Art, bravery, and community in the lesser known corner of the former country. Or how one Macedonian artist carries her father’s legacy and brings a town together at the Monument to Freedom, a Yugoslav-era monument, in Kočani, North Macedonia.
With Elena Chemerska, Vladimir Martinovski, Martin Milev, and Natalija Teodosieva. Featuring the songs
- “Kočini, gradu moj” by Martix
- “Sloboda” by The John & Space Rebel Gang
- “Ne sum vekje ubava” by Bernays Propaganda
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Episode Transcript (and More)
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PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your guide Peter Korchnak.
When you follow the developments in the region of former Yugoslavia, you might get an impression of perpetual doom and gloom. Nationalism, corruption, emigration, COVID response… It can all feel like drinking from a fire hose of bad news. And so it’s only natural that I jumped on a positive story as soon as I heard it.
ELENA CHEMERSKA: I said, “Okay, enough, I’m taking control of this.” And I looked at it as sort of a gesture of resistance.
PETER KORCHNAK: In this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia: a story of art, bravery, and community in the lesser known corner of the former country.
But first, a reminder that as always, this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia is brought to you by…you. Thank you to everyone who has signed up to support me and Remembering Yugoslavia on Patreon or donated on the website via PayPal.
If you like the show, please support its production by joining these generous people at Patreon.com/RememberingYugoslavia or donating one time at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate.
[MUSICAL INTERLUDE – PIANO]
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ELENA CHEMERSKA: I was born in Skopje, which is in now North Macedonia, in 1991. This is where I lived up until my mid 20s and I have been navigating between Skopje, Rotterdam, and Berlin ever since.
PETER KORCHNAK: You may remember Elena Chemerska from Episode 27, “All the Monument’s a Stage,” where she offered a foretaste of the story you’re about to hear today.
Chemerska is an artist; it is both her pedigree and philosophy that inform her work.
ELENA CHEMERSKA: Becoming an artist, came quite, I think, naturally to me. Because I lived in this environment since basically forever. And I developed interest in art at [a] very early age. Because the people that I grew up with had their lives intertwined with this. My father was an artist, so was his uncle. My grandmother was a professor of Russian literature and so the tools for becoming somebody who would work in culture and in arts were there.
In my artistic practice, basically I explore the relationships between esthetics, materiality and politics, and I make work in various different media: painting, drawing, sculptures, and these installations that I make combining these things, but I also work with video. My practice is pretty much in conversation with the modernist tradition.
Here’s what happens. I think that it is quite difficult to think of an image of the future. And then, of course, the modernist tradition is very much based into this projections of the future. So this is why I very often unravel sorts of historical narratives or narratives from art history that have to do with this discourse.
I use collaborations with people because I think that it is impossible to not think of this sort of like a general intellect where different brains work towards some goal. This is why I very often don’t, don’t use a lot of “I,” let’s say, in the way that I do art or in the work that I do, or in the way that I present my works, but they’re mostly sort of like these projects that intertwine the work of more people and that are sensitive to this sort of past-present-future time timeline, let’s say. So then the stories that come out of them allude to a belief in a better future, social future.
PETER KORCHNAK: Remember this word, collaborations. Chemerska likes to work with others—and I think that’s beautiful.
Living and working abroad, as she does, Chemerska is one of the hundreds of thousands of Macedonians who have emigrated in the past two or three decades in search of better opportunities in the West.
ELENA CHEMERSKA: There is a huge migration movement of young people who are migrating elsewhere in search of better life. And it’s not always even about an economic power, but it’s something more substantial than that. We lack basic infrastructure for a proper independent cultural scene emerging.
PETER KORCHNAK: At the same time, she continues working in her home country. It is here that what may become her life’s great accomplishment has unfolded.
ELENA CHEMERSKA: When I operate in North Macedonia, of course, I have a deep understanding of context. I think that what I can do there can be much more relevant for the local scene and local population as well.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Snoshti te prativ” by Gogofski]
Kočani, My Town
PETER KORCHNAK: Local means the town of Kočani, some 100 kilometers or 63 miles east of the capital Skopje. Early settlement dates back to the Roman and Byzantine periods; the town was first mentioned in written documents in 1337. From the 15th to the early 20th century it was under Ottoman Turkish rule. After World War I it was included with most of the rest of today’s Macedonia in Yugoslavia.
Today, ninety percent of its 28,000 residents identify as Macedonian, five percent are Roma, and three percent are Turks; correspondingly, 96 percent are Orthodox and 3 percent are Muslim.
Whereas this is a place that people tend to leave, it drew Chemerska in.
ELENA CHEMERSKA: I’ve been going a lot to Kočani since my teens because my best friend’s she’s originally from Kočani, and then her grandparents kept on living there. We went a lot in Kočani. So I did develop some sort of relationship with the town. But then I think that that grew much stronger in the course of this project, because I was there with my own sort of background and my own reasons, but people didn’t really look at me as a stranger, because to them, it made sense. And especially in the younger generations.
MARTIN MILEV: Kočani is [a] very beautiful place. It’s [a] small place but there is [a] river across the city, amazing nature, mountain, lake.
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PETER KORCHNAK: Born in 1998 in Kočani, Martin Milev is a member of this younger generation. He’s a university student of comparative literature in Skopje.
MARTIN MILEV: I have here so so good memories. There is my dearest people.
But you know, like Tom Waits, I like my town with a little drop of poison. You know, because every young man here grow up only with the stories how good this city was. And today’s mostly empty, maybe on summer when people come back for where they live and when it’s fall and winter, it’s so empty. Everyone migrated or waiting to go in Skopje or outside country.
But there is still people fighting for what they believe in, trying to do something with art and something about art. But big picture is not so good. And we must do more in trying to change it for better.
NATALIJA TEODOSIEVA: I’m Natalia Teodosieva. And I was born and half-raised in Kočani. I work as a freelance actress and I am a dancer as well. And I work in theater and in movies.
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PETER KORCHNAK: Teodosieva now too lives in Skopje.
NATALIJA TEODOSIEVA: Growing up in Kočani for me is like exploration and adventures, you know. It is a small city, green, peaceful place where I grew up freely, literally on streets and all my friends from my generation and older, we all grew up outdoors all day long, playing in neighborhoods, parks, playgrounds, and when you spend your time, your free time as a child outside, then it comes naturally to take you step forwards diving in and exploration.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Snoshti te prativ” by Gogofski]
PETER KORCHNAK: Kočani is known for its geothermal springs, surrounding mountains, and being the home of the brass band Kočani Orkestar.
Primarily, though, it is a city of rice. One legend has it that a man named Kočo went to work in China and decided to bring back rice. But because rice was banned from the area, he bought some geese, fed the rice to them, and thus smuggled the seeds inside the birds. Kočo then settled and cultivated rice in the place that was later named after him, Kočani. Another account has Alexander the Great bringing rice over from his conquests.
Either way, the annual “Days of Rice” festival is dedicated to the city’s “white gold.” In its heyday, or should I say paddy day, Macedonia supplied 60 percent of Yugoslavia’s rice consumption. The Kochani Rice Institute has developed a number of rice varieties. I have yet to determine whether anyone has made the Kočani version of the smash hit, “Rice Rice Baby.”
In all seriousness, according to Martin, rice growing poses a problem when farmers burn the fields, illegally, right about now in March and April.
MARTIN MILEV: It’s like Chernobyl, white smoke black you can’t see the road coming or going, it’s so bad.
But we make some protest. But no matter how many people will go to the protest, there is still so much people who don’t come. And we are speaking here about the air and if people don’t have a revolution in their heart for air, you can’t have so good hopes about changing things.
ELENA CHEMERSKA: I had somebody approach me recently, he is great. He is a musician, who also studies comparative literature and he’s this young guy who made a wonderful video and did a wonderful song about “Kočani, My Town,” it’s called. And it’s also about, it’s about his feeling, and the feeling of all the people of his generation that his city is dying off.
PETER KORCHNAK: Milev’s artist name is Martix. He is working on his debut solo album. The song Chemerska refers to is—
MARTIN MILEV: —“Kočini gradu moj” or “Kočini my town.” It’s [a] song about our city, and in the song I try to say some stuff who will be for every generation, speaking about how was better before, what we do wrong, I pay respect for local band, local football team, and speak about more serious problems like migration of my friends, of young people, about emptiness, darkness from this place. Because if it’s in some news in the paper or television speaking about Kočani is mostly short horror, tragedy stories. And how I like my town but I hate how they make them look ugly.
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And there is wordplay in [the] title: Kočini which sounds so much like Kočani and some people think I make [a] mistake, but kočini literally mean pig sty and metaphorical represent the ugly, dusty, and dirty side but with hope about changing things.
And Monument to Freedom in music video is so important maybe most used location in the video but in lyrics I have only one line about [the] Monument referring to bad condition of [the] Monument because it’s destroyed and in bad shape and it’s sad because when our city symbol is broken symbol that speak to us too.
“Kočini gradu moj” by Martix
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[MUSICAL INTERLUDE – PIANO]
Monument to Freedom: The Symbol of Kočani
PETER KORCHNAK: There’s one more thing Kočani is known for.
MARTIN MILEV: It’s on the top of the city, you can see it from everywhere.
PETER KORCHNAK: Built between 1975 and 1977 and unveiled in 1981 on the Lokubija hill above Kočani, the Freedom Monument, or the Monument to Freedom is—
ELENA ČEMERSKA: —a collaborative project between artists, Gligor Čemerski, and architect Radovan Rađenović, who collaborated on several occasions in the late 70s and early 80s and together, they’re the authors of several memorial sites around the country. But this one, the Monument to Freedom, is maybe their most mature and most complex work that they have developed together.
PETER KORCHNAK: That word, collaboration, again.
As was the case with other significant monuments, Rađenović and Čemerski’s concept was the winner of a juried design competition held by the government in collaboration with the Partisan fighters association and the local community.
ELENA CHEMERSKA: There was this general consensus that these sets of memory should be built so that they would convey to the ear of the future narratives related to the antifascist struggle, which was basically the core around which all these different peoples would have gathered to form this federation of republics that became Yugoslavia. So I think that this is also an interesting aspect to examine when you’re looking at more recent trends in dealing with the urban fabric in cities, especially in the Balkans.
PETER KORCHNAK: Rađenović, the monument’s architect, designed the memorial site—
ELENA CHEMERSKA: —as an open space, public space with an amphitheater that’s built into it, which is to be used. So it’s not only a statue, but it has its utilitarian aspect.
And it is also very interesting that in the way that it is built, they used different historical references. The blueprint is borrowed from how [an] early Christian Basilica would look like.
PETER KORCHNAK: The monument’s footprint reminds me of the logo of the Slovenian record label Helidon, the logo of the Rebel Alliance in Star Wars, or some double-winged renditions of the mythical bird Phoenix.
ELENA CHEMERSKA: Then also there is this amphitheater that is a reference to antiquity. And then it is filled with contemporary content, which are the mosaics and also the space that’s open in a sense, it’s open to be inhabited by people performing and filling it with more and more contemporary content.
VLADIMIR MARTINOVSKI: One of the ideas of this monument is not only to be a monuments that we visit for a couple of, let’s say, minutes or hours, and we go; it’s a place that should be a cultural center as well, open air.
PETER KORCHNAK: Born in 1974, Vladimir Martinovski is a professor of comparative literature at the Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje; he’s also an author, writing prose, essays, and poetry. In his work he explores the relations between poetry, literature, and visual arts.
ELENA CHEMERSKA: That open space that you can see from up there, this openness suggests openness to the world and openness to the future as well. It’s addressing the future. So in that sense, as an architectural object, it already sort of has these temporal layers embedded in it.
PETER KORCHNAK: Quoting his colleague at the Cyril and Methodius University, sociology professor Antoanela Petkovska, Martinovski says the Monument to Freedom is—
VLADIMIR MARTINOVSKI: —“an open temple, Acropolis, of freedom. The Monument of Freedom, on the contrary, is open towards society, towards nature, towards all kinds of spirituality, open towards those who view spirituality in a different manner. The emanation of freedom, the emanation of human spirituality, and of a certain elegance, moderation combined with such a passion that exists in the mosaic are truly unusual, and have a cultural but also as a societal significance.”
PETER KORCHNAK: Nine large mosaic friezes cover the 335 square meters, or 3,600 square feet, of the undulating walls of the monument. Their author, Gligor Čemerski, Elena Chemerska’s father who died in 2016, depicted in the mosaics the Macedonian people’s struggles in the first half of the 20th century, from the Ilinden Uprising against the Ottomans to the Partisan resistance in World War II; two friezes depict peaceful life in postwar Yugoslavia.
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On a higher plane, though, there is something timeless in these mosaics, the stories and histories that transcend political regimes and ruptures.
VLADIMIR MARTINOVSKI: You can feel one of his main concepts about artistic and at the same time modernistic approach towards visual arts, in which you can also sense the previous layers of artistic expression. I was really moved to see that he used the technique of mosaic, one of the most ancient visual arts are forms of expression in which you can sense this antique but also the Byzantium, but also the folk art modes of expression. But at the same time, it is really modern, it is really modern art. The colors, the shapes, and everything you feel there is so dynamic.
When he was doing the mosaic, he also had in mind the dialogue with the previous layers, cultural and artistic layers, and he is also referring to the medieval pearls of Byzantium art, not only in Macedonia.
He’s also one of the rare painters of our time who was in a constant dialogue also with literature.
PETER KORCHNAK: In addition to featuring mosaics, the Monument to Freedom at Kočani is also rare among Yugoslav socialist monuments in that it wasn’t built on the site of or that did not commemorate a specific battle of the People’s Liberation War. Rather, it is dedicated to the grand idea of freedom, the figure of which is personified in the Lady of Victory who soars above the center of the main frieze squeezing in each hand, like a Minoan goddess, a snake.
ELENA CHEMERSKA: What’s quite interesting and important is that a large portion of the funds that would go into the building of these monuments came from the community.
PETER KORCHNAK: The monument was financed with contributions from the town’s residents to the tune of what would today be about 1.5 million euros. Forced or not, this sort of crowdfunding was common in socialist Yugoslavia.
ELENA CHEMERSKA: In other words, they literally were built by the communities that inhabited the place that chose to have these monuments.
PETER KORCHNAK: The Monument to Freedom was one of the last big monuments to be built in socialist Yugoslavia. Most of these monuments were built in the 60s and 70s.
In the 1980s, socialist Yugoslavia’s final decade, the monument was used as intended: for commemorative events, remembrance ceremonies, community events, and social gatherings. It was also declared a cultural monument and placed on the Register of Protection of Monuments of Culture.
NATALIJA TEODOSIEVA: Since Macedonia became an independent country, the monument was left to the people’s responsibility. It was ruined.
PETER KORCHNAK: After 1991, the memorial complex fell into disrepair. Some of the elements, like staircases, were damaged; parts of the mosaics fell off; the bronze reliefs and inscriptions were pilfered for scrap metal; graffiti abounds all over…
Art historian Nebojša Vilić has said that, “the negligence and reckless attitude the community has towards this complex also reflect the negligence and reckless attitude towards the topic of freedom.”
Regardless, the Monument has remained on the lists of top things to see in town. More importantly, it’s been integral to the local community’s life.
ELENA CHEMERSKA: It’s also interesting to see how people from different generations have different views of it, or it marked different eras of their life. For most of the people that are my age are younger than I am or maybe, I don’t know, 10 years older, it is a place where they had their first drink, their first love, their first kiss, their this and that, because it was maybe the most beautiful place in the city where they would go up.
MARTIN MILEV: My first memories about that place is going with my granddad and he gives me [a] pen and paper and I started sketching mosaics.
And later we used to go there when we was younger and perform with my friends make our unofficial concert because the place have [sic] good acoustic[s].
And later, and still today mostly in summer, we hang out there when we like to escape from big crowds.
NATALIJA TEODOSIEVA: That’s one of my favorite places. That’s the place where I grew up. I have a lot of stories there, on the Monument.
At first, I felt like I’m not supposed to be there, like I’m in some forbidden place, because it was all ruined, you know, nobody’d go there, or only grown ups people go there, you know. It was like [a] place, when you’re seeing it from your house, you know, that’s, that means something. It’s big, it’s beautiful.
I was madly attracted by that huge and colorful mosaic, by the view there, and that’s how I started go there. I was [a] very, very small child when I was going there. I don’t know if I was at school, in that time. And in beginning I was not familiar with the story, only just staring at the mosaic. And as I grew up, I became familiar with the story behind and every detail that I discovered about this place, my admiration was only increasing, you know.
Young people never stopped going there. But only in the night, you know, and that was the part of it scary about this. And when I was like a teenager, I was going there, you know. We play guitars there, we drink alcohol, we were telling stories to each other. And somehow I grew up there. All my wishes and all my desires and all my dreams, I made them there. I mean, everything came from there. Because when you go there on [sic] that place, it’s so inspirational. It’s high on the hill. You can see the stars at night. You can see the clouds in a day. You have mountains around you, and everything you need to do is just dream, you know, and just feel yourself there.
ELENA CHEMERSKA: For the older people. It reminds them of a period when the city was much more sort of rich and powerful because it produced rice, like that whole region produced rice for the whole of Macedonia and also exported to Yugoslavia a lot.
So the building of that monument and the commemoration of the people who lost their lives in the war was for them also their connection to their elders, to their parents. It was also an expression of the city’s expanding and growing.
MARTIN MILEV: Every generation have own memories from this place, you know, our parents and older friends will speak about how they go to theater performance, music concert, and after that there is one period of big hole, of emptiness, of nothing happening on the place but last two or three years it’s better.
When someone from [an]other town come[s] to us, we first take them to see the Monument, you know. And we must say, “Sorry, it’s not in so good condition but we still love it and hope they will get restorated [sic] and make some changes and [the] monument will be back to life. And finally we’ll be free.
PETER KORCHNAK: In 2004, the municipality of Kočani financed a modest restoration project. Gligor Chemerski oversaw the restoration of his mosaics. But since then, deterioration has continued. In 2015, Pink Floyd Project Macedonia tried to raise funds to restore the monument into a concert venue, including for their 3-hour laser show of their favorite covers. They fell short of their goal. And in the summer of 2018, the first of two editions of the Freedom Music Festival took place at the Monument.
Then along came Elena Chemerska.
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How Fatherland: A Monument to Freedom Was Born and Where It Got Us
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Sloboda” by The John and Space Rebel Gang]
ELENA CHEMERSKA: The original idea, or why I began to work with this, is that it was quite, let’s say, an activist impulse. I felt I needed to do something about the poor condition in which this monument was. Because it really was in a poor condition. And Macedonia was at the time when I began doing this, not that it’s any better now, it’s a whole decaying wasteland. But I really had this strong feeling that I had to do something about it.
I had recently endured deep personal trauma related to my family and at the same time I am a part of a generation, I still am a part of a generation that was born in Macedonia, that is constantly enduring, serious hardship and pressure, basically, in every sphere of social life, which is probably due to constant and complete failure of the system to provide any of the basic requirements for a decent life, as well as its total corruption and erosion. So this was so widespread that it was inevitably inscribed in all of our private lives. So I really felt like I’m losing a bit of the ground that I was standing on or that there was some sort of alienation from what I consider to be my home.
PETER KORCHNAK: In one of the texts she wrote about her project, Chemerska stated she had begun to physically experience the neglect of the Monument of Freedom as a kind of neglect of her spiritual home.
ELENA CHEMERSKA: I mean, I said, “Okay, enough, I’m taking control of this.” And I looked at it as sort of a gesture of resistance. So it was quite, sort of like, let’s go.
PETER KORCHNAK: The time is 2017.
ELENA CHEMERSKA: It all began within a summer program organized by AKTO Festival, which is a festival for contemporary arts that happens in Bitola. And for this occasion, together with a few colleagues, we made a video of a song called “Freedom,” which is performed by a Skopje punk band that’s called the John.
And in addition to this, in collaboration with Architect, which is this publication about architecture, we published this pamphlet or a zine, which was dedicated to the Monument of Freedom or to turn the attention towards this place, which is decaying, but it also has something to say maybe that it would be better that it doesn’t decay.
So for this edition of the festival, we made the zine, we made the video, and also there were two messages that were once cast in bronze and positioned on the outer sides of the Monument, but were later stolen and melted for old iron—because that’s the state in which our cultural heritage is—those messages were printed out on these banners. And they were put on the entrance of the Magaza gallery, which was the venue where the Festival was held.
PETER KORCHNAK: One was a quote by the Ottoman-era Macedonian revolutionary Goce Delčev. “We need freedom. As we own the night, we should also own the day. And this we shall achieve or die.” The other was a very a propos quote by Josip Broz Tito, “No one person can be great by themselves. I don’t believe in superhumans. But I do believe in individuals who are capable of gathering people to join them in following the interest of the nation.”
ELENA CHEMERSKA: Then it took me several more months to realize that this thing is really going to stick and that it wasn’t going to go anywhere, until I work it out. So then I came back to it with the intention to dig into it more seriously. And so I started collecting materials and as I was gathering these materials, I realized that there is a lot of material to work with, and also that the aspects of the Monument that could be looked into and all the different layers of meaning that it generates were also quite a lot.
So I divided these things. One by one, I started grouping them. This was a whole challenge and a project on its own. And I enjoyed it very much. And so then I started, the collaboration sort of emerged.
First came the theater play.
[SOUNDBITE – Salonika, City of Ghosts THEATER PLAY]
PETER KORCHNAK: Just a few days after the Freedom Music Festival, on August 20th, 2018, the Skopje-based independent Theatre of Navigator Cvetko performed the play Salonica, City of Ghosts at the Monument to Freedom.
ELENA CHEMERSKA: The play was originally played in the Jewish Museum in Skopje. And that’s where I saw it. And I really, really much enjoyed the theater play because it’s really nice how it deals with the convoluted history of the Balkans in quite like this humorous way.
NATALIJA TEODOSIEVA: Our play Salonika: City of Ghosts, Elena Chemerska was a big fan of it. And she called us and had that great idea to play that play at the Monument of Freedom.
PETER KORCHNAK: Teodosieva was one of the actors in the theater troupe that performed the play at the Monument.
The play is based on a historical book by Mark Mazower, Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950.
ELENA CHEMERSKA: The text is developed by Rusomir Bogdanovski. The director of its name is Slobodan Unkovski, he is a quite well-known theater director in Macedonia. And the music is played live by a musician called Zlatko Origanski.
NATALIJA TEODOSIEVA: And the story is about [a] metropolis, I mean, Salonika. The city of different religions and ethnicities where Egyptian merchants, Spanish Jews, Orthodox Greeks, Sufi dervishes, Albanian brigands, all rubbed shoulders, you know, lived and work together as one; how this bustling, cosmopolitan and tolerant world emerged and then just vanished, disappeared, you know, under the pressure of modern nationalism, I guess. The relation between people, the empathy in Salonika, that people live there with a huge tolerance, and different ethnic groups worked like one.
Kočani is a small town, and we don’t have that much theater groups there and performances. So first of all, that was a good night to people to gather together, you know, to be here and talking about the same topic, talking about empathy, love.
PETER KORCHNAK: One of the reasons the play may have resonated in multiethnic North Macedonia, which is dealing with nationalism of its own, was that it’s about a multiethnic community that was forever changed by nationalist forces.
The municipality of Kochani and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation provided a portion of the funding for the performance.
The play’s announcement stated the performance was part of “an attempt to re-open the existing and discover new perspectives towards the possibilities that the Monument to Freedom could offer to the citizens of Kočani, as well as anyone else who feels or could potentially feel this space as their own.”
ELENA CHEMERSKA: The night of the performance, it really became a festive night for the whole the town of Kočani. People came, they were so happy, like everybody was well-dressed and so you could see that there is material to be worked around here. And that it’s not just my idea of how it should be or but that there are a lot of people who feel the same and who would gladly participate and contribute in some way to this.
PETER KORCHNAK: Kočani being Teodosieva’s hometown—
NATALIJA TEODOSIEVA: It was a pleasure for me to play in front of my home audience. And I love this place so much and I was more than proud to be performing there. And the place was awesome. It was like a magical night.
It was [a] summer night, and the auditorial [sic] was full. I was nervous like never before. I was performing here at my favorite place, my town, friends, family, they all were here. And my colleagues, too, you know, they felt the energy as well.
And now, when I recall our performance, I can clearly see the way we played: very synchronized, full of energy, passing the energy from another one to another, like, you know, we’re like we breathe together, like we were one organism.
Something like magic happened. Like everything fell in the right place.
This event brought the people from Kočani together, even if it was for a couple of hours only, like the play, you know, like it should be.
MARTIN MILEV: This was [the] first time I see something happening on Monument to Freedom. It blow my mind. I can’t believe that I experienced this, and it’s something in the air after that.
PETER KORCHNAK: In the description of the performance in her master’s thesis on the Fatherland: A Monument to Freedom project at the St. Joost School of Art & Design at s’ Hertogenbosch [sertochenbos], in the Netherlands, Chemerska wrote, “The visitors, the theater crew, the Monument and the surrounding environment mutually engaged in a complex web of relations where each element enhanced the life and the energy of the other. The narrative of the play intertwined with the narrative of the monument, and then they intertwined with the narrative we, who were present, produced at that moment in that place. It was as if all the spirits of the characters of the play, the faces of the people that fought against fascism and the spirits that the monument honors came and sat besides us for a while.”
The impact of the event extended beyond the standing ovation.
NATALIJA TEODOSIEVA: There were like a lot of people who were there and said, This is what we miss here in our town. This is the right thing to do here on this monument, this is what this monument was made for, to just bring people together to go there, see theater, see concerts, you know, maybe some exhibitions and every kind of events that brings people together. It was like the monument was reborn.
[SOUNDBITE – Salonika, City of Ghosts THEATER PLAY]
SpomeniknaSlobodata.mk: A Diary of the Monument to Freedom
PETER KORCHNAK: The following month, in September 2018, Chemerska launched the next phase of her project. In collaboration with the creative studio KIOSK from Skopje, whose cofounders, Anastazija Manasievska and Miki Stefanoski, donated their time and expertise, the website SpomeniknaSlobodata.mk, or Monument to Freedom, was born as an online repository of locals’ stories about the Monument [to Freedom]. Chemerska calls it “a diary of the Monument.”
ELENA CHEMERSKA: The stories that are collected in that website they are very important in order to get this sort of layered sentiment that the city nurtures towards that site.
PETER KORCHNAK: “The collective memory nurtured around the places we inhabit feeds our affection towards them, the dialogue with them, and the life that we share in them,” Chemerska continues. “The people of Kočani and the Monument to Freedom are in one way or [an]other connected in the stories they write together. In the physical space occupied by the Monument exist numerous spaces of personal memory, different times, lives, and intensities. Sometimes [the Monument] is a mute witness, other times a key actor whose presence is inseparable from the experience itself.”
Reading through the stories I noticed quite a few people first went to the monument with their grandfather, including Martin Milev whose story is also on the website. As is Natalija Teodosieva’s.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Sloboda” by The John & the Rebel Gang]
NATALIJA TEODOSIEVA: Until a few years ago, it was our place to think. But she left. She went to fight for her future away from her nest. My friend My coach only memories my first cigarette, my first can of beer. Our company they are left in search. For them, who then believe that when I go there alone or with the guests that that I must bring their, the stones in stairs would be the only things to remind me of our vow.
The mosaic that is embroidered in all colors contains the pictures and stories of that time. And whoever sees it clearly sees all my life’s events, like in a film, and will know without a word needed to be spoken, how happy and free I was, with my friends, holding guitars and bottles of wine instead of weapons. That the characters of the freedom fight fighters are the faces of my comrades who have loved and defended me and who could not have foreseen the day they would just pack up and leave to grow up far from here.
And she was the last to pack she always left last and never left me alone. We were a great team, the only girl’s sister in a pack of brothers. Nobody knew about our place, which we spontaneously and very naturally called, Our Place to Think. Three stairs wide enough to accommodate two friends. At first, they were very funny to us because we could not understand why someone had made three almost imperceptible stairs that lead literally into an abyss in the opposite direction of the monument which remains behind you when you sit as if guarding you while you’re thinking.
As soon as we comfortably sat on the stairs, lighting the first cigarette, the Plačkovica mountain arose with the calmness of clouds faithfully floating above it. Looking down at the valley you see rice fields full of water that seem like mirrors to the lofty Plačkovica reminding you how beautiful and ruthless it is.
Then the houses begin. Here you stop and start looking for the houses of everyone you know from the town, never leaving the site of your house. And in the end, the voyeurism always ends with the house of the person you fancy. Every bad day, every problem, every serious conversation was told here on the three funny stairs at our place of reflection. Me and her and sometimes Bob Marley and “Everything is Gonna Be Alright.”
I never stopped going there. I am addicted to that place to the place where I always go to think. Now I go alone, alone with the faces from the mosaic. I admire Portugal itself alone, I think alone, I solve my own problems. And now I know why someone made these funny stairs that fit two friends. I just don’t know when she will return when any of them will return when this memory of my freedom would be loud again and when it will witness friendships. When she will be loved again and protected as I was.
PETER KORCHNAK: The friend, Teodosieva told me, lives in Malta and returned to Kočani last year for the first time. Teodosieva was her maid of honor.
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Monument to Freedom: Conversations
PETER KORCHNAK: The following year, in 2019, Chemerska collaborated with the Skopje publishing house Private Print to release the book Monument to Freedom: Conversations. Additional funding came from North Macedonia’s Ministry of Culture and the city of Kočani.
The book is a compendium of interviews with people from Macedonia and beyond who either participated in the creation of the Monument or who are today working in the sphere of modernist heritage. As the book’s description states, “Through combining thorough conversations related to memory, art, architecture, history, history of art, anthropology and sociology of culture, with visual archival material as well as essays and articles published since the monument’s erection, the book [shines] a new light on the possibilities of today’s communities that inhabits these spaces to re-inhabit and reuse them as gathering points…”
VLADIMIR MARTINOVSKI: Elena Chemerska is actually a friend of mine. And I really admire her work. And I was really enthusiastic when I found out about her idea to write about this very important monument. She also invited me to write a review on [sic] the book.
My key point about this book is about its importance, when we have in mind the concept of a monument. The main purpose of every monument is linked with the concept of memory. And the main goal of every monument is to last, is to be, in a sense, eternal, to be a material foundation for the eternity of the memory of a significant person or concept or some historical event. From this perspective, I think that it’s very, very important to have in mind that all monuments, they want to last forever.
The most important questions are about the process of creating this monument, about the concept of freedom itself, about the role of monuments in cultural history, and also about the destiny of this monument, but not only of this monument, about the destiny of monuments created in the period of ex-Yugoslavia, monuments related to the antiascist and liberation war, and about the neglect aspects about this monument. And that’s why I think this book is not only important about the documentation or reflection of this monument, but it has a universal perspective as well.
PETER KORCHNAK: One of the people featured in the book is the friend of the show, Sanja Horvatinčić, an art historian whom you may remember from Episode 5, “Future Monuments.”
SANJA HORVATINČIĆ: At first I was maybe a bit suspicious, because this has become a sort of a trend that artists, especially artists from former Yugoslavia who live and work abroad, in the [sic] Western Europe, in the US, this topic has become very appealing. I wasn’t immediately fascinated.
But then we talked, talked a lot. And then I realized that basically what she’s doing is quite overlapping with my interest, which is actually community work and how to engage the immediate community with this heritage. What her work is about, is about the community that is preserving in a way, and that still has the interest to identify with the symbolics that’s in the monument and the meaning that it has for this community.
PETER KORCHNAK: In her interview for the book, Horvatinčić pointed to the inability of the West to read monuments like these. This public art, Horvatinčić said, “seems to be in conflict with the West’s perception of the socialist East as a monolithic system, associated with political oppression, something imposed, dictated, unified. And these monuments seem so astonishing precisely because they are all contrary to that. In fact, some of these monuments would even today be considered innovative, open forms of social memory transfer, featuring an amphitheater, an open space that offers democratic participation, allowing for…performances…”
SANJA HORVATINČIĆ: I found it interesting how she approached such sites, which, as I already mentioned, through this new kind of a recent trend of picturing monuments is quite, it’s quite different from what we know of this kind of art practice, which would be like, making some kind of impressive or even exotic sized images of the monuments, empty of people, emphasizing their deteriorated state. She did exactly the opposite. She was bringing the people there, knowing that they already are using that space, but she was bringing new content to that platform. And she is also going back to the function of the monument. She’s looking at the genesis of that construction and acknowledging that it is a place of social activities, it is imagined and designed to be a platform for some future collective activities, right.
PETER KORCHNAK: “We were brought up and lived surrounded with [this] sort of public infrastructure,” Horvatinčić continued in her interview. She spoke about the Yugoslav monuments in general but her words definitely apply to the Monument to Freedom. People, “often neglect the fact that these objects continue to have their own life, even after the official state institutions and authorities abandon or reject them. And regardless of their aesthetic and artistic quality, they often remain the symbols and define the public space of local communities, which often built these monuments with their own hands and with their own means, and on which local narratives, related to many important community historical events, are often written. They are important because they commemorate and affirm the peoples’ history, not just the history of the elites.”
SANJA HORVATINČIĆ: By putting this monument, this memorial space back to function, she is also putting an emphasis on its potential, not on its deterioration or its past failures. It’s not a symbol of failure, it is a symbol of perspective or future.
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PETER KORCHNAK: Chemerska launched the book at two events, one in Skopje and another at the Monument. The Skopje launch—
VLADIMIR MARTINOVSKI: —was at the same time an exhibition of Elena. She created one huge canvas in a dialogue with this monument and in a dialogue with her father’s work. What was really moving not only for me, but also for the rest of the audience at that event that she did it on one very huge balcony and on the opposite side of the street there was a blue light coming from the studio of her father. So it was a very powerful tribute to be Gligor Čemerski as well.
PETER KORCHNAK: The recent popularity of Yugoslav World War II monuments has led to increased tourism to these sites. But Chemerska is guarded about revitalizing the Monument for tourism alone. “It seems to me that if we only implement these kinds of practices, we push the Monument, and what it has to say, to an early retirement,” she says. In her view, since the Monument honors “a constant state of revolution or struggle as a way of life and one of the ways in which we seek freedom,” what’s needed is a range of content that honors the site’s history and intent.
“It turns out that I am not the only one who feels that way,” Chemerska continues, “and that we are not few in number who share the desire to heal the monument in which reside pieces of our own and collective memories.”
ELENA CHEMERSKA: Again, we go back to the feeling that the city has for this monument. It’s really a part of the city.
I always visit the municipality of Kočani there, say hi to everybody, because they were so kind. Last time I went, they showed me these sort of digital media souvenirs that they started making, magnets for fridges and stuff, and they have the Monument to Freedom on them. And this is maybe a banal example but the people of Kočani are quite aware that in today’s maybe established practices of cultural industries, etc, this could generate jobs and also gain for the city of Kočani, to put it on a cultural map.
In a sense, this tourist logic is contrary to the deeper message of these places. But then again, compromises have to be made when it comes to this. And I think that if this is something that’s left open, that it could be re-modified if it doesn’t work, or that the model is constantly rethought or improved, it could be a good thing for the city.
The municipality currently is quite keen on regaining its former sort of glory, let’s say. I think that there are different people and different efforts that are being done in order to restore this Monument in all its utilitarian potential.
PETER KORCHNAK: In September 2018, local TV Channel 8 reported that the municipality of Kočani applied for a 345,000 euro grant from the World Bank to restore the monument, including landscaping. “These rehabilitation efforts were initiated in part by renewed local interest in the Monument, most notably manifested by the theatrical performance of Salonika, City of Ghosts and the Music Festival of Freedom, held at the monument,” said TV Channel 8. The grant ended up being not funded.
But Chemerska is working on another potential source of funding for the Monument’s restoration.
ELENA CHEMERSKA: There is a whole team of conservators and legal experts and artists and architects, we are applying to get permissions to restore a bit the most rundown parts of the monument at least. So that we stop further devastation, which could be maybe fatal in some instances for the edifice.
PETER KORCHNAK: Chemerska believes in the potential of the monument to bring together and energize the community.
ELENA CHEMERSKA: There’s still much that could be done.
And I think that organization around this could do wonders for the feeling of the cultural scene working in Kočani as well because there are people there who would benefit greatly from opening the space for producing and generating further cultural content there.
This is why I mention constantly the collaborations. So I think that this organization and this sort of friendships that came out of it—and these are not empty words, I’m not just saying it, because solidarity sounds nice—but because really, you see that there is [sic] a lot of people who come from their own background and have their own relation to this place. But somehow our separate relations to the place connect us into being able to together form something which will continue on in the future and which will be a bit better than just not doing anything and remaining in this status quo sort of position.
And I think that the status quo position is a painful point for many of us who come from countries such as Macedonia, which don’t have, on their own, the power, the manpower, the brainpower, the organizational sort of infrastructure, the anything, to sort of get out of this vortex of deterioration in which they have fallen. So I think that decisions to work together towards something, I think they’re really healthy, and they produce a culture that is alive.
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“Ne sum vekje ubava” by Bernays Propaganda
PETER KORCHNAK: That was Bernays Propaganda from Skopje. Buy their music!
In the song “I’m Not Pretty Anymore” they allude to the transition from Yugoslavia to Macedonia. “We lost a father, and got a fatherland,” they sing, the father being Tito I’m guessing, and the fatherland the space for the Macedonian nation. And “Christmas came after the Revolution / The oath became a prayer,” the oath being the Young Pioneer oath.
I imagine the one that’s no longer pretty is Freedom, which in all Slavic language is a feminine word. Fatherland, by contrast, is masculine. I speculate that, perhaps, this too is part of Chemerska’s fight for the Monument to Freedom.
On the monument stories website she writes, “This joint project, in fact the attempt to revive this monument during our time of uncertainty and desolation, is our greeting to all freedom-loving people around the world, in the different circumstances in which they lead their struggles.”
What’s next for Fatherland: A Monument to Freedom?
ELENA CHEMERSKA: There is a plan for making a documentary film, which was supposed to be done this year. But then with the COVID pandemic, it was impossible to shoot on the spot. And this would hopefully bring wider audiences to pay attention or to look at the stories that unravel around this place against stories that are related to narratives that still resonate today. This film is something that I’ve been getting ready to work on for a while now. And I hopefully will be able to do it this year.
And also, there are plans of maybe possible interactions with people with people from the Balkans who are doing amazing jobs in their own respective countries. Because this year is the 40th anniversary of the Monument I applied to see if I’ll get the permission to organize a little conference there where people can share their good practices and similar projects so that the Kočani community but also [the] wider public could see that we are not alone in this, let’s say, that there are different groups of people similar to us who are doing their own versions of the same thing, which would be I think, very beautiful, because again, friendship multiplies that way.
PETER KORCHNAK: The country’s Ministry of Culture did not approve funding for this event in the open call for “projects of national interest concerning the protection of cultural heritage.” In response, Chemerska told me, “I personally think this unfortunate decision is another indicator of the general state of culture in North Macedonia.”
Deriving as I do a sort of therapeutic benefit from the Remembering Yugoslavia project and keeping in mind Chemerska’s personal reasons for undertaking Fatherland: A Monument to Freedom, I ask her whether she too has seen any therapeutic effects from her work.
ELENA CHEMERSKA: There probably is a therapeutic moment in it but it’s more of [sic] the possibility to take things into your own hands and organize, in a sense that you could build something that makes more sense than the everyday life which is going on around you, with which you firmly disagree and the principles of which you are against.
So maybe in that sense, it was, of course, quite therapeutic. Because I mentioned a bit before that I was in a really weird place when I began dealing with this project. I mean, I didn’t like how my country looks like and how everything is being led there. At the same time, I’m moving somewhere else. I don’t also intend to completely leave this place that I am leaving, I have so many relations to it, and so much love there.
The past, in a sense, is always present with you. But at the same time, you know, what to do with this dissatisfaction, let’s say. So I think that it was quite a healthy way to, to take this agency and use it into something that would make you feel happier.
PETER KORCHNAK: In an interview she gave to Private Print as part of the book’s promotion, Chemerska said her project isn’t just about the Monument to Freedom. It also looks at “the system of values and ideas that contain something noble in themselves that today waits to be awakened and activated and used in a new worthy cause.” So of course I must ask her about Yugoslavia.
ELENA CHEMERSKA: I was born too late to have my own memory of Yugoslavia. I was raised, of course, in a value system that definitely came out of that specific experience. Because I’m the first generation that was born in the new autonomous Macedonia, it’s quite interesting, because it opens this space where your body becomes the locus where this change happens, where the old values are being replaced by some new values or not. I mean, we transited it into this sort of more westernized, let’s say, point of view, or whatever.
I do have my issues with North Macedonia. And we could speak volumes more on this. But I think that what’s very interesting when it comes to Yugoslavia was that this whole Balkan region, and this Yugoslav experience after World War II, I think that it’s a place where something very specific happened. And that this is an experience that continues to resonate strongly today.
While we’re facing our own troubles, our own pressing collective issues, connected to these tectonic migrations that come from wars, these waves of xenophobia and right-wing populism that’s jumping out everywhere in the world, and, of course, the environmental degradation, which is unprecedented.
The experience of Yugoslavia is very, very specific and that I think that it has a lot of things that can be learned from it.
Many of the advantages that we received then, with the modernization and with the sort of massive education and health care and women’s emancipation movements and all of these things, I think that it’s a very special thing that happened back then, and it has its flaws, but it’s not a period that we have still that we can just put aside. I think it still echoes and that there are certain aspects of it that hold potential in them which could be further used for building a better future together.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Snoshti te prativ” by Gogofski]
PETER KORCHNAK: “A work can reach universal and cosmic heights but it requires partners,” wrote Ilija Penušliski in the Conversations book. In Elena Chemerska the Monument to Freedom, indeed freedom itself, have found an ideal partner, one with ideas, determination, and follow through that are needed to pull something like this off. I’m definitely inspired.
If Chemerska’s project preserves her father’s artistic and cultural legacy in some ways, she carries his legacy forward in another way too. When the monument was unveiled forty years ago, Gligor Čemerski said in an interview that for him freedom was inseparable from responsibility. It would be easy to moralize here, set Chemerska as a shining beacon of an example to her peers and, well, everyone else in the region beset by skepticism. But whether it’s the theater play, the academic book, all the personal stories, or whatever is yet to come, the story of the Monument to Freedom at Kočani, as picked up by Chemerska and her collaborators like a red thread in the maze of time, shows he had a point. “Freedom isn’t free,” Americans like to say. Indeed, it takes a lot of work from a lot of people.
And since I’m on the quote trajectory here, let me close with perhaps the best known one of them all, by Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” It takes but one to say “enough” and get things started.
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening. Find additional information, photos, and the transcript of this episode at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
If you like this podcast, become a monthly supporter at Patreon.com/RememberingYugoslavia, or make a one-time contribution at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate.
Outro music courtesy of Robert Petrić. Additional music by Nosens, Gogofski, and Petar Alargić licensed and used under Creative Commons. Songs by Martix, The John and Space Rebel Gang, and Bernays Propaganda used with permission and eternal gratitude. Buy their music!
Special thanks to Urban Makedon.
I am Peter Korchňak.
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- Čemerska, Elena, ed. Spomenik na Slobodata – Razgovornik / Monument to Freedom – Conversations. Skopje: Private Print, 2019
- Chemerska, Elena. Fatherland: A Monument to Freedom. 2017-ongoing
- Chemerska, Elena. Fatherland: A Monument to Freedom. MA Thesis. s’Hertogenbosch: St. Joost School of Art & Design, 2019 Interviews with Elena Čemerska, Sanja Horvatinčić, Vladimir Martinovski, Martin Milev, and Natalija Teodosieva
- “Kočani.” Wikipedia
- “Kočani (Кочани).” Spomenik Database.
- “Kočani – The city of rice.” North Macedonia Timeless.
- “Општина Кочани аплицира за финансиска поддршка за проект за рехабилитација на Споменикот на слободата.” (The Municipality of Kocani is applying for financial support for a project for rehabilitation of the Monument of Freedom), Канал 8 ТВ, 9/21/2018
- “Театарската претстава ‘Солун, град на духови’ го наполни Споменикот на слободата во Кочани” (Theatrical play “Thessaloniki, city of ghosts” filled the Monument of Freedom in Kochani). Канал 8 ТВ, 8/21/2018
“Ne sum vekje ubava” by Bernays Propaganda
Можеби не сум веќе убава / Maybe I’m not pretty anymore Повеќе не пишувам. / And I do not write. Црни заби, очи уморни / Black teeth, tired eyes, Не го гледаат тоа што ги радува. / Do not see the world they love.
Само ветар дува низ вилица, / Only the wind blowing through the jaw, Прашуваш зошто, ретко зборувам / You wonder why I rarely speak… Може не знам да се борам / Maybe I do not know how to fight. А жива сум, и сакам да живеам! / But I’m alive, and I want to live!
Светот кој го знаев / The world I knew Денес е приказна недовршена… / Today is an unfinished story… Акo сѐ е наше, / If all is ours, Една ноќ носи туѓа тага. / One night carries someone else’s grief.
Многу глумци за еден град, / Too many actors in this city, Веќе не знам кому дa верувам / I don’t know whom to believe. Генерација во сенка, / We are a generation in a shadow Губи татко, но доби татковина. / We lost a father, and got a fatherland.
Требаше да останеш подолго, / You should have stayed longer, На почеток секогаш е убаво./ The Beginning is always nice. Бадник дојде по Револуцијата. / Christmas came after the Revolution. Заклетвата стана молитва. / The oath became a prayer.
Кога е крај, и реката стои. / When it’s the end, even the river stands. Храната не мириса, / The food doesn’t smell, Сеедно кој е крив, / It doesn’t matter who is guilty, Кога сонцето не изгрева. / When the sun does not rise.
На крај, ја најдовме лежи сама / At the end, we found her alone, До креветот, лист со нова заклетва: / Laying by the bed, a new oath: „Над земја, Крст и Ѕвезда. / “Above ground, two graves – Cross and Star. Под земја… сите тела …исто заспиваат.” / Under ground…all the bodies…fall asleep the same way.”
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