The famous “historical NO” stems from a history of relations between FPR Yugoslavia and the USSR significantly more complex than the story of Tito’s shift towards the West.
The abrupt and complete breach between SFR Yugoslavia and USSR in the summer of 1948 was a heavy shock, and one that was difficult for many Yugoslavs to accept. Up until then, Yugoslavia was the most faithful and consistent advocate of Stalin’s political prescription among the countries of the Eastern Bloc. Suddenly, in an apparent act of heresy, Tito began charting a new course away from the flag-bearer of international socialism- the USSR. Expelled from the Cominform, Yugoslavs found themselves exposed to the rage (and without the financial and diplomatic help) of their most powerful former ally, Stalin.
For the 70th anniversary of this event we are returning to look at the main factors contributing to the 1948 Tito-Stalin breach and the Resolution of Cominform document that was read out in Bucharest on the 28th June, a date of manifold symbolism for Yugoslavs.1 We remember the events that unfolded, shaping the course of Socialism in Yugoslavia in the following decades. More importantly, we are calling into question some of the simplified platitudes that are so often repeated in the casual (and sometimes not so casual) interpretations of this pivotal moment in Yugoslav history; setting the narrative straight by capturing some of the complexities in the discussion of 1948-1956 period.
For example, we can often hear the simplified (and therefore incorrect) interpretation that the Tito-Stalin breach came about because Tito steered the course of Yugoslavia away from the USSR and towards the West, and in so doing enraged Stalin and betrayed the USSR. In the following text, we shall see how, in the very beginning of the Yugo-Soviet Cominform split, Stalin’s issue with Yugoslavia was not a treasonous ‘turn toward the imperialist west’, but ‘nationalist and expansionist’ politics in the Balkan peninsula, rendering Yugoslav politics as renegade, and deviating from the course of the Eastern Bloc.
We can, of course talk about Yugoslav ‘socialism on American Wheat [rations]’2 in the period between 1948- 1963. However, this relation was of course the consequence and not the reason for the 1948 Yugo-Soviet breach. Crucially, it must be understood that in this period directly after the war, Stalin himself actually sought to maintain stabile relations with the West. This is a fact so often missing from the analysis of the period, because the Cold War as we know it was still in its embryonic stage, and not yet the preeminent factor of international relations that would open up soon after. Furthermore, there were certain important seeds that were planted, before the war had even ended, that were yet to come to fruition.
Often overlooked on this topic is that the relations of Yugoslavia and the West in 1946 were anything but amicable. It was this very period when the Yugoslavia’s ‘rebellious politics’ largely obstructed Stalin’s plans to keep the relations with the West somewhat stabile, primarily with the USA and then with Britain in respect of the famous ‘Percentage Agreement’ made between Churchill and Stalin in 1944 in the Kremlin.
To shed some light on these matters, Albert Resis revisits a quote form Churchill’s 6 volume work Second World War, where Churchill recalled:
Let us settle about our affairs in the Balkans. Your armies are in Romania and Bulgaria. We have our interests, missions, and agents there. Don’t let us get at cross-purposes in small ways. So far as Britain and Russia are concerned, how would it do for you to have ninety per cent predominance in Romania, for us to have ninety per cent of the say in Greece, and go fifty-fifty about Yugoslavia?” While this was being translated I wrote out on a half-sheet on paper:
I pushed this across to Stalin, who by then had heard the translation. There was a slight pause. Then he took his blue pencil and made a large tick upon it, and passed it back to us. It was settled in no more time than it takes to set down.”3
After the war, Stalin tried to uphold this famous agreement, casually scribbled and ticked with his ‘blue pencil’, justifying his moderately amicable politics toward the ‘imperial forces’ as a necessary, temporary measure. However, Yugoslavia had different ideas and plans.
The victory of the Yugoslav partisan guerrilla (Yugoslav People’s Army) against Nazi occupation in the Second World War was resounding. However this victory was indisputably and resoundingly contributed to by the Red Army during the People’s Liberation Struggle in Yugoslavia, as well as significantly helped, previously, by the Allies with weapons, logistics and intelligence.4
On the wings of this great victory however, Yugoslavs envisaged their future in different contours than those scribbled on the piece of paper by Churchill and ticked by Stalin in Moscow 1944. The Soviet Union and Britain, however felt entitled to claim a fifty-fifty stake in the country that was only grateful to accept their aid. Stalin in particular saw Yugoslavia as the faithful and cooperative satellite. After all, it was in theory as in praxis that the Yugoslav ideologues in government wished to align with the Soviet path toward communism by adapting to the mould of USSR in the development of their own policies, and demonstrating fidelity to what Tito hailed as “the land of socialism”. As such, Yugoslavs became assured of their role in the international working-class struggle, and saw themselves perhaps as the leading entity on the Balkan peninsula with a vision of bringing together a pan-communist league of nations that would include Albania and even Greece.
During the Greek Civil War 1946-1949 Stalin refrained from aiding the Greek communists, and upholded his end of the ‘Percentages Agreement’ by remaining neutral in the conflict between the communist forces and the British supporters in the Greek Parliament. The Yugoslavs however proceeded to wholeheartedly aid their Greek comrades, even beyond contributing to the Greek Communist Party’s effort to take over the government of Greece after the WWII. Namely, during the Greek Civil War the Yugoslavs (without Soviet consent and often openly against the direct orders of Moscow to discontinue such actions) helped the Greek communist guerilla in logistics, training of the guerilla fighters, etc. In so doing, at the outset of the Cold War, Tito jeopardised Stalin’s plan to honour an agreement in sharing the spoils of the Balkans with Churchill, at a time when relations between USSR and the West were becoming increasingly fragile.
With the Cold War maturing and the global political climate becoming increasingly and overtly polarised, Stalin founded the “Cominform” (Information Bureau of the Communist and Workers’ Parties) a cohesive umbrella organisation replacing the Comintern (discontinued under grave pressures of the WWII in 1943). During the founding assembly of the Cominform in late September/early October 1947, the Moscow officials briefed the delegates on their worldview and expressed their stance within it: the world comprising of the two opposing and conflicted forces: Imperialist and Socialist.5 Belgrade was chosen as the place of the headquarters for the new founded Cominform organisation, being the capital of a country who had proven so far to be the most consistent promoter and implementer of the Stalin’s socialist model. And the time it took for Yugoslavia to tumble from this prestigious position in the Cominform into an absolute and abrupt breach with the USSR and the expulsion from this newly re-assembled communist family was just over half a year.
There were other factors involved in the collapse of Yugo-Soviet relations other than Yugoslav involvement in the Geek civil war, such as the issue of the influence Yugoslav Communist Party (KPJ) had on political and economic life in Albania. This influence was consolidated through the Yugo-Albanian ‘agreement of friendship and mutual cooperation’ written in the summer of 1946, of which Stalin was even supportive of, up until the moment when the pro-Soviet orientated faction of the Albanian communist Party requested protection against an ever-growing Yugoslav influence.’6
On top of issues with Greece and Albania, the Soviets finally took issue with Yugoslavia over the Bled Agreement between Tito and Bulgarian Socialist leader Georgi Dimitrov in 1947 toward strengthening bilateral relations and possibly forming a federation. Finally, in early 1948, Stalin decided to intervene by summoning the Yugoslav and Bulgarian leaders to Moscow. The presence of Stalin himself, as well as Zdanov and Molotov gave the meeting due gravity and sent a clear message of interest and intended influence of the Soviets on Balkan affairs.7
At this meeting, the Soviets demanded several things: that the idea of a wider Balkan communist league of countries be abandoned in place of a Yugoslav-Bulgarian alliance, that Yugoslavia limit its influence in Albania, that the Soviets would be consulted before any Balkan leader decided their foreign policy manoeuvres, and that Yugoslavia discontinued any aid being given to Greece.
The three letters
Voicing a firm belief in their own ideological correctness, and never losing sight of their own interests, the Yugoslavs decided upon an unprecedented course of action: to refuse Stalin’s demands. Moreover, they openly criticized the Soviets for their treatment of Yugoslavia. In response to this, Stalin withdrew his military instructors from Yugoslavia, citing the hostile atmosphere towards the Soviet cadre. To this, Tito sent a written response to Stalin, denying the allegations and ensuring Soviet officials that this was not the case. The messenger of this letter to Moscow was the famous Yugoslav diplomat, revolutionary and a former member of the female partisan guerilla, Dragica Vitorović Srzentić.
According to historian Martin Previšić: ‘Although she [Vitolovic Srzentić’s] is routinely spoken about as the messenger of ‘Tito’s No to Stalin’, the more factual interpretation is that she actually brought ‘Stalin’s No to Tito’ back to Belgrade in response.’ In other words, Vitolović Srzentić brought back the first part of the bitter and fervent correspondence between Stalin and Tito, which had set the Tito- Stalin Cominform split into motion.
As Vitolović Srzentić recalled:
Look, I worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and in 1948 I was assigned to hand Tito’s letter to Stalin. I was a deputy of the Secretary General in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at that time. I left for Moscow, carrying the letter. Of course, I was not aware of a conflict with the Russians. I waited for Stalin’s reply for a week in Moscow and after a week I brought it to Belgrade. In his reply, among other things, Stalin slandered my husband [Vojo Srzentić], for allegedly withholding some information from the Russians…”8
Inside the letter, alongside the accusations against Vojo Srzentić and the expressions of discontent regarding the Yugoslav treatment of the Soviet experts in Yugoslavia, Stalin made a number of claims against other members of the Yugoslav Communist Party (KPJ) and accused the KPJ of anti-Soviet and anti-Marxist stances.9
Tito however had no intention to give up on his plans. Quoting the authenticity and the importance of the Yugoslav victory in the People’s Liberation Struggle, he expressed that as much as one loves the USSR,‘the land of socialism’, one must not love their own country any less, in this case the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia which was also in the process of building socialism, and for which hundreds of thousands of their most progressive people had fallen.’10 Because of this, Stalin will also accuse Tito of nationalism at the Bucharest assembly of the Cominform.
On the other hand, a significant number of the KPJ members, some of whom (Vitolović Srzentić included) were revolutionaries, former guerrilla fighters and even decorated People’s Heroes, saw the beginning of the conflict as a painful and confusing dilemma, deeming it unimaginable to chart a course of socialism which would deviate from that set by the USSR.
Vitolović Srzentić further recalled:
After that, the media started writing bad things about the Russians, about how Russian soldiers had behaved inappropriately when they had come [to Yugoslavia] to liberate us. I criticised these claims, because — there was this humorist magazine, Ošišani jež (eng. Trimmed hedgehog) — showing a Russian soldier, his forearm stacked with lots of hand watches … How he had supposedly taken lots of valuable watches as his loot, and I said that it was a disgrace. These people had died in our country in order to liberate us. The truth is, if the Russians hadn’t come on the 20th of October 1944, we wouldn’t have liberated Belgrade then.11
In his second letter from May 4th 1948, Stalin again addressed ideological issues he took with Yugoslavia, labelling the Yugoslav communist leadership as ‘self indulgent, non-self critical, anti-Soviet and Trotskyist. In conclusion, he advised the KPJ leadership to resolve the impending Yugo-Soviet conflict at the Cominform assembly in Bucharest. His third letter was in an even harsher tone and was, in short, the last warning to the Yugoslavs to correct their stances.12
At that moment all eyes in the Cominform fell on Yugoslavia in expectation of their next move. The KPJ officials however, did not show up in Bucharest. On the seventh day (28 June) of the assembly the text of the Cominform resolution was read in absentia.
‘The content of the resolution was divided in 8 clauses. It contained a string of accusations against the Yugoslav communist leadership for manifold deviations in theory and praxis, for stepping away form the core principles of Marxism-Leninism, for the hostile policy toward the USSR and the Soviet Communist Party, for the incorrect Kulak agrarian policies, for undermining the importance of the Party within the state, for the lack of democratic conduct in the work of the Party. He also criticized the Yugoslav absence at that meeting. Clause 8 of the Resolution, however, revealed the newly-assumed position of Yugoslavia in the communist bloc, as well as the Soviets’ future plans with it. ’13
In the well known and widely quoted Clause 8 of the Cominform resolution, Stalin revealed a thinly veiled call for an intra-party coup, attempting to eliminate Tito from the power at the helm of the KPJ:
‘It is the task of the healthy membership of the KPJ to correct their current leaders and force them into honestly and openly admitting misconduct. To abandon nationalism, to return to internationalism, and to work on strengthening a united socialist front against the imperialists with all their might. Alternatively they should replace their current leadership of the KPJ and replace it with the new, Internationale-orientated cadre of the KPJ. The Cominform has no doubt that the KPJ will be able to fulfill this honourable task.’14
This essay was published in Serbian on June 26, 2018.
- On this day among other important events for the area, Gavrilo Princip shot the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914.
- See Jakovina, Tvrtko: Socijalizam na americkoj psenici, Zagreb: Matica Hrvatska (2002)
- Resis, Albert. “The Churchill-Stalin Secret ‘Percentages’ Agreement on the Balkans, Moscow, October 1944.” The American Historical Review, vol. 83, no. 2, 1978, pp. 368–387.
- Franklin Lindsay, John Kenneth Galbraith. Beacons in the Night: With the OSS and Tito’s Partisans in Wartime Yugoslavia Stanford University Press, 1995
- Martin Previšić, PhD thesis, Povijest informbirovkog logora na Golom otoku, University of Zagreb 2014. (introduction).
- Vladimir Dedijer, Novi prilozi za biografiju Josipa Broza Tita. Tom 3. Beograd 1984.,288.
- Interview with Dragica Srzentić, Milica Prokić, 1 Septeber 1st, 2011.
- Martin Previšić, Doktorski rad Povijest informbirovkog logora na Golom otoku
- Vladimir Dedijer, Dokumenti 1948 – Knjiga prva, Beograd 1979. 239.
- Interview with Dragica Srzentić, Milica Prokic September 1st, 2011.
- Martin Previšić, Doktorski rad Povijest informbirovkog logora na Golom otoku
- Martin Previšić, Doktorski rad Povijest informbirovkog logora na Golom otoku
- Vladimir Dedijer, Dokumenti 1948, 1., 305-306.