We were literally all in the same boat. This was Marshall Tito's legendary flagship "The Seagull", the floating summit of Yugoslav diplomacy in the heyday of the Non-Aligned Movement.
From the shining white decks Tito, the heretic Communist turned regional strongman, schemed to unite every nation that had been sidelined and short-changed by the Cold War: Nehru's India, Nasser's Egypt, anyone whose nation sought a third way to prosperity that didn't involve markets, rationing or atomic bombs. The "Seagull," or Galeb, was a super-yacht for Non-Aligned high society, sometimes hosting Gadaffi without his harem, or the period glamour couple of Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. Burton excelled at cinematic World War II heroics, and had used his craggy charm to play Tito himself in a movie.
I remember seeing Richard Burton when the film premiered in Pula, Istria. The British actor saluted the crowd in the arena, who responded with warm applause. Then Tito himself entered the stage, and there was a religious silence before a national ovation burst out. This was pure political theater, like a twentieth century mass media version of an ancient Roman rite: Tito and Burton, costumed dictator and costumed stage hero, standing next to each other, handsome and quite alike, just as their wives, the two beauties dressed in top fashion, were in the same boat.
The sumptuous prestige vessel was deliberately abandoned after Tito's death in 1980, and slipped into obscure decay, rather like Mrs Tito, his final wife Jovanka, who still somehow survives, almost a prisoner in her villa in Belgrade. The Seagull hasn't sunk to the bottom yet either, but it is a living catastrophe of post-industrial rust that would make even Detroit blanch.
This corroded site of a lost and forgotten politics made a spectacularly weird setting for the "Share Conference," an event originally from Belgrade and Novi Sad. It speaks volumes for the new generation of Balkan activists that they can throw an international event in newly Europeanized, relentlessly hip, Croatian Rijeka.
This Adriatic port town, which used to specialize in toxic paper mills and oil refineries, is remodeling itself as a green tourism and cultural hub. Rijeka got everything they bargained for with the Share three day festival of cybergeeks, pirates, dj s and electronic artists. They arrived from all over the world: the Internet-famous, the net-celebrities: the law professors who were were also tattooed djs, the musicians were somehow cryptographers, the elected officials were Icelandic punk poets, the free-software coders who are game designers. They were all young people of searingly high intelligence who lacked any proper career.
Somehow everybody did everything, day and night, with the one commonality being a gritty, non passaran attitude. The unavoidable topic this year was Edward Snowden, a young American voice-of-a-generation who is somehow a spy, a civil libertarian and a major Internet celebrity all at once. Snowden is just the best-known of a growing host of similar nouveau-dissident hard cases, all of them getting briskly named and numbered by friend and foe as new battle-lines form.
Hackers, pirates, software artists, civil libertarians and engineers all singing the free Internet song: beware of Google, and of all the major industries that use the Internet while wrecking its principles! Beware of the NSA, and all its secret friends. Listen to the whistleblowers. Stand up and be counted…
Strange things have happened in this historical city, which has been Roman, feudal, pre-national, post-national, an independent city-state on long occasions, Austro-Hungarian, Italian, Croatian, various forms of Yugoslavian, and which now happens to be European Union. Ninety years ago, Rijeka was the legendary breakaway pirate republic of the warrior-poet Gabriele D'Annunzio, a sinister genius of political theater who wanted to make Rijeka his springboard to conquer all the other ancient Italian republics along the Dalmatian coast.
In the ecstatic D'Annunzio dictatorship, for a year and a half, this port city was a world laboratory of twentieth-century extremist politics, a cradle of all kinds of oddities: fascism, newsreels, radio propaganda, nudity, fad diets, cocaine smuggling, air-war, torpedo boats, piracy, ship hijacking, Black Shirts, and the revived-Roman Fascist one-armed salute. Rijeka even briefly boasted its own anarcho-syndicalist constitution, based on music. The "cyberpunk academy" was the official title for the shipboard event in Tito's post-disaster dystopia, where conclaves were held in the wrecked bedrooms of the dictators, where workshops and panels graced the rusty decks with seating from packing crates. We exchanged codes, secrets, plans, good energy…
The other space for the event was a huge derelict factory, long-abandoned but with trees and flowers growing through the coils and concrete. Quite romantic, quite a realistic image of the true state of matters in today's Adriatic. I met a beautiful young girl from Rijeka on my way to the night club in the industrial part of the city, which was also in ruins, but covered with street art and night clubs.
Nothing that is good manages to stay alive here, she said bitterly.
Women from Rijeka, however, are famous and even notorious for their charm -- and the courage to use it. For centuries they seduced, killed or domesticated their enemies. The face of "Katarina from Rijeka" is on posters even today, a city icon due to her mysterious role in arranging a local cease-fire in the age of Napoleon. Now new girls walk in high heels in unlit alleys…away from the over lit facades of the new tourist-friendly Croatia with its four-stars for the planetary yachting crowd.
It was spooky and sad to walk through those rusty corridors and staterooms of the Cold War's long-forgotten third alternative, to see the fancy furniture from the sixties torn, battered and split at its seams. The flagship of proud Yugoslavia might have simply been scrapped. but it was left to entropy as a deliberate material waste -- a new regime's hateful aversion for everything made and prized by the old. The evil that men do lives after them, while the good is oft interred with their bones.