My Mother and the Failed Experiment of Yugoslavia


It has become fashionable to hate the late Yugoslavia, or to diagnose it retroactively as a kind of Frankenstein assemblage of mismatched parts whose dissolution was thus inescapable and inevitably bloody. But, a few decades from now, when some historian on a think-tank sinecure looks at the devastation in America left in the wake of Trump and his troops, she might discover abundant evidence of hundreds of years of hatred and inherent American racism, with all kinds of historical inevitability leading to the catastrophe. She would be wrong, just as are those who disparage Yugoslavia, for, in both cases, there is a history of conflicting traditions and tendencies, of struggles against the worst of the people’s instincts for a better polity and a kinder country. The bad guys won in Yugoslavia and ruined what they could, as soon as they could; the bad guys are doing pretty well in America, too. But nothing is inevitable until it happens. There is no such thing as historical destiny. Struggle is all.

Yugoslavia, a country of the South Slavs, was formed as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, on December 1, 1918, in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. Three major empires had just disintegrated after centuries of eventful existence, allowing for the creation of obscure small states whose people experienced the post-imperial chaos as freedom. The idea of a compound state had a history and had inspired South Slav leaders who believed in the benefits of unity. In 1929, the kingdom became Yugoslavia, as King Aleksandar changed the constitution to make himself an absolute monarch. In 1934, His Majesty was promptly assassinated on a visit to Marseille. The propagandistic story had it that the King’s last words were “Take care of my Yugoslavia.” My paternal grandfather travelled to Belgrade to be there for the grandiose funeral. Both of my parents were born as subjects to a teen-age heir, Peter II, who escaped the German invasion, in 1941, to end up in the United States.

The Second World War was bloody in Yugoslavia, but was there a place in Europe where it wasn’t? The Germans found many willing servants among local fascists and nationalists whose main historical modus operandi, like that of their masters, was genocide—their descendants would be at it again a couple of generations later. But the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, illegal before the war, was versed in resistance and underground networks and sparked, under Josip Broz Tito’s leadership, a national resistance movement that outlasted the Germans, despite their efforts to extinguish it in waves of unspeakable atrocities.

Say what you will about Tito and the postwar regime that was so centered around his personality that it barely outlived him, but, under his leadership, the Party organized a resistance movement and liberated Yugoslavia. He also managed to keep the country at a safe distance from the Soviet Union, breaking away from Stalin and his absolutist control in 1948. Tito was a clever, if authoritarian, leader, positioning the country between the East and the West in such a way—making it nonaligned—that it could benefit from each side.

Tito and the Party came out as not only the winners but also as the historical force that carried Yugoslavia into the twentieth century. With the doctrine of “brotherhood and unity” to counter the post-genocidal traumas and resentment, the country strove to create a civic identity that overrode ethnicity. This took some suppression, but, in retrospect, it may have been worth it, if only for a little while. The country had a defined utopian goal toward which its citizens could strive; there was optimism, a better future could be conceived of. For a few decades, the socialist Yugoslavia was a common project that everyone could work on. My parents belong to the generation that took a crucial part in that work, only to discover that it was all in vain.

It’s hard today to comprehend the magnitude of the leap into a better life that someone like my mother made in Tito’s Yugoslavia. Back in 1946, in the wake of a cataclysm, the new regime instituted gender equality and mandatory and free education, so a peasant Bosnian girl, born in a house with a dirt floor, could go to school. Had she been born a generation before, she wouldn’t have gone to school. She would’ve worked the land with her parents until she got married, whereupon she would’ve popped out children into her middle age, unless she died giving birth or from sepsis after a homemade abortion, like one of Mama’s father’s sisters. Mama’s future was entangled with Yugoslavia’s, enabling her to leave behind the poverty that had lasted for centuries.

Yugoslavia provided a framework into which my mother fully grew, having departed, at the age of eleven, from her more or less nineteenth-century childhood. She built the country as she was building herself. After the war, a practice of “Youth Work Actions” was established, in which young people of Yugoslavia volunteered to build roads and railroads as part of “youth brigades.” In 1960, while in college, Mama was one of the young women and men who spent their summer constructing a road that would connect Belgrade and Niš, part of a larger project of uniting parts of Yugoslavia by way of a highway known as the Highway of Brotherhood and Unity. She would tell her children stories of shovel-inflicted blisters and solidarity and friendship and joy, or so we imagined it, because the truth was that the youth brigades were not always given the hardest tasks. They’d shovel soil and help the professionals, but, more than anything, they’d sing patriotic songs and chant slogans in praise of hard work: “Comrade Tito, you white violet, all of youth loves you!” and “In the tunnel, in the darkness, shines a five-point star!” There would be celebratory bonfires, around which there would be more singing, and probably some comradely making out. For years, she would be proud of taking part in building the country—even if symbolically—of the sweat she spilled with the best of the Yugoslav youth to construct the highway.

The practice of youth work actions lasted into the eighties, and she often suggested that I should do it, too, because I’d cherish the experience of sharing goals, taking part in common projects, and singing by the bonfire. I always defiantly refused. For not only did voluntary youth actions become, by the time I was young, a parody of the great ones from my mother’s youth but my teen-age politics were indistinguishable from my precocious cynicism. For one thing, I never cared for that kind of shared work-related ecstasy; no blister or sunburns could ever make me proud and joyous. I thought that youth brigades were a form of forced labor whose main goal was indoctrination. I deplored what I called their “primitive patriotism.” I committed myself early to a life of contemplative, productive laziness and hated singing along with other people, being one with a collective, even at rock shows. I was what they call an individual.

After the war, to our mother’s dismay, my sister and I started referring to the Highway of Brotherhood and Unity as the Highway of Youth and Foolishness. But now I envy her; I envy the sense that she was building something larger; I envy the nobility and honor that comes with being part of a civic endeavor.

It was while attending a youth work action that my mother became a member of the Communist Party. Many of her friends and fellow volunteers joined the Party, too, for it was a cool thing to do. She was a devout Party member thereafter, and it became part of her personality, as much as a religion might be for a religious person. She believed (and still does) in social justice, generosity, and a fair distribution of wealth. She believed in the system committed to making the country better; Tito and the Party were that system. Before the Second World War, she liked to say, there had been only seventy-five kilometres of paved road in all of Yugoslavia, while the Highway of Brotherhood and Unity alone was more than a thousand kilometres.

Much like any other state, Yugoslavia trained its citizens by way of public rituals to be patriots, taught them to be enthusiastically obedient. While the kids of America had to (and many still do) pledge allegiance to the flag, we had Tito’s picture in every goddam classroom. From the very beginnings of Yugoslav socialism, the cultural enforcement of patriotism depended on ideological pageants like the Relay of Youth, which was important for the maintenance of Tito’s personality cult. A baton that symbolized best wishes for his birthday would start in the city of Kumrovec, his birthplace, and travel around Yugoslavia, carried by the hands of the youth, stopping in various towns and cities for a worshipful speech and rally, allowing the youth to pledge their faithfulness to their beloved leader.

On May 25th each year, the baton would be delivered to Tito by a young person deemed to be simultaneously exceptional and typical. The big birthday celebration would take place at a stadium in Belgrade and would feature youth brigades performing choreographed exercises to show their mettle and commitment. At the culmination of the spectacle, the chosen youth would run up a long flight of stairs and hand over the blatantly phallic baton to Tito, and, panting all the while, recite a statement of grateful adulation, allegiance, and best wishes from all the peoples and minorities of Yugoslavia. Tito would sometimes benevolently pat the baton carrier on the head.

The whole show was always televised, and families around the country watched it like it was the Super Bowl. We did too, but, as soon as I entered adolescence, I had no compunction about mocking the atmosphere of idiotic uniformity, the ideological clichés and the young muscly men twirling wooden rifles and lifting their female comrades over their heads, while the commentators treated the whole propagandistic display as a spontaneous expression of the youth’s love for Tito and as a work of public art. Eventually, I lost interest in it all together, not least because Tito died in 1980, while the Relay continued. In the eighties, at the peak of my rebellious years, the baton was delivered to some bland apparatchik whom I perceived as my exact enemy. In 1987, the official poster for the Relay, designed by a sneakily subversive Slovenian art group, turned out to be a copy of a Nazi propaganda poster. Within a couple of years, the Relay was as dead as Tito; within four, so was Yugoslavia.

Mama was always offended by my dismissiveness of all that propaganda, of the disciplining patriotic rhetoric, by my lack of belief in socialism and the Party. She’d often resent me for “finding nothing sacred” and took it personally, as an expression of my disrespect for her. A gap opened between us, ideological and generational, resembling in many ways the gap between her and her parents’ generation, except that I never (until now) felt guilty about that discontinuity.

When Tito died, I was sixteen, and gleefully eager to partake in the unravelling of the socialist ideology, mainly because I found it oppressively boring. I was a natural, cacophonous anarchist, my ideological guidelines provided by the guitars of the Clash and the Jam and Gang of Four. By default, and typically, I appreciated everything that annoyed my parents, before I even considered its actual value. Proudly and rebelliously, I accused my parents’ generation—and Mama in particular—of failing to live up to the utopian promises that should have handed me a future that I could find worthy and comfortable. I was oblivious to the fact that they had to work for what I took for granted. As far as they were concerned, I was well taken care of and had little to worry about, other than my school. When my mother asked me, “What are you complaining about? You have everything!” I would proudly retort, “I have no future!,” thereby alluding, over her socialist head, to a line from the Sex Pistols anti-anthem “God Save the Queen.”

I recall a long and lengthy argument with my mother, which eventually turned into a shouting match, about a letter written by a group of Yugoslav dissident intellectuals demanding unfettered freedom of speech. I didn’t know exactly what was in the letter because it was banned from being published; therefore, I only read the editorials that endorsed its banishment. So I demanded the right to read it and make up my own mind, while she claimed that those dissidents did not have good intentions. I was sixteen, living with my parents, and therefore all about principles, while she insisted she had taught me nothing—“You taught me to use my own head!,” I’d scream. “That’s as well as you can do!” She was convinced that we clashed so often because we were too similar.

It is also true that there were times when she had doubts. In the late sixties, the students of Yugoslavia hit the streets just like their peers all over the world. The socialist Yugoslav government didn’t have patience with massive dissent, particularly at the time when “external and internal” enemies were even more active than usual. The Party machinery renounced the Yugoslav youth and their bourgeois tendencies, as did the institutions of the state, and the youth got its young asses kicked both rhetorically and actually. Mama, who always liked to announce her principled fondness of the youth, was so disgusted that she stopped going to the Party meetings for a year. It took a few years before she fully returned into the Party’s fold, but never again with the same enthusiasm.

With all that, life in Yugoslavia could never be reduced to its ideological practices and public rituals of indoctrination, even if they were essential to the culture. The progress and optimism that marked the decades after the Second World War were evident in the creation of the middle class, which consisted of the people exactly like my parents who, born in the homes with dirt floors, ended up with college degrees and good jobs in big cities. They owned cars and weekend houses, spent summer vacations on the coast, and travelled out of the country without visas. They lived in rent-free apartments provided by state companies that provided employment through retirement. They took care of their elderly parents in the countryside, visiting often (but never enough) and returning home with the supplies of hearty peasant food, which they stored on their balconies and in the freezer chest bought with low-interest loans. Their children lived with them well into their twenties, even beyond, shamelessly. They planned to retire somewhere in the nature, that is, to their weekend house.

Yugoslav culture reflected back to its middle class what it practiced every day, in the form of narratives cleansed of conflicts and doubts, infused with latent propaganda, and spiced with a lot of good humor, all of which made Yugoslavia’s present look eternal, natural, and indestructible. The Yugoslav culture—which really meant television and popular music—of the sixties and seventies, up to Tito’s death, featured people like my parents, regardless of their ethnic background. They would turn on the TV and see themselves, played by household-name actors addressing one another as comrades and cracking the same kind of jokes about women gossiping, men being unable to locate their socks, and their country-bumpkin mothers-in-law coming for a visit, buckets of stinky pickled cabbage in tow.

Yugoslavia was a discursive universe, if you will, wherein the largest object was its freshly minted socialist middle class. In that universe, everything made sense to Mama because she was an indelible part of it, because it grew around an idea she worked hard to make real. She was a citizen of the country that she built with her very hands, her Yugoslav identity a consequence of her life decisions, an outcome of her human, historical agency. Building the “homeland” was a practice, a daily operation, not a nostalgic one. She did not define homeland by the hundreds of years of unalterable history but by the efforts and dreams of people just like her, people whose siblings were wounded in the liberation war, who left home at the age of eleven to go to school, who earned blisters at youth work actions, who in college shared their room and food with four friends from exactly the same background, and who were the first ones in their family since the beginning of time to earn a university diploma and buy a television set on which they could watch themselves. Eventually, they’d be told by their own children (that is, me) that all of their efforts were in vain because they had been fucking it up from the very beginning.

Mama experienced the breakup of Yugoslavia as a dissolution of her homeland. What was destroyed was the framework within which her life—its very trajectory—had been self-legitimizing, where she never had to explain herself to anybody. But her family homestead had been within the geographical borders of Bosnia since time immemorial; except for the four college years, she never lived outside it until she migrated to Canada. Though Yugoslavia was a practice based on an idea, Bosnia and Sarajevo were the actual space where she lived, with smells and neighbors and a particular language. As long as Yugoslavia lasted, Bosnia fit into the idea and practice—it was the part of the country where the values of brotherhood and unity were practiced most sincerely and crucially. With the demise of Yugoslavia, Bosnia was left unprotected, and the complicated multicultural space was severely damaged. Mama had to leave it, and for good.

With her migration to Canada, she lost, figuratively and literally, everything that had constituted her as a person: from property to ideology; from shared public rituals to her bedroom; from the sentimental tchotchkes that she’d kept since the beginning of her married life to her chosen citizenship; from the unconsciously familiar smells to the ubiquity of her native language; from the proximity to her friends and siblings to the comfortable feeling that everyone around her had access to the same referential field. Overnight she became a nobody, she often says, a nothing.

In Canada, she spends much of the time in and around the house. The house is modest and adorned with some family pictures, mostly of her children and four granddaughters, and various souvenirs from her former life in the former Yugoslavia: a picture of Tito; a model of a monument to the victims of Fascist terror in the Kozara region, where her brother fought in the liberation war against the Germans; a monograph about Emerik Blum, the founder and first director of Energoinvest, where she spent her entire professional life. She doesn’t drive, so, when she goes out, she accompanies my father to visit his family, much of which now lives in the vicinity of Toronto. Though she appreciates Canada and her life there, the loss of Yugoslavia and Bosnia still casts a shadow across the frozen land.

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