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analysis 04 Nov 13

A Cultural History of Serbia

The article traces the history of Serbia from the first arrival of Slavic tribes in the area of modern-day Serbia to the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. It discusses many of the cultural influences that have shaped, and are continuing to shape, Serbian identity and nationhood.

By Markus Balázs Göransson

Settlement and conversion

Little is known about the origins of the Slavs who settled in the Balkan Peninsula in the sixth and seventh centuries, although legends speak of a ‘White Serbia’ to the north, in the area of modern-day Poland. What is known is that the Slavs arrived in tribes that eventually spread across the peninsula to form the precursors of later nations. Such were the Serbs, the Bulgars and the Croats, although other Slavic tribes, too, were present in the region at this time.

The early history of the South Slav peoples was shaped by their location at the frontiers of two major cultural spheres: Rome and Byzantine. Pagan at first, the Slavs received the Christian faith in the ninth century, and did so from two different sources: While some were converted by Roman missionaries and became Catholic, others turned to Constantinople and accepted the Orthodox variant of Christianity. With time, religion would become bound up with the national identities of the Slavic peoples and a major criterion by which they distinguished themselves. Today, Croats and Serbs identify themselves with their Catholic and Orthodox faiths respectively.

Conversion to Orthodoxy became a gateway to Byzantine culture. Not only did it lead to allegiance being established with the Byzantine Empire and the road being opened to diplomatic contact and economic exchange, but along with Orthodoxy came also the entire corpus of Byzantine liturgical literature. This literature would provide a model for literary production in the Orthodox Slav kingdoms for centuries to come, even shaping secular literature in the late medieval period. Importantly, the Byzantine Church encouraged the use of the vernacular in liturgy, which enabled local Slavic tongues to develop into literary languages through the translation and production of religious texts.

Beyond cultural influence, Byzantine sought control also by military means and fought the Slavic peoples in repeated wars. Taking advantage of dynastic struggles among Serbian potentates in the tenth century, Byzantine eventually conquered most of the territories inhabited by the Serbs. Although the Serbian lands were never entirely closed to influences from the West, as they continued to maintain contacts with Rome and the northern Adriatic coast, the period under Byzantine rule saw the consolidation of Constantinople’s cultural domination. Churches were built in typically Byzantine style and towns such as Belgrade and Nis grew after they had been turned into ecclesiastical or secular centers. Byzantine in this period established with the Serbian lands cultural links that would later prove central in the development of a distinctly Serbian culture.

The Nemanjic dynasty and Serbia’s golden age

The contours of the early Serbian kingdoms began to take shape in the ninth century in Zeta (near today’s Shköder in Albania) and Raska (close to present-day Novi Pazar). The expansion of these kingdoms had long been checked by the powerful states of Hungary and Byzantine, who both vied for control over the Balkans. However, a turning point came in the twelfth century when the Raskan leader Stefan Nemanja began to extend his power, taking advantage of Byzantine’s beginning decline. A series of wars brought new territories under Raskan control, and by the time of Nemanja’s abdication in the 1190s, his kingdom covered the areas of Zeta, South Morava, Great Morava, Kosovo and the region around Lake Scutari. The Raskan kingdom continued to expand under Nemanja’s successors and would at its height stretch from the Danube in the north to the Peloponnesians in the south.

The Nemanja period has gone down in Serbia’s annals as Serbia’s Golden Age. Apart from fervent territorial expansion, it was also a time when a distinctly Serbian culture and identity began to develop. Two of the architects behind the growth of the Raskan state were Nemanja’s sons, Stefan and Sava. Stefan succeeded his father on the throne and pursued the latter’s drive for expansion. His brother Sava proved an adroit statesman who conducted successful diplomacy with neighboring powers.

In 1217, Sava sent an emissary to Pope Honorius, asking for papal recognition of King Stefan. The Pope agreed and sent Stefan his blessing, thereby hugely boosting the prestige of the kingdom as well as the Nemanjić line. Sava then negotiated an agreement with the emperor and patriarch of Byzantine, establishing  an independent archbishopric for Raska. With Sava as its first head, the new Raskan Church became closely linked to the Crown, marking the beginning of a long symbiosis between the two institutions.

The autocephalous (independent) Raskan Church enhanced the cultural independence of the Nemanjic state, forming a framework within which a distinctly Serbian culture could develop. Literature and architecture flourished under the auspices of the Church and in both domains there was an embrace of the vernacular, with domestic styles becoming fused with Byzantine and Roman influences. Books and texts (both written and copied) were produced by Serbs themselves. Of particular note were the two biographies of Stefan Nemanja (canonised as St. Simeon) written by Sava and Stefan Nemanjic. Not only were these biographies important in the development of a Nemanjic cult but they were also significant in demonstrating a distancing from the Byzantine hagiographic tradition by combining different rhetorical models such as the eulogy and the vita.  In architecture, meanwhile, churches and monasteries were constructed in line with the ideals of the Raska School of Architecture, characterised by a fusion of the Byzantine and Romanesque styles. Studenica, Zica, Mileseva, Sopocani and Gradac are all examples of religious houses built in this spirit.  

Raska continued to expand under kings Stefan Dragutin and Stefan Uroš II and at the end of the latter’s reign stretched from Belgrade to central Macedonia. The main thrust for expansion, however, came under Stefan Dusan who extended his control to Albania, Epirus and Thessaly. In 1346, Dusan was crowned “Emperor of the Serbs and Greeks”, having just elevated the Serbian archbishopric to a patriarchate. His reign saw important developments in economy, politics and legislation, as Dusan laboured to unite the many provinces of his empire under a uniform institutional system while he also introduced a law code in an attempt to reconcile the many disparate legislative traditions in his state. However, after his death in 1355, both the legislative and the administrative systems fell apart, as regional leaders clashed with each other for power.

The Battle of Kosovo

While Dusan’s realm was disintegrating, Ottoman forces began to amass in the southern Balkans. Having overrun Gallipoli in 1354, they were now poised for a further northward push. In the lands thus threatened, an anti-Ottoman military alliance was organised by the Bosnian king Tvrtko and knez (prince) Lazar, who had emerged as the most powerful leader in the struggle for power after Dusan’s death.

Today in Serbian imagination, Lazar is mostly remembered for the part he played in the battle that was fought between Christian and Ottoman forces at Kosovo Polje on 28 June 1389. This battle occupies a central position in the Serbian national mythos. It ended in a draw, with thousands of deaths on both sides, yet is often remembered as a defeat and as the turning-point whereafter Ottoman forces swept into Serbia to commence their 500-year rule. In popular legend, the battle stands as an emblem of the national suffering of the Serbs. Indeed, it is often commemorated as an event in which the Serbs sacrificed independence and life for their religious and national ideals. Lazar himself incarnates the myth of this sacrifice.

According to the story, the Ottomans offered him gifts and power in exchange for his surrender; yet, he chose to fight to the death and to reap the reward that awaited him in heaven. The battle still arouses the national imagination of many Serbs today and is often considered as one of the anvils on which the Serbian national identity was forged.

The actual historical significance of the battle, however, is less dramatic. In the years after the battle, Serbia, under the leadership of Lazar’s son Stefan Lazarević, enjoyed a brief respite that allowed the state’s economy and cultural life to recover. The Ottomans had suffered massive casualties in the battle and needed decades to recover and regroup. It was only much later that they launched their decisive attack on the Serbian territories. That fateful blow came in 1459, when the Turks conquered Serbia’s temporary capital Smederevo. When also Belgrade fell in 1521, the Ottoman conquest of the Serbian territories was complete. 

The Ottoman Period

The Ottomans remained in Serbia until the nineteenth century. During this time Serbian society was reshaped at its foundations. The pre-Ottoman political elites were uprooted and all secular institutions dismantled. Economically there was a shift to grain cultivation and animal husbandry, precipitating a decline in the mining industry that had been the main source of wealth for the Nemanjic kings.  The advance of Turkish troops, coupled with civil strife in the areas under their control, contributed to large migratory flows. Large numbers of Serbs resettled outside of the Ottoman Empire, while many Turks and Albanians moved in to replace them. The only pre-Ottoman institution of note that survived was the Serbian Orthodox Church, which overcame considerable regulation to maintain a prominent position in Ottoman society. The Church came to fulfill an important role in preserving the common history and heritage of the Serbian people.

Initially, the Ottomans viewed Serbia as a stepping-stone onto further gains in Europe, especially the grand prize of Vienna, the capital of the Holy Roman Empire. In the early decades of their rule, therefore, the Ottomans did little to upset the social balance in the Serbian territories, contenting themselves with collecting taxes and recruiting soldiers for the army. When the powerful Habsburg army halted the Turkish advance in the mid-16th century, however, the Turks recoiled and turned their attention inwards. The Sultan’s fist hardened, and many of the freedoms previously enjoyed by the Serbs were curtailed as the Ottomans sought to consolidate their rule.

Like all Christians, the Serbs were forced to pay heavy taxes and were treated as second-class citizens who could neither join the army nor organise politically. They were furthermore often prey to the brutality of the Janissaries, an elite military corps that gained notoriety for its attacks on civilians. These hardships fed unrest and many Serbs began to look back longingly to the Nemanja age, which their Church presented to them as a time of freedom and bounty.

It was in this context that a belief caught on in the late seventeenth century that the Second Coming of St Sava was imminent, and that the saint would return to life to liberate the Serbian people. Serb peasants, inspired by this vision, rose in rebellion against the Turks. But the Ottomans were not intimidated. The Ottoman grand-vizier, in a brutal affront to Serbian sensibilities, ordered that the remains of St. Sava be taken from the Mileševa monastery and publicly burnt on Belgrade’s main square. This dramatic attack on the legacy that the Orthodox Church had set as its mission to protect caused a crisis in the relations between the Church and the Ottoman state. The relations between the two institutions continued to deteriorate and reached a nadir in 1776, when the Orthodox Patriarchate of Peć was abolished.   

Despite these tensions, the Orthodox Church remained an influential institution throughout most of the Ottoman period. Indeed, the Church grew to its largest ever size and came to comprise more than 40 dioceses in an area that covered eastern Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and northern Macedonia. Moreover, the restrictions that existed on ecclesiastical activities were often circumvented. A ban on the construction of Christian houses of worship, for instance, was defied by building churches and monasteries in remote locations where Ottoman law enforcers rarely traveled.

Religious literature, in turn, was published in print shops located in the inaccessible Montenegrin mountains or in Romania. Thereby the Church was able to keep alive the memory of Nemanjic Serbia, using publications, celebrations and church services to promote cults of Raskan leaders. Hagiographies of St. Sava, Stefan Nemanja and Tsar Lazar proliferated, while other accounts helped to elevate the cult of the Battle of Kosovo into a national myth. Thus, the Church became the main protector of Serbian culture and identity, investing itself heavily in the remembrance of the Raskan Golden Age. The Church was indeed the only institutional link to pre-Ottoman Serbia, which may help to understand the close connection between Church and national identity that persists in Serbia today.

Civil strife in Serbia and repeated wars between Ottomans and Habsburgs induced many Serbs to seek refuge in foreign lands. Serb enclaves began to appear in Hungary, Croatia and Romania, where traces of Serbian culture exist to this day. In the village of Szentendre, just north of Budapest, for example, a Serbian Orthodox church still reminds visitors of the many Serbs who lived there in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Many of the Serbs who left Serbia resettled in the border provinces of the Habsburg Empire, agreeing to help to defend its border in exchange for religious freedom and community rights. These border guards, who became exposed to Habsburg culture and fought continuously with the Turks, would with time develop an identity of their own, with implications for Serbia’s development as an independent state in the 19th century.

Independence, Nationalism and Yugoslavism

Unrest among the Serbian population in the Ottoman territories persisted into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, not seldom encouraged by Western powers, who realised its potential to undermine Turkish sway over the Balkans. Ottoman oppression, combined with the emergence of Serbian nationalism, made the situation ripe for conflict. Matters came to a head in 1804 when Janissaries executed around seventy Serbian village elders in a desperate attempt to assert their authority.

This triggered a revolt that soon spread through Serbia, sustained by deep discontent with heavy taxes, political and religious discrimination and above all Janissary brutality. Led by Djordje Petrovic, nicknamed Karadjordje (Black George) by the Turks for his ferocity – and supported by Russia – the revolt acquired a momentum that overwhelmed the Ottomans. The Serb rebels carried out many successful attacks against Ottoman institutions. Military, fiscal and administrative centers were destroyed, upturning some of the foundations of Ottoman power in Serbia. When the Russians withdrew their support following Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia, however, the Turks regained the upper hand and decisively crushed Karadjordje’s rebellion.

Despite its defeat, the uprising had nevertheless irrevocably weakened the Ottoman grip on Serbia and when the Serbs rose in a second rebellion in 1815 – this time under the leadership of Milos Obrenovic – the Ottomans were at pains to reassert their authority. Obrenović’s men scored a number of important victories, enabling them to win greater autonomy for Serbia in subsequent negotiations with the Turks.

Yet, even more important than the armed resistance of Karadjordje and Obrenović were the events that took place in Serbia’s neighborhood in the following decades. The Greek War of Independence (1821-1830) and the Russo-Turkish War (1828-29) dramatically weakened the position of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans.

With even less clout to impose its authority, Istanbul was forced to give in to more of Obrenovic’s demands. In 1831, Serbia was granted the status of an autonomous and tributary principality of the Ottoman Empire and in 1834 it was awarded territory that was commensurate with what Karadjordje had controlled at the height of the first Serbian uprising. Milos Obrenovic, who had been appointed monarch in 1815, was now conferred an hereditary title. Serbia had taken its first steps towards independence, though it would not achieve full statehood until 1878 in the suite of the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-8.

The decades following Obrenovic’s successful negotiations with the Ottomans were ones of purposeful nation-building, even as political troubles sometimes slowed the pace. An important impetus for reform was a sentiment that Serbia had to make up for time lost during centuries of Ottoman rule and that rapid action therefore had to be undertaken in all domains. Radical measures, including major resettlement and land-clearing schemes, were implemented in an effort to revitalise the limping economy. These measures had some effect, though economic development took off in earnest only with the construction of railways in the 1880s.

As the economy and the population grew, so did the demands on the state administration. In an effort to expand and modernise the bureaucracy, young promising students were sent abroad to study civil administration at distinguished universities in Vienna, Berlin, Paris and Pest. They then returned home to help staff the expanding Serbian civil service.

What was not foreseen was that these students acquired more than just professional skills in the European capitals. Exposed to growing liberal currents in central and western Europe, many Serb students returned home with new political ideals. This would influence the course of Serbian politics for years to come. Indeed, the foreign graduates formed a liberal bud that would grow into a veritable political movement in Serbia.  

Among other things, the spread of Western political ideals inspired calls for reforming the Serbian monarchy. During the 1830s, heated disputes arose around the way in which Serbia should be governed. The main dividing line ran between the followers of Prince Milos Obrenovic, who wanted to preserve his absolute authority, and the liberals who advocated constitutional limits on royal power. Termed the “Constitutional Crisis”, the conflict led to some limitations on the prerogatives of the monarch. However, Obrenovic resisted even these reforms and submitted his resignation in 1839.

As Serbia moved closer to the West politically, there was an embrace of the vernacular in culture. In an era of romanticism, Serbian artists, writers and linguists set about trying to identify the essence of Serbian culture. They often believed to find it in folk culture and peasant customs. Petar Petrovic-Njegos, the bishop and ruler of Montenegro and an acclaimed poet, fused elements of folk poetry with romanticism and classicism. His epic Mountain Wreath from 1842 is a prime example of this merging of genres. Other writers who were inspired by folk stories include Milovan Glisic, Janko Veselinovic and Laza Lazarevic.  

Some historians argue that the rise of romantic nationalism in Serbia was occasioned by the armed resistance against the Turks, which led to a concentration of national sentiment in artistic circles. It is possible, however, to view the fascination with the vernacular also as a reaction to the influence of other foreign powers, not least Russia.  This is suggested by the linguistic reforms that were carried out in Serbia in the nineteenth century. Prior to these reforms, the Serbian language had carried strong Russian influences, which had seeped in via the religious liturgy that had long dominated the written language.

Reacting to this influence, linguists such as Dositej Obradovic and Vuk Karadzic asserted that written Serbian needed to be reformed and harmonised with popular Serbian for the sake of promoting literacy and national integrity. They advocated a return to the vernacular in orthography and vocabulary and insisted that the literary language be simplified. Today Karadzic is remembered for having standardised the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet, basing it on strict phonemic principles (where each letter corresponds to one sound only) and inventing new letters that express uniquely Serbian sounds.

With nationalist currents gaining ground, the nineteenth century was paradoxically also a time of growing cosmopolitanism. It appeared in the shape of Yugoslavism, an intellectual current that held that the Slavs of the Balkan Peninsula, who had many cultural similarities, also shared important political interests, particularly in regard to resisting the great powers that were vying for influence in the region. Inspired by Yugoslavist ideals, a number of initiatives were undertaken that aimed to increase cooperation between the South Slav nations in an attempt to reduce their dependency on great powers like Russia, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire.

In particular, Serbia and Croatia gravitated towards a common outlook on regional politics and drafted a number of mutual agreements. The main architects of the Serbo-Croatian rapprochement were Ilija Garasanin, a distinguished Serbian statesman, and Josip Strossmayer, a Croatian bishop. These played a key role in establishing the First Balkan Alliance (1866-68) and in negotiations for a common federal structure for Serbia and Croatia. They also articulated many of the foundational principles of Yugoslavism and thereby continued to provide intellectual nourishment for attempts to unite the South Slavs long after their deaths. Their belief that religion had to be subordinated to citizenship as the basis for national identity, for example, would later find strong echoes in Tito’s Yugoslavia.

The first Yugoslav state

It is no exaggeration to say that the first Yugoslav state was forged in war. A series of devastating conflicts in the early twentieth century changed the power balance on the Balkan Peninsula so dramatically that a new, Yugoslav, state could be established. Indeed, this period saw the disappearance of both the Ottoman and the Habsburg empires.

The Ottoman Empire had been progressively weakened by repeated wars in the nineteenth century, and when a coalition of Balkan countries mounted a joint attack on it in 1912, it was pushed out of most of its European possessions. This was the First Balkan War; A second Balkan war broke out the very next year, when the victors of the first failed to agree on how to divide up its spoils. Eventually, Serbia came out on top in the renewed violence, seizing most of the conquered lands and nearly doubling the size of its territory. This secured its position as the dominant power in the region, a fact which would have important ramifications on the history of the first Yugoslav state.

The Habsburg Empire, meanwhile, was doing its best to keep its Balkan dominions under control. Having annexed Bosnia in 1908 in a deliberate snub to Serbian territorial ambitions it also maintained the Croatian-Hungarian agreement, preserving Croatia as an autonomous kingdom in personal union with Hungary. However, the fortunes of the Empire turned when it was drawn into the First World War following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Habsburg throne, by a young Serb radical in Sarajevo in June 1914.

The once mighty empire proved unable to mount an effective military effort while also keeping the peace at home. Eventually, reverses at the front and ethnic discord at home led to its collapse and dismemberment. With both the Habsburg and the Ottoman empires out of the way, the road was open to South Slav unity. On 1 December 1918, the First Yugoslav state, the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and the Slovenes, was proclaimed.

From its inception, the new South Slav kingdom was beset by problems. The marriage of the South Slav nations proved and unhappy one as nationalism remained alive and kicking despite active promotion of Yugoslav ideals. Widespread nationalist rhetoric and persistent Serbo-Croatian rivalry brought on political deadlocks that hindered reform. The main bone of contention was the state constitution, which Croats considered to be too closely modelled on the pre-war constitution of Serbia. In 1928, a major crisis occurred when a Serbian parliamentary delegate opened fire on his Croatian counterparts during a parliamentary session.

Two people were immediately killed while the leader of the Croatian Peasant Party, Stjepan Radic, died later from the injuries he had sustained in the event. King Alexander reacted by dissolving the constitution, banning political parties and assuming personal control over the government. He also renamed the state Yugoslavia in an apparent attempt to undercut separatist currents. For a few years the state limped on, surviving even the king’s assassination in 1934. However, it was constantly prey to nationalist attacks and its legitimacy was steadily in decline.

The great political transformations of this period had echoes in Serbia’s cultural life. Having been integrated into a large South Slav state, Serbia opened up ever more to cultural influences from Croatia, Bosnia and Slovenia.

At the same time, the dark memory of war and the persistent atmosphere of crisis also shaped artistic expression. The result was a flourishing of avant-garde literature with artists in all domains breaking away from established norms. The clearest expressions of this could be seen in Belgrade, the capital and cultural hub of the Yugoslav kingdom, where a mushrooming of small literary periodicals contributed to the emergence of a literary scene characterised by pluralism and the cross-fertilisation of genres.

The Belgrade-based Milos Crnjanski gained fame for his experimental poetry and open contestation of established artistic concepts. He viewed his generation as the expounders of a world view that was detached from tradition, the link to the past having been severed by the ravages of the First World War.  He declared: “We stopped with tradition, for we were jumping towards the future...lyrics are becoming a passionate expression of a new faith”.

World War II and Tito’s Yugoslavia

The Second World War ripped the young Yugoslav state apart. On 6 April 1941, Nazi forces, seeking control over the strategically important Balkan Peninsula, unleashed a devastating aerial campaign against the country that left major cities, including Belgrade, in ruins. The Yugoslav state was dismembered, its territory divided between Hungary, Italy and the Independent State of Croatia, a Nazi puppet. The next few years turned the former Yugoslavia into one of the bloodiest theatres of the European war. Under the rule of the fascist Ustaše movement, the new Croatian state waged a genocidal campaign against Serbs, Roma, Jews and communists, slaughtering hundreds of thousands in concentration camps, including in the notorious Jasenovac camp.

Meanwhile, a war of resistance took shape, as groups opposed to the occupiers organised themselves into guerrilla armies. The two main resistance armies were the communist Partisans, led by the charismatic Josip Broz (better known under his nom de guerre, Tito), and the royalist Cetniks, under the former Yugoslav general Draža Mihailovic. Though they both resisted the foreign invaders, they were however also bitterly opposed to each other’s postwar visions for Yugoslavia and eventually turned their guns on each other. As the Nazis began to suffer setbacks and gradually withdrew their forces from the Balkan Peninsula, fighting between the Partisans and the Cetniks intensified. In the end, the Partisans gained the upper-hand thanks to their superior tactics, Tito’s skillful and charismatic leadership and not least the material support provided by the Allies. By 1945, the Axis forces had completely abandoned Yugoslav territory and Tito, who had led the Partisans to victory, was hailed as a national liberator.

Tito emerged from the war as the unrivalled leader of the new Yugoslavia and proceeded to establish a communist state. On 31 January 1946, his government promulgated the constitution of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia, which divided the country into six federal republics – Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Slovenia and Macedonia – and concentrated administrative control in Belgrade, anew the capital. At first, Tito kept himself close to Stalin and based many of his early measures on Soviet policies – the Yugoslav constitution, for instance, was modelled on the Soviet equivalent. But with time, Tito began to distance himself from Stalin, insisting that Stalinism was unsuited to the Yugoslav context. Relations between Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union soured, reaching a breaking-point in 1948, when the Soviet Union, together with its European satellites, expelled Yugoslavia from the Cominform, the main body of international communism.

As the Cold War gripped Europe, Yugoslavia found itself outside of both of the rival camps. This would bring enormous benefits for the fledgling socialist state, as both East and West tried to woo it from slipping into the enemy sphere. Tito cunningly played off both sides against each other to secure economic and political gains for his country. This enabled Yugoslavia to achieve significant economic wealth and international influence and today some people in Serbia look back longingly to the time of Tito, when Yugoslavia could boast economic prosperity and international prestige.

After an initial period of centralised rule, Tito embarked on a policy of de-centralisation. The 1974 constitution reduced Belgrade’s powers and increased the prerogatives of the six federal republics. Social and cultural policy was also relaxed, ushering in a period of cultural revival. For most of the 1950s and 1960s, the Yugoslav government had clamped down on expressions of national and ethnic pride, fearing a resurgence of nationalism. Under the banner of “Brotherhood and Unity”, it had stressed the common Yugoslav identity of the people and banned all frank debate about the violence committed during the Second World War.

The late 1960s and 1970s saw some changes to this approach. In 1968, for instance, Yugoslavia’s Muslim population was accorded the status of a separate nation with the same standing as Croats, Slovenes and Serbs. This signalled the abandonment of the earlier attempt to foster a single Yugoslav identity in favor of a strategy of balancing the various nationalities against each other. Yet the crimes committed during the Second World War remained an official taboo and few serious attempts were made toward genuine reconciliation between the peoples.

Ultimately, Tito’s strategy of enforced amnesia failed to solve the ethnic question. When the power of the Yugoslav state waned during the 1980s, following a severe economic downturn and Tito’s death in 1980, nationalism revived. Feeding on unresolved rancour and pseudo-historical myths, this nationalism, more than anything, sealed the fate of Yugoslavia.  

As long as socialist Yugoslavia survived, there were important developments in the artistic domain. In the immediate postwar period, socialist realism, designed to glorify the achievements of socialism, was introduced as the only officially approved cultural doctrine and artists were pressured to conform to its ideals. Some writers embraced these ideals enthusiastically, including Cedomir Minderovic and Tanasije Mladenovic, while others continued to pursue independent artistic production, not seldom inspired by romantic nationalism. With time, and especially following the Moscow-Belgrade split, government controls were loosened, facilitating the emergence of new cultural currents. New literary journals began to appear. Knjizevne novine and Savremenik were concerned mainly with conservative realism, while Mladost and Delo promoted more modernist works.  The 1970s was a time of rekindled nationalism in the Yugoslav federation and this was reflected in some of the works published. The appearance of The Time of Death I-IV, Dobrica Cosic’s epos about the fate of the Serbian people during the First World War, showed an increased official tolerance with novels dealing exclusively with national history and the early awakening of nationalism in Yugoslav literary circles.

The Serbian literary scene continued to be marked by great pluralism, expressed in the flourishing of literary journals and in the continued experimentation with new genres. In the later decades of socialist Yugoslavia there was a greater introspection in literature and a self-conscious artistry where writers dealt directly with their literature. Borislav Pekic and Mirko Kovac were writers who represented this meta-fictional approach to literature.

There were important developments also in film. Cinematography had a long history in Serbia, where the first motion picture had been screened already in 1896. There was also a tradition of using films to record important political events, such as the coronation of King Peter I Karadjordjević in 1904, and to produce military propaganda, evidenced by the establishment during the First World War of a Film Section attached to the Supreme Command. Serbian film continued to grow during the period of socialist Yugoslavia. It benefited hugely from Tito’s decision to centralise Yugoslav film production, turning Belgrade into the center of Yugoslav film and the issuer of nearly half of the country’s features between 1945 and 1993. 

With time Yugoslav films won international recognition, competing for prizes at prestigious film festivals abroad. In 1967, Aleksandar Petrović won the Grand Prix at the International Film Festival in Cannes for his film I Met Some Happy Gypsies, Too (1967), while films from the Belgrade School of Documentary Film received distinguishing prizes at film festivals in Leipzig and Oberhausen.


After Yugoslavia

A sense of crisis pervaded Yugoslavia from the 1980s on. The collapsing economy, the rise of virulent nationalism and a manifest inability on the part of the national leadership to implement necessary reforms convinced many Yugoslav citizens that the country was on the brink of dissolution. Few at this time believed, however, that the troubles would result in a brutal four-year war that would cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands. But in August 1991, the Yugoslav army, dominated by Serb recruits and officers, unleashed a wave of violence against eastern Croatia. A year later, the army attacked Bosnia-Herzegovina. Years of bloodshed and havoc followed, as the borders and demographics of the former Yugoslavia became redrawn in blood.

This dark passage in the history of the Balkans has been the object of countless studies. The immediate triggers of the conflict were the secessions from the Yugoslav state of the Slovene, Croatian and Bosnian republics, but there were clearly deeper causes too. Some commentators place the blame on the Slovene, Croatian and Bosnian republican governments, whose push for independence accelerated the crisis. Others pin it on Serbia, arguing that Serbian leaders – and especially the former strongman Slobodan Milošević – knowingly destabilised Yugoslavia in a bid to increase Serbia’s power. What is certain is that nationalism provided the main fuel for the conflict. At a time when the Yugoslav modus vivendi was cracking under the toils of economic crisis and political stagnation, nationalism promised easy deliverance from the country’s woes. Communism was bankrupt, both literally and figuratively, and politicians and the populace embraced nationalism as a more potent political alternative. People, ideas and organisations that had previously been banned or kept on the fringes of Yugoslav society, suddenly found fertile ground in the political mainstream, as the ability and will of the political elite to suppress them weakened dramatically.

Serbia was spared physical destruction during the 1991-5 war (although it would be visited by destructive air raids during the Kosovo war in 1999). Its economy, on the other hand, suffered enormously from an international trade embargo imposed at the behest of Western powers. Politically, too, Serbia became isolated with much of the world condemning it for its role in the wars. This turmoil had a strong impact on cultural production in Serbia. The closing of borders and the discrediting of the Yugoslav idea put an end to the cross-cultural dynamism and cosmopolitanism that had characterised the socialist era. Artists retired behind national frontiers or fled abroad, culture became more national in scope and outlook. A group such as Bijelo Dugme, once the giant of the Yugoslav rock scene and the musical emblem of multicultural Yugoslavia, was doomed to irrelevance as the country fragmented. This Sarajevo-based constellation had thrived on the open borders of Yugoslavia; after its split in 1990, the group never again reunited, apart from a brief nostalgic three-concert tour in 2005.

Serbian film production largely withstood the troubles of the war years and continued to draw benefit from the concentration of cinematographic resources in Belgrade. In 1992, at the height of the wars in Bosnia and Croatia, eleven films were produced in Serbia – in the following year seven. Serbian film was bolstered by the addition of Emir Kusturica, the internationally acclaimed director of Time of the Gypsies, Arizona Dream and Black Cat White Cat, who fled his native Sarajevo during the war and produced one of his most famous films, Underground, in collaboration with Serbian state television.

Yet with time even the film domain fell under the shadow of the war. The trade blockade against Serbia closed foreign markets to Serbian film-makers, who lost many pathways to international recognition. The wars also became the subjects of many films, including Lepa Sela Lepo Gore (Pretty Village, Pretty Flame) and Rane (The Wounds), both by Srdjan Dragojević, and indeed Kusturica’s Underground, which traces Serbia’s history from the Second World War to the recent wars.

The 1990s saw also the emergence of new forms of pop culture in Serbia. One important musical phenomenon was turbo folk, a genre that fuses Balkan folk music with modern dance rhythms, often projecting hedonistic and nationalist sentiments. From its rather humble origins as an experimental style broadcast on underground radio stations in the district of New Belgrade in the early 1990s, it snowballed into a nationwide craze during the war years. It was seductive with its fast beats, simple tunes and accessible lyrics, but appealed also with its escapist, erotic and nationalist imagery. Instrumental in its rise were Radio Pink and Pink TV, two broadcasting giants reportedly under the political and financial patronage of Mira Marković, the wife of Slobodan Milošević. Buoyed by massive resources, the two networks promoted the new genre fervently, broadcasting turbo folk songs and music videos nearly round-the-clock.  In the words of media and film scholar Ivana Kronja, “The musical hyper-production flourished, fulfilling both the need for escapist contents by impoverished, isolated, oppressed and manipulated Serbian people suffering from the neighbouring civil wars, and the drive for enrichment of regime-controlled media and music producers of turbo-folk.”  Whatever the reasons for its staggering success, turbo folk was there to stay, and remains to this day a staple of the Serbian music scene.



*******


The history of Serbia cannot be easily summarised. Punctuated by wars, revolutions and dramatic social change, Serbia has witnessed rare upheaval that defies attempts at narrativisation. It is perhaps for this very reason that people who have lived in the Serbian lands have in every age been preoccupied with their past. The strength of historical myths in Serbia today may reflect a deeper desire to impose order on a chaotic and traumatic past and the same certainly held true for the many national legends that were propagated during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and indeed for the Raškan hagiographies disseminated during Ottoman times. It is in this continuing dialogue with the past that Serbian culture and society have achieved their unique dynamism. Situated at the great political and cultural frontiers of European civilisation, Serbia has across the centuries absorbed influences from many different sources: Byzantine and Roman, Christian and Islamic, Habsburg and Ottoman, communism and liberalism. Yet it has always interpreted these influences with reference to a powerful sense of its own historical identity. As Serbia moves forward, it will continue to draw inspiration from the world around it but will always keep one eye on its past.

Markus Balázs Göransson is a PhD candidate in International Politics at Aberystwyth University and a former intern at Birn. He previously studied Modern History at the University of Oxford, where he focused on the history of southeast Europe.

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