December 2, 1997

Tito on Internet: Yearning for Socialism's 'Good Old Days'


LJUBLJANA, Slovenia -- It may not have been Camelot, but Tito's Yugoslavia had peace and cooperation between ethnic groups that have yet to be replicated in the countries that have taken its place.

Credit: Tito's Home Page

Tito's Home Page contains rarely seen photographs of the former Yugoslavian leader. The one above was taken in 1928.

Now former Yugoslavs who may be tired of hearing about the glory of medieval Croatian, Serbian, Slovenian, Montenegrin, or Macedonian kings, or who cannot quite remember why they are supposed to hate all those boys and girls from other ethnic groups who grew up next door, can bring back the days of "brotherhood and unity," as the old slogan said. They can click on what is known as Tito's Home Page.

"It started out as a joke," said Martin Srebotnjak, 25, who was only 9 when the communist leader died in 1980. "But suddenly we found ourselves deluged with messages from people all over the former Yugoslavia. We touched something very deep. People send in e-mail full of hate or devotion, but always full of emotion. We were surprised."

The Web site was set up by Srebotnjak and another Slovenian university student, Matija Marolt, 26. They created the site in English to avoid offending any group, although most messages sent to the site are in Serbo-Croatian.

The two students warn users that the e-mail posted on the site may be "offensive" and that they are not responsible for "hurt feelings."

"Thank you, Comrade Tito, for the vacations we used to take in Dubrovnik," read a message from Tomislav Tuntev in what is now the nation of Macedonia, referring to the coastal city in what is now the nation of Croatia. "Now we need a visa.

"Thank you for the old history books where we learned about your great offensives against the Germans. Now we learn about invented Macedonian kings and czars. And thanks for all the old songs. Now we sing about getting high on cocaine and marijuana."

Many of the messages are bitter, sent by former Yugoslavs who live in exile. There are many complaints about the sharp fall in the standard of living, the fighting that ripped apart the old Yugoslavia and the nationalist movements that now govern the countries that have been created.

"While you were here we had a life," read one note. "When you died the idiots took over, and the world has seen the result. I send you this message from Sweden."

Yugoslavia began to come apart in 1991, as communism collapsed across Central and Eastern Europe, leading to the bitter wars in Croatia and Bosnia. The only republics that remain in Yugoslavia are Serbia and tiny Montenegro, where a separatist movement is growing.

Tito occasionally sends a message back, by way of Srebotnjak.

"To my beloved people," one went. "To all those who want me back. I am not crazy. Tito."

Click on a little red star and you can hear communist classics like "A Song for Tito," performed by the Handicapped Partisans Choir and the Police Brass Band of Ljubljana. Or how about the dramatic work, this time performed by the Partisans Choir of Trieste, that begins with an orator speaking in a voice that seems to rise up from his toes. He is reading a sentimental ode to the great leader.

"From the shepherd in the remotest mountains to the unknown poet," it says, "from the miners in the coal shafts to the captains of great ships, from the places where all people live and work, the words cry out: Tito! Our Comrade!"

The office of the Croatian president, Franjo Tudjman, one of Tito's former generals who has often been accused of emulating his style, recently opened its own Web site. It plays the Croatian national anthem and provides the president's latest speeches.

When users on Tito's Home Page tire of songs and poems dedicated to the old communist leader they can click on a little red star that offers "some of my brilliant speeches."

"We must dedicate ourselves in Yugoslavia to proving that ethnic majorities and ethnic minorities do not exist," cries out the once-familiar cadence. "We must discard this concept. Socialism means more than just equality between ethnic majorities and ethnic minorities. In socialism there are no majorities or minorities. There is only one nation of working men and women."

And then there are dozens of pictures scanned from books about Tito that once lay in nearly every government office.

"We went to get them, and the librarian told us she had piled them all out back since no one read them anymore," Marolt said. "We cleaned off all the dust and checked them out. She was thrilled."

The photos show Tito's police record from his days as an underground activist, the forged Canadian passport he used when living underground, and the German poster printed during World War II offering 100,000 Reichsmarks in gold for Tito "dead or alive."

There are shots of Tito smoking Cuban cigars with Fidel Castro and Willy Brandt, Tito standing over a lion he shot in Africa, again with a huge cigar protruding from his mouth, and Tito petting a cheetah in front of the residence of Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia.

The final group of pictures, under a heading entitled "The Last Battle," shows shots of the dying leader with his two sons in a hospital room and of Yugoslavs and world leaders mourning at his funeral.

"Comrade Tito!" wrote a student named Borja. "They took your photo down from the walls of our classrooms, but not because fascism died or the people found freedom. Your photo is gone, but our memories remain. Death to fascism! Freedom to the people!"

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company
Used by Permission.