YEARS OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY

The 1990s were the time of an unstable political situation in Serbia, heavy economic and political sanctions enforced by the international community, hyperinflation, a large decline in production and employment, a public health crisis, a huge impoverishment of the population, and an influx of over 850,000 forced migrants (refugees and internally displaced persons), which inevitably put a strain on people’s nerves. It was difficult to say no to negativity that sucked many a man dry so the fact that quite a few lost their raison d’etre came as no surprise. A total of 300,000 young educated people emigrated from Serbia during the first two war years, whereas as many as 16,620 took their own life in the war-torn 90s, with the highest number of suicides occurring at the time of the culmination of the crisis connected to the disintegration of Yugoslavia (1991-1993) (source: ResearchGate).

Back then, people were lucky not to starve to death thanks to food obtained from rural households. In addition, our moms and grandmas were constantly making home-made bread. In times of crisis, people learn to be resourceful to survive. The 1990s in the Republic of Serbia provided favorable grounds for a great number of illegal businesses or activities conducted in the so-called gray economic area. The smuggling of wardrobe, cosmetics and canned food from neighboring Romania and Bulgaria was flourishing. I remember some strange soaps, and toothpastes we used and awful canned fish we ate all the time. Gasoline purchased from across the border was obtained in plastic bottles or 2.5/5GL (10/20L) containers in the streets. Although there was no legal import of cigarettes during the embargo, a market of low-quality and fake cigarettes, alcohol, and various street drugs took its place. Of course, smugglers and dealers made a big profit. The sanctions also affected industry greatly with numerous companies recording tremendous losses, which resulted in mass layoffs. Who didn’t dare to smuggle or wouldn’t buy smuggled goods could not survive, so the violation of the law became justified.

One of the features of the time was a specific way of conducting cash exchange operations. Black market currency trading was prevalent, cash being mainly exchanged by street dealers who handled large amounts of money. Basically, they would purchase foreign currency in banks at the official exchange rate and then sell it at a significantly higher one, thereby earning large sums of money. Citizens were not only content for obtaining more money but, more importantly, preventing it from losing value because of being transferred into foreign currency on time, mostly Deutschmark (DM). In 1993, the German mark was worth a thousand billion dinars on the black market and practically became the only means of payment.

The U.N. embargo on the import of weapons was applied to all opposing sides in the war. However, this did not represent much of a problem since the civil war in Yugoslavia drew an extensive network of arms depots already in the country. According to a State Department official, the Yugoslav military was probably the best armed in Europe, aside from the Soviet Red Army. Before the fighting erupted, our arms industry had produced most of the Yugoslav military’s weapons and was also one of the top world’s arms exporters. Furthermore, the conflict proved a magnet for the world’s shadowy arms dealers, with a weapons flow difficult to trace (source: The New York Times). Needless to say, organized crime in Serbia grew enormously during the collapse of Yugoslavia when local criminals plying their trade in Western Europe returned home to take advantage of the chaos.

Stability, certainty and comfort seemed to have belonged to the past, while archetypal heroes – honest, hard-working and noble people – were seldom held in high regard. The never-ending war, financial and existential crises were accompanied by the crisis of morality and values, creating new heroes to be imitated and looked up to, along with new ethics and rules of conduct. Not rarely, the meaning of life was radically redefined and a new reason for existing found. Before long, antiheroes, embodied in crackheads, loafers and lowlifes, became new role models for the young. The reality their parents were facing was harsh and the choice between being an outsider or joining the new elite and its values seemed an easy one for some.

Plenty of felons took part in wars, joining paramilitary forces. Both big shots and small time crooks earned a reputation as scavengers, feeding on people’s material possessions and confiscating everything left behind by those who had to leave their homes in Bosnia and Croatia. In spite of this, the members of the criminal underworld were frequently perceived as tough and uncompromising people, ready to get to grips with a terrifying reality. I’ve read an amazing research paper called ‘Social Context and the Rise of Antiheroes’ in which a sociologist and a criminologist with expertise in social psychology ‘analyze the development of social heroes, as well as the substance, functions and dichotomies of heroism’ in Serbia in the 90s. In their opinion, in times of crisis, people often turn to biologically powerful individuals who are believed to be able to survive in difficult times. It is to be expected, they explain, that we then do not admire poets but warriors who are able to defeat the enemy, be it internal or external ones (the neighboring peoples). In the absence of a legal state and rule of law, tribal perceptions of justice were reanimated. The overwhelming feeling of disappointment and powerlessness pushed people towards the mythical and imagined, romanticizing criminals and turning the negative hero into a constructive social one. Their anti-heroism was thus perceived as a lack of respect for the given reality, and ‘a rebellion against the deficiencies of the existing system.’ They were ‘our’ protectors from ‘the others,’ fighters against evil and social injustice, defenders of raison d’état, and patriots ‘bleeding for the common good. Rebels with a cause.’

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During their ‘heroism’ in Bosnia and Croatia, mobsters continued with intense criminal activities in Serbia, buying real estate, coffee shops, nightclubs, restaurants, etc. from the money they ‘earned.’ I don’t think they questioned anything; they just followed their instincts that were obviously telling them to steal and kill so as to indulge in all worldly pleasures at disposal. What frustrated decent people most was the fact that lawbreakers were given the status and reputation of national heroes. They understood the importance of the media very early, having a great deal of journalists on their side to glorify them; therefore, each had a carefully built image. Our ears were filled with their commitment to sport, attractiveness, discipline, dedication to family, Orthodox Christianity and tradition; we listened about invulnerable, unstoppable, unbeatable and uncatchable guys to whom cunning came as second nature. Of course, we shouldn’t underestimate the intention of the state to divert people’s attention from the real problems. Stories of gruesome crimes were replaced by odes to successful businessmen and ‘savers of the people.’ The national television spoke the language of soap operas day in day out. At the same time, they were ‘a prodigious and attractive consumer model that at the time of general scarcity had the image of success and dictated trends.’ A portrayal of bad taste at its best.

Needless to say, nationalism was extensively used by the political elite in Serbia in order to justify the widespread conflict and maintain absolute power. Furthermore, the political and state leaders utilized the chaos in the national economy for the ruthless theft, ripping the state-owned enterprises to shreds. ‘The beginning of privatization practically represented the legalized form of illegal enrichment of the privileged managerial lobby and the political and economic elite.’ Economic inequality was already visible in the second half of the 80s, while the gap between the rich and the poor skyrocketed to extreme levels in the early 90s. Both vieux and nouveau riche used financial hanky-panky and illegal distribution of humanitarian aid, military, and military medical supplies, opening offshore bank accounts in tax havens. Many ‘reputable’ business people became filthy rich upon stepping out of state-owned enterprises and founding their own companies, along with entering politics which additionally secured their position, and guaranteed the continued pursuit of personal interests.

With crime booming, lots of illegal weapons were in the streets, brought from the war by organized crime groups, involved in gunfights, robberies, aggravated assaults, kidnappings and liquidations. 90s Serbia witnessed thousands of brutal killings, with culprits and controversial businessmen dropping like flies. On top of it, numerous government officials were assassinated. Journalists too, despite the fact that some were under police surveillance at the time. Everybody who dared to unmask a connection between organized crime and the authorities, or expose corruption in judiciary and law enforcement was proclaimed a national traitor, not rarely suffering abduction, threat, torture and/or assassination. None of these murders were ever resolved, nor were the perpetrators captured. Once ‘the safest city in Europe,’ Belgrade became a city with the most unsolved murder, fraud and embezzlement cases.

People were desperate and needed to believe in something, which made them an easy target for innumerable scumbags and cheaters that appeared in the 90s, and spread like an epidemic. Namely, psychics, mediums and fortune tellers were constantly occupying the media, robbing people of their money and dignity. Unbelievable supernatural powers they were thought to possess were demonstrated using various cards, pendulums, beans or crystal balls. The majority of citizens were making ends meet. They were hopeless, frustrated, vulnerable and susceptible to deception and the promise of a future full of hope too tempting. While the Serbian economy was dying away, and the existing banks experiencing widespread closing, an assurance that better days lay ahead was embodied in two energetic middle-aged individuals, and directors of private banks, founded in ‘91/’92. They offered a stupendous return for money: 15% on a 30-day deposit of foreign currency such as German marks or US dollars, 280% on a 6-month deposit of Serbian dinars. One such bank was at one point offering 160% interest rate per month. Serbia was thrown into a savings frenzy.

A sad realization that banks were set up by opportunistic criminals supported by the state and President Milošević himself came too late. People were losing it. We can’t blame them. It’s easy to be smart now on a full stomach. The government needed to fund the foreign trade deficit and that’s why such crooks were invented. Some citizens invested as much as 100,000DM; however, when bankruptcy was announced, they had to say goodbye to their money. Many a man who fell for the fraudulent banks were left homeless. Billions of German marks were coaxed out of the people’s mattresses in less than 2 years. The state started returning the debt to the deceived in 2002, the process lasting until 2016. Only a small sum of money was found after the bankruptcy. It was never determined where the rest of the money ended up.

In 1994, almost 40% of the population in Serbia were below the poverty line. The unrestricted printing of money was stopped that year but the consequences of the disastrous economic policy were visible many years afterwards. The Dayton Peace Agreement, reached in November that year by the presidents of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia, helped bring the war to an end. I graduated from high school the following year. I was 18 and full of hope.

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY

Bojana, are you ready to go on? Alright.

I want you to focus again and try to remember everything, even things you forgot, wanted to forget and think you don’t remember. You limbs are getting heavy…heavier. It feels as if your hands and fingers were made of lead…You are sinking into perfect relaxation. I’ll count backwards now. 10, 9, 8…Inhale. Exhale.7….deeper still…6…let it all go now…5. Still drifting down…4, 3, 2…You feel this heavy relaxation in all parts of your body…deep and misty…Allow yourself to relax. Open your mind and your heart. Unburden…1.

Tell me what’s going on.

 

It’s Sunday afternoon, May 4, 1980 and we’re enjoying our weekend. The TV screen goes black for a few seconds. A statement is read live on national TV:

Comrade Tito has died. His great heart stopped beating at 3:05 PM.’

I’m 3. ‘Mom, why are you crying? Mom, don’t be sad. Is it me? Did I do something wrong?’ I’m too little to understand, too little to remember. Scenes of mass crying in the streets and during the live broadcast of a soccer match. The whole country is mourning Tito’s demise, expressing numbed disbelief and promising to remain loyal to his policy. He is buried in Belgrade, Serbia, in the House of Flowers a few days later, in the presence of 209 delegations from 127 countries, 700,000 people and a direct television broadcast of the funeral procession in 58 states. Tito’s funeral is noted as the most attended presidential funeral in the history of mankind to that time. To date, 17.5 million people have visited the Mausoleum.

Tito’s regime outlives him by as many as 10 years. An average Yugoslav lives in blissful ignorance throughout the 80s, that is the one who has a job. Life is comfortable. My family travels a lot: France, Italy, Spain, Bulgaria, Greece, Egypt. Little do we know that in a few years from now everything will fall apart. No one sees an economic collapse and civil unrest on the horizon. Nobody could have predicted such a downfall, really.

The mid 80s are challenging time for a country poising precariously between economic welfare and social catastrophe. Yugoslavia is falling into heavy IMF debt due to the large number of loans taken out by the regime. Another concern is the unemployment rate, severely aggravating in the second half of the decade.  Self-management ultimately drops the ball by the end of the 80s because of its bureaucratic degeneration and authoritarian political structure, where the seemingly autonomous working class has always played second fiddle to strong leaders, accepting their decisions uncritically. Basically, CEOs have been responsible to higher CEOs, instead of workers’ councils, and have as a rule had strong political ties. Knowing that the party has been god of all gods there, I’m sure you get the picture. What is more, after Tito’s death, political elites promote the idea of republican or ethnic working classes, as opposed to the united Yugoslav working class advocated by the late president. In other words, republics and autonomous provinces favorize their own working class by for example giving their workers inordinate wage increases, which creates even a bigger gap between the more developed and underdeveloped republics. The regional inequalities result in an economic crisis which further leads to a deterioration of the living standard. Let me put it into perspective for you. The scope of work is decreasing, companies are becoming insolvent, low wages, unsteady paychecks, lower wages, minimum wages, no paychecks AT ALL, millions are behind on bills, workers’ motivation is non-existent, work discipline zero, efficiency fictional. The outcome: the end of the movie for self-management. It was nice while it lasted. Two thumbs up for workers’ councils that survived for 40 years. Wow. Honestly. No kidding. I guess it would have been too much to ask…

However, there’s another problem. Besides the financial crisis, there’s also the crisis of system legitimacy after Tito’s death, with the long-simmering revival of nationalism coming to a boil by the end of the 80s. The introduction of self-management and decentralization was meant to encourage the liberalization and democratization of the mutual space. However, market competition turned the companies and republics into competitors, which then made republics’ party oligarchies act first as the guardians of republic interests and then the nationalist ones in the 80s.

With Tito’s death, Yugoslavia’s 6 constituent republics gain more autonomy, with a rotating presidency. The main issues troubling the elites in the post-Tito era turn primarily into a Serbian-Slovenian debate, marked by a growing divergence in the ‘national question.’ Confusing time. Before long, the fragile union he held together starts to unravel. The forces of nationalism he kept under control are unleashed, culminating in a brutal three-sided civil war hard to imagine in 20th century Europe. The outbreak of nationalism is followed by the awakening of patriarchal values, as is often the case. Sure there are civil initiatives, organizations and groups in all republics warning of the rapid militarization of society, nationalist mobilization and consequences they might have. Unfortunately, none of these anti-war movements is strong enough to prevent or stop the war. The end result: over 100,000 people killed (and God knows how many missing), 2 million driven from their homes, and Yugoslavia disintegrated.

The Croats and Slovenes, always reserved about Yugoslav unity, decide to secede. The latter try to avoid warfare, suggesting a plan for a loosely united country, based on the Swiss model of independent yet confederated cantons. The proposal is however turned down by other parties wanting full autonomy. Slovenia is the first Yugoslav republic to hold multi-party elections in the spring of 1990, which comes as no surprise. It is the most western-oriented, prosperous and ethnically homogeneous. Tensions are growing. The future of the country is at stake. We are cool…or just pretending. I’m an 8th grader about to take the grammar school entrance exam in Serbian (easy peasy) and math (ouch). My parents are panic-stricken and worried about my future. She’ll never make it. She sucks. Yeah, I know. But I’m cool (for real, not pretending). I rarely study.

Croatia is next to request more autonomy. First armed incidents begin, with open hostilities escalating in the majority-Serb populated areas in March/April 1991. Practice questions and tests, exam registration information, FAQs, tips, prep books, workbooks, study guides…not for me though, for my sister. She’s ready (read: if she’s ready, I’m ready too). I walk into the big room full of students and teachers, cool as ice. A kick-ass cheater, Tito’s school. Slovenia declares independence on June 25, 1991. Belgrade sends the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) to take control of its borders with Italy and Austria. Fighting breaks out on June 27, which will last 10 days. A total of 47 JNA soldiers are killed, aged between 18 and 22 from all the ethnic groups of Yugoslavia. The whole nation is shocked. I pass the exam with honors by applying the infamous partner (sister)-cheating method, that is copying down the answers sissy wrote on a ruler, and disposing of the evidence without getting caught. I’m shocked. I knew I’d pass but never thought my test scores would show such brilliant performance. I’m 14 and happy. I’ve got a crush on an out-of-towner. In September, the Republic of Macedonia gains its independence from Yugoslavia. My freshman year in high school may officially begin.

As violence erupts in Slovenia and Croatia, predominately Muslim Bosnia and Herzegovina (43% of the population) is ominously quiet until the fall of ‘91, when President Izetbegović starts to pursue independence. Bosnian Serbs (31%) oppose, creating their own ‘state’ and enjoying military support of Serbian President Milošević and JNA. The stage for a bloody secession is set. On the first school day, I sit down at a random empty desk in the third row by the window, where I remain till the end of high school. By the time I become a senior, it’ll be full of scribbles, hard to decipher by anyone but me.

The methods used by Croatian President Tuđman are extreme, invoking the spirit of the fascist and ultra-nationalist past. Its more than half-million Serb residents see the writing on the wall and begin to rise up, declaring independence from Croatia. JNA, now dominated by Serbs, sweeps in to put down the Croat rebellion and keep the nation together. The standoff lasts from 1991 to 1995, throughout my high school, and is full of scribbles, hard to decipher by anyone to date, let alone me. The now well-equipped Croatian army retakes the Serb-occupied areas in two offensives, retaliating for earlier ethnic cleansing by doing pretty much the same: torturing and murdering people, and destroying their homes. Scenes of warplanes opening fire on refugees. An eye for an eye. Most of remaining 300,000 Croatian Serbs, many of whom have been killed, are forced into Serbia. Up to now, few have returned. Croatia immediately establishes the borders that exist today.

In spring 1992, the Serb take control of a strip of Muslim-majority towns, also invading numerous mixed-ethnicity towns and villages, executing, and arresting thousands of Bosniaks and Croats (17% of the population), many of whom are taken to concentration or rape camps, while the remaining ones are forced to leave their homes. Bosnia, with its gruesome attacks and unthinkable atrocities, is torn apart, along with many families forced to choose sides. Absurd time. I now live in the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro, created from the two remaining federal republics of Yugoslavia after its breakup in ‘92. Cut-off phone lines between post-Yugoslav republics become an everyday reality. The best is yet to come. In the beginning, Bosniaks and Croats fight together against Serbs but, once tensions increase, the former allies engage in open conflict. There’s the so-called Croat–Bosniak war, or ‘war within a war,’ part of the larger Bosnian war, lasting from Oct 1992 to Feb 1994. Bellum omnium contra omnes (the war of all against all). Violent time.

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My generation is coming of age, watching the war live in neighboring Croatia and Bosnia, with its unspeakable cruelties, monstrosities, sieges, shelling, mass murders, mass rapes, mass graves, attacks and counter-attacks, led by regular and paramilitary armies, with thousands of soldiers and civilians killed, displaced and disappeared on all three sides. The world loathes it, the world is disgusted, the world is watching in discomfort, the world condemns it. The world is sending over ‘the Smurfs’ (UN Protection Force). They have the best seats in the theater, sitting in the first row. They are watching. The world pays no mind.

We’re boisterous, feisty and tough, my friends and I, or just play tough. We don’t suck up to upperclassmen. We’re no underdogs. We’re the intolerant and contemptuous ones. There are no cuties to crush on either so we might as well hate their guts. Eventually, we decide to pursue a middle way. We’re sort of on speaking terms, but I can’t say we’re friends either. Befriending refugees with a suitcase full of memories. We hate rules and being told what to do. We hate things that are compulsory. We defy authority. The principal’s a jerk. Teachers too (with a couple of exceptions). Many look down on us, so how can we look up to them?! We are smartasses with superior intellect, perception and wit, beating them so easily that it hurts.

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No one gets suspended or expelled. It’s not that kind of school. There’s nothing much they can do, which annoys the hell out of them. We’re unbearable. When a teacher starts asking too many questions, we sneak off for a quick grope in one of the empty classrooms on the 3rd floor. Experimental time sharing. The remains of soldiers are shipped like parcels back home on a daily basis. When we’re bored or restless, we play hooky. We hate kissasses. Currying favor with teachers is a big no-no, inconsistency, reluctance and fear being punished in not so subtle ways. Truancy is always intentional, though unjustified, and unauthorized. So, we show up every now and then, which in our world means attending school but not going to class that often. Skipping. Yes, we stay away from school without explanation (or with a lousy one), we are absent without permission, we shirk work, and evade duty. I study only the things I’m interested it, in which case I’m enthusiastic, pro-active, resourceful, detailed, alert, studious, meticulous and nerdy. I dodge the stuff I find utterly unappealing and pointless for that matter, in which case I’m idle, lazy, sluggish, passive and neglectful. I’m pretty good at it. Packed orphanages and shabby refugee centers wherever you turn. I don’t move in a girl pack only nor do I need at least two besties with me at all times when entering the school, going to the bathroom, or walking to class. We attend funerals, walk behind coffins and listen to funeral speeches, saying a last goodbye to those killed in war, ‘too young to reason and too grown up to dream.’ I shave my head, and have different-colored socks on, along with my grandpa’s funky ties which I love cutting off. I wear a Sex Pistols sweatshirt/T-shirt, cuffed pants or worn out jeans with frayed edges and big holes at the knee and black boots that I never ever take off.

Ethnic hatred grows as various incidents fuel the powerful propaganda machines on all three sides. We’re told who to love, and who to hate. We live in a black and white world in which we’re the good guys fighting the bad ones, that is evil incarnate. Our religion is better than theirs. ‘Our flag is the embodiment of history,’ and OUR leaders the epitome of courage, determination, commitment, principle and vigor. By contrast, THEY are the personification of omnimalevolence: their politicians, their soldiers, their citizens, their males and females, their children, their dogs. Confusing time. 18-year-olds are drafted into the army in the middle of the night and transported to war zones like cattle in trucks to fight for ‘our cause.’ On our way to school and back, my girlfriends and I touch each other’s breasts and send them kisses, waving hello and goodbye, and we can’t help but wonder if that’s the first and last time we’ve seen them. Mixed feelings of desire, lust, sadness, rage, fear and impotence.

 

We’ll call it a day now, alright? In a few moments, I will awaken you. This time much quicker than the last one….more relaxed. I’ll count from 1 to 5. At the count of 5, you will open your eyes. You’re relaxed…1, 2…You’ll feel wonderfully refreshed when you wake up…3, 4…so relaxed, so calm…whole day…5.

How are you feeling?

Like shit.

THE MARRIAGE OF HEAVEN AND HELL

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.

All set?

(head nodding)

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’s 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.’

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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 I. 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.

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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.