Hidden Belgrade (12): Konjarnik: Buddhism, Brutalism and rap

As you approach Belgrade by highway from the East, you will pass a hill from which you will be able to see the whole city in front of you, but the view will be dominated by three massive stepped concrete buildings. Officially called Rudo, after a city in Bosnia, the complex is known as the Eastern Gate, in parrallel with another brutalist masterpiece that is the Western Gate in New Belgrade.

They are also the major landmark of Konjarnik, a seemingly unremarkable residential suburb, which consists of a mix of family houses with gardens and socialist-era appartment blocs. The neighbourhoods eastern connection, runs deep as it was here that about 500 Kalmyk refugees settled after the Russian Revolution.

An Oirat Mongol people, the Kalmyks lived as nomads on the north west of the Caspian sea, but after siding with the Whites in the revolution many of them decided to flee to Belgrade , Prague, Sofia and Paris. The ones who stayed, were deported to Siberia by Stalin, and were only allowed to return to their native lands in 1957, at which point almost half of Kalmyk population died.

Kalmyk football team in Belgrade

Kalmyks were responsible for the name Konjarnik (“horse-place”), as they brought their horses with them to exile and kept them near their houses. In 1920s Belgrade, which we booming as a capital of newly created Yugoslavia, many of them put their skills to use and quickly found empolyment as coachmen. While the locals called them “Chinese” due to their facial features, they were apparently well received in Belgrade. They founded a football club, from which one player ended up selected for the Yugoslav national team. More famously the Kalmyks also bulit a budhhist pagoda in 1929 in the current Budvanska street.

The site of the Pagoda

The construction of the pagoda was supported financially by the royal family, the city of Belgrade and also by Miša Jaćimović, who owned a brickworks company where many Kalmyks worked. It was by far the oldest Buddhist temple in the Balkans, the only one in Serbia until a new one opened in Čortanovci this year, and one of the oldest in Europe, apart from the Buddhist House (Das Buddhistische Haus) in Berlin, which pre-dates it by a year, and the Buddhist temple in St Petersburg, built in 1915. The temple was in use until 1944, when it was damaged in the battles for liberation of Belgrade. 1944 was also the end of Kalmyk presence in Belgrade who left the city with the Nazi forces and later fled to the United States. The story of Kalmyks in Belgrade forms a backdrop of Mirjana Đurđević’s novel “Kaja, Belgrade and the Good American”, which received Meša Selimović award for best book in 2010.

A few hundred meters from the site of the pagoda, which survived as a community centre until 1960s and was then turned into a drab looking freezing plant, the Eastern Gate was built in 1976. Designed by Vera Ćirković and Milutin Ćirković, the humongous complex of three 28-story buildings houses around 1400 people, and has a complex of garages and playgrounds at its base. Unfortunately, the maintenance of the complex faltered in the past two decades, and when I visited last week I could see several residents fuming at the cost of repairing elevators. The adventurous visitors can climb to the top floors as the buildings are not locked, but note that there is no access to any of the several viewing platforms as they are used as terraces by the residents. Nevertheless the views are worth a sweaty hike up 28 stories.

The complex has recently been popularised not only with the resurgent interest in brutalism, but also because it was featured in a video by a Konjarnik rep sensation, Mimi Mercedez. Mimi, born in 1992, whose rhymes cleverly dissect the gender roles and transitional society in Serbia used the landmark in her hit “Bez Sažaljenja”.

If this convinced you to go for a  a walking tour of Konjarnik, I suggest grab some great, but slightly pricier Serbian grill at Đerdan, another local institution.

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