Martin Pogačar, PhD, a research fellow at the Ljubljana-based Institute of Culture and Memory Studies, discusses the subversiveness of Yugoslav pop-culture and Yugoslavia’s digital afterlives.
Branimir Štulić, Slovenian subversives, cyber Yugoslavs and, of course, Tito, also make an appearance.
Episode Transcript (and More)
PETER KORCHNAK: Welcome to Remembering Yugoslavia, a podcast where I, Peter Korchnak, explore how the people of the former Yugoslav republics remember and imagine their former homeland, a country that no longer exists.
In the short history of this podcast I’ve already alluded to music sparking my interest in Yugoslavia and its role in keeping the memory of that disappeared country alive.
My guest in this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia is Martin Pogačar, a researcher at the Institute of Culture and Memory Studies in Ljubljana, Slovenia. We met earlier this year at his office and talked about the musical and digital afterlives of Yugoslavia.
Branimir Štulić, Slovenian subversives, cyber Yugoslavs and, of course, Tito, also make an appearance.
The Journey Through Yugoslav Pop Culture
PETER KORCHNAK: Martin Pogačar, you’ve written on a lot of topics related to the former Yugoslavia: pop culture, music, digital memory… How did you become professionally interested in these subjects?
MARTIN POGAČAR: I never did write a lot, but I have kind of interest in many different topics and my interest really started at the end of university studies— I mean my interest in the whole topic of Yugoslavia and where it is and what’s happening to it in the present. We were living, you know, in the early years of independence and quite naturally the interest was first aroused by music and cinema, which I always loved. And for some time after the collapse of Yugoslavia I had this impression that, you know, this is gonna be a nice, emancipatory project, really…
I am kind of reluctant now to emphasize that, but during the 80s when I was about ten, I now, when I look back on my then-self, I can say that I was a little Slovenian nationalist. I was, you know, like all stuff Slovenian and the linden tree and the flag and, you know, there was this slogan in the 80s, “sLOVEnia, my country” and there was “love” in the name of country and this was really—it was, and not just for me, it was really a generational thing, we all felt, you know, “wow, that’s something different.”
But then, later on, when I was growing up, I realized that, you know… Of course there were things that were really, really bad in Yugoslavia, and it was, you know, it was a state that had a really strong police and the Ministry of Interior and stuff like that.
But, also, when I was just old enough to see how the new system was being installed and I kind of had a bit of a problem with that, because it was trying to just eradicate everything that came before and this for me was not really acceptable, and I was, you know, this was, this kind of a trigger, I would say now, I didn’t really know back then, that got me into searching for stuff, looking for music and films from the former Yugoslavia and this was, on the one hand, an opportunity to learn the language, which I can speak now.
This was the time of high school and it was a sort of like a… this kind of opposition to Slovenian nationalism. It was always channeled through, at least for teenagers at that time—well, not all of them, clearly—but through some kind of subversive use of Yugoslav pop culture and this was really quite a formative experience for me because it was then that I found a lot of music and films that then later on became also a part of my studies.
PETER KORCHNAK: The dominant language of Yugoslav pop culture was Serbo-Croatian. A politically safe name that’s nowadays sometimes used for that closely knit group of languages is Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian, or BCS, sometimes with the addition of Montenegrin, or BCSM. I wonder what part of Martin’s fascination with Yugoslav pop culture had to do with it being a foreign language, even a foreign culture to some extent, and what part was indeed simple teenage rebellion.
MARTIN POGAČAR: My mother tongue is Slovenian. I did have in elementary school one year of Serbo-Croatian, but that was, in terms of formal education, that was it. And then— okay, this was some sort of like basis to learn another language, but, you know, it was not— and then, after the independence, you know, all the communication between that would normally also be going on in, let’s say Serbo-Croatian or something was just not there. It was music really and cinema that got me into the language.
Through studying music and also cinema to some extent I found out that the post-independence construction of the past was not— I mean it was a start of a new political mythology and through music also, and music, of course, this was not the last stop, it just somehow pushed me to research further on and I realized that, for instance—
And especially if we’re speaking of punk-rock or new wave that came a bit later in the country, that this was a sort of like an organic opposition to the state and it was never conceptualized as dissent or as would be some other initiatives in other socialist countries at the time and what I found really relevant is that this was sort of like an intra-systemic critique through popular culture.
Let’s say the 1990s cultural, artistic scene did in fact grasp the point that something has to be changed because Yugoslavia after all the years it existed after the Second World War, it did somehow—and there were internal and external factors of course—did become, somehow did get into an impasse in a way, and there were [a] variety of different options being, you know, thrown around as to what to do.
The alternative culture of the 1980s did have, if not answers then at least some ideas of what needed to be done with Yugoslavia, which I think they did recognize as a valid and valuable framework from where to go on. So it was not necessarily the artistic opposition, so to speak, that wanted to see the country fall apart. It was rather, I would say, the refracting of sentiment through politics and through nationalization that did, in fact, lead to [a] situation where a lot of people saw Yugoslavia as a problem that cannot be solved.
Martin Pogačar and Subversive Yugoslav Music
PETER KORCHNAK: So music and rebellion, and rebellion through music, was your path to Yugoslavia… How was Yugoslav music subversive?
MARTIN POGAČAR: There’s maybe, like, two levels of subversiveness. One level of subversiveness of, let’s say, new wave music, is in the 1980s, when this music was part of sort of like alternative underground youth culture and as such it did possess some kind of, you know— Those people would come in conflict with police and so, you know; albums would be confiscated and people would go to prison also, but the perhaps more interesting bit is how this music can still act subversive today.
What we tend to do when we speak about Yugoslavia is that we see Yugoslavia as monolithic block and we forget that this was a country that existed from 1945 to 1991, which is quite a substantial amount of time, you know, in terms of human life, obviously not the deep time. Looking at the period from 1991 until today—this is, again, nearly 30 years and a lot of stuff has happened, so even when we speak about nostalgia or Yugonostalgia, there is I would say a distinct sort of like time frame after the collapse of the country and up until mass digitization of communication, and this was the time when Yugonostalgia was really a sort of like underground phenomena. Everybody who would say anything positive about Yugoslavia was labeled just like Yugonostalgic.
And there was a lot of music circulating on cassettes. So, and this was this very hands-on culture where you, we would, you know, have tape with songs that ten years earlier nobody would put on the same tape, but for us this was a sort of like a bricolage of Yugoslav sound, or music scene, or this was like a soundscape to Yugoslavia which, regardless of the fact that pop and punk rock did not go together well in, you know, the original reality, for us it was an expression of, “look what you’re making us forget” and we didn’t want to forget that.
Because what happened clearly—especially I can speak for Slovenia after 1991—Yugoslav music and Yugoslav cinema were ostracized from the media. You could no longer hear any music that was not Slovenian or western, so this was just going completely out of the lived sonic sensorium. So, in my opinion, then, this is where the subversion started because we kind of [were] using that music for fun, parties or whatever, and even playing it— there was also a lot of bands that did play that kind of music— we saw that as an expression of disagreement with [the] nationalization of the country and also the limitation of cultural space. Yeah, I think that was [a] pauperization of [the] cultural landscape really.
PETER KORCHNAK: What about Slovenian music in particular?
MARTIN POGAČAR: Now, if I tried to see, to have a look at this question from like a wider perspective I cannot really eliminate my personal factor in that, which is that I, much more than anything else, prefer rock music. So that’s why I think that, for instance, 1990s in Slovenia were very really, really, you know, good in terms of music. There was this sort of like a hype of garage rock and there was some really, really good music being made and also in Croatia at that time and they would cross borders and singers and musicians would, you know, change bands and stuff like that. So, that for me was really interesting.
The problem is that I don’t see this today, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that stuff is not going on, it’s just that I’m too old to frequent those venues, you know, that much.
So in general I think what did happen with music, not just in the transition from socialist Yugoslavia to Slovenia, but in general, they did much more than, you know, before it became an industry. So, we rarely see today a band that would just rise to fame, not as a part of a business plan. Clearly, this does not mean that there aren’t bands that do rise to fame, but I don’t really see very much of that.
The other issue is that— and this is related in a way I would say to the whole logic permitting digital culture, which is just never enough stuff.
And we also have so much music, you know, and there is this question which I don’t really have an answer to, you know, what will be considered a hit in 20 years’ time. There are these bands, I don’t know, like, you know, Pink Floyd and Rolling Stones, that were huge and still are and they have left a mark on [the] music heritage of the world really. And it’s really difficult to assess, nobody could probably predict they will be still listened to 50 years later, you know, but what this also shows is that in this deluge of music that we are exposed to today daily our listening habits change. We don’t, I would say in general, engage with music as we used to and this comes down also to the very infrastructure of listening to music.
Just to illustrate: if once you had to put a record on the player and then just do all the necessary physical stuff to make it play to hear it. Today, just click the Play button and the playlist would play endlessly, for instance, on YouTube, it just goes on and on and on. And this fundamentally changes, I think, our relationship to music and also, I’m afraid, it devalues the relevance of music in context where we are just listening, just like consuming it, like air, right?
Transition to Digital Media
PETER KORCHNAK: The transition from physical to digital media changed the way we experience music, yes. How did the transition occur on the background of post-Yugoslav history?
MARTIN POGAČAR: Well, again, as I was saying, it’s now like 30 years after the collapse of the state so the agenda of, you know, listening to music, I think, changed in that time. So, if we had this, let’s say, analog decade of the 1990s, roughly speaking, then with the social media and blogs and there was number of sites that would offer mp3 files to download, of music that you would, could not get anywhere else because— and there is another interesting aspect – there was this political regime change and there was also transition from tape and LPs to CDs and this transition, at least in 1990s, never happened, for obvious reasons.
It kind of then later on you could get all the music legally, but previous to that it was mostly, as I was saying, mix tapes and a bit later on downloading music and there was also an interesting phenomena that I was also researching for my book was music blogs. And this was really, really an interesting phenomena because it was very ephemeral in a way because it was illegal to put music and none of those blogs actually hosted files themselves, it was always downloaded from remote file sharing service, and then slowly these services were being shut down. And there was something that was sort of like a sealing of a music archive that was just gone. Although those people who invested a lot of time, probably money as well into buying records and digitizing them— there was a guy who had, I don’t know, 500,000 songs in his blog, but then it’s still there, the blog, but the music is just kind of inaccessible now. But that’s a bit of a different story.
And I’m not sure where the interest in former Yugoslav music, all the music from other parts of Yugoslavia today comes from. I would say one thing is that the whole mass of music and other stuff coming from this country somehow, you know, just forgot about the boundaries and the borders and the languages and the linguistic borders, and stuff like that. Unless in [a] very, very specific context, this music doesn’t evoke any kind of feelings for Yugoslavia, because it’s just another song on the radio.
PETER KORCHNAK: Can you elaborate on the transition from analog to digital to social media? What effect did it have on the development of Yugonostalgia or generally feelings towards the former Yugoslavia?
MARTIN POGAČAR: Massively I would say the internet came in the region about, like, very late 90s and this was time after the wars have officially ended and there was still not very much official communication, or media communication between the countries.
So for me, let’s say, for example, in 199 when NATO was bombing Serbia I would be sitting in front of my computer listening to B92, to, you know, find on what was going on. And, interesting, the news and the radio program was, you know, there were news and there was music, obviously; there was a lot of music that was kind of Yugoslavia evoking, Yugonostalgic and so on. So, this was really interesting for me to see how a sense of normalcy was trying to be restored also through music.
PETER KORCHNAK: B92 was a radio station broadcasting out of Belgrade that was legendary for its anti-war and anti-Milošević stance and for playing rock music. Matthew Collins’s 2001 book This Is Serbia Calling is an excellent account of B92’s history until that point. B92 later launched a TV channel and later still a publishing house and a record company, becoming a sort of a commercial media conglomerate.
MARTIN POGAČAR: When it comes to digital media, I think digital media, especially in, let’s say, Web 1.0, played really important role in re-finding broken friendships, because, obviously, a lot of people migrated and there were, I would say, two kinds of migrations: one is physical migration in place and then there’s the other, which is more elusive, but nevertheless powerful, is temporal migration. We all migrate temporally, so… But you know, in an ideal situation you were born in— well, but that’s not quite ideal; because, statistically, you lived in three countries in a lifetime.
But the transition from Yugoslavia to Slovenia, and from Yugoslavia to all other countries, was very painful not just that there were wars, obviously, but also that a lot of people had to leave, to, you know, save their lives or find an opportunity in life, but also the ones who stayed, they also suffered some kind of loss, you know, there was loss of homeland.
I was born in a specific time that I was indoctrinated into [the] Yugoslav system, and [Young] Pioneers, and you know. And now when I look at it I remember I would never really want to write a hundred times, “Tito is our president,” I find it really ridiculous. But on the other hand, I clearly remember how we would be—and I know this had very little effect, but still to build some kind of world consciousness—we would be writing letters of peace to the UN in school, so, and nobody does that today.
Towards the end of [the] 90s there were quite a lot of former Yugoslavs living abroad and for them the internet was the medium of reconnection or re-finding lost friendships and broken bonds and whatever metaphor you want, and it was a prime medium to share music and jokes and there was also a number of websites, you know, dedicated to Yugoslavia and to Tito and so on and they would— There was one, for instance, it was called Cyber Yugoslavia that also issued passports for cyber Yugoslavs, you know, and each one, each person who applied for a passport also was assigned a ministry for something. It was kind of a jocular attempt, you know, to still keep it alive even if, you know, just on two square meters where the server stands.
PETER KORCHNAK: The Cyber Yugoslavia website still exists, tucked away in a 1.0 segment of the internet, at juga.com, that’s J-U-G-A dot com. You can read its constitution in a number of languages, including English, and it’s a fun read; and see its symbol, a logo of sorts. But that’s about it. Like the actual country, Cyber Yugoslavia is all but a memory. And by the way, the site lists the area of Cyber Yugoslavia at zero square meters.
MARTIN POGAČAR: I think this is a really important medium also and [an] infrastructure of really rebuilding what was lost during the—either look at it as the breakup of the country or establishment of new countries. And I think that’s where particularly, let’s say, at the turn of 1990s and [2000s], there was this very strong, sort of like, I would say, positive use of the media to legitimately express a feeling of loss or, you know, forgotten childhood. Because what— and that’s also an important emphasis here, I would say, is that the collapse of the country interrupted the existing biographies and also anticipated biographies, so this was a rupture in time. People who were old enough to have had Yugoslav biographies, they were rendered invalid, and people who were just kind of getting into their own biographies, their country was gone.
Interestingly, for the most, I would say, part of the latter 90s the majority of stuff going on on the internet in relation to Yugoslavia was quite positive, sort of.
It was later on that the other side got much more active and kind of just ran over this more positive thinking, you know, about the past, but this is, again, then also part of more global processes, you know, and consequences of digitalization in terms of polarization, and fake news…
The basic thing that kinda underlines all this is, we all have room now to share our story, and while it can be seen as sort of like democratization of communication, it also has a side effect, and this is quite an important one, and this is that there is all of a sudden no coherent universally, more or less, valid narrative about anything. So those experts, they don’t know stuff and who needs them, you kno. “Oh, yeah, yeah, we had this Yugoslavia, it was just, like, the terror, yeah.” There was just, people were imprisoned for whatever; which, of course, is part of the story, but it’s not the whole part of the story.
Because on the other hand, for instance, Yugoslavia, especially compared to Slovenia today, it had diplomacy, they knew what they were doing. You know, it was, and this is almost like a swear word today, Non-Align[ed] Movement. Let’s say there was first league, it was like, let’s say, the U.S. and Russia, because they would define [the] Cold War, and there was, let’s say, the second league which was the Western Europe, then Yugoslavia was the third league, which was way, way better than being [the] 35th league.
PETER KORCHNAK: Refusing to align with both the capitalist West and the Soviet-dominated East, Yugoslavia forged its own, third path, if you will. Formally launched in 1961 in Belgrade, on, in large part, Tito’s initiative and leadership, the Non-Aligned Movement comprised the countries that did not formally join either the U.S. or the U.S.S.R.-led camp. The leadership of the Non-Aligned movement became a source of national pride for the citizens of Yugoslavia, many of whom to this date list it among the reasons why life in Yugoslavia was superior to today’s.
MARTIN POGAČAR: Non-Alignment was, for instance, something that was so easily thrown away in 1991, but it was a cultural, political, and economic some sort of union of this subaltern, in a way, so to speak. And I was just couple of months ago, there is the Museum of Modern Art and there was an interesting exhibition about art and non-alignment in Yugoslavia, and there was this huge map of the world, and the lines connecting the country to all the countries it had cultural relations with, and it was amazing, it was the entire world, whereas today…
There was also, as I was saying earlier, there was this sort of like a shrinking of cultural space. There was also a shrinking of global embeddedness, because Yugoslavia, clearly, it was not West, but it was not proper East either, yeah, so…
And it did kind of manage to at least present itself as being somewhere else. And I’m really, really surprised that a young country in ’91 that Slovenia was, did not try to capitalize on something that would have helped. Because if you just focus ideologically and economically on western Europe, you’re just kind of leaving a lot of the world out, you know.
PETER KORCHNAK: Alright, back to the Internet. What happened to Yugoslavia when social media came along?
MARTIN POGAČAR: Well, with social media there was all of a sudden several times more Yugoslavias in some kind of afterlife-ish edition. There was, like, tens of pages on Facebook, music videos on YouTube… And I think this was also, while there was, on one hand, so much stuff available, there was also too much stuff available. That’s also I would say a part of what leads to polarization in today’s, not only political debate, but also [in] everyday life, is that in order to be heard, you have to shout, and you have to be outrageous to, you know, stand out from all other outrageousnesses.
For me it was interesting to see how certain events kind of find their new life. I call that [the] digital afterlife of Yugoslavia because, obviously, the country was dead, and it had so many digital reincarnations. Also what I found interesting was, for instance, when people died, there would be, this news would be posted and this was for me interesting because my primary interest is in memories. So and then I was trying to see what brings out, what a certain event like death of a famous singer, for instance, brings out in people, and sometimes it’s just an emoticon or just like a few words, or… And then through this I kind of tried to analyze the effect of, well, not only how people think about those persons, but also what the very infrastructure of [the] communication system, what it permits and enables, and what it prevents.
And for me another interesting case was of remembering in digital media ecology was digital video memorials that you find on YouTube for instance. There was a time when there was a lot of distinctly individual[ly] motivated videos online and they would use a famous song and then just paste photos, and there was one example that also quite well shows the workings of and the limits of using digital media for memory. There was some time ago a video that was using a song that was [a] cover version of Leonard Cohen’s “The Partisan,” it was sung by Branimir Štulić, Azra singer, and then one person found that song and made a video dedicated to her grandfather, who was a Partisan and just died. And there would be photos of the grandfather and also just random photos from the Second World War. So and this was really, the music and the images combined, this was [a] really powerful monument in a way, a memorial to that grandfather.
But what made it different from any other kind of memorial, because it was a living one, because people would watch it and comment on it, so there was a lot of “oh, my grandfather was also…” So, a community, a mnemonic community formed, so to speak, which lived for quite a while, until the owner of the song decided that it was enough and made YouTube remove the video. So yes, obviously, he was protecting his copyrighted material, but, at the same time, he eliminated a mnemonic community that developed there. They were telling their stories and their memories and how they remember, you know, what they remember from what they were told by their grandparents. Obviously, there was also more conflictual exchanges, between, you know, “you dirty communists,” and, you know “you traitors,” which doesn’t really elucidate much stuff about history as such or whatever did really happen.
So, for me is really, for my work, it’s really not as important what really did happen, but what we make of it now. Obviously, there’s always— it is essential that you also know what happened. And that’s what Jan Assmann calls mnemohistory. And I think this is really timely concept—although it’s a bit old—but in digital culture it’s very, very relevant thing, especially in the present moment where the past has become sort of like an interpretive stock to be used to, you know, decontextualize, re-contextualize, completely false or not false, it doesn’t matter, as long as we are referring to some kind of past, and so the past kind of is gaining political currency, especially through dehistoricizing it in a way.
Martin Pogačar: Yugoslavia’s Place in Slovenia
PETER KORCHNAK: And finally, what about Yugoslavia’s place in today’s Slovenia?
MARTIN POGAČAR: Well, for one thing, I would say if we look at Yugonostalgia as sort of like not really a movement—it’s gone. I would say nobody really thinks about Yugoslavia through the prism of Yugonostalgia.
What has come to fruition over the years, I would say, certain, let’s say, values for instance, solidarity, antifascism, and also human rights, have been found to be very pronounced in Yugoslavia, if not in reality, but then definitely in the way, ideologically, the country was made up.
One thing that is also missing today is, during Yugoslavia you had a really strong—it was intra-systemic and it was through socialism—but there was a critique of the system. There was rethinking, constant rethinking of the system going on and they were trying to improve that system. Whereas today I really don’t see any pronounced rethinking of the system apart from “those dirty leftists who want to ruin everything.”
And that’s what I am missing today [is a] critique of the system we’re living in now would have its place in society, which I don’t think it does. And Yugoslavia if, for instance, in the early post-independence years, was a sort of like pop culturally interesting phenomena and it had a lot to say about stuff we were losing, in terms of music and cinema and so on, I would say that today Yugoslavia, although you would still hear, I mean it’s still used as sort of like disqualifying tool between [the] left and right, especially, I mean, the right, clearly, likes to use Yugoslavia as a sort of like [a] discrediting mechanism, Yugoslavia today, at least in the way it kind of figures in media and political landscapes has become a source of finding or re-finding values that in this very, I would say, rough neoliberalization of post-socialist countries have been just discarded as the part of the system.
And this is, I would say, the burdensome legacy of Yugoslavia because you cannot speak freely about social justice, free accessible housing, I mean, decent wages, without being labeled a Yugoslav or socialist, you know, and it does not really help.
PETER KORCHNAK: On Facebook I follow many pages dedicated to socialist Yugoslavia and its leader Josip Broz Tito (back in 2016, Martin counted at least 50 of the former and 20 of the latter Facebook pages). Pages with names like, “I Admit I’m a Yugoslav,” “Yugoslavia for Beginners and Fans,” “Yugoslavia, the Country of Brotherhood and Unity,” and “Titomanija,” “The Daily Dose of Josip Broz,” “Memories of Comrade Tito,” and so on. They’ve amassed thousands, tens of thousands in some cases, Likes, and post and cross-post frequently.
I play Azra or Ekaterina Velika or Riblja Čorba on YouTube and peruse these pages to follow the news and the popular discourse about socialist Yugoslavia, one corner of it anyway, to discover Yugoslav music beyond the pop and rock echoing through the web, and, to be honest, to get a chuckle out of the design of their memes.
Still, I feel a tinge of melancholy, desperation even, in the praise and adulation of those long ago giants, a sense of loss and struggle that no amount of digital noise can alleviate. And if I think of these pages as a sort of resistance for their creators and fans, I can’t avoid thinking of Remembering Yugoslavia in the same way.
Because what is memory, what is remembering, if not a way to subvert the passage of Time?
PETER KORCHNAK: Find all the links, photos, and videos referenced in this episode in the show notes at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
I am Peter Korchňak.