The fall of Yugoslav civilisation: Doomers at the gates

In the library of my grandmother’s salon in Avalska, between the many Marxist and Yugoslav communist tomes, stood a hard bound copy of „Civilisation“ by Kenneth Clark, published by Mladost from Zagreb in 1972.

The fact that this book, a seductive (and often derided) statmeet of Western cultural supremacy,  was translated into Serbo-Croatian and published in a socialist only three years after it appeared in the UK to accompany Clark’s magnificent 1969 TV series, tells you a lot about SFR Yugoslavia, its complicated self-perception, ideology and outlook. Indeed Serbs and the other nations who formed Yugoslavia, have always uneasily teetered in self-perception between seeing themselves as civilised or barbaric, as either protectors of “the West”, its rivals or simply people who are yet to be civilised.

Clark’s beautifully bound, illustrated book, produced to be proudly displayed in the western looking bourgeois salons in of the socialist SFRY elite, was fully in line with the spirit of strength and power pervading Yugoslavia. It was a country on the rise, in a privileged position between the two blocs, able to project its culture and power around the world thanks to the Non-Aligned movement.

While Clark was never likely to include cultural artefacts from Yugoslavia in his highly West-centered book – Emperor Trajan’s road through the Iron Gates, proto-Renaissance frescoes of Serbian medieval monasteries, the fascinating bridges of Višegrad  and Mostar or cities like Dubrovnik and Split – it was a country that fully believed that it would and should be included in future lists of great cultures. As my grandma was purchasing this book, Yugoslavia was full of the impulse, vitalism and ambition to build for the future that Clark saw as key for civilisation.

Even before WWII in bourgeois Yugoslavia, Serbian engineers built an impressive concrete bridge over the Tara gorge, however after the war, savagely destroyed country was full of grand ideas and projects. Belgrade was temporarily distinguished with having the largest dome in the world (Belgrade fair hall 1), the elegant arched Žeželjev most went up in Novi Sad, and Đerdap dam was built on the Danube, close to where Trajan’s bridge once stood. Those are only some of the ambitious feats of Yugoslav engineering which continued during up until the country entered a large financial crisis in the 1980s and then collapsed in the 1990s. There was the Belgrade-Bar railway, Krk bridge, Sava Centar, Genex tower, Konjic underground military base, just to name a few. On a social level, the country was equally bent on its civilising mission, whether it was imposition of state ideology through huge performances and propaganda in education, or through censorship of anything it thought was crude and distasteful.  

However, since I was born in the late 1980s and grew up during the crises and wars of 1990s, all of these ambitions seemed foreign. Indeed, leafing, as a kid through Clark’s civilisation and other illustrated art books my grandma invested her savings in, I could not but think that grandeur, wealth and power were something alien to us, something only to be found outside of increasingly shrinking Yugoslavia and, finally, Serbia. Even among those who supported Milosevic, there was no belief in the future, while among those, who like my family were against him, there brewed a more potent distrust not only of the present government, but of the whole country instead. Thus, when re-watching Clark’s series, some time ago, I was struck by the segment where he is in front of Pont du Gard, talking about civilisation-destroying insecurity in the future.

This deep disbelief in own civilisation, own country continued even after Milosevic. The new government, filled with (allegedly) many of the brightest and most cultured pro-Western minds even agreed to have the two main state museums shut for almost a decade, which in turn made most of my generation completely unable to see the most valuable artefacts our culture has produced. Instead of great pieces of Yugoslav modernism or frescoes, we got to consume self-deprecating poverty porn passing as social commentary and high art, while many of the politicians were doubling down on the ideas that we need the West to civilise us and that we are unable to govern ourselves, a thought very much accepted by many of our liberal elites.

Much like in “Waiting for the Barbarians” Cavafy’s poem mentioned by Clark, our elites abandoned their obligations (without of course renouncing their privileges), citing that somebody else will decide our future. In the best case that would be the EU or their version of the barbarians: their own people, who they routinely derided and whose cultural tastes, from traditional practices to turbofolk music, they considered alien and hateful and thus unable to come into contact with their lifeless, midwit bureaucratic “art”.

While things changed somewhat in the past decade – we got our museums back and roads and railways are being built – there is still this nefarious disbelief in building own future that is considered a marker of superior taste and intelligence.

There are protests of concerned artists about new bridges that are to be built and every new project is derided as simply a money laundering operation, no matter how useful ( building of the new Belgrade City Museum, highways, stadia). All of that is complemented with the modish, elite self-negation that is so popular around the world these days, whether anti-natalism or climate catastrophising, and thus made even more effective and potent form of elite nihilism. At best we are instructed to wait for “someone better” to start living again, at worst, it is constant dooming about the point of even living in Serbia. That, of course, does not stop any of the doomers from enjoying their academic and other elite privileges – there is always plenty of sense in directing funding to them – but they warn you that anything, that even they do is futile, so make sure you do not expect anything from them.

Indeed, a family “friend”, who belongs to that bureaucratic class, made sure that most of my grandmother’s painfully collected library was lost after her death. That, of course, was somebody else’s fault, and after all it was just books. Thankfully, we managed to save a few volumes that will hopefully inspire my descendants to keep them for their descendants.

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