What is Goli?


We can best describe Goli Otok and Sveti Grgur as sites of repressive destalinisation. They were created in 1949, as the Yugoslav Communist Party’s answer to the break between Tito and Stalin, with the intention of “re-educating” those members who were politically disloyal or critical. As the Stalinist nature and the vehemence of the repressive activities of the Yugoslav security apparatus against their own citizens remained concealed until the dissolution of Socialist Yugoslavia a few decades later, the meaning of this break had remained ambivalent, denied or repressed in the common collective consciousness. Tito’s “NO” to the 1948 Cominform Resolution was an act of exceptional courage and opposition to Stalin’s hegemony, yet it also triggered a campaign of political terror in which the state’s secret services broke laws, stripped people of their civil rights and denied the ethical principles of Communist action, which changes the society for the better by changing and emancipating the individual. Even seventy years later, there is still no consensus either on the need to protect Goli Otok as a landmark, or on a memorial gesture to mark the existence of a Communist camp for re-educating dissidents (1949-1956).

Tito’s idea, that Cominformists[1]should be broken, not killed,[2]opened the path not only for the tried and tested methods of interment in camps, but also for the introduction of a series of elements specific to Goli Otok, especially when it came to the camps’ female inmates. As a penal system with the objective of isolating and neutralising (“psychologically breaking”) political dissenters and people with a penchant towards a taking a critical view of the new authorities, it had a number of similarities to the Fascist camps on Italian islands, Nazi labour camps, and Stalinist gulags, as well as camps for socially beneficial labour and re-education of the sort we would encounter before and during the Chinese cultural revolution and in other Eastern Bloc countries.[3]Between 1950 and 1956, a political camp was situated by turns on the islands of Sveti Grgur and Goli Otok (Worksite V). Some 860 women were interned there at one time or another, accused of connections to the Cominform in the framework of the “provisional legal framework for penalising and the trial process”.[4]The structure of the convicts shows that this was not merely an aping of Stalinist methods and Russian camps for relatives of “traitors of the Homeland”[5]but the punishment, by and large, of politically fully fledged and self-aware women, chief among whom were the Communists,[6]who believed that they really were equal to their (powerful) comrades in their hold on the levers of power.

The female inmates had to build the paths and the many buildings, only traces of which remain today, on their own. With an exceptionally cruel system of punishment, where the inmates were forced to themselves perpetrate torture, the camp was a site of suffering and humiliation. The harassment of the accused women and police surveillance continued even after they had left the camp.


Whoever beat more fiercely, got out more quickly”



On both sites where the women’s camps were, we find bunkers and guardhouses with guards, barbed wire fences, worn out uniforms, hunger and thirst as means of coercion, physical torture and punishment rituals, forced labour and “re-education” by beatings. While the system of surveillance and organisation had been adopted from the camp systems listed above, while modes of punishment and humiliation were largely borrowed from the long memory of incarceration and subjugation in the Balkans of those who are weaker along gender, class and ideological lines, political indoctrination was the product of a new era and new means of mass communication. The rituals and cultural practices that were used to shape the collectivist society were merely adapted to camp conditions. The patterns of agitprop culture (“political lessons, reading groups, meetings, dance parties, songs”)[7]aimed at creating a normative Socialist man with the help of self-censorship, self-correction and the self-regulation of one’s physical behaviour and thought, while also as encouraging togetherness and World War II victors’ pride. Just like labour actions, in the camps, hard labour was accompanied by marching to the worksites, the ceaseless chanting of slogans, creating banners and singing revolutionary songs, all in order for the collective to become onebody, with oneheart pledging allegiance to the leader.

If we keep in mind the atmosphere of affective exaltation of the post-war period, it becomes easier to understand why convict life and forced labour on Goli Otok and Sveti Grgur were accompanied by the daily chanting of slogans (Who isn’t with us better not be at all!, We’ll kill all dogs who are against the C-P-Y!, For who? For Tito! For the Party! Everyone! Everyone! Everyone!, and so on), the singing of revolutionary songs, writing slogans (women used pieces of glittering calcite to write Tito’s name on an elevation), and why only privileged activistsand brigadistsparticipated in the folk arts and theatre groups, and saw the occasional film screening. As Natalija Petrović has testified, “’cultural programmes’, whose substance boiled down to humiliating and ridiculing the inmates, the constant shouting of slogans and singing stupid songs that even savages would baulk at – it all had one sole aim: to physically wear out and morally grind down the convict, until they were willing to state, sign or do anything, really anything, whatever they were asked to.[8]The coexistence of physical and psychological violence as a determinant of camp life is also mentioned by Eva Grlić: “the absolute grinding down of the personality, both physically, by continuous hard labour, abnormal living conditions, and also morally and mentally, through the constant repetition of the statement that all of us who found ourselves here are ‘traitors’ of the country, the Party, the people and Tito”.[9]Party phantasms about “women’s betrayal”,[10]about the “crime of separation” from the fatherly figure of the leader were the reason for coming up with the gender-specific forms of maltreatment, verbal abuse, uglifying and shaming.


Renata Jambrešić Kirin “The Reeducation of Women on the islands Grgur and Goli – Moral Corruption and Ideological Indoctrination”, published in December 2020 as a part of the project publication, PDF




[1]             Cominformists, or Ibeovciin the Croatian and Serbian language, were those who opted for the 1948 Cominform Resolution and its, mostly false, accusations against Josip Broz Tito and the Yugoslav Communist Party.

[2]             Tito’s motto was “on their heads, but not off with them”, cf. Božo Jezernik Non cogito ergo sum, Ljubljana, 1994, Borec 533/534, p. 686.

[3]             The concept of corrective labour camps (“Gulags”) was introduced by the USSR in 1929, with the aid of Stalin’s repressive apparatus. The GULAG is actually an acronym for the Main Directorate of corrective labour camps and colonies (Glavnoe upravlenie lagerei), which administered the huge network of camps (labour, convicts’ transit, women’s children’s, “maternal” camps and camps for criminals and political prisoners).

[4]             Martin Previšić, Povijest Golog otoka [The History of Goli Otok], Zagreb, 2019, p. 164. Based on UDBA records, Previšić shows that “around 550 to 570” passed through both camps, noting that there had never been more than 380 to 400 women inmates there at a single time”, p. 468.

[5]             Such camps were known under the acronym ČSIR – Člyen sem’i izmennika Rodini. Cf. Nanci Adler, The Gulag Survivor, New Brunswick, 2002.

[6]             Kolet Smiljanić, journalist and translator for Radio Belgrade, testified about this: “When the people from UDBA were apprehending me, I told them – I wasn’t educated by the street, but by the Party. It taught me all this. It taught me to be honest and to honestly express my opinion”. Cf. Dragoslav Simić and Boško Trifunović, ed. Ženski logor na Golom otoku – ispovesti kažnjenica i islednice [Women’s Camp on Goli Otok. Convicts’ and Jailors’ Testimonies], Belgrade, 1990, p. 26.

[7]        Simić and Trifunović. Ženski logor na Golom, Belgrade, 1990, p. 9. (Natalija Petrović’s testimony)

[8]             Op. cit., p. 13. See, e.g., the description of similar “accusatory meetings“ during the Chinese cultural revolution: “Carefully arranged and organized, the mass trials and accusatory meetings followed clear and meticulously prearranged patterns. Dramatic devices such as staging, props, working scripts, agitators, and climactic moments were used to efficiently engage the emotions of the audience—to stir up resentment against the targeted groups and mobilize the audience to support the regime“. Klaus Mühlhahn, Criminal Justice in China: A History, Cambridge, MA, 2009, pp. 182–183.

[9]             Eva Grlić, Sjećanja [Memories], Zagreb, 1997, p. 203.

[10]           Warden Marija Zelić used to welcome the convicts with the following words: “What you did was a betrayal of the country. You betrayed the country at the most difficult moment. (…) just when the Party counted upon you the most, you stabbed the Party in the back” (Simić and Trifunović, Ženski logor na Golom otoku, p. 228).