Intimist (2007) by Jasna Koteska, In English


text by Jasna Koteska

published in Nos/ztalgia

The Last Political Prisoner

I am the daughter of Macedonian poet Jovan Koteski (1932-2001), one of the last political prisoners from ex-Yugoslavia. Throughout his life my father was suffering from paranoia, claiming that he was the object of extensive police observation. When, several months prior to his death, he gained limited access to his police file, he witnessed the fact that he had been an object of extensive police and informers' observations for 42 years of his 69 year-long life.

The most persistent informers in my father's police file ‘Intimist’, that recorded every act, word and deed of Jovan Koteski, were his closest friends, collaborators and colleagues, Macedonian writers and poets. Some of the names of his informers are highly ranked as members of the Macedonian Academy of Science and Arts. One of the most active among them was up until 2006 the active President of the Writers Association of Macedonia.

In 1985 Jovan Koteski was convicted for working against the Yugoslav Federation, against Serbian domination in Macedonia and for the formation of an independent Macedonian state. He got five years’ imprisonment, in what was then a closed trial at which public debate was prohibited. While in prison my father was subject to sophisticated torture. He unsuccessfully tried to commit suicide several times during late 1986.

The case of Jovan Koteski was of major interest to the American poet Allen Ginsberg, when he was accepting the Golden Prize at Struga Days of Poetry in Macedonia in 1986. Allen Ginsberg, then President of the Committee for the Defense of Unjustly Persecuted Writers at the PEN Association, tried to organise Macedonian writers to fight for my father’s release from prison – however, unsuccessfully. My father was finally released from prison in 1987 mainly due to the efforts of the Croatian born writer and theoretician, Predrag Matveević, then vice-president of the World PEN Association, and President of the Croatian PEN Center.

When my father came out of prison in 1987, it happened that many of his best friends and his closest colleagues, our literary heroes and our textbook poets, turned their backs on him on the street. The same was happening to all the members of my family. We understood. It was difficult for them, back then, to say hello, without getting hurt. But it was never understood by the poet and by the child that my father was, because for that child in him, those mechanisms could never be understood.

What did the Security and Counterintelligence Apparatus Look Like?

My father's police file was billed under the code-name ’Intimist‘ (also numbered ’5622‘). The code name referred to his poetry, which was opposing the preferred socialist-realist style of his day, mainly depicting personal and emotional topics. Although without much of a formal education and with the burden of the belief that he was the subject of a Kafkaesque scenario, my father did manage to publish most of his poems in 30 books of poetry, and played an important role in establishing a so-called Modernist movement in contemporary Macedonian literature.

When, in November 2000, my father showed me his police file, it was only a day after he himself had been allowed to take a look at the very limited version of his police file, and only a few months before his death. That much time we had; a time for reconciliation. Some of the children of political prisoners from ex-Yugoslavia, didn't even have that much luck. The first thing my father showed me was the text box in which was written ’No’ for his ‘Collaboration with the Security and Counterintelligence Administration’. And then, we read together those 300 pages, given out of who knows how many of his police file, that he was allowed to possess, with most of the names struck out with a marker. And he became aware of what he sensed all of his life: that, for 42 years, he had been the subject of extensive police observation. We realized that his paranoia was not paranoia, but fact.

When my father died, he left me his police file. The first question for me for some time after was not ‘why such sadistic intrusion into one's privacy for such long decades’; but a plain, infrastructural question: what exactly did the communist apparatus look like? Who typed this page? What was the name of the typist? Who snooped in on my brother's conservations about his athletics training schedules? For what benefit was that information? Was it worth it? When an informer relayed the information, did he feel he was doing something useful? What did he look like? What did he eat that morning? With which sentence, did he send his children to school? Did he manage, with the salary he was receiving for his underground work, to make his children happy and good people? Because, if he managed, at least that would be some galactic consolation.

Later, once, when I was waiting for my bus, an intimate question suddenly popped up. I was hit by that bus that morning, when it came to my mind that the spying device was put on our phone at the time when I said my first hello to my first boyfriend. He was a secret to all of my friends. But he was not a secret to the Security and Counterintelligence Service of Macedonia.

Memories Forbidden Under the Law

My father's police file is one of nearly 15,000 Macedonian files from the socialist period. In 2002 the police files were transferred from the Ministry of Interior to the Public Archives of the Republic of Macedonia. Access to these files is still forbidden under the present laws in Macedonia. According to unofficial data from different sources, 12,000 to 40,000 informers (spies) worked for the Security and Counterintelligence Administration of Macedonia from 1945 to 1990. These numbers stand alongside the actual active counterintelligence and police forces.

My father's police file was opened up for public debate on the 9th of December, 2005 by me. It led to an extensive public debate over the role of intellectuals in the Macedonian communist past, and many people started to open in public their own police files or the files of the members of their families.

Confronting the socialist past critically, though, is a difficult endeavour. There is a present wave of nostalgia for socialism in Macedonia, and people in my country say: "In Yugoslavia, we were able to travel, we had access to western books and movies, but we also skipped both the cruel capitalist acceleration and consumerism, and the Stalinist regime of terror". Since in March 2007 the first ever Lustration Law was introduced by the Macedonian Parliament, the public response has been ambivalent. For the opponents of lustration in Macedonia, the informers were only doing their dirty jobs in a system that was unjust in general. They say that the informers might be only as guilty as the ‘neutral’ citizens who knew that there was a practice of spying and did not act either. Among the public concerns about the lustration in Macedonia, we can trace some signs of a certain nostalgia for the UDB (the Macedonian version of the KGB). That is to say, the opponents of lustration believe that the Macedonian KGB was only a mildly intruded privacy in comparison to the present, omnipotent (yet, anonymous and abstract) position of people in the capitalistic panopticon.

For other people, including myself, the real ‘value’ of living in Tito's version of socialism will become visible only after reopening the dark pages of the Macedonian Security and Counterintelligence Administration’s history. Tito's political strategy was similar to that of Stalin; they both hollowed out their opponents, while establishing the rule of a Communist Party. And it did happen with a lot of political failures, individual horrors, and political victims, like my father.

In my opinion, the present wave of nostalgia can be used not to free people from memories, but to ’free’ the memories themselves; to open up the memories that were (up to now) forbidden to enter the collective consciousness. The urge to worship the socialist past can actually be used to produce a more relevant knowledge of the past with more (up to now) secret data on display.

Personal memories are a valuable tool to negotiate a society’s ethical framework for the future. People tend to remember ‘back then’ mainly as it was for themselves. So each one of us has a different version of his/her individual past. For some among us, the communist past was an era of a happy childhood. For others, it meant experiencing prison, excommunication, and terror towards members of their families. The fortunate among us recall that in Tito's Macedonia, they had cheaper electricity and that they were not forced to wait in front of the foreign embassies to obtain visas for travel, as is the case today. In contrast, if you tell the individual history of the less fortunate families, you meet only uneasiness. If we therefore want to obtain a deeper understanding of our communist past, as a beginning we should try to understand each other's personal histories. Sharing each others’ personal memories, ‘nostalgic’ or not, is the only way of making our memories more complex and more profound. Those mixed experiences, then, are the only possible way to bring us to another level of understanding of our collective past; to a clearer picture of what life was like under communism.

At the moment I am writing a book, Dossier 5622, about my father's communist destiny. I know that it is not an easy task to give a good representation of Tito's Yugoslav socialism from today's perspective. This is because while living in Tito's Yugoslavia, we were aware that ‘our’ system was better than that of Stalin. For both the Western leftist academics and for Yugoslav historians, Yugoslavia was considered a success story, because it managed to skip both the Stalinist regime and the capitalistic organisation of society. Capitalism today organises and structures our very civilisation, and the Yugoslavia of the past somehow remains a sort of a ‘liberalised’ and ’freed’ territory, freed from both cruel communist dictatorship and accelerating inhuman capitalism.

But this argument is shallow. I will give you an example of why. If you were an editor of a journal in 1980s Yugoslavia and you asked the authorities whether you could publish something, they would have answered: "We are a society of self-management and of associated labour. Think for yourself!" That paradox actually meant that you should "think" their way. The censorship was hidden, but the political dictatorship over an individual’s thought was, nevertheless, very rigid. So self-censorship became one of the main forces for sustaining the system and for keeping it strong. Hence, Yugoslav historians were not able to publicly admit the Gulags and the political prisoners up until the mid-1980s.

They Never Asked, I Never Told Them: 
The Public Recognition of an Unrecognized Grief

When I first opened my father's police file for public debate in 2005, it was out of a very personal need. I was not driven by the public need to reminisce over the communist past. I was not in any way determined to understand the wider past. My motive was to make peace with my family past, and with my own personal past. I was not hunted by a need to know who my father's informers were, why they were so sadistic over my father's life, nor was I driven to figure out the logic of Yugoslav communism.

What I had in me was just a feeling of some past losses and some unrecognised sorrow. Imagine for a moment what it is like to live with the burden of grief not publicly expressed. Every other day you can read in magazines about how liposuction hurts, because society has clear ways of speaking about people's pain over their body surgery or body cosmetics. But the very same society seems not to have clear ways of speaking about the pain of its own communist past, of making that pain visible. My motive was to make my grief go away and to call other people with such pain to start talking.

The initial moment for me came while I was reading a book; Antigone’s Claim by Judith Butler. I remember I was abroad as a participant at a gender seminar, it was late at night, I was in a hotel room, and was just finishing the first chapter of her book, when it touched upon my biggest trauma.

The paragraph from Butler's book read: "Antigone refuses to obey any law that refuses public recognition of her loss, and in this way prefigures the situation that those with publicly ungrievable losses – from AIDS, for instance – know too well. To what sort of living death have they been condemned?"

I returned home to Macedonia. Knowing that the total number of personal communist files in Macedonia is around 15,000, I started calculating their children and relatives, and started to ask myself: "Where are these people?" "What are they doing at the moment?" I started to talk to my friends, colleagues, whomever, about my father's police file. It turned out that they all knew my father was in prison, that my family was condemned under communism. But they had never asked, I had never told them. We never had talked about it. As if there was a sort of a pact to remain silent. I began to realize that we have no idea what to do with our feelings about our own communist stories. That we have a sort of cultural amnesia, and a consensus to soothe each other, never to talk about that.

Of course, here and there, I was talking about it, to a boyfriend or to a close friend: "You know, my father was once in a prison, under communism". I remember, after the fall of communism, their reactions were always plain silence and uneasiness. Not because they had no sympathy, but because there was no ritual to invoke, no predefined method they could use to help. Where are they going to put my sorrow? How would they give legitimacy to it, what name would they be able to give to my grief?

Once, on the day of the anniversary of my father’s death in 2002, my best friend asked me: "We all cried, why didn't you cry?" I remember answering. "If I start crying in public now, I won't be able to ever stop".

So, the easiest way was to tell everyone at once. It happened in December 2005, exactly five years after my father showed me his police file. I decided to give interviews to the most popular Macedonian weekly, Fokus, about my father's police dossier. Addressing the successors of the persecuted citizens, I said: "I know you are avoiding opening the drawers where you keep your parents’ dossiers. Because it hurts. But, once you open them, it might start to hurt less."

Butler, Judith: Antigone’s Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death, New York: Columbia UP, 2000, p. 24.


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