book, The New Class, was considered a masterpiece of dissident literature during the Cold War, but it more than spelled trouble for its author.
When Aleksa Djilas was born in 1953, the trouble was about to start. His father Milovan was about to lose his position as a close associate of Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito. Djilas would become the communist regime's first and most prominent dissident.
Aleksa was only 9 years old when Djilas was handed his second term in prison. In his own newly published book, Milovan Djilas: Letters From Prison, he relives his childhood through his father's letters, his mother's letters to his father, and some of his own letters from that time. The first letter was sent to him from prison by his father when he was almost 4 years old. He received the last one when he was 14.
In a recent interview with the Belgrade-based NIN weekly, Aleksa said: "I believed that he [Milovan Djilas] was innocent and that he was right. I saw him more as a hero than a victim. So, I did understand what was going on quite well. Kids can think clearly if they are not confounded by adults."
Milovan Djilas had been one of the leading figures in the Partisan resistance against Nazi occupation during World War II and -- despite their differences -- was a close friend and ally of Tito, the leader of the resistance. After the war, he was regarded by many as second only to Tito in the ruling hierarchy.
His star was at its zenith when he published a series of articles in Borba, the Communist Party's official mouthpiece, describing corruption within the Yugoslav elite and criticizing communist leaders for their lavish lifestyles. After speaking out, however, Djilas was relieved of his official duties and then voluntarily gave up his party membership. In 1955, he was charged with engaging in "hostile propaganda" because of an interview he had given to The New York Times. It was around that time that he began working on his book, The New Class, the first critical account of a communist state written by an insider.
My family lived in Belgrade in the early 1950s, and my mother had vivid memories of Djilas. She did not know him personally, but she remembered him as the only high-ranking party official that one could run into strolling around the city streets, his hands always tucked into the pockets of his signature leather coat. She was among the many readers who admired his articles in Borba.
In December 1956, Djilas was imprisoned for the first time on the "hostile propaganda" charge. He was sent to Sremska Mitrovica, a city in northern Serbia, and ironically the same prison where he had been incarcerated before the Yugoslav revolution, serving three years for having organized demonstrations against the monarchy. (Yugoslavia was a kingdom prior to World War II.) In prison, he used his time to learn Russian -- when he was interned for a second time, he took up English instead. Djilas managed to smuggle the manuscript of The New Class out of prison, and it was published abroad in 1957, becoming an instant hit. It was not published in Yugoslavia until 1988.
The New Class placed Djilas in the dock once again. This time he was charged with being "hostile to the people and the state of Yugoslavia," for which he received a seven-year sentence. Following the appearance of another book, Conversations With Stalin, in which he described the Soviet leader as "the greatest criminal in history," five years were added to his sentence.
He was able to provide a firsthand account of Stalin's rule, having served as Tito's special envoy to Moscow on several occasions since 1943. In January 1948, it was Djilas who was sent to Moscow to inform Stalin that Yugoslavia intended to pursue its own separate path, independent of Moscow. The split was made public in June 1948 and Yugoslavia became the first communist state to break with the Kremlin -- a move that saw the country's stock rise in the West.
While he endured persecution at the hands of Tito, Djilas's relationship with the Yugoslav leader was complex. It seems that friendships forged in war are not easily broken. Asked about Tito toward the end of his life, Djilas simply replied, "I cannot say that we are friends, but neither can I say that we are enemies." It was a very generous assessment from someone who had spent nearly 10 years in a Yugoslav prison.
Djilas was finally released from prison in 1966. He left the country, first for Britain, then for the United States and Australia. Many years later he said in an interview: "Prison transformed me. It transformed me from an ideologist into a humanist." Djilas spent the final decades of his life in Belgrade, writing commentaries, history books, and novels.
Before he died in 1995, he asked his son not to write about his life once he was gone. It was a promise Aleksa Djilas chose to break. "There was nobody else who had knowledge of the events and the people mentioned in his letters -- only I was able to explain many things, in the footnotes. I did not change a word in any of the letters," Djilas said.
Upon reading, the letters reveal the emotional and political journey of a man who believed that he could repair socialism from within -- and make it more democratic. Djilas became an unrelenting opponent of the one-party state, of totalitarian government, and a defender of basic human rights. His life and struggles encapsulate the 20th-century history of the Balkans and beyond -- and like all who lived through it, he bore the scars of both the victories and the defeats.