Hidden Belgrade (43): Last days of Yugoslav socialist consumerism

While many emphasise worker-ownership or its non-aligned anti-imperialist foreign policy as distinctive features of Yugoslav socialism, for me one of the most striking ways it differed from the countries behind the “Iron Curtain” is its deep openness to Western consumerist culture.

Indeed, if you ask average former Yugoslavs what the main difference was between them and their supposed ideological comrades in the Warsaw pact, they are more likely too point out what they owned and consumer (Beatles records, coke, jeans from Trieste, etc.) before any ideological discrepancies. Even Tito, who in many ways epitomised the country, openly cultivated a Western bourgeois image during his heyday. There were luxury residences, fancy trains and cars, and numerous sessions of hobnobbing with actual and Hollywood royalty – all very far removed from the austere revolutionary image of leaders like Castro, or the drab apparatchik style of Soviet presidents. This image of (relative) luxury socialism was a potent soft power tool used at home and aboard, and has almost become constitutive of Yugoslav identity as a society that combined equality and Western comforts.  

This deep embrace of the Wester consumer-centred culture (wonderfully detailed in Radina Vučetić’s book Coca Cola Socialism), started almost  immediately after the split from Stalin in 1948.

The new era and approach was heralded when the first experimental supermarket was opened on the Yugoslav soil in in Ivanec by Zargeb. It was built in 1956, according to American standards and a year later, in its ambitious and extremely successful global soft power offensive, the US exhibited its dazzling array of consumer products to the Yugoslav audience in Zagreb, which included a larger model of an idealised supermarket. In contrast, Soviets focused on more technologically advanced but less titillating industrial machinery.

A year later, in 1958, the American consumerist dream became reality when Belgrade’s old flower market hall was converted to the become the  city’s first „samoposluga“ (which survives to this day as Maxi), and Yugoslavia started leaning heavily into its image of luxury socialism. More supermarkets followed, and eventually there were even luxury hotel developments aimed at foreigners, like Haludovo, along the Adriatic coast.

Unfortunately though the country’s economy, heavily reliant of foreign loans, could not keep that up and its economy already started crumbling in 1980s (after Ronald Regan’s decision to increase USD interest rates), with major shortages of everything from petrol  to toilet paper and coffee.

Still, the Yugoslav leadership defiantly wanted to maintain its westernised, relatively opulent image, and decided to build Belgrade’s first (temporary) mall at Trg Republike to impress the leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement, while they were visiting Belgrade for a conference in 1989.

That the was the beginning of “Staklenac” (full name: Tržni Centar Trg Republike), one of Belgrade’s most hated buildings.

Built in then fashionable post-modern style with references to the curves of Serbian traditional architecture, it had three floors of medium-sized shops and it was adjacent to a new park.

Although the country’s freefall continued as it descended into chaos, the first turn towards private enterprise during Milošević years, even despite harsh sanctions, made small retail space interesting, which led to the opening of a few more  malls in central Belgrade during the early transition period of 1990s.

The second one was an ambitious, postmodern, Čumićevo Sokače in 1991, followed by City Passage in 1993 and, finally, the underground shopping mall next to the Vukov Spomenik train station in 1995. During those strange days of early transition and relative deprivation, it was there that Belgrade’s new upper class bought their wares, often smuggled from abroad.

But as the time passed and the country reopened to the West after 2000, these consumerist relicts of 1990s slowly went out of fashion, especially as more modern malls opened in New Belgrade, starting with Delta city in 2007.

These first of Serbia’s malls are now mostly empty, derelict and sad versions of themselves.

Although Čumićevo sokače managed to attract a good number of creative new artisans and rebrand itself as Belgrade Design District (with great shops All Nut, Gallery 1250, and Makart bookshop) the other malls exist as strange dystopian spaces, filled with gaming halls, looking like windows into Black-Mirroresque post-apocalyptic future, when ruins of the consumerist economy are filled with spaces where people escape into fuller unreality to avoid facing the chaos around them.


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