On the last day in Belgrade, as the sun was setting, coaches pulled up and drove off in front of the Museum of Yugoslavia, an imposing mid-century building in the Serbian capital. A steady trickle of people emerged, some carrying flowers and a few waving the country’s old flag. They had come to visit the mausoleum which houses the tomb of Josip Broz Tito, the founder of socialist Yugoslavia.
Many visitors had grown up under the old system and had come to mark the dictator’s birthday, which was a major holiday before the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Some belonged to far-left political parties and sported kitsch-looking t-shirts and banners.
But there were also a few young people. On the steps of a special exhibition examining the Tito years through posters, artwork, artifacts and the recorded memories of “ordinary people”, I met 18-year-old Milos Tomcic wearing the hat and l scarf of the ‘pioneers’, the Yugoslav socialist youth movement.
“I wanted to see a photo from that time,” he said, when I asked him why he had come. “It was a nice time. Everyone liked each other.” Did he consider himself Serbian or Yugoslav? “Yugoslavian,” he replied without hesitation. Croatian mother. Actually, my family comes from all over Yugoslavia.
The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, made up of six republics – Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, Montenegro and North Macedonia, plus the then autonomous region of Kosovo – was created by Tito in 1945.
Tito’s state aimed to unite the region’s various ethnic and religious groups under the slogan “unity and brotherhood”. The rise of nationalism after his death in 1980 led to its outbreak in 1992 and the bloody Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.
A common narrative during these years was that Tito had, for nearly half a century, forced different peoples to live together against their will. But 30 years later, many still have a deep affection for the country that no longer exists and regret its dissolution.
In Serbia, 81% say they think the breakup has been bad for their country. In Bosnia, which has always been the most multicultural of republics, 77% share this sentiment. Even in Slovenia, which was the first ex-Yugoslav country to join the EU and is widely seen as the most “successful”, 45% still say the breakup was damaging. Unsurprisingly, only 10% in Kosovo, which did not have full independence from Yugoslavia, regret the breakup.
The penchant for the old system is often referred to as “Yugoslavia”. However, Larisa Kurtović, a political anthropologist from Sarajevo who studies post-Yugoslavian identity in Bosnia, is cautious about the term. “Nostalgia implies a kind of melancholy or nostalgia,” she says. Of course it does, with plenty of restaurants and guesthouses in the area, like the famous Café Tito in Sarajevo, adorned with kitschy memorabilia and showcasing a rose-tinted take on the era. But Kurtović says there is also a movement of young people who are looking more critically at this period, assessing both its positive and negative aspects.
“There is a lot of appreciation for the socialist period, and it is associated with economic growth and vast improvements in living standards,” she says, adding that the “broken promises” of the Yugoslav project pale in comparison. nationalism and violence that followed. . Most of the former Yugoslav states have experienced huge economic decline since the wars and still suffer from high levels of brain drain.
Bosnia and Serbia in particular are embroiled in political strife, and their once utopian brutalist housing estates and Yugoslavian-built railways are in decay. Although Croatia and Slovenia have found relative stability as EU members, applications from other countries have stalled and negotiations have failed to materialize, leaving many in doubt whether they will ever join. at the block.
In this context, some wonder if the past could hold solutions for the future. Kurtović cites the workers’ rights movements that have sprung up in Bosnia over the past decade, based on the former Yugoslav socialist model of workers’ self-organization. “This system was very specific to Yugoslavia,” she says, explaining its divergence from Stalinist state ownership of industry.
Although Yugoslavia was a one-party state, there were clear differences with the other Iron Curtain countries. Tito founded the Non-Aligned Movement and maintained balanced relations between the west and the USSR, and Yugoslav citizens could travel to both regions. The strength of the old Yugoslav passport is mentioned by many I meet while visiting Tito’s tomb who now require visas to enter most countries.
Another common theme Kurtović sees is the loss of status and the perception that people have moved from a relatively large and respected country to much smaller and less important ones. George Peraloc was born in North Macedonia in 1989 but now lives in Bangkok. “Whenever I have to do something bureaucratic like open a bank account here, they can never find North Macedonia on their system, but they can find Yugoslavia,” he told me.
“If you ask me, we could still benefit from a federation, even if it’s not Yugoslavia, because we are so small and insignificant on our own.” He thinks these feelings are common among people his age, who have never lived under the old system. “All of our infrastructure dates from that period, and now it’s collapsing,” he adds.
There are also emerging movements re-examining the region’s anti-fascist and anti-nationalist heritage, which wars have revised or attempted to erase. Choirs singing old partisan songs have sprung up, both in the Balkans and among diaspora communities.
In Vienna, the November 29 choir, named after the date of the founding of Yugoslavia, is made up of members from all the countries of the former Yugoslavia. Its original aim was to challenge the nationalism that grew in the diaspora community during and after the wars. Yugoslav workers’ clubs, where people once met to drink coffee, chat and play chess, had become segregated by ethnicity.
The choir members dress in red and blue jackets with stars, referencing the former Yugoslav flag, but they avoid singing songs associated with the Communist Party or that celebrate Tito.
“It’s a conscious decision because we know there’s glorification going on, which is problematic,” says conductor Jana Dolecki, who is from Croatia and moved to Vienna in 2013. they didn’t really have any good songs,” she said. Laughs.
Instead, members carefully select melodies that they believe can be applied to current political struggles such as the rise of nationalism and populism. “We try to stay away from historical revisionism,” she says. “You can walk into this celebration of the past, always saying it was better, but not thinking about what ‘better’ actually means.”
The choir has helped some members explore a sensitive time in history. Marko Marković, who was born in Belgrade but grew up in Vienna, says his family refused to discuss wars with him when he was a child. “It was too complicated for a seven-year-old child to understand, or so they thought,” he recalls. “So I always felt that the story where I came from is a taboo subject.” When he found the choir, he felt he could finally “fix some holes”.
The Internet also offers a gateway allowing people to rediscover little-known aspects of their heritage. Several popular Instagram accounts collect furniture, brutalist architecture and graphic design from the period.
Peter Korchnak, who grew up in Czechoslovakia then, started the Remembering Yugoslavia podcast in 2020. “Growing up, Yugoslavia seemed like paradise to me,” he says, explaining that many people fleeing the Czechoslovak regime would flee to Yugoslavia. Dissidents from other communist countries, such as Ceaușescu-era Romania, often did the same.
“We witnessed the violent dissolution of Yugoslavia while I witnessed the peaceful dissolution of my own country,” he says. “I started looking for comparisons, comparing the two. And I just became fascinated by it.
Korchnak was struck by the emotional outpouring he receives from some listeners. “The best comment I’ve heard is that it’s like a public service,” he says. “And a lot of people say, ‘For a long time I was ashamed to even think of the word ‘Yugoslavia’. Some said it was even like therapy.
Korchnak finds the penchant of many ex-Yugoslavs for their old system striking. “You might hear old people [in Slovakia] saying, ‘Oh, things were cheaper back then, but most of the time everyone has moved on,’ he says. “But [in ex-Yugoslavia] it’s kind of turned into something else.
However, some are more critical of what they see as an over-romanticism of the time. Arnela Išerić’s family originated from Bosnia and fled to the United States, where she was raised during the war. “My impression as a child was that [Yugoslavia] was the most wonderful moment and everything was harmonious,” she says. “But when I grew up I realized there were things I didn’t like.” She cites the lack of LGBT rights and the crackdown on political dissent. However, she says she can still identify with the “spirit” of Yugoslavia.
“When I travel to other parts of the region, like Montenegro or Croatia, I always feel like I am in contact with the people. I can speak their language and we have a similar culture.
As time passes and young people are less directly affected by the trauma of war, some feel that it becomes easier to analyze the period. “Almost every day, someone asks if they can interview us for their thesis on post-Yugoslavian identity,” explains Dolecki, the choir director. “For a long time it was a socially taboo subject,” admits his colleague Marković. “But this generation has the luxury of being far enough away that it doesn’t have all the prejudice and trauma that comes with it. And I think that’s going to get bigger.