We arrived in Belgrade late in 2006. A comrade in Australia who had been a refugee from the Balkan War made some ‘arrangements’ back home and soon enough I was on my way as guest of the University of Belgrade to give a series of talks on religion and politics. We was housed at the top of the old Faculty of Philology building in the heart of Belgrade, a city where one was perfectly safe walking the streets at any time of the day or night — largely because everyone else seemed to be out as well. I was overwhelmed by the palpable energy for life. It simply felt extremely good to be there.
Walking the City
Early in the morning we was on the lookout for breakfast. Skipping the tiny niches selling pastry and Serbian coffee, we ducked beneath a low doorway, asking for breakfast.
‘Not until eight o’clock’, said the proprietor, in Serbian. ‘Snaps?’
I paused and said I preferred coffee. He offered burek with the coffee, so we sat on hewn stools by a low table, taking in the old woman picking her nails in the corner. An ancient fossil arrived, the only other customer at this hour, ready to knock back his snaps (three of them, one for the Father, one for the Son and one for the Holy Spirit) and his half-dozen cigarettes.
Fortified for the day with burek and coffee, I set off to find a quiet corner to read through my notes for the lectures later in the day. Soon enough, I found a seat in a small hidden courtyard in the centre of Belgrade. It was about ten metres square, off the main street. It really was the city in a microcosm: people stretching on a balcony, a small tobacco shop or pantyhose shop open, the occasional walker making a short-cut. Clustered on the ground floor beneath residential apartments above, the shops in the courtyard hoped to catch the attention of the overflow from the main street nearby. Customers would turn occasionally to look for a shop specialising in very small lines — tobacco, electronics, money exchange, pillows and mattresses, stockings and socks, hats and shoes, or perhaps a drink at a tiny bar. The main interests in a long day that could last eleven hours, from 10 am to 9 pm, were the discussions with other shop owners, cigarettes and coffee, and unexpected events that brought people outside to deal with a common problem.
One such problem was the dog shit. A woman in white pants had come striding through. She stopped when she noticed the dog shit clinging to her shoe, swore, scraped and then hopped her way around the corner. How to deal with the mess left behind in this small courtyard? Suddenly in this microcosm I had a chance to see how a culture deals with such everyday occurrences.
Soon, from the small tobacco shop on one side of the courtyard shop a stunning woman in her thirties emerged with a fistful of newspaper. She pulled her black hair away from her face and began to place one piece of paper and then another on the dog shit. After the briefest of glances my way, she was soon smothered by the man from the equally small electronics shop next door. He would appear whenever she did; she with some more paper, he with a coffee cup. He smiled and joked; she responded tight-lipped. Then the woman from the clothing shop would join them every now and then for a coffee and cigarette, although she would break off to answer yet another mobile phone call. Those sauntering through the small passageways from mall through courtyard to street would read the paper signals and carefully avoid them, knowing that beneath one or two lay the prime heap. Others rushed through, heads down and brushed a piece or two of paper before realising what lay beneath them.
However, I was in Belgrade for purposes other than observing cultural responses to dog droppings. One of those purposes was to give a talk at the Institute for Social History. So I set off to find it. If I expected it to be at the university I was sadly mistaken. I climbed aboard a trolley-bus and managed to procure a ridiculously cheap ticket, after puzzling over the Cyrillic instructions and then watching another passenger to see how it was done. This was not one of the donated trolley-buses from the EU. No, it was one of the glorious older, dented and rusted ones. At the articulation point between the front and rear it rose up alarmingly like a huge caterpillar. Every now and then the bar connecting us to the overhead wires would lose its connection, so the driver had to climb out, defy death and do his best to reconnect it.
Another even longer journey on a second bus that hailed from the time of the Ottoman Empire eventually dropped me near the Institute. My host met me there and we walked past the old army headquarters. He noticed me staring at the ruins and said, ‘Yes, they were bombed by NATO, but the army knew it was coming and had already gone’. To my question as to why the ruins were left alone, he told me that they are a memorial to NATO’s attacks.
I soon found out why the Institute for Social Theory was so far from the university. Over a coffee before my talk and the ubiquitous cigarette, the head of the centre, Alexander, told me that in the 1970s there had been a group of professors who were very critical of Tito. The man with the white suit and blue train wanted to minimise the influence of these thorns in his side. But since Yugoslavia was a law-abiding country, Tito had to find a way to do it legally. After six years of exploring ways to do so, he finally decided to establish an institute and appoint the professors in question as full-time researchers. There was one condition: they were not to teach (aka corrupt) students at the university. And just to make sure, Tito located the whole lot as far away as possible from the university so that the professors could no longer be the voice of the venerable and large university. I found myself momentarily wishing for some similar benign dictatorship back home.
The next day I had my own chance to experience some of the students. At the university I was to give a class on the sociology of religion for about two and half hours to a group of about seventy. My topic: the use and abuse of biblical themes in current foreign policy in the United States and Australia. In contrast to the students here in Australia, they were vitally interested in the talk of politics and religion. And in contrast to the students here, at the break they all had a smoke in the corridor just outside the door, beneath the ‘No Smoking’ sign. Even though one or two struggled to understand the Australian lilt, they asked many questions, offered ideas and helped me enjoy myself. Yet I also noticed that their eyes were far older than their eighteen or nineteen years. As I spoke, I realised they were much more mature than other students I have encountered, from Bulgaria through to Denmark to the United States. That evening over dinner, Svetlana summed it up quite simply: they are a war generation. Their city has been bombed, their country attacked. For a decade from the age of five they had experienced ‘cloudy times’, as the Serbian saying goes.
They were students who were also accustomed to protest. And their protests were not futile efforts by a minority, whose ritual oppositions were ritually ignored by university managements or governments. When I arrived the students had occupied the main square at the central city campus to protest against the imposition of university fees to the tune of 1000 euro per year. Alexander Molnar, the tall, grey-maned head of Sociology told me that the university management had not called in the police. Rather, they had been in close negotiations with the students about the best way forward. These were, after all, the students who had massed in protest against Milosevic only a few years earlier. Eventually they came to an agreement, the banners came down and the festivities ceased — for now. And as a thank you for my lecture, one of the protest leaders gave me an indelible marker pen that had been used to write the slogans on the banners.
The End of Communism?
One of the main reasons I remain fascinated by Serbia is its experience with socialism. As part of Yugoslavia, perhaps it was one of the places where ‘actually existing socialism’ was not a paradox. Used as something of backhanded compliment, ‘actually existing socialism’ used to refer to what many perceived as a failed experiment — those countries that claimed to be socialist were not so at all, or had at least given up on the program.
I have found that more than one émigré, fleeing the Balkans War of the 1990s, has actually come around to reassess their experience of Yugoslav socialism. For example, one friend (she calls me ‘comrade’) — olive-skinned, fiery and fascinating with a husky smoker’s voice — said to me, ‘When we were growing up in communist Yugoslavia, we were all so sick of Marx and marxism. We all thought he was wrong and we were all part of the opposition. But after 1989, when we moved to the West, we found that Marx had got it right, that there is class consciousness and conflict, that there is alienation and reification’.
‘You can’t just wipe away seventy years of a very different cultural and social experience’, I said.
‘You know’, she replied, ‘loneliness and isolation are so ingrained in the capitalist West that they seem normal. I struggle to find the spark and fire of communal living, of collective engagement between people’.
She waved her arm in a wide arc, as if to take in Australia and the whole of capitalism. ‘In the end, for all its flaws, I think socialism is better than this’.
Now, one might put such a sentiment down to nostalgia, to a longing for home while in exile. But it seems possible to me to be an exile not merely from a place of birth, but from a social and economic system itself. Perhaps there is a Socialist Diaspora.
In fact, when I was in the ‘former Yugoslavia’ it seemed to me that in every mouth and in every mind were the words ‘we did not expect this!’ There is an overwhelming feeling that something very valuable was lost with the death of Tito and the disintegration of Yugoslavia. An open socialism, a working federalism, a cosmopolitan and outward-looking generation or two, a benign and gentle leader — all of which went for a variety of reasons. What came in their place was the democratically elected political thug Milosovic, ten years of war, the harsh terms of ‘peace’ from NATO and the strictures of the International Monetary Fund.
In light of this recent history, one would be forgiven for thinking that Serbia would be an immensely sad place, full of a deep feeling of loss and bereavement. But that was not what I sensed and heard and felt. Instead the overwhelming impression was positive, optimistic and energetic. How to account for this strange disjunction: a dismal and brutal recent history versus an extremely positive vibe; a sense that something valuable was lost versus distinct hope for the future. Is it because the Serbs are an inherently optimistic people? For what they are worth, global sex surveys always seem to place the Serbs at the top of the list for both the frequency of and pleasure in sex. Or is it because they have finally overthrown communism and can look forward to a glittering future of a capitalist economy and society? Some would say so. However, I would suggest the reason lies elsewhere: here is a place that has a living memory of socialism, a memory still active for those over thirty. And from what people have told me, for all its flaws it did work most of the time. Of course, such a view is easier in hindsight, after experiencing what capitalism is like in all its brutal reality. The danger is that such a socialist past becomes a Golden Age before the depredations of war and a market economy, a paradise lost through folly and enemy action. But unlike so many of us, for whom the closest socialism has ever come is perhaps a commune in the bush with ‘alternative lifestylers’, there has been a collective experience of socialism. Here is the source of those immensely positive vibes I experienced in Serbia and Belgrade.
That sense was only enhanced when I passed back to Western Europe. On a number of occasions I have made the journey, usually by train. As soon as you cross the border the visceral sense of energy and life — whether in Serbia, or Bulgaria or Russia — slips away and is replaced by the anxiety and fear of the Western country into which I have travelled. The immigration checks give palpable reminders of the fear of terrorism, the political struggles and newspaper reports express an inchoate anxiety that things are going downhill, that the West is under siege.
And that makes me wonder whether the deepening wish to protect and hold onto something that seems to be threatened is the first sign of the end of the West. As one Western nation-state after another perpetually tightens its immigration requirements, as each one introduces more and more measures to protect itself from a so-called terrorist attack, as they take on the trappings of police states with each passing day, as they assert ever more stridently what is supposed to be unique and valuable about them — in short, as they feel more and more that something must be preserved, the West marks the first moment of its decline.
As a last thought, what we might learn from Serbia? Let me put it this way: after being in a country where a non-smoker is a rarity, where even the children seem to smoke, I began to think that giving up capitalism is somewhat like giving up smoking. You try again and again, sometimes for shorter periods and sometimes for longer. The addiction keeps pulling you back, but as soon as you light up that first smoke, you realise how crap it really is. It seems to me that the feeling in Eastern Europe is rather like that. They have had a really good try at giving up capitalism, and for a while at least they have relapsed. But just like the ex-smoker who is always a smoker who doesn’t smoke, so also the first generation of communists will always be capitalists who no longer imbibe capitalism.
(First published in Arena Magazine 96, 2008).