Director of Ljubljana-based Institute of Culture and Memory Studies, Tanja Petrović, discusses the new lives of Yugoslav objects, Yugonostalgia, and the political potential of socialist Yugoslavia today.
American bombs, Yugoslav products, and Slovene Yugonostalgics also make an appearance.
Episode Transcript (and More)
PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your host Peter Korchnak.
In today’s episode I’ll complete a hat trick of sorts. I previously spoke with two research fellows from Ljubljana-based Institute of Culture and Memory Studies. In Episodes 2 and 3, I spoke with Ana Hofman about the new life of Partisan songs, and in Episode 6 with Martin Pogačar about Yugoslav rock and Yugoslavia’s digital afterlives.
Tanja Petrović is the head of the Institute. A linguist and anthropologist, she teaches and writes about the uses and meanings of socialist and Yugoslav legacies in post-Yugoslav societies, including the the spheres of labor and gender; the role of language in forming ideologies, memory and identity; and the relationship between memory, heritage, and historiographic narratives on Yugoslav socialism. In other words, everything I explore here at Remembering Yugoslavia.
Her 2012 book Yuropa: Yugoslav Heritage and the Politics of the Future in Post-Yugoslav Societies was the first scholarly book in Serbian I’d ever read (the second one was Ana Hofman’s volume on Partisan songs).
Tanja hails from Serbia.
TANJA PETROVIĆ: And I lived with the idea that I will probably leave at some point.
PETER KORCHNAK: Nostalgia is a major subject in Tanja’s work.
TANJA PETROVIĆ: And from then on, it was clear to me that this nostalgia should not and cannot be reduced to just a sentiment of how life was nice when we were all young…
PETER KORCHNAK: And her work has a distinct political dimension.
TANJA PETROVIĆ: In my work, I have my own politics and it’s definitely related to giving voice to those whose voice is generally not heard.
PETER KORCHNAK: When we spoke at the Institute earlier this year, Tanja was fighting a cold. But she put in a heroic effort and we had a great conversation. She also reminded me, in a way, why I’m doing what I’m doing with Remembering Yugoslavia.
American bombs, Yugoslav products, and Slovene Yugonostalgics also make an appearance.
Tanja Petrović’s Personal Journey to Yugoslav Studies
PETER KORCHNAK: Doctor Tanja Petrović, take me from the time and place you were born to today, your journey from Serbia to Slovenia and to the study of Yugoslavia.
TANJA PETROVIĆ: Actually I was born in Yugoslavia. And so there is no country anymore. I was born there is also the place I was born is called differently today. Today it’s called Jagodina, I was born in Svetozarovo, middle size, very industrial town in central Serbia.
PETER KORCHNAK: The story of the town’s name is a prime example of how place names are put in the service of ideology. Tanja’s town was called Jagodina, a name deriving from the Serbian word for strawberry, from its founding in 1399 to 1946, when the new Communist Party-led government renamed it after Svetozar Marković, a 19th century socialist philosopher who had lived and died there. In 1992, the Serbian government changed the name back to Jagodina.
TANJA PETROVIĆ: And I was born ‘74, which means that when I was [in the] third year of my high school, the war started. When I went to study in Belgrade [it] was ‘93. So it was in the middle of the UN sanctions, it was [a] very, very peculiar period to be in Serbia. And I studied and lived there, I lived through bombardment there and everything, and through that process, I was seeing basically from one month to another, most of my friends leaving forever. And I lived with the idea that I will probably leave at some point. And I left Serbia and a couple of weeks after Milošević was finally ousted.
PETER: A scholarship in Slovenia led to a doctorate, which led to a job, a family… Tanja has now lived in Ljubljana for twenty years.
And when she reflects on her journey and the role Yugoslavia played in it, she warms my railway enthusiast heart.
TANJA PETROVIĆ: I see myself as someone who, in a way, caught the last Yugoslav train.
My father was the first ever in our family to finish some kind of college. He studied in Zagreb, he could afford it. His father died young, when my father was quite young. So, but still, he lived in a system where he had enough support that he could study and even study, you know, not in the closest place, but somewhere else. I myself still could go to Belgrade, study, graduate, go abroad, have a career, travel the world, write books…
I have cousins who are just [a] couple of years younger than I am, who couldn’t catch that train. And they are equally diligent and smart and finished schooled with good grades, very good grades, but they simply could not go even to Belgrade to study. They stayed there because their parents could not, you know, support economically their studies and the system itself does not exist in the way that it existed.
So in that sense, for me that was it for me. That’s Yugoslavia for me, that’s why I so much insist on concrete experiences and the experiences that really mattered for concrete people’s lives. And that kind of, you know, knowing my relatives, my grandfather, my uncles, and aunts who also were able, all coming from small villages able to study to travel, to see the world in that Yugoslavia and who did not move from their village after that period. That’s something that comes to my mind when I think about that country much more than anything else.
PETER: What’s it like to live and work in Slovenia as a Serb?
TANJA PETROVIĆ: It’s easy. Slovenia is a small society but actually an open and tolerant society much more than I would say one would expect. I don’t feel any distance. Now I live in Ljubljana longer than I lived in any other place in my life. So I cannot say that I have any peculiar sense of not being at home here. I’m aware that people are aware I’m not Slovenian. Of course I have an accent, yes, I haven’t as soon as I start talking, it’s clear that yes, even my kids correct me all the time. I don’t feel a pressure that they need to hide that fact and I don’t see any negative reaction basically about it.
Made in YU 2015
PETER KORCHNAK: In her most recent book, Made in YU 2015, that’s why you as an acronym for Yugoslavia, Tanja co-edited a number of essays on consumer culture in socialist Yugoslavia.
TANJA PETROVIĆ: The idea behind it was to think and talk about objects that we associate with life in Yugoslavia and also to see what was happening with objects with the end of the country and socialism and all the changes that came after.
Basically, the agenda was to, in a way, recuperate and bring back dignity to objects related to socialism, because objects are pretty central in how we think and talk and write on socialism and studies of material culture. Very often, especially in all these discourses of nostalgia, we speak essentially about objects as something which is most immediate, most accessible, and also in a way most simple, even banal. So we wanted to expose more complex life and important meanings of objects. Because for these objects we could not only speak on socialism and life in that period, but also tell very, very important stories about changes in economies of time, labor perceptions, and so on. Objects are [a] good lens to tell history in general.
PETER KORCHNAK: Objects or products were the main way nostalgia for socialism, for the past, particularly the 1980s, manifested in my country Slovakia, some ten-fifteen years ago. It almost seemed as if the toys, the candy, the cars stood for socialism itself, as if there were nothing else to life in that period.
What’s the story in Yugoslavia? What themes emerged from the essays in the book, what were the main findings?
TANJA PETROVIĆ: People in the book addressed several issues. One was some very emblematic objects for socialism or objects that were desired in socialism. And then objects, which purpose or ways of usage change significantly. For instance, I wrote about coffee which at some point was not very available during socialist time, and that’s why the value of coffee was very high. But that’s not the whole story. The story goes also up to today, because the way we drink coffee today, globally pretty much differs from the ways we used to drink coffee in the 80s, or in the 70s. It’s simply [a] different perception of time and [a] different perception of sociality. So most of these objects tell these broader stories on time, society, politics, labor, and so on.
Objects are innovative, less controversial, but I would say if we look at them seriously, they always speak broader stories and they’re impossible to disentangle from some broader also ideas political ideas, ways of living, ways of social organization, and so on. That’s one of the kind of critiques of nostalgia goes actually in that direction, that people are nostalgic basically for objects because it is easy to consume them without thinking much. But I simply think objects have much bigger potential and bigger meaning and they have many layers of different stories that speak bigger things than only enjoying certain tastes or going back to certain things.
PETER KORCHNAK: You relate these objects or products to Yugoslavia and to socialism. There’s definitely an element of retro to these products, and retro is specific to time, a past, rather than a country or regime. How do these two sides of the coin relate?
TANJA PETROVIĆ: Definitely and they are actually pretty intertwined. Although at some point, of course, we speak about things made in YU. But it’s not only because they are made in [a] particular country, which happened to be our country. It was simply [a] different time where making things was very different than today.
There is this map of Yugoslavia with all important products made in different places that circulates around in social media. And of course, it speaks on certain capacities of [a] socialist country to produce things that are still pretty much remembered as good, desirable, and so on.
But on the other hand, it’s [a] much broader story because it’s very difficult to recreate that kind of map it’s impossible to recreate that kind of map for post-Yugoslav societies today, but it’s very difficult to recreate, or create it for any other other country for that matter, because simply the mode of production today is very different. Producing a car, producing any more complex kind of object or product does not happen anymore in a single place, usually we have very distributed, fragmented production, or production is moved somewhere else. It’s much more difficult today to relate products to some kind of national self esteem, which was easier, easier in Yugoslavia, but generally easier for any country in the world in the second part of the twentieth century.
PETER KORCHNAK: And how does the book fit into the big picture of your work?
TANJA PETROVIĆ: What I really kind of want to do through my writing, basically, is not to disentangle history of socialist Yugoslavia from people for whom that history is still lived experience. That of course, makes things very complex and complicated and not very neat, and very chaotic, but I think we should not, you know, stay away from these complexities and ambiguities emerging from the fact that very different people still have not only memory but also basically firsthand experience of living in that country, that time. And also to take seriously what they have to say about that time and their own experience with it. We cannot write histories of Yugoslavia ignoring that experience. And I always try to look at the experience and all the complex ways in which it reveals not only the past, but also reveals certain imaginations of the future that are felt as being basically lost today.
Tanja Petrović on Yugo- and Other Nostalgias
PETER KORCHNAK: Which brings me to Yugonostalgia. It’s as if all roads lead to it. What’s your take on the phenomenon?
TANJA PETROVIĆ: I did my first ethnographic research in a more or less factory, cable factory in Jagodina, in Svetozarovo, which was the largest, one of the largest factories of that kind in socialist Yugoslavia. So I was talking to workers there about their memories on working in socialism.
And from then on, it was clear to me that this nostalgia should not and cannot be reduced to just a sentiment of how life was nice when we were all young, which would be one of these ways, pretty much [a] frequent way to explain it. And also I was somehow more leaning to intermediate always to interpretation of nostalgia as something which is actually political and which should be taken seriously, that it’s not something that you know, paralyzes people in the past, but actually speaks of broader desires that these people talk about referring to their own experience, from the past, something they they lived and for which they immediately, from their own experience, know that it actually can be different.
PETER KORCHNAK: Many people, particularly in this region and particularly when it’s directed to the socialist era, consider nostalgia as more negative than positive in many ways. Let’s say, those that suffer from nostalgia are stuck in the past. In your work, you attempt to correct this view and show nostalgia is about something else altogether. To what extent have you been able to change any misperceptions of nostalgia that persist out here?
TANJA PETROVIĆ: You know, nostalgia is— it’s [a] recursively fancy topic, it comes back all the time. And people choose different ways to think and speak about that. I would say there is already a critical body of research saying loudly that yes, it’s something more complex, it’s something political, it’s something to be taken seriously and there and I think it’s also very important. You know, usually, if you would say that 20 years ago, someone said, Yes, but Yugoslavia was anyway a special case, you cannot generalize it.
But I think today we already have very good research done in different places, from GDR to Czech Republic, Russia, Soviet Union and so on, which complicates this argument and argues for both for complexity and political relevance and most important for actually future oriented imagination that this nostalgia entails much more than being frozen in the past.
Of course, nostalgia is not a very homogeneous phenomenon. It’s not something when we speak about nostalgia, it, it can be all sorts of things and probably when I speak about that, and someone else we don’t speak about same thing because there are many instances of using certain sentiments in a very kind of pragmatic, but also very superficial way. There is a whole consumerist industry going on basically and flourishing because of some of these nostalgic feelings. I think it’s very important to be discrete and concrete here and make clear what we are speaking about whom and essentially give the voice to these people.
PETER KORCHNAK: Being from here, this topic of course has a personal dimension for you. You’re not a politician and you’re also not just a distant observer.
TANJA PETROVIĆ: You know, I, I grew up in this, this country or these countries. I was observing closely these people, I grew up with them. For me, it’s important not to tell simplified stories about citizens in Yugoslavia.
We are all living on, on the couple of shadows. One of the shadows is of course the socialism itself. The fact that we will always be kind of second class European citizens, never democratic enough, never developed enough all, you know, totalitarian legacies and blah, blah.
And of course, the other shadow is the way Yugoslavia disintegrated and all the violence and everything that happened. Because of this, it’s very, the framework in which we can discuss Yugoslavia is very normative, and it’s not easy to tell more complex stories and try to understand these people, as they are actually, not only ascribing certain characteristics to them and sorting them out in one place or another, which is usually happening.
PETER KORCHNAK: My impression, from my travels and conversations and readings, has been that Yugonostalgia has socio-economic and generational dimensions much more than a political spectrum dimension. So rather than a left-right wing kind of cleavage, with those on the left nostalgic for Yugoslavia and those on the right denouncing it, Yugonostalgia, to the extent it still exists of course, is a phenomenon found more among the older generation and among those who lost the most in the transition to market economies, those who are less wealthy and those who are less educated, say.
TANJA PETROVIĆ: Yes, you’re right. I mean very often, of course, those who mourn most are those who lost most but I would say in economic, most immediate terms that loss was led to poverty, led to kind of living beyond or under the line of dignity. But I think we all lost a lot, and that loss is something to acknowledge. And in the first place also those who who lost a lot, there are millions of them, people, economically speaking, in terms of living standard, and also in terms of possibilities and prospects, people or their kids have shrank dramatically, if we compare it to Yugoslavia.
PETER KORCHNAK: On the other hand, as I visit Yugoslavia-related sites, it is Slovenian tourists that seem to comprise the majority of visitors from ex-Yugoslavia. One tour guide even told me, “They were the first to leave and now they’re the most Yugonostalgic.” How would you explain this contradiction?
TANJA PETROVIĆ: There are many things there. I’m sure part of the explanation is that they can afford it. Part of the explanation is that the rupture that the 90s brought were much smaller here than in other places so it’s easier to bridge that rupture and try to establish some continuity and normalcy than it would be in in some other places.
I think it’s also because [the] situation here is economically more stable, politically more stable. Of course Slovenia is in a way, as any of these countries and first among them It became kind of a national state. And that’s [an] important fact and it’s still in the center of the national mythology but on the other hand, exactly, probably because of the the dissolution process was not painful and traumatic and costly the society’s kind of still more defined of some some you know citizenship based principles than on purely on the national ones.
The Meaning of Yugoslavia According to Tanja Petrović
PETER: What does Yugoslavia say to people of today about the future?
TANJA PETROVIĆ: Of course, it’s still a very concrete period where many of us live some part of our lives. On the other hand, Yugoslavia is much more, it’s also an idea. It’s a kind of an idea of a society that was, to some extent also realized and lived. But even more strived for the idea that became practically impossible since the disintegration of Yugoslavia happened because of the way it happened, basically. We now live in a very, you know, ethnically defined national, small societies, and it’s very difficult to imagine and to practice any identification and to negotiate any kind of political position that would be outside that national frame. Yugoslavia made it possible and also made at least promises for certain ways of vertical mobility, of porousness of class and other identities, that is lost today that is much more difficult to to imagine today. And although we very badly need these possibilities.
PETER KORCHNAK: What I’m wondering is how salient Yugoslavia is for the average layperson. I mean you and I dedicate our time, you your career, to studying that disappeared country, but how does it actually affect people in their everyday life, after so many years? How much mindspace do they dedicate to it with all that’s going on?
TANJA PETROVIĆ: Yeah, that’s something I think about myself a lot for me, in my own everyday life and struggle, and, you know, raising kids and making family life, this is a very important thing that important that my kids basically make jokes of me when they say like, “The only thing you know to talk and write about is Yugoslavia, but you need to be aware it’s already gone. Find something more actual.”
But basically, I think the legacy of that country and much more even more the promise that country had is absolutely impressive. For all these people struggling to make ends meet from month to month in all this post Yugoslav societies not because we need to stick to some past which is definitely past and cannot be anyhow recuperated but because certain premises the Yugoslavia society was based upon are badly needed today. That’s that’s my view on it, and of course it makes me look as a in a way as in our privilege, going back to some, some past and looking at it and sticking to it.
But I think it’s important, and it’s a good reminder for all things people are losing, which are the reason they are struggling so much. There is no social security anymore, there is no welfare state is more or less dismantled in all these countries, there is no union rights, there is no worker rights whatsoever. All these things not only were possible, but these people, or at least in the next generation can easily learn that that was actually existing in this country. And there is a way obviously to have more or less sustainable society with all this these rights.
And the problem of course, much more, much broader and basically global symptom of our time is that we are taught all that and told all the time, that what we have today with this neoliberal capitalism is the only only option and there is no other there is no alternative to it, but I think historical experiences as Yugoslav one one, and for that matter, pretty much of we can find, I mean, I don’t want also to, you know, idolize or essentialize the Yugoslav experience, but on the international level, [the] Non-Aligned Movement ideas, ideas of alternatives were much more profound in the second part of the 20th century that they are today, and I think we have to go back to these alternatives to be able to make future better for our kids.
And that’s really very kind of [an] immediate political issue. It’s not something which is just a privilege of fact, academics have a luxury because they can do funny things in their time, I think it’s [a] really pressing issue. And doing that I think we should not also run away or be afraid of the concrete experience.
Very often, many, many activists, many people simply believe that there there are good ideas in Yugoslav past, especially in the the liberation struggle and the partisan movement of the Second World War in anti-fascism, but somehow they avoid the actual socialist period as something that was ideologically tainted. But I think there is no history without and there is no period without ambiguities, tensions, different phenomena, and cleaning history in that sense does not bring any good. I think we need to take it in all its complexity, but insist of [sic] [the] importance of alternatives that period was offering.
PETER KORCHNAK: If I didn’t know who I was speaking to I’d think you’re an aspiring politician. Is there a political agenda behind your research, your work, your thinking about Yugoslavia?
TANJA PETROVIĆ: No, I think we all have some political agenda. I don’t think it’s anyhow delegitimizing anything saying that. It’s not political in the sense of daily politics or real politics in that sense but of course, in my work, I have my own politics and it’s definitely related to giving voice to those whose voice is generally not heard, even when we try positively to evaluate and go back to the history of Yugoslavia and of course, insisting on uncertain achieved values and rights and basically achievements during [the] socialist period, that were swiftly erased after socialism ended and simply erased together with everything else in this known narrative totalitarian system that needs to be, you know, dealt with and distance[d] from. And I think that kind of politics is very important, and, you know, I’m not running away from that. I simply think it’s it’s a necessary politics. As an academic I definitely think politics is [an] important part of what we do.
That’s why I think the issue how we approach that legacy and what we do with that is essential and that’s why we simply need to insist on two things at least, or three.
One is of course, [the] anti-fascist character of the struggle from which Yugoslavia emerged and that country in general. And then the fact that it was not only anti fascist opposition or struggle against occupying forces, it was, and that’s essential, also [a] socialist social revolution. And of course, the third thing is that that was the country and the society that was provided the framework were ethnic national identities, for totally fine. And the whole thing was still organized to some level through republic contexts. But still, that was the context in which citizenship was defined also beyond your ethnic or national beyond belonging. That’s something which today is pretty much missing, especially in some parts of Yugoslavia, it’s missing most in those parts of Yugoslavia, where the wars were most brutal, like in Bosnia.
And I think these three things are something we need to repeat all the time.
PETER KORCHNAK: Sounds like a political platform indeed. At any rate, what your kids tell you resonates with me. On the one hand, I meet a lot of ex-Yugoslavs who say that what I’m doing is important but on the other hand there’s a fair number of those who say, let it go already, everything’s already been said on the matter, Yugoslavia is history.
TANJA PETROVIĆ: There are many still— still many important issues to be told about Yugoslavia. I think we were dealing with the war, we were dealing with trauma, there was this trauma discourse very important for a long time.
And I think it’s time now to speak of Yugoslavia as a political project, not only in the, you know, this real politics terms, but as a political idea, actually as an idea of, in terms of lost possibilities for the future. That proved to be very important.
And also these solidarities, alliances that were possible at that moment. That’s something that still awaits, and I would say, in a way, it’s not bad because that forces us to try to speak in Yugoslavia, not only in this niche of trauma, violence, brotherly killing, whatever, but in more universal political terms of alternative possibilities, ideas.
PETER KORCHNAK: Questions of ideology aside, back in socialism, whether you were in Czechoslovakia or Yugoslavia, we had a future, we were working toward something, building something. Now all we have is the past.
TANJA PETROVIĆ: But we also need to kind of remind ourselves, that’s actually a global sentiment. It’s not only post-socialist, it’s a stronger and more social in these places, because the idea of a future was a little bit stronger there. But it’s it’s a general symptom of the present day we live in a kind of time their future is, let’s say future is very difficult to imagine it, we’ll talk in terms, it’s more it comes more as a dystopia. When we think about [the] future it’s basically something scary. That’s something, I would say, global, but that also kind of makes thinking and writing and making stories out of places in periods in which [the] future was imaginable very important in different ways.
PETER KORCHNAK: I, too, think about the politics of this project, of Remembering Yugoslavia, a great deal. What started as a personal exploration, a therapeutic outlet, may fast be becoming something else, simply by the selection of guests, who they are and what they do, and, by extension, what they say. After all, it does seem as though people who have something to say about Yugoslavia, that I talk to anyway, can mostly say good things about it. This is not necessarily my intention; I aim to observe and document and report. So if you know of anyone who has a critical view of Yugoslavia, please contact me on the Remembering Yugoslavia website.
Likewise, because I interview people for whom Yugoslavia is a matter of professional interest in one way or another, the voices of ordinary Yugoslavs, or ex-Yugoslavs, are in danger of being underrepresented. So if you’re listening, particularly if you live outside the former Yugoslavia, and would like to share your story, write me a note or record your message using the voicemail widget available on the Contact page at RememberingYugoslavia.com.
Until then, I’ll also think about the future. Specifically about how best to use the past to shape a better future. No matter what happened, good time or bad, prosperity or war, it can be used as a foundation for progress.
Any time someone asks me how I am, and especially if things aren’t going according to plan, I try to remind myself of a mantra the protagonist of the film Do You Remember Dolly Bell intones throughout the story.
Svakoga dana, u svakom pogledu sve više napredujemo. Every day, in every way, we make more and more progress.
Every day, in every way, we make more and more progress.
Every day, in every way, we make more and more progress.
Every day, in every way, we make more and more progress.
Every day, in every way, we make more and more progress…
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening…and fighting for a better future.
Find resources for this episode as well as subscription links at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast. And if you imagine a future for Remembering Yugoslavia, support the show on Patreon or spread the word, I appreciate it. And I extend a hero’s welcome to the pioneering supporters and members Ivan, Mina, and Alexander.
I am Peter Korchňak.
Tanja Petrović’s Works
- Book chapters:
- “Portraits of Yugoslav Army Soldiers: Between Partisan and Pop-Culture Imagery,” in: Partisans in Yugoslavia: Literature, Film and Visual Culture. Miranda Jakiša and Nikica Gilić, eds. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2015
- “Contested Normality: Negotiating Masculinity in Narratives of Service in the Yugoslav People’s Army,” in: Negotiating Normality: Everyday Lives in Socialist Institutions, Daniela Koleva, ed. New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 2012, pp. 83-102
- “Nostalgia for the JNA: Remembering the Army in the former Yugoslavia,” in: Post-Communist Nostalgia, ed. Maria Todorova and Zsuzsa Gille. New York / Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2010
- ““When We Were Europe”: Socialist Workers in Serbia and Their Nostalgic Narratives,” in: Remembering Communism: Genres of Representation, ed. Maria Todorova, New York: Social Science Research Council, 2010
- Selected articles
- Bibliography on Academia.edu / bibliography on Cobiss