Art historian Vladana Putnik Prica of the University of Belgrade discusses inappropriate monuments, foreigners’ interest and generational differences in locals’ perception of spomeniks, and nostalgic songs.
Partisans, Miodrag Živković, and, almost inevitably, Lepa Brena 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 this episode I will continue exploring Yugoslav socialist monuments. Efforts have been made, and some are still underway, to catalog and map the thousands of World War II monuments scattered across former Yugoslavia. While a handful of these monuments are the spectacular spomeniks that circulate online, primarily in Western media and on Instagram, the vast majority go unnoticed by visitors from abroad, quietly continuing their memory work in the local communities.
Here to help construct the narrative on these issues is my guest Vladana Putnik Prica, an art historian at the University of Belgrade. She specializes in the history of 20th century architecture in Yugoslavia, including World War II monuments, especially in the region of today’s Serbia. We spoke at her office in downtown Belgrade.
Vladana participated in efforts to map World War II monuments from the Yugoslav socialist era.
VLADANA PUTNIK PRICA: In some of my research I found there are about 12,000 memorials, memorial sites in the entire former Yugoslavia.
PETER KORCHNAK: Like other researchers and documentarians, Vladana finds the outside interest in these monuments problematic.
VLADANA PUTNIK PRICA: You have foreigners who started coming and exploring these monuments and perceiving them in a completely different manner.
PETER: Further complicating the issue are the generational differences among the citizens of former Yugoslavia in their view of monuments.
VLADANA PUTNIK PRICA: The older generation somehow did not feel that they are so important.
PETER KORCHNAK: As with so many people who dedicate their professional lives to former Yugoslavia, there’s more to studying architecture and monuments that meets the eye.
VLADANA PUTNIK PRICA: I still feel these emotions especially for the music.
PETER KORCHNAK: Partisans, Miodrag Živković, and, almost inevitably, Lepa Brena also make an appearance.
PETER KORCHNAK: Vladana Putnik Prica, you study World War II monuments from the Yugoslav era. How many were there in socialist Yugoslavia, how many are left today?
VLADANA PUTNIK PRICA: In some of my research I found there are about 12,000 memorials, memorial sites in the entire former Yugoslavia. I’m not sure if that’s the exact number, maybe it’s more, but I really feel that it’s probably close to reality because when we started doing field research, we realized that you have hundreds of memorial sites in each town, in each municipality, so it could easily be 12,000 or more.
PETER KORCHNAK: Is there a comprehensive list or a catalog or a map even?
VLADANA PUTNIK PRICA: I was part of the Serbian research group for [an] international project called “Inappropriate Monuments.” It was the idea of a team from Croatia, because they felt that their monuments were pretty much endangered and they really have a significant problem with historic revision as— I mean, we also have that, but not as much as they do. So, they tried to form groups in all the former republics, so we can make a project and we started good, it lasted for two years. Then we had an exhibition about monuments and tourism which was very interesting, it was called “Putevima revolucije,” On the Paths of Revolution, and then we wanted to map all the monuments, memorials, memorial plaques, everything we could find in each republic and make an interactive map.
PETER KORCHNAK: I wonder whether the socialist regime attempted to map the monuments. I find a partial answer in books like Putovima Revolucije, the namesake and perhaps inspiration for the Inappropriate Monuments exhibition, a 1979 monograph of monuments in Croatia published by Turistkomerc Zagreb.
But, as Vladana underscored, before the internet any efforts to comprehensively catalog 12,000 monuments and memorials, some the size of a desk, others simple wall plaques, while there was the business of building socialism to attend to, were bound to be partial at best. And today, insufficient funding, competing priorities, and lack of interest, especially on the political level, stand in the way of cataloging efforts.
VLADANA PUTNIK PRICA: Unfortunately, it was a huge job, and it could not be done in a year. It somehow was left unfinished because the project ended, and we could not get more funding.
But still, we did a lot; we had a team of young art historians and architects who did the research and went to every village, every forest, because some of the locations are very difficult to find, so you would basically have to search for a local guide or someone, like a shepherd who said: “Oh, I know, it’s there in the woods, I will take you.”
There were a lot of interesting stories with the locals and how they perceived these memorials, so especially in the villages. If the village was, like, [a] Partisan village, they would take great care of the memorials, but if the village was a Chetnik village, they would, like, try to make it disappear, not aggressively, but it would not be in a good condition.
PETER KORCHNAK: There were six principal sides in World War II on the territory of Yugoslavia: Italy; Nazi Germany; Ustaše of the Independent State of Croatia, which was Italy’s and Germany’s satellite state; Četniks, or the former kingdom’s royalist and, to a large extent, Serbian nationalist army; Partisans, a guerrilla force led by the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, fighting everywhere against all of the above; and, to a very limited extent and in late stages, Soviet Union’s Red Army. In different territories and at different times, different municipalities supported different sides of the world and civil wars, Partisans, Četniks, Ustaše, and so on, which then impacted how the communities cared for monuments and memorials built by the post-war regime.
VLADANA PUTNIK PRICA: So, that was a very good experience for all of us to see the true condition of these memorials, because for example, the institutes for historic sites, they have some data that is, like, from the 60s, 70s and they did not update it since.
So for example, when I did research on Belgrade, there was a huge list, but then one fourth of them was— in the meantime they disappeared. We don’t know what happened to them.
On the other hand, there was a small portion of memorials that were not on the list because they probably did not have enough time to go and do all the field work and update their list, so when we did that, we found a lot of interesting moments.
But I really feel because all the big memorial sites, memorial parks are in the focus, because of course, because their monumental works and their artistic value is very significant for our art and architecture, but all these small memorials, memorial plaques, they are also very interesting and also very significant for us.
I think Sanja Horvatinčić talked about the fact that really a small portion of all the productivity of these memorial sites are these monumental memorial sites and the vast majority are these small ones which somehow seem unimportant for this global image of spomenik.
PETER KORCHNAK: Touring around towns and villages in every former Yugoslav republic on my way from A to B, I have this habit, almost a compulsion: as I approach the center, where typically a square or a park is located, I slow down and quickly scan the scene to locate a memorial, then park the car, inspect the site, snap a photo or two, and move on.
With many of the larger, more monumental, architectural pieces, the script gets flipped. Because they’re typically located in rural, far flung areas, where World War II battles they commemorate took place, the big monuments become a destination.
VLADANA PUTNIK PRICA: The partisans had this guerrilla mode fighting, so they were mostly hiding in the woods and attacking… And the fact that the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina has these beautiful landscapes, well, sublime nature, but very difficult to approach sometimes, somehow added to this entire atmosphere of these memorial sites. I think they would not be the same if it wasn’t for the landscape, and we have to think about the fact that for example Tjentište it’s not only sculptural composition, but it’s also landscape architecture, so when we talk about these monuments, they are not only sculptures, but they are also, like, architecture, landscape architecture, it’s more than just a simple monument, it’s more than that, and I think that’s the reason why they are so interesting to people now and of course for researchers as well.
PETER KORCHNAK: These monuments are built atop inclines or hills, where you have to hike up a road or a staircase, in a manner reminiscent of a pilgrimage. And once you reach them, the connection to a deity or the afterlife, something greater than yourself that you might feel when you reach the final station of the cross, translates at these futuristic-looking monuments to a sense, a reminder, of victory, of the brighter future made possible by the sacrifices of those who gave their lives on site.
VLADANA PUTNIK PRICA: Well, your observations are spot on in my opinion, because you really have that feeling of modern pilgrimage and I think that was the idea because people went there and tried to pay their respects to the fallen soldiers, so it was by no chance created in this way.
On the other hand, the fact that they were built to be timeless, that was the idea, not to commemorate just this event and this idea, but somehow to overcome that particular event or ideology. They were somehow more like memorials to people in general or to civilization.
And, for example, when you read what Bogdan Bogdanović wrote about his projects, his idea was “Oh, I like the fact that nobody pushed me to put the five-pointed star like as a symbol of communism and of course the symbol of Yugoslavia, and I could do whatever I liked and I wanted to make something that would be timeless, really both unrelatable to the past and for the future.”
Because you have that, really that feeling that the idea was that they lived in the society and built a society that would be left for the future generations to look upon these monuments as something timeless and still relevant for them even after many decades or centuries.
PETER KORCHNAK: And yet, while many monuments are well maintained in Serbia, Kadinjača, say, a lot of them stand neglected or have been damaged or outright destroyed.
VLADANA PUTNIK PRICA: Today we have different forms of devastation, so it’s not only like during the 90s and during the war, especially in Croatia, I think there’s like a third of the memorials was destroyed during the war and I think that’s the most extreme example, it’s not the same in other republics. So, you have the situation that it was destroyed because of politics, ideology.
Then you have the situation with decay, so they are not destroyed, but they were left to just fall apart and they’re neglected, and you have the third situation with historic[al] revisionism, so, they are now trying, not only in Serbia, but in other republics as well, to somehow alter the history and try to make it more to their liking, so the fact that church is intervening in already well-constructed sites is a little bit troubling for me because the initial idea was that these people died, they were mostly partisans, communists; religion had nothing to do with that, so why build a church? I mean, I’m not against religion, but I’m against these interventions that are somehow… I don’t know, it should not be done like that, because you had an initial by the artist, by the Committee, and this was a product of its time, and now you’re trying to change it. That’s not good.
PETER KORCHNAK: The monument at Ostra, near Čačak, Serbia, stands in its metal glory, pointing to the sky at an angle. But the entrance of the spomenik complex, the stairs, the inscription wall, is crumbling, the lettering missing, and, worst, a Serbian Orthodox church now blocks the overgrown path to the actual memorial structure, so you have to skirt the temple to see the spomenik.
VLADANA PUTNIK PRICA: Yeah, it’s really, like, in your face and they did not ask anyone and, of course, the artist, Miodrag Živković, is not very satisfied with that, because it completely changes everything, the whole atmosphere and, yeah, so it’s really not a good solution. It was built as one idea and now you want to insert your ideas…
PETER KORCHNAK: Miodrag Živković, who died in July at the age of 92, was one of the most famous creators of Yugoslav socialist monuments. Ostra is one of his relatively minor works; his best-known monuments include the one at Tjentište, near Foča in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina, and at Kadinjača, near Užice, Serbia.
VLADANA PUTNIK PRICA: The issue is that [the] future generations who will come and see it, they will interpret it falsely. They will think: “Okay, these were people who were, for example, Christians, Orthodox Christians, they were religious.” They will probably think they fought for some other ideas, so I think that’s something that is important to know. Maybe they were, but that is not important at that point. So, they are somehow trying to erase the fact that in general the socialist state was somehow behind all the projects and well mostly these were the societies of the fighters from the Second World War and they chose how they wanted to be represented. So why change their ideas?
PETER KORCHNAK: The battles commemorated at Tjentište and Kadinjača make an appearance in a 1975 song by the children’s choir Kolibri, or Hummingbirds, called “Da nije bilo Zelengore,” or, loosely, “It it weren’t for the battle at Zelengora.” The song’s premise is, basically, if the bloody, victorious World War II battles, at Kozara, Zelengora, Kadinjača, Sutjeska, did not take place, Yugoslavia wouldn’t have the good life it enjoys now. A sample line goes, “Would the sun shine brighter, if it weren’t for the battle at Kadinjača?”
Foreign vs. Domestic Interest in Monuments and Memorials
PETER KORCHNAK: Vladana, you also dedicate some of your work to contrasting the ways foreign visitors and tourists and locals of different generations perceive and process the Yugoslav World War II monuments. Can you elaborate on that?
VLADANA PUTNIK PRICA: Foreigners do not perceive these memorials the same way we do, I mean, we from the perspective of people who were born and raised in Yugoslavia and even younger and older generations have a different perspective.
There are many prejudices, either people are too nostalgic and see everything in a more pleasant manner than it was really the case, or they have some issues and do not feel about this period as something important and worth remembering.
The older generation somehow did not feel that they are so important, so they were taken as pupils, as students on excursions and somehow that narrative, that ideology was served to them and they did not feel that that was something genuine, maybe a little bit artificial.
So, for example, when I started doing research on Kadinjača— so that was one of my first articles, one of my first researches— I told my mother, and she said: “Well, why did you do that? Why is that important?” She felt it was insignificant, but when I showed her the pictures, the material and my article, she changed her previous opinion and she said: “I had no idea that was so beautiful, that it was so significant, that it had huge impact on sculpture, on the way people chose to somehow immortalize some events in history.” So that was interesting for her, to see it from a different perspective, but many people who were actually born and raised in Yugoslavia felt that that’s something unimportant, so…
Of course, not everyone, you always have different opinions, but I really think that, for example my generation, who was born and a little bit raised in Yugoslavia but we were kids when the war broke and the complete disintegration of the country, we are less burdened by that ideology, so I think we can do a more objective research on these topics.
PETER KORCHNAK: What about the cohort in between yours and your parents’?
VLADANA PUTNIK PRICA: Well, I think they were probably struck most all of the generations, the one in the middle, people who were born in the 70s, because they were young people, students, when the war broke, so they were really devastated by the entire crisis and everything and they had to go to a war that most of them did not want to fight, so, many of them went abroad or even I know people who deserted from the battlefield because they did not want to fight, or they just were hiding.
And on the other side you have foreigners who started coming and exploring these monuments and perceiving them in a completely different manner, lacking any historic narratives and primarily thinking about their artistic values.
I really feel that people— I mean, they have their right to feel the way they feel. If this work of art associates them with, I don’t know, spaceships, I mean, that’s absolutely their right to feel that way. So, I have no objection to that because each person should have a personal relationship with a work of art. It’s completely okay with me, but on the other hand, they should be informed about their subtext, about their history, what they represent.
We should try to make people who live here, in the post-Yugoslav space, think about these monuments as works of art, because they always see the politics and ideology as the first thing that pops in their mind, so they are a little bit blinded with that sometimes, but try to think about them as works of art. And do the reverse with the foreigners: the first thing they see is art and they feel certain emotions and that’s wonderful, but it should not be without some information about their history.
Some of my colleagues, it offends them that people who are foreigners interpret this architecture or art. I do not feel like that, because everyone has the right to feel different forms of art, architecture, so it’s their right and I think it’s good, because it raises a lot of questions and debates and we will probably have some better conclusions about this entire period.
Vladana Putnik Prica: “I still feel these emotions especially for the music…”
PETER KORCHNAK: What’s your relationship to Yugoslavia? What does Yugoslavia mean to you?
VLADANA PUTNIK PRICA: I have an excellent memory so I remembered the exact day when they announced the war on the television. It was my mom’s birthday and I just remember everything, and I know it started from Slovenia and they reported that there were these unpleasant events, and I was scared and I asked my parents will the war come to us, and “to us” the idea was to our street, because I had no perception of space and how far Slovenia was from our house, and they said: “No, no, it will not come.”
Of course, I remember the period of crisis, because I started my school in 1993, when the inflation was up the roof, so you can not buy anything and it was a very difficu— sorry, it was a very difficult time. Fortunately my parents were sane enough to somehow spare me from terrible things that were happening, so I somehow found out about everything only later.
But my memories of Yugoslavia were for example I learned to— there were some patriotic songs about Yugoslavia that were recorded during the 80s and I loved to sing these songs about Yugoslavia. And there is even a recording of me singing one of the songs which I forgot in the meantime and like maybe a couple of years ago I heard it somewhere, and I felt “Oh, my god, this is the song, I remember it.” It’s called “Od Vardara pa do Triglava,” yes, and I love that song , but also all the songs about— even Lepa Brena, “Jugoslovenka” it’s a guilty pleasure.
So I still feel these emotions especially for the music and of course our national, national, state hymn “Hej Sloveni”, which is of course— I mean it has has deeper history, especially with Slovakia, and I mean it was basically a Slavic song, a panslavic song, which we took and we still, for example my generation when we hear that hymn, we are all like, we know it by heart and you feel something special. While on the other hand, the new hymn, which was the old one from before the Second World War, I feel nothing, unfortunately.
PETER KORCHNAK: The instrumental version of “Hej Sloveni” forms the jingle of this podcast, and a horn arrangement of “Od Vardara pa do Triglava” the outro. And Lepa Brena’s “Jugoslovenka,” or “A Yugoslav Woman,” already made an appearance in a previous episode, in my conversation with Petar Janjatović. The song is simply that notorious.
VLADANA PUTNIK PRICA: But I feel that people in all the former republics still love that period when we were together, especially the socialist period where this idea of brotherhood and unity was really well lived through. Unfortunately, we are no longer one country, but I think we can still work together and be good neighbors and collaborate.
The only problem is when politicians use this conflict that was really, like, a long time ago now for their political points, so that’s the sad part.
The problem with daily politics at the moment in most of the countries is the fact that politicians do not have firm vision of the future, so they are trying to make political points referring to a glorious past, and that is really connected to, like, this revisionism, and of course, they somehow feel that it’s easier for them to glorify one past than to figure out what they’re going to do with the future, so that is a problem, really.
PETER KORCHNAK: No matter how many monuments and memorials I visit and document on my travels through former Yugoslavia, in forests and mountains and villages and towns and cities, I realize documenting all of them is truly a monumental task. The more I travel the more my admiration grows for those precious few people who catalog them, who map them, or at least try to, for these essential laborers of memory work.
Especially in the winter, I can have the best known, the biggest, the most spectacular monuments all to myself. I roam the grounds, circling the structures, the stone, the concrete, the metal, to etch the memory before me into mine. I touch them the way I see nature lovers in the U.S. touch trees, with an open hand and mind and heart, with awe and humility and presence.
When there are other visitors at the spomenik, I scan their vehicle license plates, their faces, and, I must admit, I eavesdrop on their conversations. And I play a little game: Who is local? Who is from another ex-Yugoslav republic? Who is from further away? And what do each of us think about when we take in the sight, when we see one another do the same thing? And why are we even here?
I don’t wax philosophical for too long. There’s another spomenik to see down the road.
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening. Check out the show notes at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast for links, photos, and ways to subscribe and support the podcast.
Speaking of, if you wish to make a monumental contribution to the building of Remembering Yugoslavia’s bright future, leave us a rating or review on your favorite podcast listening app or support us on Patreon.
Transcript by Zorica Popović. Outro music courtesy of Robert Petrić. Additional music by Nosens licensed under Creative Commons; the song by Kolibri used solely for educational and informational purposes.
I am Peter Korchňak.