This long-serving political journalist and commentator of publications Borba, Večernje Novosti and Politika, and former editor-in-chief of NIN, became a partisan courier of the First Proletarian Brigade before he turned 16, just to survive the Srem Front at the end of World War II. He knew or was closely associated with the majority of political actors on the post-war Yugoslav and Serbian political scene, whom he discusses in this confession
On an Olivetti typewriter that’s almost as old as he, he has written thousands of articles and around a dozen books, the most recent of which, Political Cemetery, is still sought as essential reading in the area of memoir prose.
In it, on 630 pages, Slavoljub Đukić, who turns 90 years old this coming October, testifies about figures from the political scenes of the former Yugoslavia and Serbia, revealing some previously unknown details about events that we remember – from Tito to Slobodan Milošević, from Dobrica Ćosić to Milovan Đilas, from Marko Nikezić to Vuk Drašković… Also included are his close friends, such as actor Ljuba Tadić, colleagues like Miroslav Radojčić, or valuable witnesses like Dušan Mitević.
Slavoljub was not yet 16 years old when he became a partisan courier of the First Proletarian Brigade, just to survive the end of World War II on the Srem Front, which he dubbed the Serbian Gallipoli. Explaining his comparison with this World War I battle that saw more than 130,000 soldiers lose their lives and twice that number wounded, Đukić says for CorD:
“That was an unusual pit of death for young people who didn’t know what war is. Tito wanted to show that Yugoslavia was liberated by our own soldiers, along with the Russians and the Americans, which was terrible foolishness.
Young people disappeared; I found myself on the Srem Front as a courier wandering over a minefield, around which shots flew, and somehow I survived.”
Slavoljub, who everyone has always called Slava, and who sometimes also responds to Slovac, which is when they call him after his hometown of Slovac, which is located around twenty kilometres from Valjevo.
His most treasured childhood memories are of going to Kolubara during the summer and riding the train ćira (an old narrow-gauge train) that passed through Slovac:
“Entering and leaving Slovac, which was otherwise slow, ćira almost crawled around the curves it passed. We waited for it a few kilometres before it entered Slovac, jumped aboard, rode to the station and jumped off before it departed. I don’t remember anyone getting hurt.”
When World War II broke out, Slava was a boy who witnessed the hanging of Stjepan Steva Filipović, a Croat from Opuzen who had come to Serbia in search of work and become a member of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, only to be hung publicly by the Germans in the middle of Valjevo market on 22nd May 1942:
“Stjepan was captured by the Chetnik royalists and handed over to the Germans. With a noose that he placed around his own neck, and with his fists raised, his last words were ‘Death to Fascism, Freedom to the People!’ His body remained exposed on Valjevo market for a few days, as a warning to frightened citizens. It has not been established where he was buried. He was 23 years old.
I neglected my family and life punished me terribly. I experienced the greatest family tragedy when I lost my son
“Eighteen years later, I was working as a journalist of Večernje novosti during the unveiling of a monument to Filipović (a work by sculptor Vojin Bakić) on the nearby hill of Vidraka, which dominates Valjevo. I then published an emotionally charged feature, refreshed by my memories and the unique originality of the monument, shaped just like Filipović’s final moment: with clenched fists and raised hands that refuse to surrender.
“All of this, fifty years later, during the collapse of Yugoslavia, would lose its human meaning. In the nationalist euphoria, a question even arose as to whether this war memorial in Valjevo had any meaning, given that the communists never brought any good to that town? Reason prevailed even on Vidraka, where, lit up with spotlights, remains the memorial of an unfortunate era. But Filipović’s bust on the Valjevo square was still destroyed twice. The same fate belonged to the monument to him in his native Opuzen, where it was blown to smithereens with explosives, after which the scattered parts were collected and stored in a private warehouse.”
He had yet to turn 16 when he became a courier of the First Proletarian Brigade, which found itself beneath Mount Avala a month later. After that, Slava would also pass through the Srem front, where he was wounded in the hand and formally demobilised at the very end of the war.
Soon after the war and completely by chance, as is usually the case, Slava’s career in journalism began, first at Borba, then Večernje novosti, back to Borba, then on to Politika. He was the editor-in-chief of newsweekly NIN. None of his friends or colleague is alive any longer and he misses them. He outlived them all, and today he testifies about one detail from his many decades of socialising with famous Politika journalist and foreign correspondent Miroslav Radojčić:
“He enjoyed great popularity at that time when we found out about the outside world mainly by reading the articles of our journalist colleagues. I remember that once, while we were sitting in a kafana tavern, he said that he would write an article about himself and that it was mine to sign. He was a very gifted reporter, he was a conversationalist who entertained us with a story about how he would marry a widow, and that widow was Jovanka Broz. He ended sadly… He was ruined, and I wanted to remember him as being like Robert Mitchum.”
For a full 40 years, Slava made notes every day, and every day he worked and kept records. He recorded every encounter he made, and there were many because a journalist’s work is such and primarily entails socialising with people who have often been relevant in the political life of the country. It shouldn’t be forgotten that he got into journalism very early, aged just over 20. Nevertheless, to today’s journalists some things are almost unimaginable:
“I remained so old-fashioned that I’m technically in the 19th century. Apart from replacing a light bulb, I don’t know how to do anything else. For me, the computer has not yet been invented and I’ve spent my whole life writing on the Olivetti typewriter that’s almost as old as I am. On it, from my mountain of notes, all my books were created.”
His toughest time was when he served as chief editor of NIN:
“I neglected my family and life punished me terribly. I experienced the greatest family tragedy when I lost my son. At the same time, at NIN, I experienced my greatest professional satisfaction. Working there was a plethora of great journalists, led by Aleksandar Tijanić and Tirke (Bogdan Tirnanić). It was a pleasure to work with them. Tijanić was an incredibly gifted writer, he wasted away a lot and I’m sorry he departed so early. As well as Tirke, who had gifts of another kind.”
He experienced his greatest journalistic success as a Politika commentator and columnist. However, at one point, after he’d noticed that his commentaries had for some time become undesirable, with him having published only three articles in three months, he wrote a letter to Politika’s then-editor-in-chief Živorad Minović. He was soon officially informed that he was to be formally retired, having fulfilled all the conditions to receive his pension – with his service in the war years being taken into account. It was 1987. He was 59. He experienced that as the greatest injustice, as a horror that he had to live with:
“And it turned out to be the best thing that happened to me. It was then that I started spending my best years in journalism, and the freeing of that obligation to go to the newsroom actually extended my life.“
Koča Popović was the only close associate of Josip Broz who didn’t fear Tito. And I believe, as far as I knew him and knew of him, Koča didn’t overly respect anyone. He was sufficient to himself, a French pupil, a surrealist, a Spanish fighter
Slava began writing books and soon gained a loyal readership as an author of very interesting and above all provocative texts about the Milošević family, or more precisely about the then president of Serbia and Yugoslavia, and his wife. He was assisted a lot in this by a close friend of Mira and Slobodan Milošević, former TV Belgrade director Dušan Mitević. There was a particular story about the book ‘On, Ona and mi’ (Him, Her and us), when Mira Marković concluded that Slava’s source could only have been Mitević: “There is no one else who knows that my bedroom is two steps away from Slobodan’s cabinet,” she said at the time. Their friendship then collapsed, and CorD’s interlocutor explains how he met with Mitević immediately afterwards:
“He appeared liberated, like a man who’d freed himself of a burden,” says Slava. “As for Mira Marković’s suspicions, I am obliged to admit that they were justified. In collecting material (for four books) about the Miloševićs, I spoke with many people. Mitević’s testimonies were invaluable to familiarising me with the intimate nature of the Milosevic’s as spouses. Of everyone, he knew their characteristics the best, after many decades of socialising with them. I remain grateful to him for the help he provided, without which many details about the lives of the Miloševićs would have remained unknown.”
Mitević died in turmoil on 31st May 2003. “I was most surprised by his obsession with God. At the end of his life, he became a devout man. He told his family that he wanted to be buried according to Orthodox tradition, with the obligatory participation of a priest.
The last time I visited him, he said:
“Now I’m going to tell you something that might embarrass me. We Communists sinned a lot. And our biggest sin is that we denied God. I concluded that you cannot explain anything without him. I understood life at the end of my life. This was said by a former communist – a dogmatist, who, 30 years earlier, at a session of the City Committee, condemned Studio B harshly for broadcasting a sound recording of the marking of Christmas Eve in front of Belgrade’s Cathedral Church!”
Of all the politicians of his time, with the exception of Slobodan Milošević, he knew everybody and even socialised closely with some. His fondest memories are of Marko Nikezić (1921-1991), a former party leader of Serbia who Tito had removed from the political scene in 1972, branded as an anarcho-liberal:
“In terms of intelligence, in terms of his convictions, Marko was a European man, very measured and realistic. We met every day while I was working on a book about liberals. He had a broad education and didn’t speak in the phrases that are so characteristic of most politicians; he appeared like an aristocrat among self-managers. A true gentleman who had been discovered and formed in his own way by another gentleman among Communists, Konstantin ‘Koča’ Popović (1908-1992). Koča’s influence could be seen in Nikezić’s life and politics. Koča was actually also the only close associate of Josip Broz who didn’t fear Tito. And I believe, as far as I knew him and knew of him, Koča didn’t overly respect anyone.
Marko Nikezić could have been the man of a turnaround, as the first to hint at democracy in a firm communist milieu. Had he survived, we could have hoped for different political relations and a more democratic form of government
He was sufficient to himself, a French pupil, a surrealist, a Spanish fighter… He wasn’t particularly interested in Serbia’s interests within the country called SFR Yugoslavia. He was the most important person to himself and couldn’t have been a man of any kind of turnaround. However, Marko Nikezić could have been, as the first to hint at democracy in a firm communist milieu. Had he survived, we could have hoped for different political relations and a more democratic form of government.”
Slava’s books also don’t overlook the major and indisputable role of Dobrica Ćosić on the Serbian political scene. He even considers good knowledge of the character and work of this writer and politician as being obligatory for anyone seeking to pass accurate judgement of post-war Yugoslavia or Serbia. He says for CorD:
“Many people challenged Ćosić for his life without even knowing anything about him. That is simply unjustified because he was a man who wanted to be in good relations with everyone and to help everyone. To say that he was a Serbian nationalist is total nonsense. He was just burdened by the fate of Serbia and Serbs, and that was his fate. However, it is incomprehensible that every untalented writer, every unsuccessful person in the public life of Serbia, doesn’t hesitate to condemn Dobrica Ćosić. I claim that his works will survive and that the truth about him will be stronger than the foolishness they have invented.”
While writing about the politicians and political scene of more recent history, Slava also dealt with Serbian rulers, which gives him the right to conclude:
Most people in the world like strong rulers, they like extremely powerful leaders. This is particularly pronounced in Serbia. Did the Serbs not choose Slobodan Milošević after Tito and not Ivan Stambolić? Milošević imposed himself on them as someone who would defend their interests. And I don’t even want to recall how he defended his position in power. He was our great misfortune and I can’t say anything good about him. Did the Serbs not doubt Zoran Đinđić, only to mourn him so much after his death? And his death took away with it a kind of hope that was the most similar to the hope lost after the political demise of Marko Nikezić. The Serbs have today chosen Vučić, who is precisely tailored to European and world leaders. He is determined to succeed; determined to primarily sort things out in the region, which, if he succeeds, will be to his enormous credit.”
Friends represent a special chapter in Slava’s life. Many of them are no longer among the living, many have been mentioned by him in his books, while one that he often mentions today is the late, great actor Ljuba Tadić (1929-2005):
The Serbs have today chosen Vučić, who is precisely tailored to European and world leaders. He is determined to succeed; determined to primarily sort things out in the region, which, if he succeeds, will be to his enormous credit
“I hung out with Ljuba for the longest time. We met while he was still studying acting and I was at the beginning of my journalism career. On that 28th October 2005, we sat in the garden of Madera Restaurant at about noon – Ljuba, our shared friend Branimir Zogović and I. The day was pleasant and sunny, and Ljuba was in a good mood. He came out of the hospital refreshed, seeming to me to be looking better than before. And then after spending two hours there we went home. He told me that he had a shoot scheduled on the television at six o’clock that afternoon and that we would meet again that evening. He didn’t show signs of fatigue. I guess it was around twenty minutes later – we actually live nearby – that I received a call from his wife Snežana, his loyal helper who was always worried about his health. “Come immediately! Ljuba has fallen!” At that moment, Snežana didn’t know what had happened. She heard a trembling in the hall and opened the door. Ljuba was lying on the stairs, right in front of the entrance to the apartment. An ambulance quickly arrived, but nothing more could help.”
In recent times Slava has regularly relied on a walking stick that belonged to his friend Ljuba Tadić and was gifted to him by Snezana Nikšić.
It was 16 years ago that Slava was left without his wife of many years, Olga, an art historian and journalist. In one book he also touchingly described the painful departure of his son Dušan, who died at the age of 26, sincerely blaming himself for not devoting more time to his family during his decades of work and thanking Olga for having so much understanding for the life provided by the profession of a journalist:
“Olga carried the greatest burden. She helped me in everything, even in sorting out the manuscripts for my last book. Throughout my life, I never thanked her enough for that.”
He is proud of his daughter, Lana, for her successful career, and he didn’t lift a finger to help her:
“Lana today jokes justifiably with me when she says that I have no idea what she does or where she works. Her son Dušan is a well-mannered young man who is maturing well and is currently in America, where he is completing his final year of high school. Lana directed him towards sport, while he knows foreign languages and it’s really a pleasure to hang out with him. All those emotions that I didn’t show my children I now express towards my grandchild.
I even notice how I have also, over the years, become superstitious in a certain way. I often think of the words of Dr Isidor Papo, with whom I was friends. He called me Slovac, after my hometown, and he often said: Slovac, whose century it is, that is the medicine! During these years I quote him often.”
Slava admits that he no longer writes, but that there’s certainly something more that he could put among the pages of a new book. However, he simply doesn’t want to work anymore. He reads newspapers ever less, though he watches television regularly every day. He catches every news bulletin and when he connects it all it’s clear to him where the world is headed.