Communism in Aphorism
(with the transition thrown in ...)

Aphorisms by Zarko Petan

    Presented by Ljubo Sirc

    About the Author of 'Aphorisms'

Zarko Petan (pronounced Zharko Pehtan) was born on 27 March 1929 in Ljubljana; he later lived in Zagreb and Maribor. He went to school in Senj on the Adriatic Coast and hated it. He graduated in Economics, but forgot everything about it since. His real passion is theatre and writing. Apparently he directed over 110 performances in various theatres in Slovenia. He has directed plays by Ionesco, Durrematt, Mrozek, Fuzdean, Shakespeare, Pirandello, and Handke. His career culminated in his appointment as director of the Slovene National Television and Radio, but the (ex?)-communists quickly succeeded in changing the rules and removed him from the post.

He has written books about Tito under the titles of The Marvelous Life of J. B. Tito and The Frivolous Dictator, and has also written about himself and his family in books such as The Past and The Continuation of the Past. Most of his works have been translated into German, some into French and Italian, not to mention Slovak, Bulgarian and Rumanian.

When doing his military service in 1959, Zarko Petan was arrested for allegedly spying for the United States. He was kept in prison for one and a half years.

About the Translator

Ljubo Sirc is an economist. He was born in Kranj, Slovenia, in April 19, 1920. He participated in the Resistance and served in the Yugoslav Army between 1941 and 1945. In 1947, due to his political opposition and friendship with Western diplomats, he was sentenced to death. He was imprisoned in Slovenia/Yugoslavia from 1947 to 1954, but escaped to the United Kingdom via Italy in 1955/56.

He received a law degree from the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia in 1945, and a Doctorate in Economics from Fribourg University, Switzerland in 1961. Since that time he has held academic appointments at the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh; the University of St. Andrews, Dundee, Scotland; Center Nationale de la R�ch�rche Scientifique, Paris, Universities of Frankfurt, Hamburg and Stanford; and the University of Glasgow, Scotland.

Ljubo Sirc has served as Director of the Center for Research into Post-Communist Economies in London. since 1983. He is the author of numerous books and articles in a variety of languages. His autobiography, Between Hitler and Tito, was published in 1989.

Communism in Aphorism

(with the transition thrown in)

Had I lived in a different country at a different time,
I could consider myself more fortunate,
but my aphorisms would be worse.

When Bill Clinton visited Slovenia in 1999, some people thought that he should, at least briefly, meet the representatives of those who had suffered under communism, especially if their suffering was somehow connected with the United States.

It was not to be - the American president declared that a political situation in which (ex?) communists dominated was excellent and gave the Slovenian President, Milan Kucan an ecouraging pat on the back. Why not? President Kucan was the last Secretary General (in Yugoslav parlance "president") of the Slovenian Communist Party (in Yugoslav parlance "Communist League"). His head of electoral staff, Professor Zdenko Roter, is an old political policeman; he personally interrogated this writer when he was tried for his life, in particular for his Western sympathies. Another Kucan's cherished friend (according to the Slovene State TV) is the notorious former top political policeman, Colonel Mitja Ribicic, who became the Prime Minister of Yugoslavia around 1970 when Tito tried to re-introduce class politics. In 1947, Ribicic organized a Stalinist-type show-trial of several young Slovenian patriots who established contacts with their former British and American friends. Several were sentenced to death on fabricated charges. One, Nagode was shot. To this day, no one knows where they buried him. This was the kind of company President Kucan was keeping during President Clinton's visit while telling him about the marvels of democracy in Slovenia.

Amongst those with whom, in the opinion of this author, President Clinton should have shaken hands, was Zarko Petan, a well-known Slovene writer. He had a very hard time because his brother worked for Radio Free Europe in Munich. Petan described his misadventures in his own book The Past.

Yet, the communists could not get at him. He even defended himself which was considered to be very bad, in line with saying "The beast is dangerous, it defends itself." Petan's main strength was his humorous disposition. Instead of succumbing, he started composing aphorisms. He chose this form of expression as one particularly appropriate to for those in prison, since the short, biting sentences are easy to remember.

It is an intriguing thought to use such short sentences (in the old Latin sense of sententiae to illustrate the development of a country under communist rule and the present transition. They show the country and the world around it through the eyes of a creative writer, a writer of aphorisms. This is a way of not reporting mere dry facts, but of conveying to the reader a part of the feelings that animated the subjects of a totalitarian regime and its aftermath.

The Quality of Communist Freedom

Petan was too young to react to the events of the so-called "liberation struggle". There do not seem to be any aphorisms commenting on the communists' switches from liberation struggle to revolution . Nor does there seem to be any comment on the tragedy that ensued when the communists' revolutionary zeal pushed a considerable number of Slovenes into Nazi hands, believing they could not otherwise defend themselves against either the communists' attempts to impose their own leadership monopoly, or communist attempts to "liquidate" their opponents. Yet he does write

In revolution, more people get killed after the battle than during it.

And he confirms

The revolution devours its children as a first course, and then everybody else that comes its way.

Possibly, it should be the other way round. But Petan is well aware that many people thought that the "freedom" which the communists had brought eventually was to be strongly qualified.

We have paid too much for freedom, especially considering its quality.

A more radical approach would read:

At the liberation of our fatherland we lost liberty.

The lack of freedom's quality can be most vividly explained:

Sometimes, it is better to think with the head of somebody else, to protect one's own.

Under these circumstances, people hope that truth will prevail:

Truth will always prevail in the end, but unfortunately we are only at the beginning.

Other talents are in demand while waiting for freedom:

I know somebody who is successful in turning his subjective mistakes into objective difficulties.

Blaming everything on objective difficulties was the communists' chosen way of dealing with the consequences of their own stupidity. Sometimes it was not all that easy to catch what the communist bosses wanted one to say:

Whoever believes he understands what is demanded should ask again, just in case.

That had to be so because

Whenever there is only one path it is easiest to lose one's way.

Too Clever for Communism

Communists started so many things that went wrong that they must have felt - deep down - somewhat stupid. Possibly this was the reason why they disliked clever people so much. Indeed, they did not like Petan who, at any rate, was also a "class enemy" since his father owned a caf� in the second largest Slovenian town Maribor. Being of the wrong "social origin" and clever at the same time could prove fatal. Although Petan was not interested in politics but in theatre directing - one of his particularly expressive aphorisms is

Theatre directors think they are gods; unfortunately, actors are atheists.

- at the same time the communist politicians were interested in him:

I have no time for politics but politics had a lot of time for me.

Petan felt that

They will never forgive me that I was right.

Whoever knew the actual truth about the economic or political situation in the country had to consider himself

A prophet in the wrong country.

Neither did morality or decency pay:

Should you have firm principles, do not abide by them.


A clear conscience is more of a disadvantage than an advantage.

Far better to indulge in self-criticism even if you are right. The art can be perfected to such an extent that

He writes self-criticism for others.

Regretting one's non-existent sins was the only way to keep clear of the police and at that

Ordinary police search for criminals; the secret police designate who they are.

The secret police were so efficient that

I wonder from where so many class enemies in our classless society.

But before you are designated a criminal, keep in mind

You are allowed to speak freely - as arranged.

Even better

Be sensible and don't think.

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Or at least

Write always what you think others think.

Lieing became a way of life and even stretched to past events.

Sometimes it is difficult to forecast the past.

Petan in consequence exclaims

Historians (loyal to the Party) our past is in your hands.

What is interesting and amusing is that things could run away with the opportunists who did not believe in communism but wanted to please the powers that be:

It is dangerous if the fellow-travellers travel faster than the travellers.

Some well-wishers were, however, no cleverer than the communists themselves:

He was an idealist but had no ideas.

What was socialism really like?