Ana Hofman. “Tabu na sećanja: Bolest zvana jugonostalgija.” Nova srpska politička misao: časopis za političku teoriju i društvena istraživanja. 11/5/2007. Retrieved from http://starisajt.nspm.rs/kulturnapolitika/2007_hofman2.htm [pdf]
Note: The following are excerpts translated by me with the help of Google Translate.
Michael Herzfeld [in Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics in the Nation State] points out that discourses of change and decline, especially moral decline, are characteristic of all societies and uses the term “structural nostalgia” for the collective imagination of the perfection of past times. Every new generation reproduces the same narrative of the past time as more heartfelt and humane, more stable and happier. According to him, nostalgia is a complaint of the inability to return to this past, to a “better” world with stable social and moral values.
The last 18 years in Europe have been marked by turbulence in the politics of memory: new exhibitions on totalitarian regimes open, commemorative celebrations are rehearsed, and history is recreated, all in the spirit of “the age of memory.” Nostalgia is a double-edged sword: it can be an emotional political opposition or the best political weapon.
Nostalgia for Socialism
In socialism, as a period dominated by the ideology of progress, nostalgia was considered a sort of dissent and completely excluded from public discourse. The period after the collapse of the Iron Curtain and communism in Eastern European countries saw a “memory boom” which characterized the post-socialist reality of these societies. Survey data from September 2004 shows that 25% of the West Germans and 12% of Eastern Germans want Germany to be divided again by the Berlin Wall.
Many post-socialist theorists emphasize that the socialist past is an integral part of the post-socialist present, because constant reminiscence of the past figures in the great expectations of the future. As Michael Herzfeld states, “a static image of unbroken and irretrievable past often plays an important role in acting in the present.” Economic shock therapy, unstable social and political climate and a generally paradoxical and confusing social environment have definitely affected the recreation of the image of the past.
Changes in daily life in the countries of the former Yugoslavia conditioned the idealization of the past. In this sense, nostalgia appears to be a longing for the period of social equilibrium, and the past is interpreted selectively, which often only points out positive and neglects its negative side.
The countries of former Yugoslavia are not a special case in the interpretation of the socialist past. After the wars on the territory of the former Yugoslavia broke out, nationalist discourses produced a negative picture of the socialist period as an integral part of the strategy for establishing new national states. They described the concept of brotherhood and unity as a project of totalitarian politics that violated human rights and self-determination and that was detrimental to individual national identities. Public discourse emphasized narratives of the victims of the socialist regime, i.e. all citizens, and Tito’s totalitarianism. In many areas, monuments, street names, or other material artifacts of socialism were destroyed or transformed, with the idea of removing the symbolic inheritance of this period. Dubravka Ugrešić states that in Serbia and Croatia there was a “confiscation of memory” during that period. However, unlike official narratives, individuals interpreted the past in a completely different way.
How did the memory of the common Yugoslav past survived in the dominant nationalist discourses of the 1990s when it seemed that society almost completely suppressed this historical period? Yugoslavia was not only a product of political and social conventions or of official narratives, but part of the everyday experience of people who enjoyed an enviable level of economic stability and social mobility. It is for this reason that the Yugonostalgic discourse has succeeded in mobilizing so many people and becoming a burning issue of public debates in the lands of the former Yugoslavia.
With the break-up of Yugoslavia, more than 20 million people remained without their homeland, the country where they were born, grew up and lived. Collective memories, cultural practices, and everyday life strategies that they had could not just be erased by the physical disappearance of a country. The common Yugoslav experience was undermined by the collapse of the state and represents a significant factor of cultural continuity in the territory of former Yugoslavia.
Who are the biggest Yugonostalgics in the area of former Yugoslavia? Does Yugonostalgics present a cultural taboo in some of the former Yugoslav states?
The intensity and representation of nostalgia for socialism in public discourse in each of the countries differs in relation to the degree of de-ideologization of the official version of the past or the deconstruction of the monolithic discourse of the past.
Yugonostalgia in Former Yugoslav Countries
In Croatia, for example, the dominant discourse of the newly established statehood and national unity does not allow for an alternative view of the common Yugoslav past. Yugonostalgia is considered a trivial feeling and an ephemeral effect that is most commonly associated with the consumption of genres of popular culture from other former Yugoslav republics (primarily from Serbia).
On the other hand, Croatia has not yet been spared the narratives on moral degradation, the fall of the system of values and the total social instability in the post-socialist period, which open up space for an alternative view of the otherwise marginalized socialist past.
In Bosnia, due to the paradoxical situation and the impossibility of realizing a common multiethnic space, but also thanks to Yugoslavism having been most prominent here in the period of socialism, Yugonostalgia appears as a reaction to dissatisfaction with everyday life in the atmosphere of constant ethnic tensions.
Slovenia experiences the so-called “romantic nostalgia,” which insists on otherness or difference of the nostalgia’s object in relation to the present and maintaining a “safe distance.”
Since Yugonostalgia does not represent a subversive social phenomenon, it has been stripped of ideology and transformed into an aesthetic norm. Unlike other former Yugoslav republics, Serbia and Montenegro achieved a kind of continuity with Yugoslavia through the formation of the FRY. In this way nostalgia arose in Serbia in a different way compared to other countries of the former Yugoslavia. The dominant discourse representing Serbia as the “natural” successor of old Yugoslavia in the 1990s manipulated the Yugoslav and Serbian identity.
As a result, conflicts arise between different interpretations of the past and create confusion in relation to socialist times. On the one hand, Yugonostalgia was left to “true” Yugoslavs who never wanted to replace their multi-national identity and, on the other hand, referred to people are kind of transgressive “losers” unable to manage new social circumstances.
The role of digital media in articulating and practicing Yugonostalgia seems to be of utmost importance. The internet has “revived” Yugoslavia, creating a hyper-reality in which the Yugoslav cultural space and the Yugoslav meta-community have been re-established. Namely, people who share common memories of Yugoslavia are running websites, blogs, and forums, calling themselves Yugoslavs or Yugonostalgics.
The linear nature of the Internet allows for time-space transgression, where present and past are parts of the same (virtual) reality. In this way, Yugoslav experience becomes part of everyday (online) life, which affects the creation of images of (off-line / IRL) everyday life. In this sense, virtual reality helps re-articulate the narrative about the past.
The virtual homeland, which even has its consulate and passport, presents to people who feel nostalgia for the past alternative discourses in otherwise still-dominant nationalist narratives in their former Yugoslav countries.
The Yugoslav online meta-community has only revived the Yugoslav cultural identity. In virtual reality, Tito has been revived as well: on his “official” site, his “re-birth” day is 22 July 1994 [pdf].
According to Svetlana Boym’s theory about two types of nostalgia, restorative and reflective, it’s possible to distinguish two types of websites.
The first type of websites were founded by members of the left-wing parties or their sympathizers who emphasize their political orientation and connectivity with other civilizational movements in Europe. The users of these sites are mostly referred to as comrades [drugovi i drugarice] while welcoming each other with the well-known greeting, “Death to fascism, freedom to the people.”
Some of these sites contain chapters of texts by Marx and Engels, transcripts of Tito’s or Kardelj’s speeches (see [now defunct] SlobodnaJugoslavija.org). They also give historical insights into the partisan movement in the former Yugoslavia and write about national heroes and other deserving citizens from that period.
These sites present a vision of the past characteristic of the official discourse during socialism and relativize the relationship between the past and the present to give the user an impression of return in the SFRY.
The other type of websites refers to the past with humor, irony, and sometimes (albeit very rarely) with a certain amount of criticism. This nostalgia is not related to the state or ideology as such, but rather to cultural practices and everyday life that marked this period. On these websites, the content is mostly entertainment and the past treated with humor, even sarcasm, but they are all ideologically unburdened. This type of nostalgia becomes a cultural good, but also a commercial product that becomes a source of profit.
Consumer Nostalgia and the Entertainment Industry
Technological revolution and fast lifestyle has intensified the desire to return to a slower rhythm of the past, developed social relationships, and a coherent community and tradition. In a postmodernist and post-structuralist understanding of identity, as a reaction to the deconstruction of a stable subject, there is a desire to reestablish it, to feel affection and security.
The global entertainment industry uses nostalgia as a marketing strategy through the so-called “souvenirization of the past.”
The commercialization of nostalgia for socialism is known in all the states of the former Eastern Bloc. It is not only intended for domestic consumers, but also for foreigners and tourists.
Yugonostalgia affirms its market potential primarily through the commercialization of Yugoslav popular culture. Yugonostalgic websites are full of period music, movies, photos, and books. Although most of the audio-visual content is directly related to the former Yugoslavia, new content from the former republics is also presented. Thus, in addition to revolutionary or war songs, latest albums of pop, rock, and folk music performers are made available. The websites also offer news about artists from different republics, jokes, but also erotic stories and photos, and some of them also serve as a place to meet potential partners. Most of these sites also have online stores where they can buy t-shirts with the likeness of Tito or Che Guevara, key chains, books, mobile phones, laptops, etc.
The commercial effect of Yugonostalgia is also visible in the real world, through the concerts of former Yugoslav stars and symbols of the former state, such as the Bijelo Dugme. Yugonostalgia is also recognized as a very lucrative concept for many businesses in the hospitality industry, e.g. [various bars, cafes, and restaurants named after Tito].
The revitalization of the gathering in Kumrovec and a series of similar commemorative events around the former Yugoslavia, including the House of Flowers in Belgrade, shows the commercial importance as tourism products. There are also concrete attempts to recreate Yugoslavia for tourism purposes, such as Mini Yugoslavia near Subotica or the General Consulate of SFRY in Montenegro.
There is also a very interesting phenomenon of “second-hand nostalgia,” more precisely Yugonostalgia among young people who don’t have their own experiences of this period but create a picture of it on the basis of the existing interpretations of the past. Arjun Appadurai calls this phenomenon “armchair nostalgia,” i.e. a nostalgia that is not based on a lived experience or collective historical memory. In this way, the market creates a feeling of desire for something that the consumer did not even lose, celebrating the past as part of a trend.
These forms of past representation destabilize existing stereotypes and open the possibilities of new presentations and reception of cultural practices from socialism.
The Potential of Yugomania
An increasing number of scientific papers, newspaper articles, and public debates deals with this phenomenon. All of them agree that people who once lived in the same area share the same cultural obsession based on the common experience of everyday life in Yugoslavia.
Some view this phenomenon as the result of current economic, political and cultural changes and traumatic post-socialist realities. Life in the SFRY has gained the status of “a golden age” which was followed by ruin. This aspect of nostalgia is considered to be a melancholic discourse, which represents the total absence of action, as a reaction to transient trauma.
Others point out that Yugonostalgia is sentimental kitsch and an ephemeral side-effect of secondary nature, which serves mostly underdeveloped teenagers to articulate their personal identity and create continuity with the past.
The idea of Yugoslavia is not to regenerate a country that fell apart, but to perpetuate it on a symbolic plane without resorting to ideology. This phenomenon is not reserved only for members of certain social groups like former elites who have lost their privileges or marginalized dissidents. This is the feeling shared by many citizens of the countries of the former Yugoslavia: nostalgia for the “best”—Yugoslavian—years of their lives. As an alternative discourse of the past, it helps overcome the conflicts arising from the dominance of nationalist discourses and demonstrates the possibility of dialogue in the region, precisely because it honors the the existence of a political form of common life of different ethnic, cultural, and political traditions.
Featured image of the Yugoslav flag in Mostar, 2009, CC-BY anjči.