The Soviet era was, for much of the 20th century, one of oppression. Almost all of the people who lived and died in the countries that formed the USSR did so under the thumb of oppressive, unelected and corrupt old men, seeking to serve only themselves and support the power structure which empowered only them.
To protest against such cruelty was a dangerous thing indeed, and time and again the Red Army was sent into Eastern Bloc countries such as Czechoslovakia and the Baltic States to crush any nascent opposition. It took a certain type of person to stand up to such oppression, and to defy the authorities was rare indeed.
But for one man in Soviet Yugoslavia, defiance was a way of life. He wasn’t even trying to make a point about communism, but his defiance of the rule of the authorities made him a star, and the public response showed Yugoslavia for the first time the extent of the unpopularity of the ruling elite.
This is the story of Vlada Vasiljević, the Belgrade Phantom.
A Tennis Player and a White Porsche
Vlada Vasiljević, nicknamed Vasa Ključ (“Vasa the Key”) was a car thief, famed for his ability to get any car to start. He was well known to the criminal underworld of the city of Belgrade, not least for his habit of stealing cars, driving them at breakneck speeds around the nighttime streets, and then returning them unmarked and even with a full tank of petrol.
However, this all changed when he stole the white Porsche 911 owned by famous Serbian tennis player Ivko Plecevic in 1979. He never returned this car, but instead his exploits while driving it would ensure his place in history.
Taunting the police that they would never catch him in it, he would race around the city streets with several police cars in hot pursuit. A favorite location of his was the Trg Slavija, a large central roundabout with many exist which he could use to escape.
Soon, people started to gather at the roundabout at midnight in the hopes they would catch a glimpse of this defiant man racing away from the authorities. Vasa never disappointed, and for ten days the crowds were rewarded with a white Porsche streaking across the roadways, dancing always out of reach of the chasing authorities.
One photographer, determined to catch a glimpse of the man hidden in the car, even, managed one night to snap a photograph which revealed the face of Vasa. But he chose not to turn the photo in to the police: Vasa had, for him and for the countless others who knew of him, become a hero.
Tito, the ruthless Yugoslavian dictator, had been abroad in Cuba, but with his return imminent and his disproval inevitable, the police hatched a plan. Fire trucks sprayed the Trg Slavija with water, and Vasa surprised by the slick road, lost control and crashed into a nearby bus. However the crowd, by this time some 10,000 strong, surrounded the car and Vasa escaped, once again evading capture.
It would be his underground contacts who eventually gave him up to the police. Finally arrested, Vasa was sentenced to 30 months in prison. But he would never serve his term.
Rumor says that the police sabotaged the car he was a passenger in by cutting the brakes. Vasa’s friend, who was driving, was killed in the subsequent crash, and Vasa himself was injured and taken to hospital. There, it was said, the police made sure he would never leave alive.
Was he a folk hero, defiant against the brutal oppression of the Yugoslavian authorities? Many certainly saw him as such, and the thousands that came out in support of his actions showed for the first time the popular upswelling of resentment against the ruling clique. Maybe he was just a common car thief, but this is not how many remember him.
His defiance was just what the people needed, to show them that things could be different, and to show them that so many others thought the same way.
Top Image: “Vasa the Key”, the Belgrade Phantom, raced the nighttime streets of Belgrade with the police seemingly unable to catch him. Source: Nicolas Serre / CC BY 2.0.
By Joseph Green