When pundits look for a culprit for instability in the Balkans, their fingers often point to history, or rather the great fondness the people here have for it. Visitors to Serbia are often baffled by Serbians’ tendency to explain contemporary actions and attitudes by referencing events that happened several centuries ago.
For example, it is not uncommon for somebody to explain Serbia’s awkward teetering between East and the West by going all the way back to 4th century AD when Theodosius split the Roman Empire along the Drina River. Similarly, any discussion of Kosovo will quickly go back to 1389 when Battle of Kosovo and the death of Prince Lazar signalled the decline of Serbia’s medieval state.
This quirk is often seen as an expression of deep historical knowledge and the pride Serbs place in knowing their national history. Some argue that this obsession with history is what keeps Serbia back from dealing with slightly more pressing issues of the present, or even the future. The habit of ours seems to go way back. Djura Jaksic, a 19th century poet and painter, explained that he always sat facing backwards when driven in a coach by saying “When did you see a Serb looking forward or towards the future?”
However, this love of history lies in stark contrast with the often woeful state of cultural and historic heritage in Serbia. The most obvious case is the National Museum of Serbia, the largest and most important collection in the country which will finally re-open this year. It was closed for almost fifteen years, since the relatively nationalist government of Vojislav Kostunica closed it for refurbishment and future governments left it disagreements. Although Serbians huffed and puffed about the inability to see their most precious artefacts whenever the opening was delayed, the popular pressure to open the museum was very weak.
Serbians are also quite sanguine when their heritage is casually destroyed. It is a common to see Belgrade’s historic buildings defaced by graffiti, often carrying nationalist slogans such as the ever present “Kosovo is Serbia”. Unfortunately, many businessmen who made their fortune during the transition relieved Belgrade of its historic cultural institutions.
After a botched privatisation, Belgrade lost almost all of its old cinemas, many of which, like Balkan, Zvezda and Kozara have histories stretching back to the early 20th century and the beginning of cinema in Belgrade. The famous café, “Ruski Car”, has been closed for several years after a brief stint as a soulless chain restaurant.
The destruction continues, with tacit approval from the heritage protection agencies and little notice from the public. A few meters from “Ruski Car”, Graficki Kolektiv Gallery, which was proudly exhibiting the best of local and international graphic art for the almost seven decades in its unique interior, is set to become yet another cake shop.
Current government’s attempts to honour our history often end up causing more harm than good. Most of the problem is that the restoration of heritage buildings and historic quarters ends up shoddy or blows deadlines. Recently, the attempt to restore one of Belgrade’s oldest districts, Kosancicev Venac, ended up leaving the leafy quarter looking like a war zone for several months. It saw almost no progress over long periods of time and, one and a half years in it is still not fully completed.
Now the most talked about shoddiness in tackling history is the RTS-created series “Nemanjici” about Serbia’s most popular medieval dynasty, founded by Stefan Nemanja. Although it is the most expensive TV series ever produced in Serbia, with an episode budget of around € 250 thousand, and included some of Serbia’s most renowned actors, it is almost unanimously perceived as an artistic and entertainment failure and was sent to the editing room after its pilot was panned. The result utterly failed to portray power-struggles in 12th Century Serbia and the rise of Stefan Nemanja and his family in a realistic or entertaining fashion. It angered audiences with anachronistic dialogue, hard-to-follow plot and many bizarre narrative choices. These included a scene where Rastko Nemanjic, who would become Serbia’s national saint, is urged to “bonk” girls by his tutor and a fictional plot-line involving Stefan Prvovencani, the first Nemanjic to be crowned a king, having a fling with his (made-up) adoptive sister.
Unfortunately, often it is the ideas themselves that are bad, not just the implementation. A notably irritating example was the, now abandoned plan to build a monument honouring Stefan Nemanja (again) at the site of Generalstab, the old Yugoslav army headquarters that were bombed by NATO in 1999. To illustrate how inappropriate and ill-conceived this idea is, I can only draw an analogy by suggesting that the parts of the Pentagon that were destroyed in 9/11 should be replaced by a monument to the Mayflower settlers in the US.
Generalstab and “Nemanjici” are only the tip of the iceberg. There is plan to install a cable car connecting Belgrade Fortress and New Belgrade – a € 15M white elephant that would spoil an iconic view of the city. Several years ago, then-PM and current president, Aleksandar Vucic, presented a Disneyworld-type medieval development in the lower part of Belgrade Fortress, which would devastate a priceless archaeological area in the tackiest way possible. Thankfully, that plan was also abandoned, at least for now.
What this attitude towards our heritage demonstrates is that Serbia’s attitude to history is not actually very reverential. We are, in reality, fond of history-based narratives that allow us to feel special or which justify our actions. No matter how much and how accurately they borrow from history, these narratives just exploit useful historical facts, but have no use for complexity that any real history contains. Whether you to use events of past centuries to show that Serbia is a perpetual hapless victim of foreign scheming, or that it is an innately anti-modern aggressive state, you are sure to find useful evidence in our turbulent history, but you will have to neglect all the twists, turns and nuance that real history contains and probably a lot of wisdom it imparts.
Real respect for cultural heritage and history, on the other hand, requires willingness to explore the particular and ability to see value and genius in those who bequeathed a certain building or work of art, no matter how different and distant they are. It also requires diligence, responsibility and knowledge, all of which are rather scarce among Serbia’s elite.
Finally, protection of heritage requires openness as it can expose flaws in the current system or national narrative. For example, Dom Sindikata, a building dedicated to workers and decorated with world-renowned art, provides an uncomfortable contrast with the current practice of reducing workers’ rights and cheapening of all public provisions.
Serbians are of course not alone in their preference for narratives over proper history and heritage: almost all nations do it to an extent. However, as a nation so burdened by the past, we would greatly benefit from gleaning some wisdom from history by being more careful in how we preserve and study it.
An older version of this article appeared in Belgrade Insight and is available on Balkan Insight. The title was changed and it was amended to reflect developments since publication.