Some time ago, a fellow blogger, a remarkable person and an intellectual par excellence (hi Paul) responded to my challenge to unravel a piece of his history through the portrayal of his rebellions youth, fight against the authority and ways of expressing his civil disobedience, which he did marvelously. In the comment section, both he and equally striking Wulf asked me to share my story of ‘good old times’ in Yugoslavia/Serbia, as well as what prompted hubby’s and my decision to permanently leave the country. We have a long journey ahead, so bear with me.
Bojana, how about you? You think you can pull this through?
(head nodding) I’ll try. I’ll try my best.
I want you to focus and try to remember everything. Focus your attention on your body parts. Your limbs are getting numb and heavy. They feel like logs…You are drifting down now. I’ll start counting backwards from 10 to 1 so that you can go on drifting even deeper…You are not thinking of anything now. 10…deeper…9….deeper with each breath…8…7…6. Too relaxed to think. 5…4… This heavy relaxation in your mind is flowing into your eyes and face. 3…You feel it in your chest, your back, it goes down your spine, it’s in your legs, your toes. You feel it in your arms and hands, your fingertips…2…deep and dreamy, heavy and relaxed…1.
Let us start with the late 70s and early 80s. What is it like?
It’s nice and cozy. It feels right. Life is uncomplicated. Nothing is missing. People are smiling. They are relaxed and unburdened. Their fridges and tummies are full. Prosperous time. Everybody has enough, some more than enough. Not a single person I know has nothing or not enough. I am not sure what homelessness is. I saw it in a movie once.
We are in southeastern Europe, in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), made up of 6 socialist republics: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia, each with its own parliament and president. I live in southern Serbia where I was born. Yugoslavia is not part of the Eastern Bloc. It has pursued a policy of neutrality since the Tito-Stalin split in 1948 and is a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement. It is way more open to Western popular culture, unlike other communist states. There is an easy access to commodities from the West that people can afford. They have money. They buy. SFRY is a relatively small country with an international reputation that far exceeds its size. It’s a role model, a dream come true for countries under the Soviet influence, where things like Western magazines, books, records, cassette tapes, chocolate, chewing gums or Levi’s jeans are only a pipe dream. Yugoslavia is ‘something in between’—neither East nor West. President Tito ingeniously balances between Washington and Moscow, refusing to ally with either, and ‘saying to both: If you don’t pay me off, I’ll let the other guy build a base here. Everyone pays up.’
Time of a great ethnic diversity. Time of equality. Civil rights are respected. Freedom of religion. Orthodox Christians, Catholics and Muslims live harmoniously under the same roof. Mixed marriages. Nobody cares. Nobody questions. An average of two children per family. Certain future.
We live in a social state. Free education for all. Time of literacy. There’s overall state ownership. Small and big businesses are flourishing. We are producing loads of food. The land of abundance. Investments in infrastructure. Urbanization, and industrialization. Import. Export. Faster productivity growth leads to an increasingly better standard of living. The employment rate is very high. The middle class is thriving. The whole country is working. Jobs after graduation. Agricultural subsidies to thousands of farmers and landowners. Yugoslavia’s socialism is based on worker self-management, enabling the worker to become the dominant figure in the economy and society in general. It ‘provides job security and workplace participation unknown anywhere else in the world, giving them a much better social and working position than workers in the East or the West. Workers’ councils decide on wages.’ The working class is thriving. Workers are respected. They go on collective holidays. Freedom of travel. We go shopping in neighboring Italy and Greece. Life is simple here, says an American woman in the movie ‘Something in Between’ upon coming to Serbia in the early 80s; when Serbs want fresh fish, they board a plane to the Croatian coast. ‘Yugoslavs travel hassle-free in both East and West; their red passports are worth even more on the black market than American ones.’ Regular salaries. People earn, spend and save money in banks. Free health care for all.
Everybody owns a house or an apartment which rarely anybody locks. Assaults and armed robberies are extremely rare. A negligible crime rate. Apartments are given by the state, NOT to be paid for, simply given, as a gift. A token of appreciation. You don’t believe me? I’m in elementary school. I’m 12, I think. We spend more time in the neighboring town at our grandparents’ than at home, my sister and me. Carefree weekends and holidays. Happy time. My parents come to pick us up and take us home. We’ve lived in a huge downtown apartment given to us by the state for as long as I can remember. However, dad doesn’t drive us there but to a newly built, ready-to-move-in house. SURPRISE!!! Lots of rooms. Spacious and fully furnished. Closets big enough for all our stuff. A piano in a corner of the living room and a table-tennis table under a large balcony. There’s a big front yard and a vegetable garden behind. Different-colored roses have already been planted. Mom thought of everything. We see a puppy barking already. So, we stay there, leaving our 3-bedroom apartment with 2 balconies on the 4th floor for good. We don’t sell it, though we have every right to. It’s ours. We own it. Mom thinks we have enough so we pass it like a saltshaker during dinner to needy ones. Time of solidarity and social responsibility. Mom mends our socks and pants when she sees a hole before buying new ones. My friends and I wear our cousins’ or older sibling’s clothes. There is nothing to be ashamed of. We are taught modesty and responsibility towards resources, despite the riches we enjoy. Old school. Better time. I don’t mend my son’s socks. I buy him a new pair instead. Lesson learned, lesson forgotten. Different time.
It’s getting chilly.
Would you like me to get you a blanket? We don’t need to do this if you don’t want to.
No, it’s alright. A blanket, yes.
Tell me, what else do you see?
Time of enormous creativity. Investments in culture and science. Art is flourishing. The best movies in the history of our cinematography are shot, even subversive ones. Rich pop and rock music scene, punk rock and the new wave. Yugoslavia has, according to a historian, two faces. Politically, it is both in the East and in the West. In terms of everyday life and freedom, it’s not only a land of Hollywood and Cold War films, but also a land which prohibits the movies of the so-called Black Wave, with their dark humor and critical examination of the Yugoslav society at the time. On the one hand, it’s a land of the avant-garde theater, on the other, a land banning subversive theatrical plays. President Tito loves movies, being a frequent guest at movie theaters and festivals. He has a reputation of a great hedonist with a soft spot for beautiful women, tobacco, Chivas Regal whisky, wine, celebrations, hunting, horses, luxury cars, yachts, travel, navy blue uniforms, antique weapons, medals, jewelry, white suits, gloves and hats. A charismatic leader with a style. A ‘magician of self-promotion.’ A joker whose lousy jokes everyone laughs at. A demagogue whose silly speeches everyone nods at. A ‘soft dictator.’ A world-class manipulator.
The whole nation knows his birthday. The whole nation celebrates it. A relay race, known as the Relay of Youth, is held every year. A baton is carried through the whole country with a birthday pledge to El Presidente ostensibly from all youths of Yugoslavia. I’ll be among the kids running the relay, but I drop the stupid thing, cameras are shooting, I panic and forget my lines. It’s embarrassing. I’m disappointed. The race ends with a huge celebration in the capital of Belgrade on May 25, Tito’s birthday and Day of Youth. It’s a national holiday. The school is closed. Nobody’s working. Festive atmosphere. Lots of holidays and time off throughout the year. The government-driven cult of personality created around Tito equals divinization. The pictures of president for life hang on the walls. There is no opposition. One party to rule them all. A mild autocrat.
We are taught to believe in Tito’s motto of ‘brotherhood and unity’ years after his death. We sing the National Anthem and wave national flags on every occasion. I belong to the Pioneer Alliance of SFRY, ‘honoring the children and youth who fought as part of the Yugoslav Partisans of the World War II.’ It consists of kids aged 7 and older, attending numerous educational, cultural and leisure activities. A few times a year, on state holidays, and anniversaries, we wear our pioneer uniforms: white shirts and dark blue pants/ skirts. We have red scarves around our necks and navy blue hats with a red star on them (★), associated with communist ideology and commonly used in flags and state emblems often in combination with the hammer and sickle. I still remember the text of a Yugoslav Pioneer pledge at the induction ceremony:
‘Today, as I become a Pioneer, I give my Pioneer’s word of honor that I shall study and work diligently, respect my parents and seniors, and be a loyal and honest comrade/friend, that I shall love our homeland, self-managed Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, that I shall spread brotherhood and unity and the principles for which comrade Tito fought, and that I shall value all peoples of the world who respect freedom and peace.’ A time to remember.
We are leading carefree lives, we who do not stir up, we who play by the rules. The strategies for dealing with political opponents have become much more subtle than in the Eastern Bloc, dissidents and critics of the regime being rarely stalked by the secret police, or suffering intimidation, and terror, which was previously the case. The once hard-labor detention camp for political prisoners and anticommunists, serving as a punitive measure against the unloyal in the past, has become a regular jail for criminals. Dissident lecturers rarely face stern measures like serving long prison sentences; however, they may suffer social isolation or relocation. You’re not obliged to become a member of the Party but those who do are privileged. Besides, if you want to move ahead in the political hierarchy, you have to be a member of the League of Communists.
Brave New World: a benevolent dictatorship, an efficient soft-repressive welfare state with no war, poverty and crime. History has not been abolished altogether; it’s just been slightly rewritten because it is always written by the winners. Its inhabitants find a new god to worship, this time a real one.
I think we’ve had enough for one day. You need to relax. I will start to awaken you in a few seconds. Next time we meet, you will begin to relax much quicker. Every time quicker than the previous one. Every time deeper and deeper…You will feel alert and alive when you wake up…Relaxed. Full of energy…I am going to count from 5 to 1. At the count of 1, you’ll wake up, feeling relaxed and wonderful. 5, 4…coming up slowly…3…relaxed and lively…2…(finger snapping) 1.