The Underground Hero: Five Reasons to Know Mihajlo Mihajlov

On a sweltering, dusty Sunday at a hostel in Yerevan, Armenia, where I stayed during an academic conference, two students from Slovenia asked me about politics in the United States. Having read multiple tourist guides that advised avoiding the topic, I hesitated to answer.

“Do you live in a red state, or a blue state?” the students asked. “My state tends to vote Republican,” I said, and quickly returned, “Do you all think that is a good thing or a bad thing?”

“That’s very good,” they replied. “It is the Constitution that makes the United States great.”

They were not the first people from the region that was once Yugoslavia to prefer the principles underlying American liberty to totalitarianism, such as that of Yugoslavian dictator Josip Broz Tito (r. 1945-1980). Mihajlo Mihajlov (1934-2010), a Yugoslavian scholar of Russian literature who spent roughly seven years in prison for opposing the dearth of liberty in his country, is one of the many unsung underground heroes from the Cold War era whose eloquent and courageous rejection of totalitarianism ought to be better-known.

Here are five things everyone should know about Mihajlov:

  1. In an essay, “Two Convergences,” Mihajlov addressed the question of whether freedom and scientific advancement could exist and could both increase. Making an argument extremely pertinent to the “global warming/climate change” debate, Mihajlov warned that societies that have the goal of scientific progress – as opposed to having the goal of maintaining the liberty of their citizens – will ultimately override the liberty of their citizens. “Only when man feels that by submitting to oppression he is losing his soul, his ‘I,’ himself forever – and that this loss is worse than any physical torture or even death – only then can man rise against totalitarian dictatorship. And that feeling is a religious one. Its name is – faith,” Mihajlov wrote. “Freedom…cannot become a means for anything; scientific-technical convergence can have a positive meaning insofar as it serves individual and social freedom. Not vice versa.” [Italics, here and below, are Mihajlov’s.]
  2. In an essay, “The Artist as Enemy,” Mihajlov stated that totalitarianism was based on the principle that the rulers had to be able to control the souls of their subjects. Art, however, cannot be controlled; authentic art – as opposed to propaganda – comes freely from the soul of the artist. “Art is a direct challenge to lies and hostile to the system on which power is based,” Mihajlov wrote. “In a way our whole modern era is the enemy of art. We may be made prisoners not only by a one-party system but by a modern technological society whose only aim is material property. The means of control of human souls are different there than in Communist countries, where power is more open and crude. The collision of art with a social system is always a collision of freedom and repression, a combat of truth and lies, the struggle of life against deadening mechanism.”
  3. In “Letter to a Friend in the West,” Mihajlov argued that communism was not simply a system that had some problems but was otherwise as good as capitalism; rather, communism was specifically evil because it crushed the human soul and totally destroyed human society. The friend liked communism because the friend believed communism provided an end to crime. Mihajlov asserted the opposite: “The essence of every totalitarianism, or every one-party dictatorship, is precisely the alienation of people. The process of decay which you see in Western society is completely finished in the Communist countries. Thus to see communism as a cure for social decay is like regarding death as the cure of a cancerous tumor.” This was because Communism itself is a religion: “Communism wants to bring about that ‘Lord’s Heaven on Earth’ or the ‘Kingdom of Freedom,’ to use Marx’s terminology, by force, by oppression, by the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat,’ that is, by the dictatorship of that ‘avant-garde of proletarians’ – the Communist Party. And that means by the abolition of freedom, by the absolute power of the party, and by the alienation of man from his ‘I,’ and finally by the death of society.” All this, in light of his friend’s worries about ecological matters, showed the triviality of such worries: “If all the fish living in the Mediterranean were destroyed, that would be a lesser tragedy than the introduction of a one-party totalitarian system in Italy. The recreation of life in the sea merely involves great technical difficulties, while the recreation of life of a society and the liquidation of a one-party monopoly is a task which has never yet been achieved anywhere.” Unfortunately, Mihajlov saw that his friend – and many others – was unlikely to believe what Mihajlov was saying. He told the story of an Italian girl who went to the Soviet Union because she thought it would be a wonderful place, but she ended up tortured in a Soviet prison. “It is not someone else’s letters but one’s own experiences that open one’s eyes to the realities of the world,” Mihajlov wrote.
  4. Mihajlov also wrote an essay, “Some Timely Thoughts,” on the work of fellow-dissident Alexandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008). His discussion of democracy is worth quoting at length: “The idea of democracy is not of West European origin, as Solzhenitsyn and Osipov maintain; neither is it of bourgeois origin as the Communists are trying to interpret it. It is of Christian origin. Unfortunately, in our times this fact is overlooked, even in the West. During the birth of the greatest historical social miracle, which is political democracy, the maternal roots of Christianity were very obvious to people. (Political democracy in ancient times is an altogether different matter, because in the slave-owning society democracy was in reality the oligarchy of free citizens.) At its dawning John Locke defined democracy on a totally religious basis: a man belongs to God and therefore he can neither give himself up to complete subjugation to another man, nor place another human being under his control; however being ‘God’s property,’ a man can ‘entrust the right to administer his will only temporarily to another human being who was freely elected by him.’” Perhaps most importantly, Mihajlov saw the question of political freedom entirely in a spiritual light: “Of course, the freedom which was not gained by blood and suffering is easy to lose, and without the spiritual rebirth no political changes will make people free. But the spiritual rebirth, a Christian rebirth, is the ascent of a free man, and not of Russian nationalism, the cult of the homeland, fatherland, and one’s country.”
  5. Lastly, in a piece called “Djilas and Yugoslavia Today,” Mihajlov stated that communism required everyone to live a double life: one life was lived on the terms of the communist party, in which everyone had to uphold its propaganda; the other life was reality, in which people suffered, could not trust one another, and were sent to prison, torture, and execution for crossing the regime. “The future historians will know nothing about the life and interests of people from the so-called socialist society if their conclusions are based on the printed word of our time. If they want to create a realistic view of how people used to live, they will have to understand the following facts: the schizophrenia of the whole social organism of the totalitarianism; detachment from the real life, thoughts, feelings, and the pseudo-life lived in public; and that every totalitarianism, every one-party system is a kind of social schizophrenia.” (Quoted from Part 2 of “Establishing Free Voice: The Life and Work of Mihajlo Mihajlov,” Dissident, 14 Mar. 2015)

Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union have long since fallen, but Mihajlov’s words are not limited by time or place; they apply to any people threatened by a government that overreaches the limits on its power to interfere with the God-given rights of its people – people whose souls belong to God, not to the government.

Photo: Detail of the Berlin Wall, Berlin, Germany