YUGOSLAVIA 25 YEARS ON: Museum stirs mixture of nostalgia, disgust and indifference

YUGOSLAVIA 25 YEARS ON: Museum stirs mixture of nostalgia, disgust and indifference
Museum of the History of Yugoslavia, Belgrade.
By Andrew MacDowall in Belgrade May 25, 2016

On the northern slope of Topcider, one of Belgrade’s seven hills, lies the shady Hajd Park, incongruously named after the royal park in London, rendered phonetically in Serbian. In this district of embassies and elegant fin-de-siècle villas overlooking the less lovely concrete blocks of inner-suburban Belgrade, groups of people wind their way up paved paths to a broad grey building. Most are middle-aged, but young couples and school groups also pass the fountains, up a broad flight of steps, and towards the glass doors, beneath a vast mosaic of soldiers and workers that looks more African than Balkan.

This is the Museum of the History of Yugoslavia, or MIJ. It’s the most popular museum in Serbia – the country’s National Museum has been closed since 2003 – with 100,000 visitors every year. Of these, 80% are from outside the former Yugoslavia, but on two of the busiest days, May 4 and 25, the majority are from the region. On May 4 alone, 5,000 visitors teemed through the marble halls, and up beyond the main museum to what for many is the main attraction – the mausoleum of Josip Broz Tito, architect and leader of communist Yugoslavia, who died on that day in 1980.

“The museum was the biggest gift from the City of Belgrade to Tito, on his 70th birthday in 1962,” says Ana Radic, the museum’s public relations manager, in the main hall, as sunlight pours through the large windows. Tito’s official birthday was May 25, when the museum offers free entry, hence the crowds.

Twenty-five years after the declaration of independence of Slovenia and Croatia that heralded the break-up of Yugoslavia, memories of the country remain contested: Yugoslavs respond variously with nostalgia, disgust, and indifference. “Ljubomir Kuljic, the prominent Serbian scholar, argued that in the Balkans the civil war was ended, but the war of memories is still in progress,” says Katarina Zivanovic, the museum’s head of international cooperation. “Today across the ex-Yugoslav region a large number of social groups with different political, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds see themselves as the inheritors of Yugoslav values. On the other hand, with the currently growing nationalism in the region… a lot of people consider Yugoslavia as a failed experiment that should be forgotten as soon as it possible. Only an insignificant proportion of citizens is indifferent about this part of our common history.”

The MIJ is divided into three sections: the Museum of the 25th of May, in the main building, with rotating exhibitions related to Yugoslavia; Tito’s mausoleum, known as the Kuca Cveca or “House of Flowers”; and the “old museum” behind it. The museum as a whole is undergoing an overhaul, to be completed in 2018, the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the “first Yugoslavia” – the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs – which was renamed Yugoslavia in 1929.

The Museum of the 25th of May building is being renovated and will continue to host temporary exhibitions, while the old museum will display artefacts including some of the approximately 75,000 gifts that Tito received during his three and a half decades as Yugoslav leader. These include moon stones from the Apollo 11 and 17 missions, a sabre from Stalin (before the Soviet-Yugoslav split), a jawbone given to him by a dentist, ancient Greek and Roman artefacts, and a Tiffany pen given to him by JFK – Tito reportedly having been the last foreign dignitary to meet the US president in an official capacity before the latter’s assassination. There are also around 25,000 batons of various designs made for the Relay of Youth, which culminated on May 25. Some are already on display in the mausoleum, with batons topped by fish, rockets and tanks among the collection.

Tito’s unmistakeable silhouette looms out of many of the posters in the current temporary design exhibition, but the museum is anxious that the leader’s shadow does not smother other memories of Yugoslavia. Another spring exhibition is dedicated to pre-war Yugoslav branches of the Sokol organisation, a pan-Slavic sports and gymnastics movement.

Understandably, many of those visiting the museum are what could be termed Yugonostalgics; Yugonostalgia being particularly prominent among the intelligentsia in many of the former Yugoslav republics.

“If you ask me what I feel about Yugoslavia, it’s similar to asking a fellow who’s been married for many years what he thinks about his first years of marriage,” says Milenko Vasic, a 64-year-old photographer and artists admiring posters ranging from psychedelic to art deco in the museum. “It was calm and very safe, it was very easy living. We were in touch with culture from around the world. You didn’t have to pay for university or the dentist. Then we found ourselves in this bloody war.”

Vasic, an ethnic Serb born in Mostar in Herzegovina (“it was an amalgam of Catholics, Orthodox, Muslims, and Jews”, he says), bemoans the fact that many young people have no relationship with the Yugoslav era, drawn instead to symbols of Serb nationalism. He says that Serbian society has become divided again along World War II lines, when Serbia was split between Chetnik nationalists and pro-Yugoslav partisans – “we are still cowboys and Indians”.

House of Flowers

Tito’s mausoleum is remarkably unprepossessing, a bungalow in yellowy-brown brick that resembles more a suburban swimming baths than the last resting place of one of the totemic figures of the 20th century. The Yugoslav leader lies inside beneath a large marble block surrounded by plants, with his wife Jovanka beside him under a much lower slab since her death in 2013. Visitor numbers dropped off from the 2mn it saw the year of Tito’s death, but the House of Flowers still draws a steady trickle of tourists and pilgrims.

“We think it was better living in Yugoslavia,” says Marusa, a 21-year-old Slovenian visitor reading scans from the old book of condolences with her boyfriend. One note reads, “Dear Comrade… life without you here is impossible”, but Marusa acknowledges that she has no memory of Yugoslavia, having been born after Slovenia’s independence. Her country has been an EU member state for more than half her lifetime. “Serbia is poor now, and Serbia and Croatia hate each other, it was better when all the people were united,” she says. “Maybe it’s better for some people now, but for some it’s not.”

These sentiments are not unusual. Aljaz Bitenc, a Slovene commentator and blogger using the nom de plume Pengovsky, says that Slovenia’s difficulties since 2007 have revealed the post-communist incompetence and fraud masked by the country’s economic boom, with the political class either doubling down or failing to address its shortcomings. Meanwhile, social conservatism has reasserted itself, and political divisions papered over by the consensus for EU accession and Eurozone membership (in 2004 and 2007, respectively) have re-emerged.

“The post-2007 period can be defined by three R’s: reform – or rather, the lack thereof –radicalisation, and re-traditionalisation,” Bitenc tells bne IntelliNews. “With this, the paradox of Yugonostalgia becomes slightly more comprehensible (even though the irony is self-evident). To many, especially the liberal Generation-Xers, this is not about harking back to the socialist regime they opposed on so many levels, but rather a cry of ‘can we start over, please?’”

Bitenc adds that many in the old industrial working class, who “definitely suffered the most with the advent of capitalism as they found they're ill equipped for the new reality”, also miss the days when pay cheques were regular and social services free. “As for the kids, sporting Yugoslavia symbols, that's more of a mild rebellion than anything else, a way to flip the finger to the older generation, doing something you know will piss them off, without actually thinking it through,” he says. Recent demonstrations for and against migrants have seen World War II nationalist and (less prominently) communist symbols being used, even if long-running disputes over wartime atrocities have faded.

“The more post-Yugoslav states are in crisis and unhappy with their prospects, the more they turn back to nostalgia for old times: sometimes back into extreme nationalism, and sometimes back to socialist Yugonostalgia as a form of Ostalgia [from the German term for nostalgia for the GDP],” Dejan Jovic, a Croatian political scientist who has written about the disintegration of Yugoslavia, tells bne IntelliNews.

Jovic says that Yugoslavia’s period of peace, compared to the wars that came before and after it, is its most important legacy. In his view, the nationalist-driven wars and subsequent economic collapse of the 1990s “re-legitimised the main justification for a Yugoslavia: without compromise and friendship between Yugoslav nations there can only be a disaster for all of them”.

This feeling is naturally particularly strong in Bosnia & Herzegovina, the country most brutally affected by the wars of Yugoslav succession. Bosnia was also one of the poorest former republics, which benefitted from transfers from the wealthier parts of Yugoslavia.

Jovic adds that the postwar “modernising project” and the country’s standing as a leading non-aligned nation are also positive aspects remembered by many Yugoslavs. Interest in the culture and political developments in other former republics remains fairly strong, despite the redrawing of borders. “But nobody advocates the renewal of Yugoslavia,” he notes, admitting that the positive view of the old socialist federation is far from universal.

A new fascist face

Indeed, Jovic’s native Croatia perhaps has the most polarised “Cowboys vs. Indians” political discourse, which has been brought back into focus by the new conservative-dominated government.

Culture Minister Zlatko Hasanbegovic has been accused of glorifying Croatia’s brief spell of independence under its Nazi-backed Ustasha World War II regime, which was responsible for the extermination of tens of thousands of Jews, Serbs, Roma and others.

Many on the political right portray Ustasha fascism and Yugoslav communism as equivalents, with the conservative-nationalist Croatian Democratic Union that led Croatia to independence in the 1990s and recently returned to power playing up the opposition Social Democratic Party’s Yugoslav communist roots, claiming that the leftists never wanted Croatia to be independent in the first place. This defines Croatia’s struggle for independence as much from the long forced marriage of Yugoslavia as from the 1990s outbreak of Greater Serbian nationalism.

There are annual protests in Zagreb against the fact that one of its main squares is named after Tito, portrayed by demonstrators as a “terrorist” and mass-murderer: the anniversary of the Bleiburg Repatriations, which resulted in the death at partisan hands of innocent women and children as well as Ustasha soldiers and officials, is a highly-charged date for many Croats.

Nonetheless, Jovic argues that, as a new generation of post-Yugoslavs with no memory either of the country or the wars comes of age, they will start to explore the history and legacy of Yugoslavia for themselves, leaving aside the “myth-making” from both cowboys and Indians.

This may be an optimistic view. Dusan Janjic, a Serbian sociologist and expert on nationalism, says that there is little public interest in Yugoslavism as a concept in Serbia itself, nor the legacy of communism, though there is, as elsewhere, nostalgia for the relatively stable economic situation and guaranteed jobs.

The legacy of state-led development is as strong in Serbia as almost anywhere in the former Yugoslavia, with sections of the political class and the electorate resistant to the idea of selling assets to foreign investors. The belief that “we did this before without foreigners” is quite robust, despite the changed political reality – and a much-reduced domestic market.

Exceptions are Serbia’s minority communities, particularly Muslim Bosniaks, who tend to feel more affinity with multi-ethnic Yugoslavia. “It’s quite strange that, compared to the former USSR, or Romania, the memory is not so strong,” he tells bne IntelliNews. “The post-Tito and Milosevic periods are almost deleted, nobody discusses them, and that’s one of the serious problems, as that’s when our current political leadership emerged.”

For Janjic, the ties between the Serb-dominated Yugoslav intelligence service, politicians and organised crime, which emerged in the last two decades of communism, are one of its strongest, but least-discussed, legacies in Serbia.

Twenty-five years on, Yugoslavia is remembered for security of employment and public services, in contrast to the crisis-hit and resource-starved reality found in most of the republics today. For some, it also represents an absence of war. For others, this came at the price of the dictatorial crushing of national freedom and ambition. More nuanced interpretations, examining the meaning of Yugoslav identity, the birth of Yugoslavia as empires that had dominated it for centuries collapsed and the downsides of communism’s economic legacy, may take more years to take shape in the public discourse.

“We [at the MIJ] believe that there is no single memory and unique culture of Yugoslavia that we need to preserve,” says Zivanovic, back at the museum. “We think of Yugoslav heritage as a set of different values that are not necessarily positive. The objectives of the MIJ were defined not only as preserving that heritage, but also as collecting, researching, negotiating and sharing it.”

This article, published on Tito's official birthday, is the first in a series bne IntelliNews is running to mark the 25th anniversary of the split of Yugoslavia on June 25.