MUDEC Students Reflect on Cold War Politics in Croatia

Note from Professor Elena Jackson Albarrán: Students of HST 250 Comparative Cold War Childhoods have spent the semester learning about the construction of an ideologically binary world on both sides of the Iron Curtain, but our study tour to Zadar, Croatia gave us new insights about the nuances of Cold War geopolitics. Croatia, as part of former Yugoslavia under the socialist regime of Josep Broz Tito, defied communist and capitalist control as a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement. What was it like to grow up in such a place? We had lots of sensory experiences that would help us to appreciate the complexities of this part of Europe. Below, two students describe some of our course-related activities.

Abbey Falknor: Goli Otok

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

It is not often that you get to have class on a boat. Today was the best day ever and probably my favorite class in my whole educational career. Even though we had a long day of travel, it was so worth it. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

On our drive, we traversed the island of Pag, which is known for its resmblance to the moon. It is situated right below the Velebit mountains, which produces the strong Bora winds. Their strength has caused one-half of the rocky island to be completely barren, apart from a few small shrubs. However, it is the perfect place for sheep to roam. We passed many herds and even got to taste the famous, award-winning cheese that they produce! The drive passed by quickly with our amazing views of the mountains and the sea of either side of us.

Once we got to the boat, the friendly crew greeted us with sweets and drinks. We continued to have breathtaking views of the mountains and the island of Rab. The three hours were spent deep in conversation with my classmates, and it was fun to get to know the other students better.

Croatian guest on boatA hand holds up Goli Otok prison photo against the waterAs we got closer to the island, Vanja Miljak, an expert researcher of the Balkans, and our local facilitator, gathered us together. She introduced us to Mr. Jakoslav Rojinica, a former political prisoner on the island of Goli Otok, and we listened as he shared his story while Vanja translated it for us. Mr. Rojinica was imprisoned in 1978 when he was at University in Zagreb for possessing and distributing an anti-communist magazine. For that, he was considered a nationalist, which threatened communist Yugoslavia. So, he was sentenced to three years of prison on Goli Otok.

We learned that the island of Goli Otok functioned as a prison from 1948 to 1988. It was originally created to imprison Stalinists after Tito broke ties with Stalin. However, it evolved into a regular prison for hard crimes, such as murder. It held only a few political prisoners, including the man who came with us.

Hand holding up Goli Otok tile with land and water in backgroundMr. Rojinica toured us around the island and told stories of his time there. I teared up when he was explaining the interrogation process before he was sentenced to prison. He didn’t want to give them much information because they were just looking for other names. However, he wanted to protect his friends, so he suffered through the beatings, even though he had the power to stop it.

It is hard to imagine the horror that occurred in such a beautiful place. Before I left, I picked up a piece of the tile that the prisoners used to make. It might become one of my favorite souvenirs from this semester because it has so much meaning to me. I am thankful that we had the chance to visit Goli Otok and see the impact of Tito’s regime firsthand.

Kaya Mernitz: Socialism in Zadar

Thursday, April 22, 2021

If I could take anything away from my experiences today, it would be that Croatian history is much deeper and complex than anything I have ever learned about the Balkan region.

The 20th century saw the country become a major pawn in geopolitics, especially throughout the first and second World Wars. During this period, Croatia was already a battleground for the interplay of opposing forces. Socialism and fascism were placed on opposite ends of a spectrum and construed as diametrically opposed to one another. While in name and essence they may have been, their interaction gave birth to a generation of people whose very existence was defined by the gray areas. As Vanja, our class-specific guide, mentioned today, black and white do not exist in Croatia. There is only gray, where the lines become blurred.

HST 250 students at the State Archives in Zadar

As we progressed to a special document viewing at the State Archives in Zadar, this trend only became more noticeable. The documents showed the mixing of distrust and loyalty, as well as a reciprocity between fear and power. It was fascinating to pore over the documents as Vanja translated. As soon as one question was answered, I felt like thousands of new ones popped up in its place.

We then continued on to our "socialist taste testing." As we ate Yugoslavian goods, we talked to Meliha, a MUDEC staff member whose family is also from the former Yugoslavia, about the failings of the US education and healthcare systems, which are by nature deeply capitalist. She shared her own experiences and opinions concerning socialized healthcare and education. Reflecting on it now, it feels profoundly symbolic that we were consuming communist foods while comparing socialized versus private sectors of our countries.

We rounded out our day with a walk around the city to see some former socialist landmarks and a stop for refreshments. As I sat there, I could not help but to feel sad that our time in Croatia was coming to an end. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time in this country, as well as the company with whom I have shared these experiences.

However, my learning does not end here. I hope to continue to learn from the contrasts present in the Croatian landscape, reminding myself constantly that beauty and fear can walk hand in hand.

HST 250 Students looking at some founding documents of Yugoslavia, and reports of Tito’s secret police force

HST 250 Students looking at some founding documents of Yugoslavia, and reports of Tito’s secret police force

Closeup of treats

Socialist snacks!

Treats at Zadar State Archives

HST 250 students picking through an array of retro treats from the socialist era.