TITO’S TWO ISLANDS: BRIONI AND GOLI OTOK
There are two particular islands in the Adriatic that I associate with Yugoslavia’s communist regime under its founder, Marshal Josip Broz Tito. Neither of these two islands, frankly, show Tito and his regime in a very positive light. The first island–or rather, archipelago of islands–are the Brioni Islands, Tito’s favorite summer resort. The second is Goli Otok, communist Yugoslavia’s prison island.
The Brioni Islands (or “Brioni,” as they’re known by their Italian name) sit just 3 km off the coast of Istria, not too far from the city of Pula. This archipelago has quite a history. The remains of dinosaurs and Stone Age humans have both been found here. In Roman times, patricians built luxurious residences on the islands. The Byzantines, worried more about defense than luxury, constructed a fort. By the end of the nineteenth century, though, luxury was back: an Austrian industrial magnate by the name of Paul Kupelwieser bought the archipelago and built villas, hotels, and parks.
Brioni - Port
In his own day, Tito picked up on that era of Austro-Hungarian swank and had his “summer palace” here–fitting, perhaps, for the man referred to by the great English historian A.J.P. Taylor as “the last Habsburg.” But Tito did live in style, reserving the island of Vanga for his palace and the larger island of Veli Brijun for his guests. And there were some posh guests, too, both before and during Tito’s time: the likes of Josephine Baker, Gina Lollobrigida, and Sophia Loren all glammed up Brijuni. Tito also hosted some rather less beautiful but perhaps more powerful guests, including some of the most important political figures of the day. In 1956 Nasser of Egypt, Nehru of India, and Tito started the Nonaligned Movement here, an important initiative in the Cold War.
Brioni - Roman stouns
It was common for visiting foreign leaders to give Tito some gifts–and often the gifts were animals. So over the years quite a menagerie was built up on Veli Brijun. Tito probably even shot some of them, since he maintained a private hunting reserve here. Today, though, two elephants given by Indira Gahdhi in 1975 still enjoy the island lifestyle. You can also meet one of Tito’s pet parrots who has outlived his Marshal. The islands are a significant nature reserve in their own right, with some 700 types of plants, including stone oaks that are hundreds of years old, and 250 different bird species.
The islands were made a national park in 1983, three years after Tito’s death. Nowadays the public can visit just two of the islands, Mali Brijun and Veli Brijun. You take a ferry over for a daytrip, or you can stay the night. It can be pretty nice, though, since cars aren’t allowed on the islands they’re fairly peaceful. So it’s a unique chance to live the life of a communist satrap.
Goli Otok prison
Goli Otok, on the other hand, is not so pleasant. Its name means “Bare Island,” though it could also be called “Yugoslavia’s Alcatraz.” Both names are apt: Goli Otok is a forbidding lump of rock out in the Adriatic, nearest the island of Rab.
After Tito broke with Stalin in 1948, Goli Otok became for five years the site of “re-education” for Yugoslav communists whom Tito suspected of being a little too friendly with Uncle Joe in Moscow. This re-education involved forced labor in the island’s quarry and frequent beatings. Despite Tito’s paranoia about Stalin’s threats to Yugoslavia, many of the prisoners may not have been guilty of much of anything–for some, their only “crime” was not agreeing with Tito and daring to say so. In later decades, people were sent here for other offenses as well, such as deserting from the army.
Goli Otok prison
In fact, one of my friends’ fathers did his military service on the island as a guard. He didn’t like being a guard there, watching over people who had only dared to speak their minds, but for each year you served as a guard on Goli Otok, it counted for two years of your military service, so you could get out more quickly. Most of the Yugoslav public didn’t know about Goli Otok and what went on there, however; the regime didn’t even acknowledge the prison’s existence until the 1980s.
The prison was shut down in 1988 and abandoned in 1989. Today you can only get out there with your own boat. It’s a historically resonant place, but there is not a whole lot to see, mostly various crumbling structures.