In 1980s Yugoslavia, as the socialist state was beginning to crumble, each of the component states grew concerned with their essential identities. It became vitally important to differentiate oneself from neighbours with whom one had shared a country with for 80 years. In this quagmire of jingoism, the image and idea of “true Serbian-ness” – and Serbian mentality – was crudely assembled as a rallying banner (by the Serbian leaders) or as an ever pervasive menace (by the their opponents).
What did that mean, this “true Serbian-ness”? The true Serbian was ethnically a Serb (despite the rich variety of ethnic identities and many mixed marriages in Serbia and the region), staunchly Orthodox (despite the rather spotty church attendance), patriarchal (despite rather independent position of women in Yugoslavia) and obsessed with history and war, and uninterested in the matters of commerce. History was re-shaped to highlight “the true Serb’s” ancient origins (or historical malice) and national culture refocused to make him look more unique. This not only ignored the diverse cultures and histories of other ethnicities living in Serbia, but also those of many ethnic Serbs who historically lived under different cultural influences from Trieste to Thessaloniki, with a history as nuanced as that as any other nation.
The ultranationalists, led by Milosevic and his allies, aided by parts of the Serbian Orthodox Church and cultural intelligentsia, quickly cast themselves as the arbiters of true Serbian-ness, launching paranoid witch hunts for apostates, traitors and foreign agents.
Unfortunately, with the moulds of national identity in ultranationalist hands, much of the opposition ended up basically agreeing to the ultranationalist version of Serbian identity and mentality: the key difference being that ultranationalists looked upon that image with admiration, while others admonished, abhorred and distanced from it. Parts of the opposition who not only accepted but also intellectualised this crude sketch of Serbian mentality created their smaller, less-powerful, purity police, furiously attacking more nuanced views and liberally using labels to discredit dissenters.
Usurpingly, growing up among liberal pro-Yugoslav Belgraders, much of the national history and culture was somewhat spoiled for me as it was weaponised by Milosveic controlled mainstream, not only in gruesome wars against our former compatriots, but also against those of us opposed to ultranationalist excesses. Although I did not go as far as some, who consider everything local as inferior by definition, as a teenager I scoffed at anything approaching folk-music and tended to roll my eyes at school trips around Serbia. They rather then occasions for better understanding a country where I was born, they always carried a tinge of backwardness (and malice), opposed to my (extremely idealised) expectation of what things would look like abroad.
In the false dichotomy of EXIT (a contemporary music festival in Novi Sad) and Guča (a trumpet festival in central Serbia) where the former symbolised liberal cosmopolitanism, and the latter stood for conservative nationalism – I was firmly and anxiously clinging to the EXIT camp.
When I moved to the UK, my attitude towards Serbian-ness slowly changed. Most people there knew little about Serbia in this post- Milosevic, pre-Djokovic era of the late 2000s. On occasions I had to explain how cold the winters are ‘up north’, how I did not speak Russian and that we did not use huskies to pull our sleighs: basically, that Serbia wasn’t Siberia. This was an amusing and welcome corrective to the morose discussions of identity back home. I found it exciting to explain my country’s culture to keen listeners, and there was a freedom in praising as well as, ridiculing parts of it outside of the context from back home. I found it even better to bond with my friends from very different cultures, over commonalities and differences, and see that the world was much more nuanced than what my Belgrade bubble made it seem.
Unfortunately, among few people I met a certain level of prejudice was present, however. Although initially it was funny to play with the Borat-esque perceptions, I realised some of my new friends actually believed the extreme stereotypes. A former colleague quipped, as a joke, that it only befitted a Serb to wash floors; another doubted the existence of internet in Belgrade. Several others assumed my family had ties with the mafia. There were many who assumed I hated Croats, Bosnians and Albanians. Whenever I explained that I did not harbour genocidal intentions towards other Balkan nations, I was praised for “not being a typical Serb”.
More shocking for me was that some stereotypes were presented as facts. A service used by my former company to help with cultural understanding, described Serbians as good hosts, but “manipulative”. I could not but note that negative terms were not used for Western Europeans, who were, as a rule, described as honest and hardworking. Of course, many of these biases were applied to all “Eastern Europeans” (i.e. everyone non-Germanic, east of Venice) and Balkanites. I can hardly recall an Eastern European (let alone a Serbian) character in a mainstream English-language film depicted outside some violent or criminal context, either as victim or perpetrator.
On the other hand, there was a small group of Serbia enthusiasts. However even some of them fetishised exotic Serbian-ness. Often they would furnish me with explanations of what a true Serbs and Serbia are like. Again, “the true Serb” was a 21st century gentle savage: good host, fond of rakija and folk music, yet full of prejudices against anything outside his village. Serbia on the other was a sort of socialist concrete fairy-tale land of debauchery, adventure with people with tragic fashions and hairstyles. When I would disagree with this, and note that Serbians are a varied bunch, I would be dismissed, again, as “not a true Serbian”, often due to my Belgrade origin and education.
Somewhere in my mid-twenties I finally wanted to know what does it really mean, to be a “true Serbian” and if I was one. ? Curious for an answer, I set off to explore Serbia and, maybe along the way, let go of some of my own prejudices. After Exit, I went to Guča. The similarities were greater than differences: at both there was a bunch of people, mostly local, some foreign, spending a few days in the squalor of a festival camp to get the chance to party the night away, often drunk, and not very concerned about discussing identity, politics and history. As expected, at Guca there was more nationalist paraphernalia (flags of the anti-Communist, collaborationist Chetniks were curiously rubbing shoulders with those of Tito, Socialist Yugoslavia’s leader), slightly stranger scenes (a skimpily clad dancer twerking next to a family having lunch), but most of it was just a good old-fashioned boozy festival. There was majestic scenery, great trumpet music, as well as Severina, a Croatian superstar.
Not finding any “true Serbians”, but only revellers in Guča, I continued my quest. During my travels around Serbia, I visited quite a few serene monasteries and took part in many rakija-fuelled singalongs in kafanas. I went from Sandžak where marvellous medieval monasteries and elegant Ottoman minarets watched calmly over daily life for centuries. I’ve seen Roman forts in central Serbia, and went all the way up to Subotica, a city famous for impressive Hungarian art-nouveau architecture and a massive synagogue. Throughout, people held various views and had diverse origins. Some of them were pleasant, some weren’t. There were memories of violence, suffered and inflicted by compatriots as well as foreigners in the past turbulent century. There were mostly people, un-exotically focusing on making do with what they have and who they are as individuals, not as slaves of a specific “mentality”.
Rather than finding a single “true Serb” of unitary Serbian mentality, I found diversity. Past and various cultural influences were often discussed on my travels. Most of my interlocutors, far outside of Belgrade’s somewhat insular liberal intellectual elite, enjoyed Serbia’s syncretism and layered past: taking parts of foreign things, and giving them a local twist, like Ottoman and Austrian culinary influence, Byzantine inspired architecture or Greek-based alphabet. Of course, some of them, both within my native and newly found circle, were indeed bigots who obsessively wanted to insulate themselves from complex realities and history.
Now I am relieved and happy to admit that I do not have Serbian mentality and am not a “true Serb”, for better or worse. No-one is.
A version of this article was published on Balkan Insight.
Visuals are photos of Predrag Nešković’s work “Gobleni Kosovka Devojka (1990-1999)”