At the end of 2004 the Institute of Contemporary History in Belgrade and the National Museum in the city of Leskovats held a conference on the cultural and historical heritage of Southern Serbia. The conference was opened by the prominent Serbian writer academician Dragoslav Mihailovich. We publish here his conference opening speech, which the writer himself sent us and which, we hope, will be of interest to our readers.
This academic conference called “The Cultural and Historical Heritage of the Serbian South” is taking place under very dramatic circumstances for all the Serbs on the territory of former Yugoslavia, and particularly for those in Serbia.
The Yugoslavian state community, in which the Serbian people invested invigorating hopes throughout the whole 20th century and for whose implementation Serbia proudly sacrificed more than a quarter – some say a whole third – of its population, and that was its most viable part, was crushed in the nineties under the destruction and the smoke of the civil war. Yet, despite all our illusions, we can’t hide the fact from ourselves that this happened because of the unwillingness of other Yugoslavian peoples to live together with us. The bloody anti-Yugoslavian demonstrations in Zagreb broke out at the very beginning of Yugoslavia’s life, in December 1918, and like the atrocities of the Ustash in the Second World War and the other international conflicts we misunderstood them. And these same peoples at the time of the crisis of the renewed state in the last decade of the century, with the fall of the socialist order in Europe, were given military support against us by the world powers.
We have to admit that we are quite responsible for these horrible events. At the time when Serbia had to turn to itself and the democratic way of inner life, and when there was an open road before it, it started to forcibly defend the two unsuccessful and lost state concepts – Yugoslavia and socialism. Which one of the two is more unsuccessful and more tragic cannot be said. With the right the great western powers ascribed to themselves and with the practically approved crime, we were subjected to air raids and military aggression during which, along with the intense human suffering, almost all of our industry was destroyed. A part of the politicians and most of the Serb statesmen from the time of the civil war – both from Serbia and outside of it – were arrested to be tried by an international court or to “await” such a fate, and this is also what a part of the prominent Serbian military leaders are facing. If the Serbian state is preserved – and maybe this is questionable at the moment – it can be sentenced by international courts to pay war reparations to each former Yugoslavian state for decades to come, just like an aggressor state brought to its knees. All this, deserved or not, we’ll have to bear as an inevitable and incurable historical and moral stigma for decades to come.
Our justifications that Yugoslavia was the best project for the protection and progress of a group of undefended small nations on the Balkans are in vain, since this very group of nations in fact did not endorse it; we are not the only ones asking ourselves this, nor were we the owners of the Yugoslavian state. Our justifications that during the establishment of the former commonwealth Serbia did not take advantage of anything are in vain; this is also something we are not the only ones asking ourselves about. It is naive that we believe the world must understand the Serbs’ desire to shelter at least everyone who belongs to the Serbian nation under the Yugoslavian flag. We are informed that in history such state ideas haven’t been accomplished by much greater and more important nations than the Serbian, let alone them. The disrespect for the thinking of the other participants in the failed state was judged as such a gruesome crime that it was used to exclude every opposition to the collapse hiding behind the protection of the Serbs outside of Serbia. If that hideous crime hadn’t been committed in Srebrenitsa – a crime very unlikely to have been ordered by any of the Serbian leaders – every attempt to defend Yugoslavia as a state wouldn’t be regarded as an international war crime. There isn’t and there won’t be mercy for us on this piece of Europe today, nor in the coming decades. The notion “Serb” will carry the most mordant meaning in the whole world in the decades to come.
Excerpt from the interview with the writer Ivan Ivanovich, Deputy Minister of Culture of the Republic of Serbia
War Isn’t a Solution to Anything
Is there a refuge from the monologism and masochism of the Balkan people? What is it?
The Balkan people are not monolithic, neither ethnically, nor politically, nor historically – so it is difficult to characterize them as monological. Even though they live under the same sky, the Balkan people have constantly fought with each other (just in the modern history of the Serbs and the Bulgarians there are four wars, not to mention the ideological ones). So the metaphor, which a Macedonian writer used, regarding the Balkans as a powder keg is completely applicable. Maybe the problem lies in the fact that we have always been an important crossroads and the place where the interests of world powers have clashed. On the other hand, I am convinced that the Balkan people themselves have to a great extent contributed to this situation. I accept that Serbian nationalism is the result of the masochism, respectively of the statement, we are the victim of a global conspiracy.
Which authors – Serbian, Balkan and world – would be essential for an imagined anthology of chauvinism?
It is hard to answer such a question. Every power has its writers, the so-called “state writers”. There have been few authors whose voice has been the voice of conscience, like Zola for example. There are many lackey-writers, and we have Marinko Arsich Ivkov who even compiled “An Anthology of the Serbian Lackey Poetry”. But these are not chauvinist writers. I don’t know whether Bulgarian literature had writers supporting the Bulgarian occupation of Serbia during the two world wars, for example. Serbian literature had many writers with a strong national charge which later grew into nationalism. By nationalism I mean a self-asserting nation. In the beginning of the nineties when the Serbian president Slobodan Miloshevich started so many meaningless wars a big portion of the elite Serbian intellectuals supported him. Some even entered politics, like Dobritsa Chosich who was thought by many to be one of the leading Serbian writers. Chosich was unsuccessful in politics, but his excuses afterwards are also of no value. I, however, cannot point to any chauvinistic works in Serbian literature.
How do you assess the role of Balkani, the private publishing house, for the Balkan literary and cultural cooperation, especially the role of the Balkan Library Series? Such a comprehensive series of all Balkan authors has not been published in Bulgaria since 1878. What hatred, prejudice and ideological taboos, what loss of time…
I will remind you of the initiative of the Serbian poet Rade Drainats to create Balkan culture. As far back as 1930 Drainats published a text in your newspaper Literary Voice propagating the establishment of a new culture and civilization to explain the genes of the race we belong to, i.e. the Slavic race. The similarities would make Serbs and Bulgarians share the common ideological statement to establish a new authentic Balkan culture. Drainats was looking for the immanent Bulgarian culture. Since some Bulgarian intellectuals (Lyudmil Stoyanov, Konstantin Konstantinov, Velchev and others) perceived this initiative negatively, Drainats emphasized the fact that Balkan people (especially between Serbs and Bulgarians) often had conflicts and confrontations in the past and that made cooperation impossible. But the poet was ready to reach out, to seek reconciliation with the Bulgarian intellectuals, though he knew our historical contradictions were not completely cleared. From the Bulgarian side Drainats received a reply from the editor of Literary Voice Mitov that this idea was not new, and that Lyuben Karavelov dreamed of the same thing but didn’t get any reaction from the other side. I think that “Balkani” takes the side of Karavelov and Drainats, so I completely back you up.
What do you think the Balkan people cannot divide?
Balkan people are tied together by their common history, close culture, similar civilization. That is why they shouldn’t be divided anymore, but should cooperate with each other. Only the integrated Balkans will find their place in Europe. If the European project United Europe succeeds, then the Balkans will no longer be a powder keg. And if it should fail, I’m afraid that keg will again explode.
What bigger opportunities do you see in this initiative and what new partners and participants, besides your highly respected involvement?
I think your project Literary Balkans should be popularized in the other Balkan countries as well. And your publishing house can be the spark which will give birth to the flame.
In the Feedback section you can see interesting comments from Ljubljana and Skopje about the special editions of the magazine dedicated to modern Slovenian and modern Macedonian poetry and prose. Some of the largest circulated newspapers in Slovenia, Delo, and in Macedonia, Dnevnik, cover the publication of the respective issues and recognize the positive impetus such events provide for the cross cultural communication.
The publications of the largest circulated Serbian newspapers, Politika and Vecherni Novosti, as well as the report of the TANYUG information agency, all note unanimously positively the premiere of the novel Prey translated in Serbian. There are also interesting letters from the Macedonian writer Sasho Kokalanov from Skopje, from the famous Macedonian poet (who writes both in Macedonian and Albanian) Prof. Agim Vintsa from Skopje – Pristina, from the Chairperson of the Romanian PEN Gabriela Adamesteanu from Bucharest.
The initiatives of Balkani Publishing House have been noted in the newly-opened Macedonian Cultural Center in Sofia, and in the presentation of the Balkan Library series to students of Balkan studies at the University of Veliko Turnovo.
Excerpt from the essay of the writer and publisher Georgi Grozdev
The Discovery of the Balkans
The Balkans have not yet been discovered by us nor by the outside world. We are not talking about their geographical discovery. What do we think we know about ourselves? What does the world think it knows about us? Others’ ideas and our ideas are oftentimes misconstrued. Is there a “Balkan soul”? Doesn’t it comprise those common specific aromas, sensations, ideas, myths, hopes and legends of the peninsula? A way of thinking and living of the separate nationalities as different as it is similar and close. Enmity in this life has ancient roots, just like struggle for domination does. The worst sworn enemies from the past mirror each other. Winners and losers seem to resemble each other more than differ from each other. The world is wrong if it continues to see us through the sights of mutual Balkan hatred.
The future has already challenged the sleeping Monsters of the Balkans. There is no turning back and what once was can no longer be. After the removal of the ideological bans and scarecrows, attempts to resuscitate the religious are visible. The 21st century is too rational, and the integration of the Balkan people and their states in the European Community will not leave thinking at a primitive folklore level.
Balkan modernization and civilization is given a new impetus. It is only natural that there are different viewpoints about what is going on and what is to going to be.
The century-old fear of melting and assimilation of Balkan neighbors has not yet dissipated. The need for integration – economic, political, and cultural – provides easy food for nationalism in its xenophobic and chauvinist manifestations. But it also gives hope to alert and intelligent minorities to look for new roads, to build new bridges, to look for passages to the future. Our responsibility for the future, for our children’s children is greater than that for the past.
Whoever lives only and primarily in the past remains in the freezer of history. Deeply authentic and frozen.
In order to survive as Balkan people, to react appropriately to the new challenges we have to find new arguments and reasons and not lazily memorize what our ancestors have found out for their time through lots of blood, sacrifice and suffering. Their answers, taken mechanically and effortlessly, won’t work. Resorting to this so loved method is a sign of helplessness and lack of insight.
Balkan people are marked by their past. Young people, the new generations have the chance to shake off the shadows and look to the light, to turn their backs on hatred and invest in a normal natural human communication.
It is not easy because many lies and myths for domestic use will collapse. Today these lies stand in the way of the future. The friendship between the great Bulgarian poetess Elisaveta Bagryana and the remarkable Serbian poet Rade Drainats was mentioned by the writer Ivan Ivanovich, Deputy Minister of Culture of the Republic of Serbia. The people who were present weren’t aware, and how could they be with this mutual communication deficit, that it was precisely publishing house “Balkani” in April, 1999 (when Belgrade was bombed) that published the book of Blaga Dimitrova and Yordan Vassilev “Meeting at the Crossroads” dedicated to Rade Drainats and Elisaveta Bagryana. The attraction between neighboring literatures and cultures is present today as well, though the winds are not always favorable. Because despite the favorable winds this is about a personal choice, a personal attitude, and a personal culture. Because the poets and the writers have always been those alert and intelligent minorities who have seen into the future, while others have slept…
These thoughts come to mind now, before everything else. Before the thought of the “fast” orient-express Sofia-Belgrade which traveled about 400 km in 13 hours. Not to mention the lack of mirrors in the compartments and toilets as well as the missing parts of seats in the Bulgarian cars, unlike the Serbian. Train station landscapes though are similar. Right under the “Keep Clean” signs all walls and fences are covered in dirt.
The bridge is something which reaches out to connect two or more roads. If it is not there, life stops, sinks into itself, becomes desolate and overgrown with weeds. Will this be understood by a person who doesn’t walk the Balkan roads, who’s not convinced anything valuable has been lost that he should be the one to find? How many are the flighty people who take it upon themselves to do it? Adventurers and scoundrels on their way to find profit and justice around the neighboring countries and peoples. Which are we?
No bridge, life becomes savage. Its roots grow wild and it becomes so bleak it is even impossible to go around. In places like this man loses himself as well as others. Regardless of the Internet.