Yugoslavia was a one-party system, and not everyone there liked it. One might get an impression Milovan Djilas was the only Yugoslav dissident. But there were thousands of Yugoslavs who criticized the regime, including Svetlana Slapšak who got involved in human rights advocacy in 1968 and has worked as an activist under Tito, Milošević, and Janša.
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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.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Twine” by Podington Bear]
Socialist Yugoslavia after 1948 stood outside Soviet Union’s orbit. It was more open, free, and prosperous than Eastern Bloc countries like my native Czechoslovakia. But it was still a country under one-party rule. And not everyone liked that.
When it comes to Yugoslav dissidents, the one name that towers over them all is that of Milovan Djilas. A prominent Partisan and Tito’s comrade, he was in line to become Yugoslavia’s next leader when, in the 1950s, he penned harsh critiques of the system. He labeled the regime “totalitarian,” named state officials “the new elite” profiteering off the system, and called for the country’s democratization. He was expelled from the party’s central committee, stripped of all his functions, and ended up spending many years in prison. He then withdrew into a quiet dissident life until his death in 1995.
Djilas may have been Yugoslavia’s most prominent dissident, but there were hundreds of Yugoslavs who opposed the regime’s policies or practices. They tended to come from the ranks of the intelligentsia—they were urban, educated. But anyone who Tito and his cronies perceived as a threat suffered consequences, from diminished career prospects to loss of employment to passport confiscation, all the way to prison and in some cases death by the secret police.
Today we’re going to look back at dissent—and at the memory of dissent—in Yugoslavia with one such activist, Svetlana Slapšak, who spoke with me from her home in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
I could fill an entire episode just by reading her bio. This is where she’s at today.
SVETLANA SLAPŠAK: I’m retired. After I formally ended my academic career I started to do other things. And I went back to writing of literature and I continued my academic writing. And so I’m expecting, with the time left, to do whatever I can.
PETER KORCHNAK: Before we jump back to the beginning of Slapšak’s story, a reminder that you made this conversation possible. If you’ve joined Remembering Yugoslavia as a monthly sustaining supporter on Patreon or donated one-time via PayPal, thank you—you’re like those dissidents doing something extraordinary in an ordinary world.
If you’re still undecided, I invite you to do whatever you can with the time you have left to support Remembering Yugoslavia and me in making it. The podcast is a labor of love and conviction that takes a lot of time, energy, and hard work. It remains free and commercial-free thanks to listener generosity. So if the podcast enriches your life in any way, make a contribution at Remembering Yugoslavia.com/Donate today.
[MUSICAL INTERLUDE – “Twine” by Podington Bear]
Svetlana Slapšak: Author, Academic, Activist
PETER KORCHNAK: Svetlana Slapšak was born in 1948 in Belgrade.
SVETLANA SLAPŠAK: I’m from a poor family, let’s say, and not a nomenklatura family. It was a family of women. Basically, my grandmother, my mother and I, and then there was my stepfather and before that was my father for a short time. Anyway, it was a family in which ideology was not playing any role. But there was a very strong Yugoslav feeling.
My family comes from Serbs in Croatia, which were decimated during the Second World War. And my grandfather was exemplary [sic] executed at the beginning of the Independent State of Croatia. So my grandmother had this idea of men being completely stupid when it comes to politics, because they tend to kill themselves in it. And she was Yugoslav. She never hated anything Croatian. I never heard anything bad about Croatians, and my love for Croatia of course, comes from there.
PETER KORCHNAK: Slapšak has a doctorate in classical studies and linguistics from the University of Belgrade.
Over her 50-plus-year career, she has written 70 books and more than 400 studies in linguistics, classical studies, comparative literature, Balkanology, gender studies, and food (her book, in Serbian, “Cabbage: A Review of the Historical Anthropology of Food and Sexuality, is high on my reading wishlist); plus over 1,500 essays and commentaries as well as three novels and two plays. She also translates from Ancient and Modern Greek, Latin, French, English, Slovenian, and the BCSM languages. She has taught in universities around former Yugoslavia, Western Europe, including the Sorbonne, and the US, including Rutgers.
She is also a lifelong human rights activist. In socialist Yugoslavia, she was beaten, arrested, and deprived of her passport a number of times. She again lost her job and became a pariah under Milošević. In 1991, she left Serbia for Slovenia, where she is an outspoken critic of the Janša government. PEN America lists her among Writers at Risk with the status “In Exile.”
So what keeps you going? What’s, what’s the driving engine? What’s the motor?
SVETLANA SLAPŠAK: There’s one thing that always pushes be ahead and that is the ancient studies. That is the combination of democracy, concepts of democracy over the history of ancient worlds, position of women, freedom, different philosophical concepts which are not dead today, on the contrary; humanism; men as a possible center but not the ruler in the world. And of course, the beauty of the text and the wit of the text, that yes, anytime you take an ancient text you can promise yourself reflective 10 years.
[MUSICAL INTERLUDE – “Twine” by Podington Bear]
PETER KORCHNAK: Slapšak was in her second year of university in 1968—
SVETLANA SLAPŠAK: —when I witnessed the student uprising in Belgrade, learned a lot and changed my life.
PETER KORCHNAK: Mirroring events around the rest of Europe and the world that year, the June 1968 student protests in Belgrade were the first mass protests in socialist Yugoslavia. Students, supported by prominent cultural figures, protested against the imperfections of the regime, demanding freedom of assembly and speech, criticized the recent economic reforms, and striked about conditions at the university. Smaller parallel protests erupted in Zagreb and Sarajevo.
So what was it about 1968, about those protests, and what forms your position and what was your position?
SVETLANA SLAPŠAK: Well, my position was, uh, I was an idiot, basically. Idiot who just, you know, decided to do the ancient studies I was still thinking about between archaeology and classical studies. And luckily I went for classical studies. But later on, I married an archaeologist, I didn’t escape it totally.
Anyway, it started, and I decided to go and see what was on. And it was extremely interesting for me. Everybody was speaking in terms of early Marx and lots of reading of Hegel and other authors, not only Marxist authors, it was deeply intellectual.
And it was horribly masculine, it was unbearable. In fact, in one of the sessions in the court of the School of Philosophy, there were two women that I know that started, wanted to start a debate about feminism, and they were booed. And that was my decision—except for the spontaneous feminism from my grandmother and my mom—so I became a very, very early, let’s say, feminist.
The other thing [was] that I was just listening and looking at things. And yes, I became adept. But I was not extremely active.
But then at the end of the period of uprising the School of Philosophy was not the one to accept with enthusiasm Tito’s speech, after which most of other students of Belgrade University were dancing and being very happy to express their love for Tito so we didn’t.
PETER KORCHNAK: In a nationally televised address, Tito effectively squashed the protests after a week by placating the students, conceding some of their points and inviting them to partake in reforms. Most of the students did go back to the classrooms and dorms.
SVETLANA SLAPŠAK: And there was this complete change of communist party members at the school. The communist party, wanted to put on the new government of the faculty, the new student organization. And they decided that that could be done by a complete idiot, which I was. So they elected me as a person to organize the elections in a way that only the new party members would be in it and so the party takes over the uprising. Which I accepted, and then organized the democratic elections, Athenian style, direct elections. And of course, we elected the so-called extremists, the leader of the student movement and his most prominent friends. And I was also elected.
Well they had a feeling that— they understood that I was doing something completely different from what I was supposed to do. So that meant that I could not follow the academic career. I was aware of that. At the same time, I was declared the best student of the Belgrade University. So that comes together in a wonderful combination.
And also that meant that we had ahead of us [a] great career of the first student resistance committee ruling the whole school, which ended bad of course. In the year time, the leader was arrested along with others and there was a process. And I was supposed to be a witness. I went there, and had one of my best lectures on the classical Greek etymology.
PETER KORCHNAK: After Slapšak defied the orders of Yugoslavia’s communist party, she continued on the activist path.
SVETLANA SLAPŠAK: I was activist in the freedom of expression in the 70s and 80s, especially in the 80s. In ‘83, I started— in fact, I was commissioned to start an action about the death penalty in Yugoslavia in former Yugoslavia, which were transferred from Belgrade to Ljubljana because the atmosphere was much, much more open and free in Ljubljana at that time.
With the beginning of the war in Yugoslavia, I knew that the only position that I could take was a feminist position, that is helping everyone in need. I was rather active when the war started, you can imagine, I was rather active in helping the refugees, especially in Ljubljana, receiving them, some people were living with us for a while…
PETER KORCHNAK: Like other activists, in the 1970s Slapšak suffered physical and career-related consequences of her work.
SVETLANA SLAPŠAK: I was arrested several times, but let off. Twice, I was arrested because there was a mistake. I was not the girl who spit on Nixon’s image in the American Cultural Center. It was not me. So they let me out immediately. [LAUGHS] Unfortunately, I’m sorry, but I was not her.
The other time that was my fault and my idea. With two friends we wrote on the street, in which we protested, when five students from the Kent University in Ohio were killed, you remember that, we wrote with little letters DOWN WITH NERO. And I was arrested to explain who’s Nero. Of course, they knew who’s Nero, the crazy Roman emperor, but again, I had one of my lectures and I was released immediately.
There’s one episode which is really shameful and horribly funny, which I have to recall. And that is at a certain moment, Mikis Teodorakis, the Greek composer, came to Belgrade to compose music for one of the nasty partisan movies.
SVETLANA SLAPŠAK: The idea of our committee—we were still head of the student moment—was to kidnap Mikis Teodorakis, to take him to the school of philosophy, and to explain him [sic] that what he was doing was wrong. So yes, we went to the airport, I saw Mikis Teodorakis, he was surrounded with agents, and from the other terrace of the of the airport, our leader who died last year, Vladimir Mijanović, waved with his huge hands and said, “Abort the mission.” So we aborted the mission. When you pass 70, you can laugh at that, okay.
PETER KORCHNAK: If this sounds like a bunch of students and graduates playing pranks amidst Yugoslav normalization, well, there were other serious consequences for their actions.
SVETLANA SLAPŠAK: And then I was followed by agents in civil clothes. And I was also beaten up, in ‘70 when we were preparing the strike of four schools. And the same evening I was met by some thugs who beat me up. There was a lot of blood and that happened also to another girl, which was in the organizing committee. So yes, I was beaten up, but well, I have a scar now.
PETER KORCHNAK: Also in 1970—
SVETLANA SLAPŠAK: —I wanted to publish a student’s periodical. And Vlada, Vladimir Mijanović, gave the money for that, and me with my two friends and colleagues, we went on and made a satirical periodical, which was called Frontisterion which in Greek means the place for thinking or the basket hanging from the ceiling, in which Socrates is reflecting in Aristophanes comedy The Clouds.
And we were horrible. We were using ancient terms and ancient images, to, of course, to ridicule president Tito and others. And the first issue was banned immediately, and it was burned in the yard of the print shop. But we managed to steal some examples beforehand.
They accused Vladimir Mijanović of all the happenings during the student uprising, including Frontisterion. So we all went to the court and said, we did it, “I did Frontisterion,” and another colleague said, “I organized the strike,” and so on and so on, but it didn’t help, they wanted Vlada.
And at the same time also some other friends went to jail, Lazar Stojanović, the famous film guy, whose week of films was presented in MoMA two years ago. Then Danilo Udovički, another philosopher and author. So there were some four people who just had to go to jail, because they were considered the leaders of the whole thing.
PETER KORCHNAK: Vladimir Mijanović, who died last May, was known as Vlada Revolucija, Vlada the Revolution. A lifelong activist, he was a leader of the 1968 student protests and anti-death penalty advocate. In 1984, he was one of the Belgrade Six, a group of intellectuals who, in an internationally publicized political trial that was in fact part of the inter-republican power struggle in post-Tito Yugoslavia, stood accused of associating to conduct anti-government activities.
At the time, US officials estimated that there were between 600 and 800 political prisoners in Yugoslavia, most of them accused of some form of hostile or counterrevolutionary activities.
Fun fact, to underscore the different paths the regime’s opponents took in the 1980s: one of these political prisoners was Vojislav Šešelj who made his name in the 1990s as a war criminal.
Lazar Stojanović was a film director whose early works were part of the Black Wave. His 1971 bricolage movie Plastic Jesus was a scathing critique of the system, depicting Tito as a secular deity and banned until 1990. Stojanović spent three years in prison for “anti-state activities and propaganda.”
The movie’s on my watch list. For now, I am curious about Yugoslav dissidents as a group or a subculture, if you will.
SVETLANA SLAPŠAK: Djilas was certainly not the idol of this dissident culture, in especially in Belgrade. But there was also similar circle in Zagreb, in Ljubljana, and in other cities. And we were all friends and cooperating.
There was another thing we were thinking about humanizing the Marxist ideology of the state. Not revolution, but changing the way [the] state and the party treated people and freedom of expression. That was the main issue.
The second main issue, which appeared years later, a couple of years later, was human rights, because they were obviously crushed in, in many situations. So these were the two grand issues. And many people found themselves intimate with these issues.
So it was a culture of, I call it at a certain moment, and I wrote about it, as a home literature. We were meeting in apartments in our homes, and then reading, performing, different artistic or intellectual or philosophical or sociological stuff.
Once I had in my apartment, which was 40 square meters—
PETER KORCHNAK: —430 square feet—
SVETLANA SLAPŠAK: —I had an exhibition of ecological furniture visited by some 150 people. My cat went berserk.
It was reading of new works also, experimenting with literature, experimenting with music, experimenting with comic opera, with parodic opera, stuff like that. So we were doing all of that because there was no way to publish openly. And the opportunity to publish openly happened only after Tito died. Before it was simply impossible. So manuscripts and ideas were circulating around a certain number of people. We all knew each other, we had different tribunes, open spaces in Belgrade, in which we could discuss things. [A] couple of youth homes or student homes, in which these dialogues, these open tribunes happened. And they were sometimes followed by the police and sometimes even not. But there was a kind of free market of ideas.
And rather soon there was this idea of not a mono-party but a plural party system. And of course, there was a lot of thinking of parliamentary parliamentary democracy, which we idealized a lot. And there were other ideas.
And you know, that there’s a paradox of Yugoslavia, which means that in Yugoslavia in the 70s and 80s, almost everything that was written by dissident cultures, in dissident cultures in state socialism, that is Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, and Poland and Bulgaria, and was not possible to be to published, could come to Yugoslavia, be translated and then published openly. Because Yugoslavia wanted publicly, you know, in the world to kind of project this image of liberty, which is different from the rest of the socialist world. So they would allow things.
But at the same moment, people in the late 70s, four people were arrested for having, one of them had in his library, a book of Lev Trotsky published in Yugoslavia, translated and published in Yugoslavia, and he was arrested for that. So you never knew.
Legally there was no censorship in Yugoslav legislation. But we who were writing and creating decks or performances or whatever, we had to walk in the dark and kind of prevent and pre-sense what was going on and what would be admissible and what not. You really had to think a lot. In fact, let’s face it: being dissident meant being intelligent, really, to think about the texts, think about the formulations that you could offer that would attend the public you wanted to hear and to read, and at the same time, to blind the watchdogs.
PETER KORCHNAK: Unlike in other socialist countries where employment was compulsory, in the Yugoslav market socialist system you could lose a job and be unable to find another one. In the late 1970s unemployment in Yugoslavia stood at 12 percent. But Slapšak was lucky.
SVETLANA SLAPŠAK: In fact, there was a way with which the state dealt with the people like me: we were put in institutes, research institutes. So I got a position in a research institute, which was filled with career losers like me.
And as a researcher, I traveled a lot, spent a lot of time in Greece, and some time also in [the] US, and lots of time in France, but also the rest of Europe. I was teaching a lot.
But there was already this other alternative culture in Belgrade, kind of dissidency [sic], which was clear, everybody knew each other. And the life in this decade was slightly similar to the life in other regimes in a way that we were followed, we were mingling with secret texts printed for our people stuff like that. We were playing guerrilla, city guerrilla in a way.
PETER KORCHNAK: There was another way the Yugoslav regime hampered people’s freedom of movement: authorities would confiscate their red passport.
SVETLANA SLAPŠAK: My passport was taken in ‘68 and I got it once in ‘73. And then it was taken again, and they got back in a year, and then it was taken again, and so on and so on. So there were measures to discipline us in a way.
There were something like 200 and something people in Belgrade who were deprived of passports.
And then in ‘75, there was this Helsinki conference in Belgrade and our really the spiritual leader of everything, which was close to action and response to the system was Srdja Popović (unfortunately he died some 10 years ago, a lawyer, a great lawyer and a great mind). So he had the idea that during this conference, we wrote a letter to this conference about our passports. And we got the passports in one week, all of us.
So there was— you can’t imagine the explosion, Lazar Stojanović went to India and so on and so on. So we dispersed all over the world. That was really, really important for all of us.
PETER KORCHNAK: Slapšak went to Greece where she spent several years, off and on. She was also there when Tito died.
Svetlana Slapšak vs. Tito
SVETLANA SLAPŠAK: Well, I was on the edge of my nerves, I must say, because we knew he was dying. And my husband went back to Yugoslavia and he was coming back and he passed the border and he still heard the sirens which, on the Greek side, he heard the sirens which declared that Tito was dead.
And then we went to the embassy, and then I saw something that really shook me for the rest of my life, I must say. There were Greek, old Greek partisans, fighters, old communists, who came to the embassy and they were not let in, to sign their grief. They were standing outside and some of them are crying. These are old men. And all of them were wearing what I would call funeral clothes, the best clothes that they had, obviously poor people, obviously out of the society for quite a long time. At that moment, they were, as you know, they were banned from Greece and many sent to Soviet Union and so on and so on. Well, they were unhappy, crying. And for the first time in my life, I said to myself, am I right about hating Tito?
There are some people who had had serious reasons to adore him. Like Greeks. Because he preserved the independence of Yugoslavia, which they did not. After Yalta they were the part of the Western world with the worst consequences of it. They considered him a heroic fighter, which we were constantly forgetting.
And from that moment on, I must say, the whole thing of hating Tito was cracking a bit. Now I’m more prone to admit some objective things that he did. But at that time, that was the shock that really made me see the other part.
Otherwise, we came there. We wrote down our condolences, and then we had [a] feast. We went to Kifisia, to the wonderful patisserie there. We had all the sweets that we could eat. Then we went to the festival of Woody Allen films (at that time, he was making crazy comedies, not bourgeois stuff, disgusting). And then we went, of course, in the evening, we went to rebetiko for some good Greek music, we danced, and well, next day, we slept. [LAUGHS]
[MUSICAL INTERLUDE – “Twine” by Podington Bear]
PETER KORCHNAK: Forty years later, many, and in some places most, people across former Yugoslavia view Tito in a positive light. And if you’re a regular listener of this podcast, which I sincerely hope you are or are becoming, you know that Yugonostalgia in all its varied forms, or at least a positive evaluation of Yugoslavia, is real. So of course I want to hear Slapšak’s take on these phenomena.
SVETLANA SLAPŠAK: You know, it’s very typical of understanding of ordinary people, understanding of memory and history.
When I was a kid, there were other people who were telling us that the ideal time of Yugoslavia was Franz Jozef’s rule, Austro-Hungarian rule of these countries. So it’s this type of remembering your youth and thinking that it was better then than now. That’s a good portion of this nostalgia if we try to deconstruct it and see what are the elements.
The other element is the fact, the fact, that social divisions were not so strong; that people could not be fired that easily; that there were workers rights; that there were workers, some workers privileges; that the schooling system was really, really good and without any cost till the doctorate and later; that there was this thing about non-aligned countries, which was a good idea with some bad practices but it was a good idea, which unfortunately did not culturally develop very much, otherwise, we could have had excellent cultural relations with Asia and Africa, and it’s wrong that we didn’t, that it remained only on the highest level of diplomacy and politics; and there’s the sense of equality that was really embedded in our everyday life, which doesn’t exist anymore.
So these are the elements which construct a rather strong feeling of nostalgia. And then people fill it in with images and personal memories and the glory that is always of the past…
PETER KORCHNAK: The same goes for women’s rights, one of Slapšak’s core areas of interest.
SVETLANA SLAPŠAK: Oh, definitely. Yes. There were rights, there were rights, which were legalized. So they could not be destroyed. And they, the destruction of these rights started with new states. There’s no doubt of it. And this backlash of women’s rights is visible everywhere in all the post-socialist countries. Poland is probably the worst case today.
But it does say everything about the concept and ideological text, if you know unwritten untold oral ideological texts, which serve nationalist today. So unfortunately, this loss of rights is horrible after finally the women’s rights became human rights in early 90s. So, this is something that is kind of usual in a movement for equalities. And it means just, you know, several steps back and then, you have to fight back and to come to the previous point, and then ask for more.
The truth is that the tolerance of LGBT in Slovenia, before the war was maybe stronger than today. Although legally it looks rather good, but there are still some rights that were not realized. And there are still some groups that insist very much on going back to middle ages.
[MUSICAL INTERLUDE – “Twine” by Podington Bear]
Svetlana Slapšak vs. the Nationalists
PETER KORCHNAK: As you heard in Episode 36, “Dream of the Yugoslav 80s,” the decade after Tito’s death saw a flourishing of pop culture in the first half that in the second transmogrified into nationalist discourses.
SVETLANA SLAPŠAK: There were old dissidents who were anti-nationalist and pro-Yugoslav and in that capacity they met the old communists who were not totally corrupted and who were also us Yugoslav-oriented, Yugoslavia-oriented, and this huge new group, which was asking for national rights. Many people in culture decided that they would activate themselves in [a] sense of democracy and so on and so on. And some of these people who were hiding or not visible during ‘68 and later in the risky period, now were openly demanding national and historical rights instead of human rights. And immediately that meant origin, territorial ambitions, and so on and so on. So there was a huge split in the dissidents after Tito’s death.
And the ideas of us Serbs, being the most suffering and needing the historical and having historical rights to certain territories and stuff like that appeared very, very early, I can tell you, from ‘84. So I was kind of dissident from this group of dissidents from the beginning. And by ‘86, I was well known as anti-nationalist, anti-Serb, of course, because that meant that, pro-Albanian, and so on and so on. I was already excluded from that huge dissident group. So the defeat was quite obvious.
And Milošević was on the horizon, already in ‘86. And then he became kind of leader figure. And I remember some of my older friends from [the] Academy of Sciences elling me quite seriously that they considered Milošević as a communist who would lead them to democracy. Could you believe that?
And they were all secretly or not, or publicly, they were all propagating this idea of national division, of Yugoslavia as an unrightful composition of people, of nations, which do not gather well. It was disgusting, it was really disgusting.
And also, something that really hurt me very deeply, was a horrible basement of the level of discourse we had. Beforehand, we were intelligent. And on the other hand, this discourse of nationalists became horribly simplified, horribly brutal, horribly stupid. And this stupidity overtook some of the minds that I considered really, really excellent, really capable of understanding and formulating things. So it was a really horrible backlash.
And many clever people just decided that they would profit much more with being a nationalist. So I knew that that would end very bad for me, and it did in a way that they fired me, they organized a kind of pseudo-juridical process, and so on and so on. I was saved by by some clever women. But it was I knew I was a loser.
PETER KORCHNAK: And, in her telling, a case was fabricated against her in 1988 of embezzlement of grant funds in an organization she worked for at the time. The trial ended up getting dismissed due to a lack of evidence but by then the damage had already been done.
SVETLANA SLAPŠAK: And the question was, should I stay there or not? Because there was this group of losers, pro-Yugoslav people, antinationalist people who are rather strong intellectuals. Of course, they were stronger than anybody else, because everybody else went to compromise with this stupid general stupidity being introduced.
But you must understand that Yugoslavia at that moment was in a very specific social professional situation concerning the media, which became the most important element is in these changings [sic]. And that is that every industrial unit, every every working unit in Yugoslavia, of some importance had its own periodical and paid journalists who were working for it. Suddenly this huge number of media and this even huger number of journalists would lose their jobs. And of course, they decided to go with the flow. Beforehand they were writing for the communist party, now they were writing for nationalists. And the exaggerations were unbelievable. And also the falsification of history. The revisionism which went with it.
PETER KORCHNAK: Slapšak wrote in support of human rights of the Albanian minority in Kosovo, which in the nationalist fever of the late 1980s immediately labeled her a bad Serb or anti-Serb. Every authoritarian, nationalist regime adopts the “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” rhetoric, of course. But in Slapšak’s case, it contributed to her exile.
SVETLANA SLAPŠAK: No, I never felt the need to leave Serbia. I was losing my friends in Serbia in a rhythm [sic] of three per week. I knew that I should stay and help the movement. But then at the last moment, I must say, I was bitterly attacked in media. That was usual, that was not something new. But I decided to go with my men, which sounds horrible for a feminist but okay, I did it. That that was my reason to flee Serbia.
The other was that only by fleeing Serbia, I would be able to help my mom who stayed there. Because I couldn’t earn any money in Serbia. So the only way would be to be outside and to send her some.
Svetlana Slapšak: From Serbia to Slovenia
PETER KORCHNAK: Slapšak left Serbia in November 1991.
SVETLANA SLAPŠAK: That was the siege of Vukovar. And my husband and I just returned from Greece and finally understood that we didn’t have a chance to stay there. Via Hungary was the only way. We went to the frontier and [we] spent the whole day looking for the most drunken officer at the frontier.
PETER KORCHNAK: To make sure her husband would not be apprehended and dragooned into Serbia’s military.
SVETLANA SLAPŠAK: And we found it at the end. And then we came through Hungary to the Slovenian border. And then we came somehow to Slovenia.
And in Slovenia, I was not the person who hates her Serbs the most, I was just a Serb. So I had to live through that too. I was attacked immediately and I was attacked continuously in Slovenia, till I went to the USA.
And when I came back, the war was over, finishing, and it came slightly more tolerable. But I’m still silenced. I’m still attacked, and so on and so on.
[MUSICAL INTERLUDE – “Twine” by Podington Bear]
SVETLANA SLAPŠAK: Now I’m engaged very much in the protest movement in Ljubljana, which is about crushing this government if possible, which used the epidemic situation to introduce some unbearable measures in Slovenia which still has some memories of democracy and citizens invention.
PETER KORCHNAK: For over a year now, the good people of Slovenia have been protesting against the government of Janez Janša which has been doing its best to curb media and judicial freedoms, conduct corrupt privatizations, and generally acting in distinctly authoritarian ways. Janša is a big self-professed fan of one Donald Trump and has been compared to Hungary’s Viktor Orbán.
SVETLANA SLAPŠAK: It is obvious that inside the European Union, there’s an axe [sic] being formed these days, from [the] Baltic to the Adriatic Sea, and it consists of Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia partly, Hungary, which is the leader of the movement, and there should be Slovenia, former Yugoslav countries, Serbia, and other countries still till the South. And this axe [sic] should oppose European Union’s libertarian laws and habits, and also legislation considering, for instance, women and LGBT, and also some other measures, which would give more space to national legislation like in Poland, which all goes toward conservativism, Christian but not democratic parties, more repression, more repression of media, more repression of alternative groups, more repression, and of course, the total ban of the left in any possible form.
This is an anti-communism, which was very, very well defined by Frans Timmermans recently, just after he had such experience in Slovenia, when he says that the worst anticommunists are in fact using communist methods, which is true, which is exactly what Janša actually is doing. And you know, he was at the time of his trial and his problems, he was, in fact, he was the member of the party and one of the most, let’s say, stubborn, single-minded, single-oriented servant of the party type. And he didn’t progress very much.
PETER KORCHNAK: A funny-sad story: the righty Janša was a lefty Yugoslav dissident! In 1983 he was expelled from the party for criticizing the Yugoslav military; in 1985 the authorities took away his passport and he was barred from employment in state organizations and from publishing. He became active in the pacifist and environmental movements, and in 1988 he and three others were convicted and sentenced to 18 months for leaking a classified military document to the press. That same year, he came to Belgrade to request help from the local dissidents who happened to be Mijanović and Slapšak. Anyway, the Ljubljana Trial triggered mass protests and spawned the liberal democratic opposition in Slovenia. Today—
SVETLANA SLAPŠAK: His ideology’s kind of mixture of far, far neoliberalism and a political repression, control of media, control of free thinking and expression, control of arts because his group doesn’t like modern arts and modern culture, and so on and so on. So it’s deep conservativism, provincialism, populism, and you name it. Everything that was absolutely foreign to Slovenia in the 80s, let’s face it, it’s really the contrary of what Slovenia was in the 80s.
And that’s why he used the epidemics [sic] to introduce a number of measures, which were not very efficient in vaccination, for instant [sic], which led many old people die in homes for elderly, which constricted and restricted the space of moving, of mobility of our citizens without any reason. It’s sheer stupidity, some of these measures, and they were changing from day to day. There was no connection with the real specialists in the field of epidemiology. And the whole system just presented its incapacity of organizing the bureaucracy, the simple bureaucracy, the simple way of doing things as a state would do. It’s a total mess.
And we know we see that he is indisputable leader, which nobody ever criticize in his own party, this is not this is not natural, is not good. This is not possible, not to criticize inside your own party. And this is the main signal that this guy is a despot. But it really explains his position, he simply commands everybody in his own party.
And he nurtures the frustrations of people by his media center, which produces garbage five years now. It’s a method of Goebbelsian propaganda to make people feel frustrated even if they’re not, to play with their natural, already existing frustrations, and to orient everything against some enemy. And it’s used in controlling citizens.
There’s a constant constant commotion and confusion between the different parts of the government, of the government forces, of the government services, of the government representatives. And in such confusion, citizens simply naturally turn against the leader.
PETER KORCHNAK: Activists organized a referendum, which took place on July 11th, on amendments to the Waters Act. The law, initiated by the Janša government and passed by the parliament, would have had detrimental effects on the environment. Over 86 percent of voters eighty-sixed the Act, delivering a crushing defeat to the government. In the runup to the referendum, thousands of households, including Slapšak’s, lost their internet connection for several days. There was suspicion of tampering by the government. What’s for certain is that it forced us to reschedule our conversation a couple of times. Anyway.
So you know, you’ve been against Tito, you’ve been against Milosevic, you’re against Janša. You know, you’ve been fighting a good fight all your life. Aren’t you tired?
SVETLANA SLAPŠAK: No. [LAUGHS] No, I’m not, because well, I avoided all the possibilities to become a well known academic, dignified and so on. So I refused everything that was offered to me by any of the state systems, so I should not be different now.
My time is limited and at this time, I would like to write all the novels that I imagined and projected and all the studies and translations that I want to do. So yes, if, if six months are given to me, I’m okay.
[MUSICAL INTERLUDE – “Twine” by Podington Bear]
PETER KORCHNAK: You’ve given a lot of interviews over the years. Is there a question that no one has asked you that you wish someone had asked you and what would your answer be to that?
SVETLANA SLAPŠAK: That’s too much for me. I will just make a plea. I would love to be translated. That’s my great problem. I would love to have my novels and some may be on my anthropological books translated. Anthropological books, okay, I can translate them myself if I have enough time, but my novels that’s another problem. So it’s a plea, not a question. There are hundreds of questions I would like to answer to.
Well, I can be horribly banal and profit-minded at the end, okay? [LAUGHS]
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Twine” by Podington Bear]
PETER KORCHNAK: Bruno Bušić. Vlado Dapčević. Enver Hadri. Pavluško Imširović. Mihajlo Mihajlov. Dragomir Olujić. Borislav Pekić. Pero Simić. The names of Yugoslav-era dissidents and other opponents of the regime tend not to be household names (and yes, most of them were indeed men). They’re dying out. Hopefully their memory, the record of their activism, the history of their resistance, such as it was, will not die out with them. And of course let us not forget those thousands of Yugoslavs who weren’t authors, academics, or activists, who protested by emigrating.
Nowadays, activists in the countries that comprised Yugoslavia are free to demonstrate against their governments, to say or write whatever they want, to propose and enact changes without having to worry about losing their jobs or passports or going to jail. It is the work of those who came before them, their parents and grandparents generations, that made this possible.
And if you are in publishing or a translator, let’s bring the novels of Svetlana Slapšak and the book about cabbage to audiences outside former Yugoslavia, shall we?
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Rainmaker” by Petar Alargić]
PETER KORCHNAK: Next on Remembering Yugoslavia:
SAMIR BEHARIĆ: I do not want to go abroad for going abroad. If I would go abroad, it was it would be with the purpose of working for the region and for my country.
PETER KORCHNAK: The citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina are leaving the country in droves. How bad is the problem? What’s causing this exodus? And is there anything that can be done about it?
On the next episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, emigration from Bosnia and Herzegovina and how to fix it.
Tune in wherever you listen to podcasts and subscribe to make sure you don’t miss out.
[OUTRO MUSIC – “Jugoslavijo / Od Vardara pa do Triglava” by Horn Orchestra]
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening. Find additional information and the transcript of this episode at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
I am Peter Korchňak.