In which I answer listener questions…about anything (but strictly Yugoslavia-related).

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Episode Transcript

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[JINGLE]

PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your guide Peter Korchnak.

I get asked a lot of questions, about me, about Yugoslavia, about the podcast. Why is a Slovak so interested in Yugoslavia? Why did Yugoslavia fall apart? When will there be an episode about XYZ?

I love it. There’s interest in the former Yugoslavia, you want to know the history and understand the present, you want to travel there, you want to connect.

I answer queries individually, as I’m able, but I also thought it would be a good idea to make these known to all. So, this is the first AMA, or Ask Me Anything episode, of Remembering Yugoslavia, in which I answer your questions…about anything.

I’ve collected the questions in various ways, mostly in person and from the call for questions to my mailing list.

By the way, if you’re not on Remembering Yugoslavia’s list, consider joining, at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Join. You’ll get an occasional message from me, with some Yugoslavia related thoughts, a roundup of news about the former Yugoslavia, and more. RememberingYugoslavia.com/join.

[SOUNDBITE – “Galaksija z 80a” by Detective Spook]

The number one most frequently asked question I hear is a variation of, why. Why is a Slovak so interested in Yugoslavia? What makes someone from Czechoslovakia focus another disappeared country, rather than their own? Why Yugoslavia?

I’ve actually told that story early on in this podcast’s history, in the episode “The Origin Story of Remembering Yugoslavia.” Let me sum up.

When I was growing up in the former Czechoslovakia, in the 1980s, Yugoslavia was a kind of a paradise. The sea, the beaches, the sun, the ice cream…none of which I had a chance to experience. For various reasons my family never went there on vacation. I never saw the paradise.

I never could go to Yugoslavia when it existed and then, when I could go, it was no longer a country. I watched my country be dismantled as the wars of Yugoslavia’s dissolution raged (and provided a warning to us, in Czechoslovakia). The paradise was lost.

That’s the foundation. I can squarely point a finger at the film Underground, which I saw shortly after its release, in 1996, as the trigger of my fascination with the former Yugoslavia. I began traveling to t he region in 1998 and soon after I started meeting and making friends with people from the former country. Here’s to you, Ivana, Mira, Djordje, and everyone.

Anyway, in graduate school I almost naturally chose to compare the two countries’ dissolutions. Got a sweet A on that thesis.

To point another finger, the concert in 2012 of the Portland, Oregon-based Balkan brass band Krebsic Orkestar rekindled my passion.

And here we are, trying to understand the paradise…and perhaps myself with it.

At the same time, I find Yugoslavia to be much more interesting, in terms of history, politics, its version of socialism, human diversity, geography, and yes the present, than Czechoslovakia. I learn something new every day (today I learned about the inequalities of housing allocations under socialism).

Rational explanations aside, why is anyone passionate about anything? Something tugs at your heart, fills the soul, keeps you coming back again and again, until it becomes you. I feel much more Balkan and definitely quote unquote Yugoslav than Slovak. Besides, I come from our version of a mixed marriage, with a Slovak father of Ruthenian heritage and Hungarian mother; being Slovak really is a construct in my case, an arbitrary category that’s not of my own choosing. So yeah, why not Yugoslavia?

There’s a part of this that needs elaborating. Amy from Portland, Oregon is a new listener and she asks: “When I learn about new places I’m curious to hear what it is or was like to be a child there. Schooling, hobbies, recreation, food, traditions…” So let’s go back to Yugoslavia in my childhood.

The distant seaside paradise that was Yugoslavia was also a mountain paradise that was the Wild West of the imagination. You see, Yugoslavia, mostly today’s Croatia, was where the Kraut westerns about Winnetou, the Chief of the Apaches, were filmed.

Every generation of pale-faced Czech and Slovak boys, myself included, grew up with Winnetou, the protagonist of novels written by the German author Karl May in the 1890s. I read all the books, more than once. I watched all the movies, made in the 1960s, that were available to us, more than once. And I yearned to adventure in the places where the films were shot. Paklenica, Zrmanja, Vrlika, Plitvice, Krka, Velebit, Tulove grede… I had no clue what these places were called at the time, I just knew I wanted to go there. I rode across the plains of Texas Lika, scaled the craggy hills of New Mexico Dalmatia, canoed down the rivers of impossible blue-green in search of adventure, truth, and the common good.

I learned later that the restrictions on my family’s travel to Yugoslavia had, in part, to do with some relatives having emigrated to the U.S. and thus casting on those that stayed or were left behind a pall of a flight risk. Back then, you needed an exit permit to travel out of Czechoslovakia and those for Yugoslavia were hard to get. A lot of people used that country’s liberal travel regime to escape to the West, be it through Italy or Austria or various foreign embassies; vacation trips were a cover. The 2010 Czech film Identity Card features a storyline of a family using vacation to Yugoslavia as a ruse to emigrate.

Yugoslavia of course stood outside the Iron Curtain, the Eastern Bloc, the Warsaw Pact, the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance; its socialist path was different from ours in Czechoslovakia, imposed by the Soviet Union and reinforced by its occupation from 1968. There was nothing to learn from Yugoslavia, so we didn’t.

At school, when we learned the patriotic song “Hej Slováci” (Hey Slovaks), it was billed almost as a second, unofficial anthem, and, in hindsight a building bloc in the construction of national identity. “Hey Slovaks, our Slovak language is yet alive, as long as our faithful heart beats for our nation…” We learned the poet Samuel Tomášik wrote the lyrics in 1834 (I don’t recall learning he was also a Lutheran pastor) and used a traditional Polish tune to turn it into a song. Discovering much later it had been the anthem of socialist Yugoslavia came as quite a surprise. Remember, this was before the internet.

The distant, unattainable sun-drenched, azure-watered dreamland came to life in my childhood through the stories of friends who had gone there and the things they brought back. I remember a white BMX bike my best friend at the time brought back which immediately stood out among the Velamos brand, Made in Czechoslovakia bikes with black padding along the top tube. Colorful magazines made it through sometimes, as did car air fresheners with pictures of topless women. Of course, it was impossible to bring back the ice cream, said to be the best in the world, which made the explosion of Balkan ice cream joints in the 1990s all the more understandable.

Not much else to say, I’m afraid. Yugoslavia was more of an idea for me than anything. Then came the 1990s, and everything changed.

I’ll answer that other why that’s among frequently asked questions, that is, why did Yugoslavia fall apart? in an upcoming episode soon.

[SOUNDBITE – “Galaksija z 80a” by Detective Spook]

Alexander from the UK asks “How do you now look back and feel about Italia 90 World Cup when Yugoslavia in its original form and Czechoslovakia (and USSR) made their last international appearances before they broke up?” Well, I don’t, to be honest. Or I haven’t until the question arose.

The national football teams of the three socialist federations indeed made their last appearance as such at the 1990 World Cup in Italy. I mostly remember being a proud owner of a white t-shirt with the mascot, Ciao. I did follow international competitions, mostly the World Cups, Mexico 86, Italy 90, USA 94, and France 98, but then my attention steered elsewhere, and ice hockey became the remaining and reigning champion of my sports. So I did pay attention at the time, but 33 years later I don’t remember anything about it. Wikipedia tells me that, at the tournament both Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia advanced to the quarterfinals, where they were eliminated by the eventual finalists, Yugoslavia by Argentina and Czechoslovakia by the champion West Germany. Yugoslavia ended up ranking fifth in the final standings, Czechoslovakia sixth. I recall Cameroon’s advance to the quarterfinals to have been a much bigger deal at the time, and Roger Milla’s goal celebrations iconic.

I haven’t really been looking into sports as a mode of remembering. Occasionally the question does come up, mostly about basketball. A sports episode is on the long list of topics I want to tackle, but so far I’ve been standing on its sidelines as other topics outscore it in the episode ideas bracket.

So I’m sorry, Alexander, I don’t have much to share about this. The last World Cup appearances of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia happened, and I see them as little more than symbolic, if unremarkable, markers of the two countries’ histories.

[SOUNDBITE – “Galaksija z 80a” by Detective Spook]

Marie from Chicago asks: “How have cultural memories of Yugoslavia contributed to Croatia’s influx of mass tourism [from the former country] since 1995, especially eco-tourism?”

Let’s start by looking at the numbers. Two sets are important, arrivals, that is the number of people engaging in tourism in Croatia, and nights, how many nights they spent there. I’ll focus on people from abroad and let’s also stick with the pre-pandemic period. I’m not going to get too deep here (thanks to this question, I’ll dedicate an entire episode to tourism in the former Yugoslavia) but the picture should be somewhat clear.

During socialism, tourism from other republics was counted as domestic so it’s hard to parse the numbers. What I can say is that domestic tourism accounted for 16-19 percent of all arrivals between 1972 and 1990. It would make sense for most of these domestic arrivals to be from Croatia. Whereas in 1996, the first post-war year domestic, that is now Croatian tourists comprised 30 percent of arrivals, twenty years later they were down to 16 percent.

In the independence era, tourism, a seasonal industry at best, has gone through ups and down in Croatia. The war of independence crippled it, the postwar period saw a rise until the NATO bombing of rump Yugoslavia reversed it. Then the Great Recession saw another dip interrupting a recovery, Croatia’s accession to the EU another rise, the pandemic a dip, and accession to Schengen and the euro this year a boom again.

According to the Croatian National Tourism Board, 1995 saw tourism arrivals sink to less than a quarter of the 1985 numbers, the peak of that decade. The number of foreign tourists didn’t reach 1990 levels until about 2003, and 1985 levels until 2009 or 10. It took a while for tourism to recover and even longer to grow.

In 2000, Croatia’s statistical office pointed to a boom in tourism, as the country was recovering after the war. Foreigners represented some 87 percent of tourists and over 50 percent more of them came than in the preceding year. Germans led the pack, at 23 percent, followed by 819 thousands Slovenes, or 15 percent, with a similar rate of annual growth. Bosnians also came in larger numbers, about 181 thousand people, comprising 3.4 percent of foreigners, whereas Serbs and Montenegrins comprised, understandably given the recent history, a meager 0.1 percent of arrivals.

Two decades later, in 2019, tourism had been increasing for a 6th year in a row, and 400 percent over 1999. Foreigners accounted for 90 percent of tourism visits, representing a 4.8 percent increase year on year. Germans were still by far the most numerous, 16 percent of foreigners (the joke is that for Germans, Croatia is like Mexico for Americans).

Slovenes were still second and the most numerous among former Yugoslavs, 1.4 million or 9 percent of all foreigners. As for the rest, Bosnians were at 2.5 percent with 433 thousand, and Serbs, Macedonians, and Montengerins at less than one percent. All of these except Macedonians grew by 4 to 10 percent year-on-year with proportions staying about the same. Of course, some of these were repeat visitors.

Based on stats alone, and again I haven’t done a super deep dive, it would seem tourism arrivals to Croatia from the countries of the former Yugoslavia mostly follow the overall trends.

Slovenes do visit a lot. I’ve heard people say the fact you see so many Slovenian tourists in Croatia because they’re yugonostalgic. Well, maybe, but Croatia is next door, they have the money, and the language barrier is low.

Bosnians visit in normal numbers. Serbs have been coming more as the memory of 90s wars fades. Montenegrins have their own sea and Macedonians remain economically challenged, plus there are closer and more convenient vacation options for them.

A study in 2007 explored motivations of all tourists for traveling to Croatia. The top ones were holiday and relaxation on the coast, pleasure and entertainment, natural resources, new experiences, closeness of the destination, and gastronomy.

Certainly, in drawing visitors from the former Yugoslav republics, the common history helps, as does the cultural and language similarities. Croatia is simply a very convenient vacation destination. I can certainly speculate that some of the visits are driven by cultural memory of the former Yugoslavia, particularly when it comes to events and commemorations like, most prominently, the Day of Youth in Kumrovec. The memory of 90s wars certainly acted in the opposite direction, as did financial slash economic factors. Anyway, unless I see research showing this in detail, I can only speculate about it. And I’d like to see statistics on Bosnians, Serbs, and Montenegrins coming to the Croatian coast for seasonal work.

Eco-tourism, I have no idea at this point, but my guess is it doesn’t feature too prominently in former Yugoslavs’ minds, they come for the sea and eco-tourism seems like a Western thing to me.

Going forward, I’d also guess that with rising prices post-euro introduction and due to other factors, Croatia may become less of a draw for ex-yugo tourists.

And honestly, if I were seeking a beach vacation, I’d rather go to cheaper, friendlier, better equipped, more destination diverse, and overall more interesting Greece.

[SOUNDBITE – “Galaksija z 80a” by Detective Spook]

Heather from Vancouver, Washington, also a newish listener, has asked to hear updates about past guests. With three years of podcast archive to wade through, she’s been wondering what people I spoke with in the past are up to. Well, Heather, with over 150 guests on the show so far, it’s quite a feat to keep up to speed with them all. So I’ll mention just a few I’ve been keeping up with that stand out.

Sanja Horvatinčić, who has appeared in multiple episodes, has just had a new book published, with Beti Žerovc, titled Shaping Revolutionary Memory: The Production of Monuments in Socialist Yugoslavia. I haven’t seen it yet but I just ordered it as a belated Christmas present to myself. I do know that the book “presents a comprehensive overview of the vast production of monuments in socialist Yugoslavia dedicated to the antifascist People’s Liberation Struggle in the Second World War and the socialist revolution.” I’ll report on the book on the podcast soon.

Tanja Petrović at the Institute of Culture and Memory Studies in Ljubljana is working on a new project about graphic novels and comics in Yugoslavia. She’ll be back on the show soon to talk about that. She also recently co-founded, with a number of other scholars, the New Yugoslav Studies Association.

The graphic designed Ognjen Ranković who revives logos of former Yugoslav companies has exhibited his work in Zagreb, Bitola, and Skopje, and published a book of logos. Alas, the book is sold out.

The photographer Olja Triaška Stefanović has followed up her project and book Bratstvo i Jedinstvo with a project documenting the vestiges of non-alignment across Yugoslavia and beyond. She is currently a Fulbright Scholar at the Parsons School of Design.

Elena Chemerska is at work on a restoration of and documentary about the Monument to Freedom in Kočani, North Macedonia.

Jasmina Tumbas has been collecting awards and accolades for her book, “I am Jugoslovenka!”: Feminist performance politics during and after Yugoslav Socialism.

The Lepa Brena Prodžekt has been on the road quite a bit. The Bitef Teatar production leaves Belgrade every now and then to make appearances in other republics of the former Yugoslavia: Banjaluka, Mostar, Novi Sad, Osijek, Sarajevo, Skopje, Split, Tuzla, Zagreb, Zenica, as well as Vienna and I believe Switzerland someplace.

The Ex-YU Rock Center continues to rock in Sarajevo. Last month, they opened two new exhibitions at the Skenderija complex, one on women in Yugoslav rock and one on Macedonian rock music.

And Ana Radovcich, who draws portraits of Partisans, has recently exhibited her work at the Victory Museum in Šibenik.

Ana also sent me a question of her own. “Considering you lived a good portion of your life under communism, would you like to, if it were possible, plonk yourself into a life in Yugoslavia in say, the early or mid 80s?” I had a happy childhood, thank you very much. The present version of me would rather time-travel to the late 1960s, Yugoslavia’s peak. Things were getting better, the future was bright-ish. In the 1980s, post-Tito, Yugoslavia was already experiencing an economic decline and the country was ripping in its seams. It may have looked prosperous to people from behind the Iron Curtain and, as I said, I’d love to have visited as a child, but for the Yugoslavs, life, and the mood, were getting worse, I’m told. Visit, yes. Plus if I lived in Yugoslavia in the 1960s I’d be able to check out the Prague Spring, Europe stirring, Flower Power in California…

I’ll share more updates from past guests in the next AMA episode. Yes, I am planning to make “Ask Me Anything” into a running segment on the show. So, send in your questions, about anything via Remembering Yugoslavia’s Instagram, Facebook, or contact page on the website.

Finally, for all of you suggesting episodes on this or that or the other, please do keep sending in and pitching your ideas. More often than not, it’ll be on the long list already but I’m happy to be surprised.

With that, let’s plonk ourselves into the New Year. Hope you have a good one! It should be for me as I look to expand Remembering Yugoslavia. To that end, please take a few minutes to fill out the Remembering Yugoslavia survey (the link is at the website) and let me know how I’m doing and what you’d like to see different here.

Thank you, Happy New Year, and as always, smrt fašizmu!

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PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this AMA episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening.

Outro music courtesy of Robert Petrić.

Additional music courtesy of Detective Spook – thank you!

I am Peter Korchňak.

Ćao!