The top scholar of Yugonostalgia, professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Ljubljana, and ex-Yugoslav National Army cook, Mitja Velikonja, discusses his military service, the good and the bad of Yugoslavia, the evolution of Titostalgia, political graffiti in Central/Eastern Europe…and a lot more.
Featuring the songs
Support the Podcast
Become a monthly patron on Patreon:
Make a one-time contribution via PayPal/credit card:
Episode Transcript (and More)
Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.
PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your guide Peter Korchnak.
No matter what you read about Yugonostalgia or where, the name Mitja Velikonja will come up. The Slovene scholar of this and related phenomena is probably the most quoted writer on the subject. In addition to scores of articles, book chapters, and conference papers, he has authored the definitive book on one facet of Yugonostalgia, Titostalgia: A Study of Nostalgia for Josip Broz. I used his book RockʼnʼRetro: New Yugoslavism in Contemporary Slovenian Popular Music, as a foundation for the story in Episode 20, “Rock’n’Retro.” And he has a new book out, Post-Socialist Political Graffiti in the Balkans and Central Europe.
Mitja Velikonja is a Professor of Cultural Studies and Head of the Centre for Cultural and Religious Studies at University of Ljubljana’s Faculty of Social Sciences. He frequently guest lectures in universities around the world, most recently at Yale.
He is erudite, I mean, if you got him to talk about, I don’t know, cement, he’d get into semantics. But most importantly, he is an all around good guy.
He spoke with me from Ljubljana and let me tell you: it was quite a ride. So strap in, sit back, and let’s rock and roll.
I mean, Lou Reed, Jean Beaudrillard, Rachael the Replicant, Sigmund Freud, Termites, Ratko Mladić, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Che Guevara, Antoni Gramsci, assorted anthropologists, nonaligned citizens, Yugoslav soldiers, Slovak punk rockers, Bosnian rappers, and of course Josip Broz Tito…they all make an appearance.
Before we get to it: 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 and wish to support its production, join these generous people at Patreon.com/RememberingYugoslavia or donate one time at PayPal.me/RememberingYU, that’s PayPal dot me slash remembering why-you.
Mitja Velikonja: From the Russian Blocks to the JNA to Ljubljana
PETER KORCHNAK: Let’s start at the beginning. Where are you from and how did you get here? How has your background influenced your scholarship?
MITJA VELIKONJA: My story is very similar, like the one that Lou Reed [is] describing the kid from a small town.
So I was born in Nova Gorica, which was a new town. After the Second World War, there was a dispute between Italy and Yugoslavia for some cities and towns in the border. And Gorizia which was always a multicultural city inhabitated [sic] by the Italians, Slovenians, Furlans, Jews and others, was given to Italy. And the communist authorities in Slovenia and in Yugoslavia decided to build Nova Gorica, so a new, better Gorica than the old Gorica. So they started to build a town practically out of nothing. And my parents moved there as teachers in the 50s.
I was living in apartment buildings that were called Ruski Bloki, Russian apartment buildings, because they were made on Russian plans. And even today, they are known as Ruski Bloki.
So I was born near the border, 300 meters from the border with Italy. In Slovenia and Nova Gorica, we never felt border, you know, or Iron Curtain between East and West. For me going to Italy was something the most normal, obvious, you know. So for us, practically there was no border there. My second language is Italian not Serbo-Croatian, or English. Parts of our family are living in Trieste, they are Italians, they’re Slovenians, Istrians, you know, so you know, very different from the very different backgrounds, you know.
So for me, you know, 1991 was not that big, you know, boom, as it was presented not only in other parts of Eastern Europe, but also in Slovenia and Yugoslavia, as well, as something completely changed. For me, not that not that much.
And another element also interesting is that our social status, the social status of my family, I mentioned, my parents were teachers, were very similar to my family living in Italy. They were also you know, like, lower middle class people. So you know, we could compare good and bad sides of both system[s]. And as I said, this also shaped me very, very much what I am today, both a scholar and as me.
PETER KORCHNAK: Where were you when Tito died?
MITJA VELIKONJA: I was finishing primary school. I remember that I was practicing a sport there and I came to practice the sport and our coach said, you know, Tito died and go home.
PETER KORCHNAK: I met Mitja last year at his home in Ljubljana. I had reached out for an interview but he did me one better. He said, if you want my take on Yugoslavia, let me make you a Yugoslav National Army lunch. He had, indeed, been a cook in the JNA during his compulsory military service at a border post in his home republic.
MITJA VELIKONJA: When you came to Ljubljana, when you visit me for the first time, I hope that we’ll meet some other time, and I can invite you again to my lunch. I made you typical Yugoslav army lunch consisting of soup, of beans with meat, salad, and some sweet. It was sutljaš, like a rice pudding, you know, and that was it.
PETER KORCHNAK: For the record, there was some beer and wine and rakija as well.
MITJA VELIKONJA: So I was a Yugoslav soldier. You know, there were 25 of us. Can you imagine 25 kids, you know, of 18, 19 years old stranded that up there in the mountains, you know. So again, you know, this is also for me another precious lesson, you know, for my you know, social science study.
I was told when I came to the army, you know, that you will be cook, okay. So you do know to cook? No. I said, you know, how can I cook, I cannot cook, you know, well, this is your problem, my superior said. And then, you know, I was taught how to cook by have really two of my comrades. One was a Hungarian from from Vojvodina from Northern Serbia, the other one was a Croat from Bosnia. And they said, You know, I was very, you know, stressed. You know, I smoked two cigarettes at the same time, how can I cook, you know. But they taught me and, you know, it’s a process like any other process, you know. So when I was 18, 19, and at that time, you know, I was learning fast and at the end, everything turned well. You know, and soldiers were happy, and I was happy and it lasted long, quite long, but still, you know, I survived like, and I cook.
PETER KORCHNAK: The move to Ljubljana from a small town after your military service was then a pretty logical one, right?
MITJA VELIKONJA: Literally I you know, from the army, I just, you know, moved on to Ljubljana. Can you imagine what kind of revelation it was, you know, this small but very vibrant city of Ljubljana?
This was mid and late 80s. I always say that I finished that I have two degrees: one was in my home faculty, Faculty for Social Sciences, and the other one was on the streets of Ljubljana and the clubs. Everything was out there, so it was [a] very vibrant environment at that time. So on one side, you know, we were learning how the society functions, how socialism is the best political system, how Yugoslavia works, how our economy is wonderful, and so on. But on the other side, in the streets, in the clubs, in the independent venues, you know, everything was quite different from that.
Also what what in way influenced my theoretical and also lifestyle position is that I lived half of my life in the previous system and in previous state, so in socialist multicultural Yugoslavia, and a little bit more than half life in the postsocialist condition, in Slovenia, which is definitely shaped by two ideologies and political practices, so ethnonationalism and neoliberalism. So I have experiences both good and bad, from both sides. So it’s for me this is an extremely, extremely important position, not only as a scholar, but also as a person. So, you know, I’m not easy catch to either nostalgia or demonization of those times.
The Good and the Bad of Yugoslavia According to Mitja Velikonja
PETER KORCHNAK: One life, two countries, two regimes. Let’s start with Yugoslavia and socialism. What were some of the good and some of the bad of your experience living in socialist Yugoslavia?
MITJA VELIKONJA: For me, you know everything that I missed now, in a way. For example, multiculturalism, you know. Ljubljana is a vibrant small town, you know, 250,000 people, you know, there’s a lot of things going on, on all levels, you know. But it’s very, very monocultural, you know. There’s almost no other, you know, races. Students that are coming via [the] Erasmus program, you know, they’re always asking me, you know, how come there are no people from other races, you know.
Immediately if you go across the border to Austria, to Italy, you see that even small towns like Gorizia that I mentioned before, it’s much, much more multicultural than that it is Slovenia now. Which is, in a way, a consequence of the 30 years of the very strict ethnonational politics. It’s very difficult to get an asylum in Slovenia, or, you know, even the permit to work or to live, you know. So this is, for me, very, very disturbing, especially because I was traveling quite a lot and I was also working as an academic in different places, in the States and also in Europe, and I saw how this multicultural element is important, you know, for everyone, you know, from academia, from everyday life, you know. So this is something that in a way I miss.
The second thing, you know, that, in a way, I appreciated very much about Yugoslavia was a genuine, authentic antifascist struggle. Yugoslavia was the only country besides Albania that was liberated by its own forces. At the end, Partisan forces had 800,000 men and women under arms. So it was a strong army that liberated almost entirely Yugoslavia by itself, with the help, of course, of the Soviet armies up in the north, and also with the support, you know, from the Western allies. But this was, you know, it came bottom up.
And for me, this is a heyday of this region, if you ask me. How could people horizontally mobilize and do great thing, you know, to liberate its country from quislings and from from Nazi fascism, you know. So this is something again, that is now forgotten. And this is one of the sources also for for nostalgia that we’ll discuss a little bit later.
Then, emancipation of three marginalized groups in [the] previous system: women, youth, and peasants. This is extremely, extremely important. And here, I see that, you know, the postsocialist society is making lots of mistake[s] on these three levels.
Then what I also appreciate about old times was modernization, the accelerated modernization. Ex-Yugoslavia, from Slovenia to Macedonia—there were a lot of regional differences, of course, you know—was a pre-modern society, [a] typical agrarian society. I can tell you also from the experience of my own family. As I mentioned, my parents were the first educated people in, you know, in their families, as teachers, you know. For them becoming teachers was, as for us, I don’t know going to Mars or something, you know, unimaginable. And especially for women, for a girl, you know, from [a] peasant girl becoming a teacher was a big thing. So this is again something, you know, this modernization, that at the end, in the 80s and also now, stopped and also went in reverse. If you ask me on many, many levels; I’m not only speaking about the economic level, but social, and others.
And then also know, this political alternative, you know, self-managing socialism, which, of course, was far from ideal, far from, you know, how it was proclaimed, but still in a way it worked, you know, horizontally connecting people in solving their problems in their workplace, in their local communities, and so on.
And on the other side again—and now I’m returning to my first point—the non-alignment movement and active coexistence. So when I was start when I started to study in Ljubljana in mid 80s, it was very interesting, and this is for the first time, I know that for you North Americans, this is something very normal, but for the first time I my head in my class, students from other races. There were three from Africa, and one was from Iraq, an Arab from Iraq. And this was for the first time that I could speak in my poor English at the time, and also their English was poor, you know, but this was, again, you know, something that I will never forget.
What I’m trying to say is that they put a lot of effort also in knowing other places, not only the local or European or white, but also other places.
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s quite a lot. What about the negatives?
MITJA VELIKONJA: Of course, you know, the one party system, you know. The communists that had a positive role during the war of liberation and also maybe in the first phase of modernisation then started to, in a way, to block the progress. There were attempts in the 60s in Serbia and Slovenia and Croatia, late 60s, early 70s, the liberals in the Communist Party, but the old forces, in a way, stopped them.
So my point is that those who created [the] second Yugoslavia were also to blame that it finished like this. They were not able to transform, or to leave the power and to modernize the society when it was still time. Eighties it was already too late. Yugoslavia was already controlled in financial terms from the International Monetary Fund and other institutions, because it could not follow anymore the path that it started in [the] late 40s and 50s.
So in the first phase, you know, they were very successful also in the accumulation of the capital that it’s needed for the rapid modernization, but then from the 60s and 70s, they started to lose their initiative. And they, at that time, you know, including, you know, the leadership, Tito and his circle, you know, they should at that time, you know, if you asked me now where the collapse of Yugoslavia started, you know, when the old forces, the old boys did not leave power to those who were still very progressive, they were still very left leaning, you know. At the end, a lot of them were ex-Partisans, you know, but they were denied, you know, in all these three major centers, Belgrade, Ljubljana, and Zagreb.
Then political repression. Again, after the Second World War, you know, the liquidations of people who should be tried or should be, not what happened after the war. And also repression after that lasted that, you know, throughout the time of Yugoslavia.
PETER KORCHNAK: You’re best known as the scholar of nostalgia, Yugonostalgia, to be more accurate. Before we delve deeper into this, one big element of Yugonostalgia is music. What’s your favorite Yugoslav-era band?
MITJA VELIKONJA: Termiti from Rijeka, Termites. And their hit, “Vjeran pas” (Faithful Dog). “Time will come when we don’t speak but bark at one another.” And this is maybe this time of this happening now, this Orbanization of the region.
PETER KORCHNAK: Well, Mitja, I have a surprise for you! It just so happens that the legendary punk band from my homeland Slovakia, Slobodná Európa (Free Europe), covered this very song and they kindly gave me permission to play it for you.
“Vjeran pas” by Slobodná Európa
PETER KORCHNAK: What’s your favorite current band?
MITJA VELIKONJA: Repetitor from Belgrade. Also some others, you know, Bosnian hip hop scene. Disciplinska Komisija, fantastic, you know, collective you know that are doing fantastic, fantastic songs, very critical, you know. So I’m saying to my students, you know, read these critical books and/or listen to Disciplinska Komisija, Frankie and Edo Maajka, and others, you know, fantastic.
Mitja Velikonja: From Religion in Bosnia and Herzegovina to Yugonostalgia
PETER KORCHNAK: Your first book was on religion in Bosnia and Herzegovina. How did you get into that and how did you then transition to your current study?
MITJA VELIKONJA: I was interested in [the] ideological turn, you know, which happened in early 90s. You know, so, this was complete upside down situation: from socialism to capitalism; from multiculturalism to ethnonationalism; from [a] fair society to the society that is divided, again, into some very firm hierarchical structure; from you know, progress ideas to neoconservativism, you know. The rise of the extreme right of the church as a social and political and economic factor, you know, this is something that we did not expect in the late 80s. So we were, I can say now, we were quite naive at the end.
But, you know, what we started to realize what is going on in the early 90s, you know, when those who were fighting the previous system, you know—and we supported them— started to get into power and to do the same thing, you know. So, in a way this was quite like a hangover. It turned, you know, completely different as we expected.
So many of my colleagues from the late 80s, you know, are repeating, you know, the same phrase, but not only here, I hear it also elsewhere, where I go in Eastern Europe, you know: Is this what we fought for? That now we are, you know, facing new autocrats, illiberal, reactionary demo cracy. The rule of, you know, banality, you know, the triumph of vulgarity, you know, as it is happening unfortunate[ly] now also in Slovenia, you know. So many people are quite stressed because of this, especially because of this, as I said, you know, lost expectations, and most also lost promises, you know.
So I was trying, you know, this was my project of the 90s, you know, to dive into, you know, the history and also of the present of the region, in terms of religious and ethnic identities.
Because this is one of the specificities of the Balkans. So this very close connection between the religious and ethnic identity. One hundred fifty years ago, there were no ethnic identities whatsoever, but they were very strong religious identities. And then slowly, you know, under the influence also of the ideologies that were present in Central and Western Europe, at that time, very firm, like nationalism, ethnonationalism, they started to turn, you know, their religious identities into national identities.
Yugonostalgia and Its
PETER KORCHNAK: Alright, Yugonostalgia. What’s the story? Where do things stand now?
MITJA VELIKONJA: Thirty years ago, you know, in 1990, 1991, no one expected that nostalgia for those times, as it is said, ona vremena, would come out so, so quickly and in so many, so many different layers.
And this is again, not just some Eastern European or Balkan curiosity. We find this strong nostalgic current, you know, also in other places of the Western world, you know. Nostalgia is one of the ideological currents and cultural phenomena, also elsewhere.
This double identity, you know living very close to the Italian border, you know, I can follow also what was going on there, you know, so this shows about 70s and 80s, golden era of Italian music, blah, blah.
And also, when I was living in the States, there’s so many elements of nostalgia also there. Christopher Larsh [?] wrote in one of his books in the 90s, how nostalgia for the imperial grandeur was extremely important in the times of [the] neocon revolution, you know. Margaret Thatcher, let’s make Britain great again, you know, the Falkland war, you know, so, don’t mess with us. Or also with Reagan, Reagan’s ideology back in the early 80s.
So, what we are facing in Eastern Europe and especially in ex-Yugoslavia is that together with this cultural nostalgia, which again, you know, is a spread phenomenon, everywhere, it is, in a way, upgraded also with this political change. And the simplest, you know, the simplest definition of nostalgia is that, [the] more changes there are in a society, [the] more we are nostalgic for the previous times.
And again, this is not something, you know, that happened only now in the 90s and 2000. I can recall my grandmother, she was born in Austro-Hungarian times, and she was recalling so many times, you know, good old times in Austria, when men were men, women were women, there was order, you know, and blah, blah, you know, so kind of golden period, which is not only connected, of course that because she was young at that time, but also what was happening, kind of implicit critique of what was happening later on, with the coming of fascism and the Second World War and things like that.
So nostalgia always explains more about what is wrong now than how it was good back then. And I, you know, I want to take it away from the memory studies, which is again, [a] fantastic field of research, very popular today, into the field of narration. Nostalgia is an invented story, it’s a fiction story about the past that never existed as such. It’s not how we once were, it’s how we never were. And the key to nostalgia is dissatisfaction with what is going on today. So, the shortest definition of nostalgia would be that this is retrospective utopia.
And of course, when we are moving now to Yugoslavia, you know, things went wrong from the beginning, you know, of 90s, from the beginning of [the] so-called, you know, democratization, pluralization, democratic revolution, and so on, you know. So wars, pauperization, you know, in different parts, including the parts that are more prosperous than the other, including in Slovenia, there’s so much of cultural and also political nostalgia.
But the strongest is in the places where they [sic] were hit most. In war torn Bosnia Herzegovina, I did fieldworks few summers there, back in 2000, and there nostalgia is extremely, extremely strong, not only the usual one, you know, the cultural, you know, memories of everyday life, decent life, social justice, and so on, you know, but again, you know, mostly political nostalgia, how it happened, and how it was better how it was better before when we were just neighbors, not enemies as now.
And one of the strongest part[s] of Yugonostalgia is, of course, the figure of Tito, who again, you know, was extremely important in the whole ideology of the second Yugoslavia. And in my view, he was as important for creating second Yugoslavia as, in a way, also destroying it 10 years after he died.
PETER KORCHNAK: Your book Titostalgia came out in 2008. How has this phenomenon, nostalgia for Tito, and perhaps Yugonostalgia as such, evolved since then?
MITJA VELIKONJA: It is evolving very much, you know. The nostalgia, Yugonostalgia, you know, nostalgia, as well as the Soviet nostalgia, no one expected, as I said, 30 years ago. And it started slowly in [the] alternative scene, the first Yugonostalgic parties were in [the] Metelkova squat in Ljubljana, and in some other places, you know, out of the mainstream.
But, you know, as it happens with all subcultures, you know, the commercial sector smells money, you know, so nostalgia always sells. So now it is coming more and more to the fore also, in consumer culture, for example. Today, you can buy a brandy Tito or a beer Marshall or something like this, or Che Guevara’s t-shirts, there’s, they’re sold in the major, not only local, again, this is not some East European or Balkan or Slovenian specificity, you know, but also with the the global supermarket chains, you know. So it’s sellable. And if you sell, whether it’s left or right, you know, good or bad, who cares as long as it sells?
It’s becoming more and more commercialized. There’s so much of this nostalgic tourism, to places of the heroic battles of the Second World War, to the places, I don’t know, where Tito was born in Kumrovec, in Croatia, or in his tomb, in Belgrade, you know. Nostalgic parties, again, who is going to nostalgic parties, old comrades? I don’t think so. Kids who are listening to the music, that they you know, their parents or even grandparents were listening to them, like Bijelo Dugme and others, or, you know, the punk period or new wave period. It is not the question that this music was good or bad, you know. So nostalgic would say, this, this music today sucks, you know that that was a good time for music. No, it was you know, music as such with, you know, good and bad sides.
And another element, I would like to mention here, when you are asking me what is happening now, thirteen, fourteen years ago: nostalgia is losing this emotional element. So the shortest definition of retro would be nostalgia minus emotion. Retro is dry, retro is in a way more technical. For me as a culture producer, or, you know, producer of some, some merchandise, you know, I can think what I can, you know, discuss, and I can study what would sell, you know, what kind of elements from the past would be popular now. And if it is a little bit edgy, like Yugoslav times, you know, playing with this idea, you know, of, you know, authoritarian regime, but on the other side, also progressive in many, many ways, you know, this cultural innovation that I mentioned before, you know, so you play with this idea, and you capitalize them, you know.
So what I’m trying to say is that it’s becoming more and more mainstream, to the horror of many neoconservatives, many of them who were fervent communists back back in the 60s and 70s, so it is coming more and more to the fore, you know.
Mitja Velikonja on Neostalgia
PETER KORCHNAK: There are a lot of people born after Yugoslavia disintegrated who, too, seem to be experiencing some kind of nostalgia for that country or perhaps even that system. What’s that about?
MITJA VELIKONJA: Nostalgia is that it’s more and more [a] secondhand narrative. The usual definition of nostalgia would be that I can be nostalgic for the things that I really experienced. No, today, you can be also nostalgic for the things that you’ve never experienced. Jean Baudrillard writes in one of his essays: most of the nostalgic images, nostalgic reveries are coming today from the mass media. This was even before the internet revolution. Can you imagine how much of these images of the better past are today?
As you pick up fashion, you can pick up, I don’t know, political orientation or whatever, you can also pick up your favorite period in the recent past. So it is ready made.
So I call you know this phenomena, neostalgia, kind of new nostalgia, nostalgia of the people who never experienced the period for which they are nostalgic.
So it’s very similar to the situation of, I don’t know, the Blade Runner, the first the first, the first Blade Runner, when you’re the memories of this replicants can be implanted as well. This Rachel is telling her own memories, but these memories were implanted. And this is [a] fantastic metaphor of how nostalgia, not only memories, but how nostalgia, so the story of the prettified past, romanticized past, exists as such.
It’s not only generational. There’s so much of nostalgia on the internet today, in the new songs of kids, you know, who were born, you know, the decade after the end of Yugoslavia. So these posts on internet, you know, Facebook groups, they’re not consisting of the old comrades but of the kids, you know, who are flirting with this idea of progressivity, you know, that was in a way functioning, you know, some decades ago, they don’t know much about real historical events, fact, and so on. But they knew, you know, that they fought fascism, that they fought for emancipation of women, of the poor, and so on. So all this, you know, ideas, are related to something that previous generations already experienced.
PETER KORCHNAK: You’ve talked about emotional or sentimental nostalgia, you’ve talked about commercial or commercialized nostalgia, but it’s another form or aspect of nostalgia, Yugo or otherwise, that you emphasize.
MITJA VELIKONJA: What is extremely important for me is this political nostalgia, emancipatory nostalgia which is active, which is engaged, which criticizes the present from the perspective of [a] better past.
So again, you know, nostalgia can be also [a] strong political force. I mentioned before it can be used by all kind[s] of, you know, political forces and parties, from churches to conservatives, but also for the criticism of what is going on today in Eastern Europe, and especially in ex-Yugoslavia, so against ethnonationalism and against neoliberalism.
PETER KORCHNAK: You said that Yugonostalgia is most experienced in the places that suffered most from the dissolution of Yugoslavia, like Bosnia and Herzegovina. Yet when I travel to Yugoslavia-related places, Tito’s birthplace, monuments, and so on, most visitors seem to be from Slovenia. As the guide at Tito’s Cave in Drvar told me, not without some puzzlement, “The Slovenes were the first to leave Yugoslavia and now they’re the most Yugonostalgic.” It seems to be a little bit of a contradiction.
MITJA VELIKONJA: It is. It is. That’s why I know I’m, you know, I’m referring to Freud at this point. He’s not speaking about nostalgia, he never uses this phrase, but in his fantastic text, Mourning and Melancholia. This is the text about nostalgia. Nostalgia is in a way a broken emotion. You can be nostalgic for something that you are completely sure that it will never emerge again, it will never happen again. So you’re playing with an idea. How if I would stay with that person, Oh, how I wish I was the kid again, you know, that kind of stories, the kinds of reveries that cannot be fulfilled. And this is, if you ask me, the main point of sentimental nostalgia playing with the idea not meaning seriously, if I’m frank. So it’s a wish for the wish, not a wish for something to be realized. Something that could be really realized.
You mention nostalgia in Slovenia, it’s much more cultural, it’s much more, you know, in terms of, I don’t know, design, you know, consumer nostalgia, nostalgia for everyday life, simplicity of those times.
A recurring phrase that I heard, you know, from Moscow, when I was doing fieldwork there to Slovenia is you know, “we had nothing but we had everything,” you know. So we were very happy with the few things that we we had. And today we have much more, but we are not satisfied.
So this again, you know, very existentialist tension of dissatisfaction what is going on today. And especially if some things that were before very obvious, I don’t know, like social security, health security, friendship within— between nations, and so on, you know, between different groups, then you start to think maybe, you know, 80s were really, you know, times when, when things were better than now.
PETER KORCHNAK: A very good segue to the 1980s here and nostalgia for that decade, or perhaps retromania, that’s been underway for a while now.
In the ensuing discussion Mitja Velikonja expanded on the political and cultural developments during this decade and the reasons for 80s nostalgia. This discussion is in the extended version of this episode available to Remembering Yugoslavia’s Patreon supporters. Find it at Patreon.com/RememberingYugoslavia.
“Lugje Od Gradovi,” by PMG Kolektiv
PETER KORCHNAK: That was another cover of another 80s song by another legendary band, EKV. “Ljudi iz gradova” (People from Cities) rendered in Macedonian by PMG Kolektiv from Skopje. Buy their music too!
Mitja Velikonja on Political Graffiti in Central/Eastern Europe
Cities are the loci for another strand of Mitja Velikonja’s study of the cultural memory of socialism and Yugoslavia. In his latest book, Post-Socialist Political Graffiti in the Balkans and Central Europe, the coiner of terms that he is, he coined the term for the study of graffiti: graffitology. One of the subject matters was graffiti related to Yugoslavia. I’ve seen some on my travels, say, FOR YUGOSLAVIA WITH SARAJEVO AS THE CAPITAL, on the wall around a stadium in Podgorica. So, Mitja, what do you know about yugograffiti?
MITJA VELIKONJA: Well, they shouldn’t be there, to make the long story short. Yugoslavia collapsed, you know, who cares about Yugoslavia, but they are.
One of the points of my scholarship as such, you know, I’m interested in the things that should not be there, of the freedom that people take that no one gives them, you know. They have no right to do it but they do it, as the punks did back in the late 70s, or, you know, alternatives, you know, feminists and others, you know, did back in the 80s, you know. So again, you know, the walls are there. I always tell my students, you know, that before the Facebook wall, there was a wall out there made out of bricks, and people throughout the history of mankind did things on their walls, you know. They painted them, they scratched them, you know.
Graffiti was always a kind of compensation for the communication deficit. So kind of weapon of the weak, if I can refer to [the] phrase of Jamec C. Scott, famous anthropologist, you know. So you don’t have other means to express yourself, and you on the wall illegally. So this is, you know, the most important part of the graffiti scene is that there are public interventions, visual public interventions, made illegally, so they are not commissioned.
And you’re mentioning, you know, this graffiti that are, you know, that you saw, and I also saw in different places in ex-Yugoslavia, who are, you know, pro-Yugoslav. This is very interesting. I was comparing—it’s very difficult to quantify—but they are— the ratio between pro and anti-Yugoslav graffiti today is five to one, six to one, you know, so there are more pro than against Yugoslavia.
Political graffiti about Yugoslavia, most of them are in Bosnia Herzegovina, a lot of them in some parts of Croatia, for example in left-leaning Istria and Rijeka, and in some places, also here in Slovenia. Less in Serbia, and quite some in Montenegro again, you know. But they’re spread you know, quite quite quite all over the place, including in Kosovo. I saw [a] fantastic stencil of Tito in Prizren, which is in extreme west of Kosovo.
What is the point? For those who are writing, spraying this graffiti or, you know, putting stickers or doing stencils, there’s not enough Yugoslavia today, in public discourses, out in the streets, in people’s minds. So I will balance this deficit of Yugoslavia by writing TITO today, or by writing LONG LIVE YUGOSLAVIA, or LONG LIVE PARTISANS, or something like that. Really, the imagination is incredible when it comes to all kind[s] of different political graffiti. But when it comes to Yugoslavia, we suddenly face the same phrases that were made during the Second World War by the Partisans, or after the war, or what we were taught back in the 70s, in the primary school.
But on the other side, there’s also of course, a lot of anti-Yugoslav or, to say broadly, right-wing graffiti. You know, I was recently in Belgrade. Just across the street of my hotel, there was graffiti that said, MLADIĆ HEROJ, so Ratko Mladić, one of the butchers of Bosnia, he’s a hero. So this was the graffiti. But on the other side on the other side of the same door, it was the date when the Srebrenica massacre started, So 11 July 1995, and bloody hands, palms of the hands in red color, you know. So you had, you know, nationalist and antinationalist graffiti, literally, you know, one meter away.
Another maybe interesting characteristics of, when it comes to political graffiti, is that traditionally, streets were public spaces were more the domain of the left side, left wing activists. And in recent years, I see more and more of these confrontations with the right-wing graffiti writers and those who are making stickers and stencils and so on. So there’s, again, you know, [a] counter hegemonic situation in pure you know, Gramscian terms: it’s going on in different streets in different places, not only here in the Balkans, but practically everywhere.
PETER KORCHNAK: What’s your favorite Yugo joke?
MITJA VELIKONJA: Slovenia and Serbia are playing [in] the European basketball finals. And Tito asks, “Against whom?”
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – PIANO]
PETER KORCHNAK: It all started with rakija and soup. Over the army lunch, Mitja joked that there is such a thing as a Balkanologist Mafia. If that’s the case, the occasion felt like an initiation, by one of the capi, since of course the not-so-secret group is as decentralized or confederated as Yugoslavia itself was.
The exploration, as an immigrant, of my own nostalgia, both for what I knew and for what I did not know, namely Yugoslavia, led me to the study of Yugonostalgia. As everything in the Balkans, it’s more complicated than just a simple emotion. It is thanks to people like Mitja Velikonja that I have been able to dig through its many layers. In fact Mitja will be back on the show soon.
For now, I’m off to listen to Termiti and Disciplinska Komisija.
PETER KORCHNAK: Next time on Remembering Yugoslavia:
ANDREJ TIŠMA: It’s an open art movement, where everybody can take part.
PETER KORCHNAK: Six years ago, an Uruguayan artist received an email with a list of postal addresses of Yugoslav mail artists. The attachment led him down the path of discovery, unintended consequences, and art that spans decades and dictatorships and continents and generations…
On the next episode of Remembering Yugoslavia: Uruguayan artists, Yugoslav mail art, and the power of the post.
Tune in wherever you listen to podcasts and subscribe to make sure you don’t miss out.
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening. Find additional information, song embeds, and the transcript of this episode in the show notes at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
If you like the show, there are many ways to support us and help keep the memory of that disappeared country alive. Follow us on Instagram! Subscribe to our email newsletter! Tell your friends. Share episode links on social media! Become a monthly supporter on Patreon!
Outro music courtesy of Robert Petrić. Additional music by Nosens and Petar Alargić licensed under Creative Commons. Songs by Slobodná Európa and PMG Kolektiv played with permission and eternal gratitude. Buy their music and swag!
I am Peter Korchňak.