Imaginings and Reinterpretations: The Records of Goli Otok, “Tito’s Gulag”

Goli Otok (literally Bare Island, also referred to as “Tito’s Gulag”) is a tiny uninhabited rock off Croatia’s Adriatic coast, devoid of vegetation and sanitation and accessible only by boat. First used by Austria-Hungary in World War I to hold Russian prisoners of war, it was transformed in 1949 by Yugoslavia’s new leader, Josip Broz Tito, into a high security prison and brutal forced labor complex for male pro-Soviet opposition and other political and ideological dissenters. A neighboring island, Sveti Grgr, housed a similar camp for women political prisoners. At first dissenters were “disappeared,” often without their families having any idea where they had gone. Later, a culture of silence based in fear or shame developed among prisoners’ families, friends and neighbours. Former prisoners found themselves without political rights or sometimes citizenship, unable to find employment, subject to harassment by secret police and even rejected by their own families. Goli Otok was closed in 1988 and Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. Over the years, Goli Otok has been framed in the region’s social imaginary by persisting official and personal silences. In the absence of declarative evidence in the form of available official records or even official acknowledgment, and with only a few former prisoners prepared to talk or write about their experiences, filmmakers and writers as well as historians presented their own interpretations. In February 2014, Novi Plamen, a left wing magazine, posted the names and demographics of prisoners, compiled from records held under confidentiality restrictions in the Croatian State Archives, in a blog that was subsequently picked up by media across the former Yugoslav republics. During the same period, the Croatian State Archives worked with a Croatian director to produce a new film based upon some of the files in the Croatian State Archives reinterpreting what had happened on Goli Otok. This paper will examine how both the absence and the presence of documentary evidence about Goli Otok and its prisoners have been used by the media and artistic and literary productions in the shaping and reshaping of public imaginaries and memory politics in Yugoslavia and in today’s independent republics.

Anne Gilliland is a Professor in the Department of Information Studies, Director of the Center for Information as Evidence, and a faculty affiliate of the Center for Digital Humanities at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA).  Her recent work addresses recordkeeping and archival systems and practices in support of human rights and daily life in post-conflict settings; the role of community memory in promoting reconciliation in the wake of ethnic conflict; bureaucratic violence and the politics of metadata; and research methods and design in archival studies.