In the last 75 years, two Yugoslav-born women were the First Lady of their respective countries: Jovanka Budisavljević was the third wife of Josip Broz Tito and Melania Knavs is the third wife of Donald John Trump. A look at similarities, differences, and legacies of two most famous ex-Yugoslav women.
With Sonja Bjelobaba, Sandi Gorišek, and Mirjana Menković.
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PETER KORCHNAK: This episode of Remembering Yugoslavia is not only late in coming, it almost never came to be at all. Like most of the world, I’ve been saddened and frightened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Across the former Yugoslavia the images of war have evoked the painfully familiar experiences of three decades ago. Czechoslovakia, my own vanished country, was invaded and subsequently occupied for over 20 years by the Soviet Union (my parents, who remember Red Army tanks rolling down their streets, live less than 100 kilometers from the border with Ukraine). War makes everything else seem trivial in comparison.
My heart goes out to my Ukrainian brothers and sisters fighting for their country to not be wiped off the map. Their fierce resistance to the aggressor brings to mind the Yugoslav Partisans who fought against the Nazis and other enemies in World War II; all those who fought against aggressors in the wars of Yugoslavia’s dissolution; and the very few of my compatriots who stood up to the Warsaw Pact armies in 1968. It is in their honor I put myself back together, brushed away the welling tears, and got back to doing what I do. It is to them that I dedicate all the episodes of this podcast from now until Ukraine is free.
Thank you for listening.
PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your referee Peter Korchnak.
In the last 75 years, two Yugoslav-born women were the First Lady of their respective countries. Jovanka Budisavljević was the third wife of Josip Broz Tito and Melania Knavs is the third wife of Donald John Trump. Both Mesdames Broz and Trump were born in the western part of Yugoslavia, they were both involved in fashion, and…that’s pretty much where their similarities end. “I can’t even imagine how to compare [the two women],” one potential interlocutor wrote in declining my request for an interview. They were born and lived in different times, they represented their homelands in diametrically opposed ways, and their husbands were quite dissimilar presidents of two different countries who had the exact opposite view of Russia–“Trump is no Tito,” another interlocutor told me.
But as much of a stretch as it may be to place the two first ladies side by side in a single episode, I’m going to do it. At the turn of the millennium there was a popular stop-motion animated series on MTV called Celebrity Deathmatch. It parodized wrestling matches by pitting two celebrities against one another in a violent, often gory, and always quite ridiculous bout. Jim Carey vs Maria Carey. Chris Rock vs Dwayne The Rock Johnson. Busta Rhymes vs William Shakespeare. That kind of stuff. I loved it and my weird brain kept it in the back of my mind as I worked on this story.
In today’s episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, Jovanka Broz versus Melania Trump.
But before we ring the opening bell, a word about our sponsors: you. Thank you Dan, Eve, Nikola, and all the new Yugo-level supporters for joining Remembering Yugoslavia as the latest Patreon sustainers, and thank you Patrick and Tania for your contributions via PayPal. You’re all true and heroic fighters for Yugoslavia’s memory. I appreciate you.
Please join Dan, Eve, Nikola, Patrick, Tania, and many other generous people in my corner to support the podcast through to the next round. I can’t win this fight without you. Visit RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate, you don’t even have to pause the show.
[SOUND EFFECT – boxing bell ring]
PETER KORCHNAK: In the red corner…
Jovanka Budisavljević was born on December 7th, 1924 in Pećane, a village in the Lika region, in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, now Croatia. When the Independent State of Croatia was proclaimed and pursued a campaign of ethnic cleansing during World War II, her ethnic Serb family fled the area. She joined the Partisans at the age of seventeen, fighting as a sharpshooter in the ranks of the First Women’s Brigade,
and she worked as a nurse. She sustained a leg injury and survived a bout of typhus. According to my first guest, she never cut her raven hair during the war.
In 1945 she was assigned to Marshal Tito’s detail, in the crew responsible for food and hygiene. She became Tito’s personal secretary the following year, replacing the alleged love of his life, Davorjanka Paunović, who had died of tuberculosis. There are different accounts about how she got to be Tito’s secretary, including one in which she’s a Soviet spy, but what’s certain is that the close working relationship developed into a personal one.
According to Tito’s biographer and later dissident Milovan Djilas, “as far as she was concerned, Tito was a war and communist party deity for whom everyone was supposed to sacrifice everything they had. She was a woman deep in the process of comprehending Tito as a man, while also increasingly and devotedly falling in love with him. She was resigned to burn out or fade away, unknown and unrecognized if need be, next to the divine man about whom she dreamt and to whom she could only belong now that he has chosen her.”
Josip and Jovanka married in a secret ceremony in 1951 or 1952 at an unconfirmed location. Thirty-two years his junior, Jovanka was Tito’s third wife, or fourth wife according to some sources. Lots of mystery around all this. What’s certain is that by then she had reached the Yugoslav People’s Army rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
Here to talk about an important facet of Jovanka Broz’s subsequent life and a central contribution to Yugoslavia’s development is Mirjana Menković, a doctor of ethnology and anthropology and former director and current curator at the Ethnographic Museum in Belgrade. I spoke with Menković last December.
Menković cites April 1952 as the date of Jovanka’s and Josip’s betrothal.
MIRJANA MENKOVIĆ: But it was announced in September 1952, when the British Prime Minister, Mr. Anthony Eden, came to visit Yugoslavia, you know. And she was absolutely [a] surprise for everybody because she looked gorgeous, she was [a] very beautiful woman, and she was working very, very much, not only on her outfit, how she looked like, but on her education, she was very discipline[d], and she was the lady of great organization skills.
The first dress in which she appeared, that dress was made in the wardrobe of Yugoslav drama theater. And we see all the characteristics which are very important for the theater dress, you know, and the special cut and so on, but, we also see the influence of a Paris fashion style, which will be the dominant style which Jovanka Broz accepted, but parallely she was developing her personal style.
She was absolutely aware and capable to take such a responsible position as the First Lady and the woman of such a prestige, war hero as Tito was. And although she was 32 years younger she always kept them as a couple. And if you remember, for example, the photos in 1970s, they always looked as a couple. You could never say but such a big difference, you know, in years exist between two of them, and that is mostly thanks to Jovanka.
And the protocol of former Yugoslavia was very strict and extremely important. And Jovanka Broz actually did so much on that protocol. And she learned and insisted, not only her but the political government of Yugoslavia, they insisted very much on the protocol. The Yugoslav protocol was strict, you know, for several reasons, you know, and it actually combined the best pieces from various European protocols, including some of the royals protocols, they’ve been incorporated into the Yugoslav protocol. And among them the visual appearance of the president[ial] couple was extremely important. She worked on herself very much. She speaked [sic] three languages. And she improved her English and all details about the protocol and everybody agree, you know, only three, four years after they get married and when the Khrushchev came to the first visit to Yugoslavia in 1955, you know, she was very, very free in that she knew all details and she really looked and left extremely good impression to everybody, including the foreign press, which loved her very, very much.
PETER KORCHNAK: In the neighboring Eastern Bloc, the wives of heads of state weren’t as prominent figures as Jovanka Broz was.
MIRJANA MENKOVIĆ: They say that only the wife of János Kádár, Maria Kádár, can be compared with her in that aristocratic attitude and how she kept you know, the house and the outfit.
Yugoslavia had a special status and that couple also differs from everybody else from the Eastern world. And it was very important to send that message.
That couple, and especially Jovanka, they wanted to send the message that it is extremely important that the socialist Yugoslavia wants actually to look like and want to send that message, you know. That presidential couple has [an] extremely important role, as each presidential couple actually has, you know. But you know the former Yugoslavia had a special status among the Eastern countries and all the messages were extremely extremely important.
And the style of Jovanka Broz was actually the mean[s] of presentation of Yugoslav fashion production.
PETER KORCHNAK: In other words, it wasn’t only about couture and looking good.
In the 1950s, Yugoslavia embarked on a path of rapid development and market socialism. Fashion was one of the many industries socialist Yugoslavia developed as part of its economic strategy.
MIRJANA MENKOVIĆ: And Jovanka Broz, she played a great, great role in that. She was the big and the very important patron of a very young fashion Yugoslav industry. And she was the best moving advertisement for the Yugoslav products, fashion industry, you know.
The development of the Yugoslav fashion industry, which started in [the] 60s, she was supported that in a great sense. And she was one of the best promoter[s], as I said, of the Yugoslav fashion industry. And she visited very regularly the fashion fairs, the Fashion in the World, it was the name of the fair in Belgrade, and she prepared a lot of fashion shows, you know.
But at the same time,the personalities of fashion designers became important in socialist Yugoslavia. For example, Aleksandar Joksimović is one of the greatest and the most important Yugoslav fashion designers, he underline[d] the importance of fashion in the process of aestheticization of socialist everyday life.
PETER KORCHNAK: The fashion designer Aleksandar Joksimović died last year at the age of 87. He is considered the founder and the only official designer of haute couture in socialist Yugoslavia. After World War II, clothing in Yugoslavia, a future classless society, was intended to help equalize people so garments were functional, unobtrusive, uniform. As Yugoslavia embarked on its own path, fashion gained in importance. In 1960, Joksimović began showing his work in domestic fashion magazines, beginning with everyday outfits. He pioneered the concept of thematic collections in Yugoslavia, gaining reputation as a promoter of the so-called national style, which incorporated folk motifs, and eventually became the country’s leader in fashion design. Nicknamed King of Scissors, he is said to be one of only a handful of designers to decline to work at Dior.
Jovanka Broz wore Joksimović’s work on all kinds of occasions: events, receptions, international visits, welcoming foreign officials, including Queen Elizabeth II.
MIRJANA MENKOVIĆ: Since Tito has [sic] also the affection to fashion very much, you know, these are all the pieces of Yugoslav socialist fashion mosaic, which helped Jovanka Broz very much. She was the bridge, some kind of a visual bridge between very different societal groups within Yugoslavia. And her garments was some kind of communication mean[s] for the expression of the state ideology. The garment of Jovanka Broz was showing in the best possible way, the lifestyle, which was important, which was developed and the political establishment wanted to show this is the way we would like to develop in socialism and in socialist Yugoslavia.
Although, you know, the dress of Jovanka Broz was specially designed for her, you know. At the same time, she was very discipline[d], and that there was no exaggerations. I mean, exaggeration in her outfit and how she looked like maybe exist, but how she actually kept her attitude towards the household, the process of emancipation of women in Yugoslavia was absolutely highly evaluated. And she was working so much and so devoted to the process of emancipation of women in Yugoslavia, supporting not only the industry, but the person and personality of fashion designers.
And everybody agrees that she was of such a, how shall I say, individuality and personality that she always knew what is the best for her, what kind of garment, what kind of texture, material. And everybody says that she is one of the rare ladies who knew the textile in such a great capacity that nobody could compare with her but also she knew about the protocol so so much.
PETER KORCHNAK: Rather than Melania Trump, Menković believes a better comparison for Jovanka Broz was Jackie Kennedy. Not just in terms of fashion sense and importance for her country’s fashion industry, but down to individual outfits, some of which were identical or made by the same designers. The two J cats met in the U.S. in 1963, a month before JFK’s assassination.
Jovanka Broz was not only a living, breathing advertisement for the Yugoslav fashion industry and for Yugoslavia, she in a way represented the Non-Aligned Movement Tito was pushing as well.
She dined with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, she danced with women in Ghana, she rode a camel in Egypt and in open-top motorcades and yachts alongside her husband, always smiling, her hair always in a bun, her outfits meticulous.
Born as Menković was in 1957, I figured she watched Jovanka Broz’s wardrobe through the years long before she became a fashion scholar.
MIRJANA MENKOVIĆ: I was too young, you know, in the 60s, you know, and the first TVs which appeared they were black and white.
You know, we didn’t know the colors, the textures, and how she looked like. I mean, everybody could see her, but every photo, everything was in black and white. And can you imagine the preserved collection, the photo collection, which are preserved today in Museum of Yugoslavia, there are 720 photo albums and they’re all black and white.
PETER KORCHNAK: The life of glamor ground to a halt in the mid- 1970s. The couple grew estranged and moved apart in 1975, though Tito sent Jovanka a bouquet on her birthday. Her last state appearance was in June 1977, at a reception for the Prime Minister of Norway. That year was the last she saw Tito. Rumors of undue influence on him circulated, and in 1980 she told a newspaper that certain someones had accused her of plotting against him. “They were able to isolate and separate us both, and then they did whatever they wanted,” she said.
She did attend her husband’s funeral. Shortly after, Yugoslavia’s new rulers confiscated the widow’s passport and some of her property and sequestered her in a dilapidated government-owned villa in Belgrade’s Dedinje neighborhood, where the roof leaked and heat didn’t work half the time so she had to wear winter clothes inside.
In 2009, she told the Serbian paper Politika, “They chased me out in my nightgown, without anything, not allowing me even to take a photo of the two of us, or a letter, a book. I was in isolation and treated like a criminal. I could not leave the house without armed guards.” That same year she ceased to be stateless when she acquired Serbian citizenship, ID card, and passport.
In her twilight years, she rarely spoke to the media (she declined Menković’s request, too). In one of her last interviews, Broz told the Serbian daily Blic that she had absolved Tito of responsibility for their estrangement. “Tito loved me until his death,” she said.
Jovanka Broz was also rarely seen in public, most notably on the anniversary of Tito’s death, on May 4th, at the House of Flowers where he is buried. She lived out her life on a government pension in de facto house arrest until her death of heart failure on October 20th, 2013. She was 88; she lived 321 days longer than Tito. Her last wish, which was granted, was to be buried at his side. Five or ten thousand people attended her funeral, including representatives of Serbia’s government, foreign diplomats, and dozens of reporters. She was given full military honors and a piano version of “Bella Ciao” accompanied the ceremony.
In 2017, the family of the late Jovanka Broz was seeking someone and some place to exhibit the collection of her clothes. The family being two surviving sisters, Nada Budisavljević and Zora Aleksić, who died last year and one of whose two sons, Goran, is Serbia’s ambassador to Italy.
Menković and her team collected the garments from the house where Jovanka spent the end of her life and put it in a special fund at the Ethnographic Museum in Belgrade.
Then, last year, Serbia’s national broadcasting company RTS produced a documentary series “Jovanka Broz and the Secret Services” and presented some of the garments at their Belgrade headquarters.
MIRJANA MENKOVIĆ: Her collection of garments and accessories, they are unique because they bring together West and East, the capitalism and communism. She is a war hero also like Tito and she is the woman warrior but she’s also the elegant first lady, and she bring[s] together the haute couture and the pre-a-porter but in the best possible way. And that was the connection between the official protocol style and her personal style, which she developed through the years and decades.
Can you imagine, when we count this collection, it has over 3,000 pieces, but we exhibit only 49 pieces.
PETER KORCHNAK: Three thousand three hundred and fifty-three items, to be exact, according to Menković. Another source cites the collection consists of “about 1,100 individual items, including 676 dresses and sets, 100 pairs of shoes and 85 pairs of gloves.”
At any rate, in cooperation with the Museum of Yugoslavia and the Museum of the City of Belgrade, Menković curated and fashion designers Igor Todorović, Maja Davidovac, Marina Medenica, and Olga Mrdjenović authored the presentation of 49 outfits and accessories for the TV program and exhibition. In that sense it wasn’t a full-on exhibition the way a museum might organize as part of its activities. Still, it turned out great.
MIRJANA MENKOVIĆ: I can’t say that this is a real exhibition. This is just the presentation of very, very small part, which was very interesting for the national broadcast, the Serbian television, and that’s how we exhibit that in their gallery.
The response of public, we could imagine and we knew, you know, somehow that this will be very interesting for public because the fashion itself is and that the garments are very, very popular, you know, but we didn’t expect such a great, great audience.
Can you imagine, the exhibition was opened 16th of September and over 10,000 people, that is quite a big number, you know, for Belgrade, and not only for Belgrade, but also for the region, visitors and people came to see that little presentation. So that’s, that’s a good input and we do know what we have to do in future.
And, you know, something, which is extremely important connected to this presentation and this exhibition is that actually, we all for the first time, we saw her in color. And that’s why this exhibition has the name Jovanka Broz in Color.
PETER KORCHNAK: Menković estimates it will take three or more years to process the collection of Jovanka Broz’s wardrobe to present it at a major museum exhibition.
MIRJANA MENKOVIĆ: This collection, it is the material evidence, you know, and illustration of the way how she dressed. But this collection has a greater importance for the cultural heritage, not only Serbia, but for the region. Why? It has the international culture [sic] significance, because it is the part of the European culture and why not the world cultural heritage. Is there anywhere else such [a] preserved collection of a First Lady?
I would say that the importance of this collection is museological, you know, because it shows the dynamic and the development, you know, of the culture of dress in a very long period of time. The second half of 20th century is completely covered with this collection. We can research and see how the fashion developed, in 50 or 60 years, you know, in the second half of [the] 20th century.
But also you can see, as I mentioned, the consistence [sic] in a sense of style and visual identity of the Yugoslav political establishment.
[SOUND EFFECT – boxing bell ring]
PETER KORCHNAK: In the blue corner…
Melania Knavs was born on April 26th, 1970 in Novo Mesto, in the socialist Yugoslav republic of Slovenia. She grew up in an apartment block in Sevnica, a village of 5,000 in central Slovenia. Her father, Viktor Knavs, was a communist and a car dealership manager. Her mother Amalija worked for the now-defunct children’s clothing manufacturer Jutranjka; Melania often participated in fashion shows presenting the company’s production. She attended high school in the capital Ljubljana and dropped out of the University after one year.
She began her modeling career in 1986 when she also Germanized her name to Knauss. In 1988 she began her international modeling career in Milan. She left Slovenia in the early 1990s and also worked in Paris before moving to New York City in 1996.
Two years later she met the real estate developer and TV host Donald Trump and they married in 2005. The reception at Mar-a-Lago was attended by some big names, including Shaquille O’Neal, Heidi Klum, P. Diddy, Simon Cowell, Billy Joel, and one Hillary Clinton who accompanied her ex-president husband. The bride wore a $200,000 Dior dress and a $1.5 million ring.
The following year she gave birth to Barron and became a naturalized citizen. How the latter happened remains shrouded in controversy, as in she may or may not have committed visa fraud, but I don’t need to get into that.
In 2017, she was the first non-native English speaker and the first naturalized citizen to become the First Lady of the United States. The following year, she sponsored her parents in becoming U.S. citizens as well.
In a biography of the former First Lady, Mary Jordan wrote that Melania’s life unfolds like acts of a play. In Act I, she’s a girl growing up in socialist Yugoslavia. In Act II, she’s a young woman pursuing a career in modeling in Europe. In Act III, she’s an immigrant to the U.S. who ends up marrying a real estate mogul. And in Act IV, ongoing when the book came out, she’s the FLOTUS. “Strikingly, when the curtain falls on one period of her life, it is almost as if it never happened. The characters, the staging, everything changes,” writes Jordan.
No one in Slovenia aside from her immediate family heard from Melania when she moved to Milan. People in the Trump couple’s circle don’t know anyone from her pre-Trump years, save for her immediate family and the agent who brought her to the U.S. She’s “a woman with no history,” said one family friend. Whereas her husband seeks the limelight, she is wrapped in mystery. A seasoned reporter of thirty years, Mary Jordan said that finding out about Melania’s past, motivations, life, was “an unprecedented challenge.” In the end, she found Melania was much like the Donald: “independent, ambitious, image-conscious, unsentimental, and wary of those outside [her] circles.”
I can actually relate to the act-like life. The first four years of elementary education I went to one school, the second to another, retaining no friends. High school, university, graduate school and another, one American city then another and another–all in different places with new sets of friends and acquaintances, with minimal overlap. When I visit my hometown I connect with literally one friend, and the same when I visit my university city. When you jump around like that, it’s hard to maintain connections.
The year Melania Trump became the First Lady, her compatriot Sandi Gorišek authored Melania Trump: The Slovenian Side of the Story. Gorišek is a mechanical engineer who lives near Sevnica and who travels for work a lot. He was tired of all the questions he was getting about Melania and Slovenia so he decided to write down some of the answers.
SANDI GORIŠEK: My hometown and her hometown is like 20 kilometers apart, so 15 miles. So we’re really close. So it’s not that uncommon to go in a local bar or tavern or whatever and ask the locals what do you think about her and for sure, there’s someone knowing her or her parents from before.
PETER KORCHNAK: But rather than a biography of Melania Trump, the short, self-published ebook which is available for free on Amazon attempts to shed some light on Melania’s homeland to explain her background, where she’s from and how she was brought up. Gorišek purposely avoided talking about Melania and focused on the environment that influenced her.
SANDI GORIŠEK: No, yeah, it’s typical, I would say, in Slovakia or in Slovenia or whatever, typical industrial small town that are many around that were, you know, planned economy. So we have a factory there, you have a factory that will produce, you know, doesn’t matter if you need it or not, you will produce that. And that’s basically how the clothing industry came to Sevnica, her hometown.
If you have a planned economy, like it’s typical for socialism, communism, whatever, it’s totally, totally different logic than behind if you have open economy.
For example, [there] was the rule that CEO of the company couldn’t have the salary, that it’s exceeding three times the salary of a janitor, you know, that kind of stuff. So you were limited in all the aspects of society. You were limited because you had one party you could vote for. And that kind of stuff. So if you want to stick your head above the average, yeah, for sure, it’s– it was a good idea to go out.
PETER KORCHNAK: –of the country.
Fashion remains Sevnica’s industry. Lisca is one of Europe’s biggest lingerie manufacturers, and Kopitarna still produces a proliferation of slippers.
When she became the First Lady, her hometown attempted to capitalize on its newfound fame. Local entrepreneurs slapped her name or official title on a range of local products, from Melania-branded honey or cake called Torta Melania to wine to chocolate to beauty cream…to the brand First Lady, whose lineup includes a salami.
SANDI GORIŠEK: I think we are just a bit clumsy with that, let’s say it that way, because we could get more out of it. Hometown in general, they tried to do the Melania wine, they were doing some Melania cakes, you know, if you come there, there was a hamburger with some yellow cheese on the top resembling the American president that nobody– you know, that kind of stuff. But that was a bit of a goofing and a bit of like, let’s make some money out of it.
PETER KORCHNAK: Name recognition for her hometown spiked again in 2019 when the American artist Brad Downey unveiled a wooden statue of Melania near Sevnica, outside the village of Rožno. He had commissioned the piece from the local naive artist and full-time pipe layer Aleš “Maxi” Zupevc who carved it with a chainsaw from a living tree.
Some compared the statue to Smurfette, others to a scarecrow, others still to the Virgin Mary.
Some called it a “disgrace,” others thought of it as “inspirational.”
SANDI GORIŠEK: Five six years ago and here was the main Christmas tree in Ljubljana in our capital was named Melania and that’s like that was way better than that statue.
PETER KORCHNAK: On Fourth of July 2020, unknown vandals torched the statue. A couple of months later, Downey unveiled a replacement on the same spot, cast from bronze. A plaque accompanies the new sculpture, dedicating it to “the eternal memory of a monument to Melania which stood at this location.”
By the way, a wooden statue of Donald Trump also stood and was burned down but never replaced in another nearby village.
But generally speaking, Melania Trump has had limited impact on her hometown, region, or Slovenia overall.
According to Gorišek, negatives about Melania prevailed in local media and popular opinion. People didn’t like her husband so by extension they didn’t like her. Some pointed out a close resemblance between Donald Trump and Viktor Knavs. Others suggested she was attracted to Trump’s charisma and stature because she grew up admiring the charismatic big-man Tito.
This says more about Slovenes than about Melania, suggests Gorišek.
A quote by a Slovenian businessman included in the ebook sums it up neatly: “Slovenes can forgive everything except success.”
SANDI GORIŠEK: They were just saying that she is not that proud of her Slovenian roots, which I don’t think it’s true. It’s just she just, you know, put that part of her behind, because, you know, it was a lot of bad rumors and all this stuff, and I totally understand it if, you know, why would she be the one promoting her hometown if, you know, she was just hearing bad things about her because our press was a bit of yeah, not on her side, let’s say that way.
It’s very common for people from our part of the world that it’s not so good to stick your head above the average, if you know what I mean. So basically I think that this is really make her really tough because she did that she, as being a mode, you know, traveling the world trying to make a living in Milan or I don’t know, USA. I think she’s she’s really tough and she doesn’t get the criticism to get her down. This is what one of the things I really admire about her because being Slovenian, I know that you can hear a lot of mean things about you, whatever you do.
PETER KORCHNAK: Someone once told Melania that she wouldn’t be with Trump if he weren’t rich. To which she replied something along the lines of, he wouldn’t be with me if I weren’t hot. So there’s that.
While she was the First Lady, Melania Trump never visited Slovenia and improvements in relations between the two countries that Slovenian politicians hoped for never materialized. “It is…clear that she doesn’t have any interest in the country whatsoever,” said one Slovenian diplomat. Though CNN reported that after her son Barron was born she donated $25,000 to a local clinic in her region.
She mentioned Slovenia in her speech to the 2020 Republican National Convention, albeit as a setup for a pivot.
[SOUNDBITE – Melania Trump’s speech at the 2020 RNC]
SANDI GORIŠEK: On the other hand, I heard but that’s again it was from the newspaper, that she’s speaking Slovenian to her son. So I don’t know if that’s true or not, but that would be something that’s– It’s a miracle that slipped out of general press.
PETER KORCHNAK: Gorišek recalls the most popular joke about Melania. “She is the only person in the world who speaks no languages: she doesn’t know English and she forgot Slovenian.”
In any case, overall, according to Gorišek, there hasn’t been a whole lot of media coverage about the native daughter in the Slovenian press. Perhaps because she was an estranged native daughter.
SANDI GORIŠEK: It’s mutual. But as I said, I totally understand her from that perspective, because Slovenia didn’t give her that much.
PETER KORCHNAK: A couple of Slovenian filmmakers, Jurij and Tanja Gruden, are finishing work on a documentary about Melania Trump. Out this summer, Catching Melania will explore how a small-town girl became the First Lady.
“She is as mysterious to [the media] as she is to her former Slovenian friends and neighbors, who have to pinch themselves when they see how famous she has become,” the Grudens told iNews. While her face and status as FLOTUS have made her the most famous Slovene of all time, few people have heard her speak because she rarely gives interviews (I guess this might be another similarity between her and Jovanka Broz).
This may have something to do with how the American media has treated her. “Vapid” and “hypocrite” have been some of the less harsh labels used to describe her (thanks New Yorker). She worked as an escort, she is a bitch and a bimbo…that kind of stuff. The Grudens said broadcasters and people in the film industry pressed them to, quote, “make a documentary about her stupidity.”
Worse, to some Melania Trump came to represent all of quote unquote Eastern Europe. In July 2016 Melania Trump delivered an endorsement speech at the Republican National Convention that would nominate her husband for president.
[SOUNDBITE – Melania Trump’s speech at the 2016 RNC]
PETER KORCHNAK: She was quickly derided for having lifted lines from a speech by her soon-to-be-predecessor as the First Lady, Michelle Obama.
[SOUNDBITE – Melania Trump’s speech at the 2016 RNC]
Melania Trump told the media she had written the speech herself.
Writing in the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, the Polish-born political science professor at the University of Chicago, Monika Nalepa, claimed Melania Trump’s plagiarism stemmed from the educational system and the culture she hailed from.
“In that system, what is typically considered plagiarism or cheating was exceedingly common and even encouraged,” wrote Nalepa in the article titled “Melania Trump and the culture of cheating in Eastern European schools.” “The post-communist educational system at that time was a place where the line between original work and plagiarism was often hard to discern and the issue of intellectual ownership was never discussed. Another important element of the post-communist educational experience was the prevalence and acceptance of cheating.”
“How did such a norm set in?” Nalepa asks. “First, cheaters weren’t called “cheaters.” They were called “borrowers” and were considered street-smart. (…) In fact, it was those who reported cheating who were ostracized and considered to be “collaborators.”” Nalepa had left quote unquote Eastern Europe more than 15 years before but she was skeptical much had changed. “You can take the boy out of Eastern Europe, but you cannot take Eastern Europe out of the boy,” she wrote, quoting a paper on the legacy of communism and missing an opportunity to paraphrase.
The response was swift. At Balkanist.net, four scholars, including past Remembering Yugoslavia guests Jasmina Tumbas and Bojana Videkanić, published “An Open Letter to the Editors of the Monkey Cage Blog of the Washington Post Online Edition” in order to protest and refute Nalepa’s claims. 140 additional academics, artists, intellectuals, and others from the region and beyond co-signed the letter.
“Dr. Nalepa’s text was not only appalling and prejudiced, but also poorly researched and completely unsubstantiated,” the authors wrote. “What would compel the Washington Post to publish a text which traces the origins of Melania Trump’s egregious plagiarism to former socialist regimes? A text that makes an argument by calling on tired sweeping generalizations about a whole region of diverse countries, and insinuates that millions of people in Eastern Europe are backward, ignorant, and prone to cheating?”
“After reading Dr. Nalepa’s musings, dozens of countries, respective histories, and geo-political and socio-political relations fade into one blurry, ahistorical and ageographical cultural no-place of “post-communist Europe.””
The counterargument is fourfold:
First, Melania Trump’s education took place during, not after the communist period. So, the account was inaccurate in basic details.
Secondly, quote, “it is a gross generalization to refer to “Eastern Europe” as if it were a single nation, and not a vast region with dozens of states, languages, histories, and relationships to “communism.” (…) Slovenia’s form of socialism, its political, social and cultural system [was] quite different from the other communist countries of Eastern Europe.” So, grossly generalizing.
Thirdly, the University of Ljubljana is a good university (several past guests of this podcast went or work there or both). Quote, “to argue that Melania Trump’s decision to plagiarize was a result of her education at this university is not only ill-informed, but it serves to undermine the work of countless scholars and teachers in the region. (…) Her text contributes to a long-standing discourse in which Western nations (and their scholars, journalists, politicians, and others) feel entitled to proffer reductive generalizations about an already marginalized and colonized region.” So, orientalizing.
And fourth, Nalepa’s analysis was deeply revisionist, whereby everything that happened during socialism was bad and everything that’s happened since has been superior. So, dismissive in the worst neoliberal fashion.
“While it is appalling to read Dr. Nalepa’s words, it is even more difficult to live under the weight of such utter devastation of rights and responsibilities, disguised in profound and damaging misinformation, perpetuated by stereotypes, prejudices, and an abdication of accountable research,” conclude the authors.
Of course, Nalepa penned a rebuttal, in which she cited evidence to support her claims. In study after study, more students in Eastern European countries said, i.e. self-reported that they cheat than those in the U.S. or elsewhere in the West.
Other studies Nalepa cited revealed differences in what behaviors students perceive as cheating; others still low respect for official rules.
The final chapter in this war of words was the response to the rebuttal. Basically, Nalepa didn’t get it. To begin with, the authors in their initial response never requested evidence. More importantly, Nalepa did not address any of the responders’ objections and instead doubled down on her claim that Eastern Europe is backward and change will require generations.
My own response to the plagiarism scandal and the ensuing back and forth over Nalepa’s article was twofold. First, the responders seemed to have protested too much. Even in my own experience studying in Slovakia, after 1989 I must say, cheating was common enough to be a nuisance (in extreme cases professors plagiarized student papers for their own books). Still the majority of my cohort made their accomplishments honestly.
Then I thought of the fact that, in America you can pay someone to write a paper for you. This contract cheating was completely unknown where I come from, but you won’t hear me making conclusions about American capitalist culture based on the existence of the phenomenon. Also, last year NPR reported cheating in American universities soared during the pandemic, with some reporting 50 others 300 percent increases in incidents. This was linked to better detection and tracking of misconduct in virtual, online environments.
At any rate, making comparisons and pointing fingers was indeed not the point.
What I thought about next was the collection of journalists or authors caught plagiarizing whose appalling actions were presented as individual choices rather than results of culture or national origin. Whether Melania Trump received different treatment because she is a woman or because she is from where she is from or both is not as important as the fact that it happened. I for one–and many fellow Central and Eastern Europeans will surely concur–am sick and tired of being judged as inferior based on my country or region of origin or its history.
To help me parse through these issues some more I spoke with an expert on academic integrity. Yes, there is such a thing. Sonja Bjelobaba is a senior lecturer at the Department of Modern Languages at Uppsala University, where she uses this podcast as a teaching tool, and a researcher at the Center for Research Ethics and Bioethics. She is also a supporter of Remembering Yugoslavia. She hails from Banja Luka.
SONJA BJELOBABA: I live in Sweden. So here, it wasn’t such a big deal. We had some articles about the whole issue. But actually, no one was questioning it in terms that it’s something typical for Eastern Europe or the Balkans.
However, when you when you listen to this speech, it’s not word by word plagiarism, but the structure and the themes, the ideas, and some sentences are basically more or less the same. So it’s– it seems to be very influenced. Of course, it is possible to have for her to just came up to basically the same structure herself, but it’s not really probable, statistically not probable, that it would be done in the same way. So basically, yes, it can be called plagiarism.
That’s one issue. The second issue is, of course, that it somehow turned out to be representative for the whole Eastern Europe and the Balkans. And that’s really strange. I don’t really understand why Melania would be a representative for so many millions of people. It’s like having Trump represent the whole Western world.
And if you look at the map, you might find out that Slovenia is not in Eastern Europe at all. It’s quite often to have this imaginary view on geography in Europe, of the progressive West and backwards East. And somehow former Yugoslavia tends to be put in that Eastern Bloc of backwards people, but it’s in people’s imagination. It’s the same surprise they can get when they look at the map and see that Prague actually is west of Vienna. And if you look in Slovenia, it’s definitely not East, neither historically, nor geographically, but it is in this very strange, imaginary view on the Balkans.
And it’s very strange to just claim that the whole region is basically backwards and prone to cheating and prone to misconduct. It’s nonsense.
PETER KORCHNAK: Let’s look at the Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav school systems first.
SONJA BJELOBABA: First of all, Melania Trump was going to school during the communist period, and accusing and making it something as post-communist problem is also problematic in [sic] so many different levels, because it’s not the same school system, as it used to be. Many things have changed.
Yugoslavia had a system of education was free, for all. So didn’t have to pay your studies at university level, no matter what level. And all universities were public. Nowadays, you have both public universities, but you also have private universities. In some countries, you also have some private universities of very poor quality that are basically giving programs that are not accredited and haven’t gone through a quality control. So not all private universities are worthless, but some of them are. And that wasn’t the case really previously, because there was a state control of the quality system at universities.
And you can say that some, there are some initiatives that were done in the Balkans that can be seen as really interesting and more advanced even than in Western countries, such as National Codex Research Ethics that exists in Serbia or law against plagiarism in Montenegro. So it’s very offensive to claim that the whole educational system is on some low level that everyone just cheats.
PETER KORCHNAK: As for cheating itself–
SONJA BJELOBABA: There are some difference, cultural differences, so there are some traces of in those reactions that that can be connected that in some areas of the world, cheating might be more prevalent, but then it’s not, probably not the culture thing, it’s more the overall corruption in the system.
It can be connected to the age of students, more mature students attempt to cheat less than very young students.
And there is some some type of differences regarding misconduct between Eastern and Western Europe. For instance, in one study done in Croatia amongst medical students in Croatia done by Hrabak and her colleagues that the attitude towards misconduct is much more tolerant, and the misconduct was more frequent than in Western countries. And there is also another study by Pupovac that Croatian students have shown the unwillinginess as to report fellow students. In another third study, I’m going to tell you about Magnus, who did a study where Russian students were more tolerant to misconduct, but also they hated informers.
So there are differences, some differences, but more research is needed basically. All of these studies are done on self-reported service or misconduct. And it’s always a bit bias because you don’t know if students are giving honest answers. So more research is needed, it’s very hard to know. And when you use that type of study, you have studies in try to write a piece like that journalist did then you have to be aware of the limitations of them and see them as perhaps tendencies more than giving it this claims that this is the reality because it’s not. You can’t be sure of that.
PETER KORCHNAK: One thing was completely omitted from the whole narrative, something I as a writer writing not in my own native tongue can very much sympathize with. Something perhaps only a language teacher like Bjelobaba would pick up on.
SONJA BJELOBABA: You have to have in mind that she was writing in a language that’s not her mother tongue. And learning to write and to express yourself in another language takes time. So if she didn’t really have enough education that’s [a] pity because if you have international students writing in another language that is a risk for misconduct as well because it is very easy to say you have to paraphrase things but people really don’t know how. So it takes time to learn to express yourself in another language.
And in that case, it’s quite common that people are just perhaps too influenced by texts they already read. So that’s why I say that she would need perhaps some more education if the guy gets elected one more time. [LAUGHTER] It takes time to learn how to express yourself in another language so hopefully she’ll use these four years for that.
PETER KORCHNAK: If discussing plagiarism and stereotyping in a story about Melania Trump seems like a tangent it’s because it is. I’ve actually struggled to come up with a whole lot to say about her, to be honest. To paraphrase (not plagiarize) Getrude Stein: there is very little there there.
As the First Lady, Melania Trump remained in her husband’s oversize shadow. The causes she took on included cyberbullying and drug abuse among youth, allegedly to minimal results. Her controversial revamp of the Rose Garden and her White House Christmas decor are now stuff of legend. She survived COVID.
In terms of fashion, her style has been described as minimalist and channeling Jackie Kennedy.
Funny or not, Jackie, played by Natalie Portman, makes an appearance in a 2018 Saturday Night Live skit in which she visits Melania, played by Cecily Strong, to proffer advice on being FLOTUS. Other first ladies visit, including Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton, Aidy Bryant’s Martha Washington, and Leslie Jones’s Michelle Obama. “Get out there and do what the First Ladies have always done: stand there and clap,” says Jackie. “Okay, but sometimes I’m going to sit down and not clap,” Melania responds.
Anyway, what stands out are individual outfits. The powder blue cashmere suit by Ralph Lauren that inspired the Sevnica statue. The Zara jacket with the inscription on the back “I really don’t care do u?” that she wore on a visit to a migrant shelter in Texas.
The Manolo Blahnik pointed-toe pumps she wore inspecting the damage left by Hurricane Harvey.
The pith helmet, a symbol of colonial rule across Africa, that she donned on a Kenyan safari.
Insensitive, surely. Dumb, maybe if you really dislike her. But the fact remains, there really isn’t a whole lot to remember about Melania Trump, nee Knavs, as FLOTUS.
She left the White House as the least popular first lady, according to polls. While popularity rankings of previous first ladies since the 1970s averaged 71 percent, her final approval rating was 42 percent and, with the disapproval rating of 47 percent, she was the only first lady who finished with a net disapproval rating. And by the way, the second-least popular first lady in the last fifty years was Hillary Clinton.
Melania Trump may yet become FLOTUS again. I certainly hope not. But in the meantime, she has ventured into the NFT market. In January, she launched an auction for a collection of nonfungible tokens titled the Head of State Collection, which included an image of her wearing a white hat. Bloomberg News reported that “the cryptocurrency used to purchase Trump’s nonfungible token came from a wallet that belongs to the entity that originally listed the project for sale.”
[SOUND EFFECT – boxing bell ring]
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Rainmaker” by Petar Alargić]
PETER KORCHNAK: Next on Remembering Yugoslavia:
JELENA SOFRONIJEVIĆ: I am partly Yugoslav though I’ve never set foot in Yugoslavia myself. I’ve always been absolutely fascinated in questions of diasporic identity.
PETER KORCHNAK: Many diasporans had children in their new countries. How do those offspring of ex-Yugoslavs forge their own identities?
On the next episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, three third-culture kids with Yugoslav parents living in the UK, Canada, and the U.S. share their experiences becoming who they are.
Tune in wherever you listen to podcasts and subscribe to make sure you don’t miss out.
[OUTRO MUSIC – “Jugoslavijo / Od Vardara pa do Triglava” by Horn Orchestra]
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening. Find additional information, photos, videos, links, and the transcript of this episode at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
And remember, just as you are what you wear, you are what podcasts you support. Visit RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate and support the podcast today.
I am Peter Korchňak.
[SOUND EFFECT – boxing bell ring]