Tito lives on

Josef Tito, Yugoslavia’s much-loved dictator revelled in royalty and constantly changed the face of the country

I am the leader of one country which has two alphabets, three languages, four religions, five nationalities, six republics, surrounded by seven neighbours, a country in which live eight ethnic minorities.” - Josef Tito

Coming from India, the name Josef Tito was familiar to me — after all he played a pivotal role in the Non-Aligned Movement along with India — I remember a road in Delhi named after the leader. I was in Belgrade, Serbia and visiting the Museum of Yugoslav History complex where the leader’s mausoleum is located, along with a museum of memorabilia from his life.

Tito’s funeral was a tremendous affair, and his funeral was attended by as many as world leaders from Margaret Thatcher to Yasser Arafat. A 209-strong delegation attended this man’s funeral, from 128 countries. There were 31 presidents, four kings, 22 prime ministers and other dignitaries.

This leader, who was born to a Croat father and a Slovene mother, kept Yugoslavia together for more than 35 years... “He was a benevolent dictator,” says an elderly man who I meet at the museum in Belgrade.

In the leafy Topcider suburb of Belgrade lies the leader’s memorial complex — a museum and mausoleum scattered among birch trees and landscaped lawns dotted with statues including a cloaked Tito statue. One of Serbia’s most popular museums, it hosted more than 1,20,000 visitors in 2017.

Tito was a cult personality — though there were stories of secret police, work camps for dissidents, and his ruling with an iron fist; many believe that he played an important part during the days of the Cold War by treading the path of non-alignment with other leaders like Indira Gandhi, Krushev and Sukarno. “Unlike other Communist countries, Yugoslavia had a liberal travel policy permitting foreigners to freely travel through the country,” explains our local guide.

The House of Flowers, built in 1975, was designed to serve as Tito’s Winter Garden and today, contains his marble mausoleum — the grave of the leader and his deceased spouse Jovanka is a surprisingly simple memorial of marble with gold lettering surrounded by water fountains and flowers.


Tito's statue. Photos by author 

Total recall

In addition to the tomb, the House of Flowers re-creates his office and salon, furnished with decorations and other honours awarded to Tito as well as the personal effects of the leader from his diaries, spectacles to his box of cigars. Headless mannequins model Tito’s famous military uniforms full of badges. There are signed photographs of him with world leaders — I look with interest at one of Nehru and the other of Indira Gandhi.

Taking centre stage is a model of the famous custom-built luxury train — the Blue Train (also called the Peace Train and  Palace on wheels), which ferried Tito across the country and Europe — the famous train ran 6,00,000 km, made 120 peace missions and travelled across 71 foreign states.

Tito met celebrities, world leaders and dignitaries — from Queen Elizabeth to Yasser Arafat — on this train, which had as many as 90 luxury suites furnished with mahogany panels, Persian carpets, crystal chandeliers, and even marble bath tubs. One part of the exhibit has glass cases with rows of relay batons in wood and metal lining the shelves, every year from 1945, President Tito’s birthday in May had been celebrated with a relay race in his honour. Later, these batons were sent to him along with several written messages from all over the country.

In addition to the official batons that were used in the race, each year, villages, towns, schools and associations sent their batons as a gift to Tito.


Museum of Yougoslavia

As we walk through the landscaped grounds with statues laid out on the lawns, we see children and adults dressed in the old Pioneer uniforms; many believe that his death marked the beginning of the breakup of the Yugoslav nation.

True to his world popularity, the museum showcases some of the 2,00,000 items gifted to Tito by foreign dignitaries, statesmen and visiting delegations from around the world. Tito’s wardrobe is also displayed — with his uniforms and accessories — sometimes, he is said to have changed three-four outfits in a day!

In these cabinets of curiosities, the gifts range from homemade socks and llama dolls from Peru to embroidered blouses, vintage cameras and transistors, musical instruments, dolls from various countries wearing their national costumes, a collection of swords from Japan, masks, and even a fragment of a temple from Cambodia! I’m happy to see a tabla and a kathakali doll from India among the gifts.

Like a king

“Tito was a flamboyant Communist leader — he had expensive tastes, and loved women, elegant attire, travel and wine. But he did a lot for the Yugoslavians, and that’s why he is revered even today,” says a local that I meet in a café in the city. It’s just a small part of the puzzle and enigma that Josef Tito was in his lifetime. And part of what is termed Yugo-nostalgia — the longing for the culture and icons of the erstwhile state of Yugoslavia, now fractured into six republics — Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia!

In Belgrade, Tito still lives on.

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