Mapy jugosłowiańskie i postjugosłowiańskie

Imagined Identities

Imagined Geography. Yugoslav and Post-Yugoslav Maps

Publication: 17 August 2021

NO. 2 2011



For imagined geography (peculiarly mythologizing the native space) is governed by different laws than those of its scientifically bent younger sister. It constitutes places and establishes borders which are quite arbitrarily related to the real situation. Its most important function is defining, designating and integrative creation of native space (the territory of the ideological motherland), and not an “objective” (scientific or political) or clearly personalized (subjective) description of native and foreign space.

A map that is an image of a given territory ordered according to rules of belonging / possession is a kind of scenography, setting or a space-time framework for a collective, but still personal / individual identity narrative[1].

This is how we could define the starting point for the following analysis, to some extent modifying the way in which contemporary historiography treats the relationship between geographical space and the social mechanisms of self-identification. For I supplemented this definition with an “individualistic” theme which is important for my purposes and to which I shall return.

First, I ought to clarify the concept of imagined geography which should be understood as a provisional generalizing metaphor of a very broad question concerning the relation between territory and the community with its historical tradition. It is not my intention, however, to narrow this question down to ethnic or national issues, but to invest it with the dimension of individual experience of native time-space, for this experience is the crucial domain of literature.

The opposition between public and private sphere, expressed also as the opposition between the ideological and private homeland (Stanisław Ossowski’s terms), assumed a new significance in the new Post-Yugoslav reality of the turn of the millennium. It became a kind of metonymy for an axiological, not to say political debate. It began to function as a symbol of the main alternative defining the sphere of individual / personal relations with the community, as a metaphorical synonym of the choice between the individualistic and collectivist attitude in the broadest sense of the latter term.

Without assessing either of these attitudes as morally superior, we must nevertheless say that elementary choices of this kind, made on an individual level, in our context become social / public acts. And their connection with the eponymous imagined geography seems indisputable, for the image of native / ancestral space will be created differently by artists preferring the individualist perspective and by those who subordinated their imagination to the more or less correctly identified needs and goals of the community. It is clear that while the horizon of the former will be defined by pondering the story of one’s own personality, the energy of the latter will focus on strengthening the existing or emergent (also political) selfhood of this community, on fulfilling some differentiating or integrating functions towards it. The way of understanding this basic relation (“I” versus “we”) will determine the rules governing the imagined space, as well as the kind (kinds) of ordering which this space should conform to in order to become a symbolic map of individually or collectively updated “places of memory.”[2]

Even a cursory look at the history of the Yugoslav idea is sufficient to note a telling evolution of the symbolic repertory, and hence of the contours of the imagined maps, designating the native territory for the community endorsed by this idea. In short, we will undertake a journey across Grand Illyria, taken from the Baroque fantasy of Pavao Ritter Vitezovič (Stemmatographia, sive armorum Illyricorum delineatio, descriptio, et restitutio, 1701), unceremoniously drawn upon by representatives of the nineteenth-century Illyrianism (first half of the nineteenth century). Then, through Strossmayer’s “Yugoslavia of the spirit,” with the “Croatian Tuscany” at its heart[3], we will find ourselves in the already political space of “Yugoslav nationalism” from the turn of the twentieth century. The real equivalent of the latter was the interwar unitary Kingdom of Yugoslavia, replaced in the second half of the twentieth century by its ideological opposite and territorial counterpart – the “second” Yugoslavia, socialist, federalist and internationalist.

I deliberately resort here to historical simplifications and geographical imprecisions, and even the colloquial terms “first” and “second” Yugoslavia. For imagined geography (peculiarly mythologizing the native space) is governed by different laws than those of its scientifically bent younger sister. It constitutes places and establishes borders which are quite arbitrarily related to the real situation. Its most important function is defining, designating and integrative creation of native space (the territory of the ideological motherland), and not an “objective” (scientific or political) or clearly personalized (subjective) description of native and foreign space.

As the spatial concepts and symbols from the nineteenth century Illyrian or Yugoslav visions have been frequently analysed, we will focus here on the symbolic inventory of places and spaces connected with the “first” and second” Yugoslavia. But we must remember that what I called imagined geography is ultimately a narrative phenomenon, and its most important attribute is continuity establishing the framework for inner / historical change. Therefore, despite the temporal variety of elements prevailing in this spatial narrative, some places and events recur in it as dominant features or as background, while the values they are assigned may widely differ.

Within the nineteenth-century integrist projects both Kosovo Field (a Serbian mythologem), and Krbava or Siget (Croatian “places of memory”), as well as gora Romanija or crnogorske vrleti (precipices) – legendary refuges of the Haiduks fighting the Turks – and finally Dubrovnik or Senj (the seventeenth-century fortress of uskoki – Slav escapees from the Turkish Empire) were invoked as the “common places of the Slav realm.” In the Illyrian or “Yugoslav” collective narrative (endorsed by Strossmayer) these places were brought together by a memory of an extraordinarily heroic or extraordinarily successful – as in the case of the Republic of Dubrovnik– resistance to the Ottoman Empire. Thus, they functioned as symbols of historical destiny, effectively uniting the South Slavs.

But as early as the turn of the twentieth century, in the radical ideology of the “Yugoslav nationalism,” the values assigned to these places were subjected to a significant reinterpretation as a result of which their meanings (previously much varied) were channelled into a unifying, Meštrovician vision of the Kosovo myth. It accentuated the Messianic, supranational (“Yugoslav”) dimension and meaning of this myth, and found its expression not only in the monumental sculptural projects of Meštrović, but also in the work of other Croatian artists, especially in the dramas by Ivo Vojnović, poems by Vladimir Nazor or essays by Vladimir Čerina[4].

Due to this reinterpretation of symbolic space, obviously an element of actual political processes, the forgotten “Croatian Tuscany” of Bishop Strossmayer was replaced in the Yugoslav imagined geography with “Serbian Piedmont.”[5] The theatres of battles won (Kumanovo, 1912; Kolubara, 1914) and lost (the Solun front, the retreat through Albania) during the Balkan wars and World War I became incarnations of the “blessed defeat” that is the (spiritual) win at Kosovo Field. For the founding myth of the “first Yugoslavia” was the defensive and liberating mission of the Serbian army which ultimately brought independence – within a common state – to their “South Slav brethren” so that they could promptly become a mighty Yugoslav nation. The native space, stretching “from Triglav to Okhrida”, was situated on this map not only in the centre of the Balkans, but also in the centre of Europe rejuvenated by war. Therefore, the imagined geography of the “first Yugoslavia” naturally concentrated not only around Kosovo, but also around the “Imperial” places of memory, connected with the Medieval Nemanjic state, and particularly with the short period of its glory under the reign of Stefan Dušan, “the Emperor of the Greeks and Serbs” (mid-fourteenth century). The “publicity version” of the Serbian (Yugoslav) statehood – as one literary critic from the period sarcastically put it – ever more clearly dominated on this map over the real condition of the country, successfully turning in into a dynastic dominion of The House of Karađorđević. The national imagined spaces of the Croats and Serbs were located on the distant peripheries of this dominion, far from the heart of their Yugoslav homeland, beating in Belgrade. But over time these peripheries started to acquire an ever more distinct shape, building and broadening the imagined territories of their separateness, and finally, during World War II, exploding the map of the “first” Yugoslavia charted by previous generations. The most obvious example of this are the borders of the Independent State of Croatia – put on the map in the war years and containing also the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Srem area – which, of course, was by no means independent.

The (internationalist) imagined space of the “second” Yugoslavia was organized by the idyllic Brankovo kolo[6], the martyrdom of the Communist partisans and the holy principle of bratstvo and jedinstvo (brotherhood and unity), inseparably joining together the Yugoslav peoples and nationalities – soldered together by the common narodnooslobodilačka borba (the national liberation struggle) and bright prospects for the future. The joyful parade of representatives of its singing “lands,” endowed by nature with inimitable beauty and variety of landscape, of dancers wearing carefully styled folk costumes and locked in an all-unifying ritual embrace, both folkloristic and official, was imposed on the cartographic grid of the new, but still Yugoslav country. This map was defined by the lines of seven German offensives against the partisans, with the battle of Kozara, of the Sutjeska and of the Neretva immortalized in resplendent cinematic frescoes (with the cast comprising local and Hollywood stars), by the legend of Užička republika (the area around the town of Užice briefly captured by the partisans in 1941) and by the (changing in time) “liberated territory” – liberated from the occupiers and the nationalist traitors, “enemies of the people.” A frightening “place of memory,” created by these traitors was Jasenovac, an Ustasha death camp whose only officially commemorated victims were the pre-war Communist activists (besides the less significant Jews and Gypsies and the totally unmentioned Serbs). The new map was dominated by inaccessible mountains and rushing rivers. The Haiduk refugees came back: the gora Romanija plateau looming above Sarajevo and the crnogorske vrleti known from The Mountain Wreath[7], with the landscape serving as a perfect background for the heroic acts of Marshal Tito’s dauntless partisans. But the heart and crown of this imaginative map was more[8], the emblematic plavi Jadran, regarded as common good – this time of authentically and willingly united and equal Yugoslav peoples and nationalities. This propagandist image of native space was endorsed with astonishing eagerness by literature, and it was not just an expression of the writers’ opportunism or servility. This image was perfectly although somewhat selectively inscribed in the traditional cultural matrix firmly rooted in the folklore and the nineteenth-century nation-building ideologies.

In the 1960s and 1970s this Soc-Realist / romantic map was gradually supplemented with peripheral and sombre places: the mountain hideouts of partisans from the novels by Mihail Lalić, lost or besieged among the crnogorske vrleti, miserable but exotic suburbs of the local metropolises, enthusiastically visited by the authors of the Serbian stvarnosna proza[9], remote islands and villages where time stood still and were the Croatian characters from the Krugovcy generation novels[10] carried on morosely. But as we can easily note, these are social peripheries, rather than regional, ethnic or national. They were islands of individual suffering in the flood of collective heroic optimism, preserves of dark past, still not entirely overcome, or ghettoes of frustrated artists doomed to failure, just like the characters from the early short stories by Miodrag Bulatović.

Only in the 1980s and 1990s was this map was supplemented with Goli Otok, a horrifying incarnation of the many “resocialization places” for the opponents of Tito (mostly his recent comrades in arms) and with Sremska Mitrovica, a harsh prison where his other political adversaries were kept. One of them was the great Serbian writer Borislav Pekić, convicted as a young man for “anti-state activities,” who many years later created an impressive overview of the “prison civilization” in his autobiographical work Godine koje su pojeli skakavci (“The Years the Locusts Have Devoured”, 1991)[11]. Such modified map also featured the Kočevski Rog plateau in Slovenia and the Austrian Bleiburg – as emblems of the fratricidal massacres carried out by Marshal Tito’s triumphant partisans at the end of World War II. There was also room for Jasenovic, this time perceived as the most dramatic symbol of the Serbian nation’s martyrdom, and not (as before) as a Fascist concentration camp where the murdered victims were mostly the Communists. New points and paths, formerly invisible, were inscribed in this map: Sutjeska – not as a sign of the partisan’s resistance to the so called fifth German offensive from 1943, but as the battlefield for the last struggle of Serbian Chetniks against Tito’s army, and the Croatian “Stations of the Cross” endured by the fugitives from the Independent State of Croatia surrendered to Tito by the Allies in 1945 in Bleiburg[12]. But the appearance of these formerly invisible points and trails meant in effect the ultimate destruction of the imaginary map and the actual space of the “second” Yugoslavia.

The Post-Yugoslav maps, with their contours to be glimpsed already in the 1980s, may be classified in terms of two diametrically opposed strategies of imaginary mapmaking. The first one might be called retributive / communitarian, and the second one, which appeared later, could be named nostalgic / individualistic. Like every categorization of this kind, it contains an unavoidable element of simplification, for the social imaginary space and especially individual imagination are much richer and more complex than anything we could ever say about them.

The dominant element describing the native territory on Post-Yugoslav retributive  / communitarian maps is the category of national space, its borders and reach determined mostly by means of the metaphor of a (living) organism. The organic connection between the nation and its territory, which is not a new concept and which some time ago we tended to regard as a highly anachronistic phantom in the context of the modern European imagination, springs back to life here with unexpected force. Also returning is the image – archaic, but very efficiently utilized by nationalist propaganda in the 1990s – of graves as border stones (“The ancestral bones command the borders of the Serbian land”)[13]. Another recurring theme is one of the oldest oppositions, namely between culture and anti-culture or non-culture (the Chetniks are “humanoid creatures,” writes the Croatian columnist Dubravko Horvatić, and the bestial image of the enemy also features in the anthology of poetry entitled In This Horrific Moment, edited by Ivo Sanader and Ante Stamać, inspired by the Croatian-Serbian war in the early 1990s)[14]. The native territory is described with anthropomorphic metaphors, and its frontiers have a natural character: they are formed by rivers or mountain ranges which sometimes surprisingly change their location[15], and sometimes serve as the vital organs of the native body[16]. Hence, any act of violence to this imaginary territory is conceived of as amputation, dismemberment, mutilation. The inner topography of this organically defined national space is also modified, which finds a particularly telling illustration in the (politically motivated) shifts within the Croatian imagery. The forgotten capitals of Medieval rulers are revived in it, for example the provincial Knin[17] or the long non-existent seats of mighty Croatian families (Ozalj), and the reborn country finds itself in a cradle[18], which, by the way, seems to contradict its thousand-years existence and its natural (spiritual) greatness and power.

In contrast to nesvrstana (non-aligned) “second Yugoslavia,” proud of the fact that it did not belong (at least officially) to either of the “camps,” the new reconstructions of national territories – with various concepts of identity – are differently placed also on the map of Europe and even of the world. The sense of belonging embodied in them is very clear: they belong to Europe understood as a synonym of Western civilization, to the Christian culture (often opposed to its antemurales), they find their place on the borderline or even in the centre of the ancient and modern Mediterranean (the case of Macedonia)[19], or they are islands of “non-Europe / anti-Europe” (the case of Serbia) exclusively preserving the genuine spiritual values betrayed by Europe[20].

Let us turn now to the individualistic Post-Yugoslav maps, which are not always the domain of nostalgia, as it might seem at first sight. They can also be the domain of ironic self-parody, although that happens much less frequently and such texts usually function as a bitter diagnosis of the situation of the entire society, examples of which are the excellent The Culture of Lies by Dubravka Ugrešić and other literary texts.

“Etrascija […] is an introverted country, an apophatic state […] keeping apace with the newest discoveries of physics: the chaos theory, quarks, particles of which it cannot be said with absolute certainty if they exist or not, if they are here, there or in both these places at the same time. Or that they are nowhere,” writes the Serbian author Svetislav Basara in his novel Ukleta zemlja[21], and adds in another fragment:

“Ordered by the King or the Party, the loyal sons of this land go to the remotest corners of the planet. They die there, leaving their bones behind. These osseous facts are used as an argument supporting the motto featured on each of our innumerable graves: Wherever there are bones of Etrascijans, there is Etrascija. Since some time ago self-respecting states do not allow the subjects of the President to cross their borders.”[22]

But the individualistic Post-Yugoslav maps are strongly dominated by private geography, usually, though not always, founded on the sense of irretrievable loss. Makers of these maps focus on topographical specifics, on small everyday details which determined the inimitable ambience and shapes of concrete places: cities, streets, regions or trails; on individualized and provincial corners of this territory, and as such disregarded by the Nation, but still the most authentic and thus (in this context) almost naturally heterogeneous and unofficial. Unexpectedly close to each other emotionally, we find here Pavel Pavličić’s Vukovar, annihilated by the war and scintillating like the Danube for centuries defining its existence, the intimately neighbourly and unofficially “multicultural” Sarajevo of Miljenko Jergović, the socialist Bjelovar of Goran Tribuson, the noisily multilingual, but still cohesive Mediterranean of Predrag Matvejević, the cosmopolitan Belgrade of Mirko Kovač and Filip David.

These private maps of native space, often derisively stigmatized as “Yugonostalgic,” are in fact warrants of the continuity of the collective identity narrative. These maps, remarkably often sharing a common vision of more, plavog Jadran or a river, immutable in their constant mutability, create a real time-space framework for renewed stories about communal identity.


This essay was originally published in a volume of studies enti­tled Zrozumieć Słowiańszczyznę (Understanding Slavdom, Maria Dąbrowska-Partyka, ed.,WUJ, Kraków 2010) inspired by the work of Professor Maria Bobrownicka – a leading authority in Slavic and com­parative studies in Poland.


[1] Jacques Revel, Daniel Nordman, La formation de l’espace français, in L’histoire de la France, André Burguiere, Jacques Revel (eds.), Paris 1989, p. 33 and passim, quoted in Maciej Falski, Porządkowanie przestrzeni narodowej – przypadek chorwacki, Warszawa 2008, p. 154.

[2] It is a term used by the French scholar Pierre Nory, borrowed from Frances T. Yates and defined by Andrzej Szpociński as “own names of objectified artefacts and names of historical events and heroic figures about whom members of a given group think that they hide some ideas important for them. It is of little significance if such events really took place, if the heroes worshipped by the group are historical or mythical figures. The deciding factor is that according to the members of a given group they are bearers of important values and judgements.” Andrzej Szpociński, Społeczne funkcjonowanie symboli, in Symbol i poznanie. W poszukiwaniu koncepcji integrującej, Teresa Kostyrko (ed.), Warszawa 1987, p. 18; quoted from Grażyna Szwat-Gyłybowa, „Haeresis bulgarica” w bułgarskiej świadomości kulturowej XIX i XX wieku, Warszawa 2005, p. 16.

[3] See a collection of essays on the conceptions of the nineteenth-century Croatian political activist and one of the most eminent Catholic clergymen of his time: Josip Juraj Strossmayer, Chorwacja, ekumenizm, Europa, Maria Dąbrowska-Partyka, Maciej Czerwiński (eds.), Kraków 2007.

[4] This subject is comprehensively treated in the already invoked book by M. Falski, Porządkowanie przestrzeni narodowej, op. cit.

[5] More on this see Maria Dąbrowska-Partyka, “Kosowo. Piemont. Jugosławia. O niebezpieczeństwach projektowania historii”, in Maria Dąbrowska-Partyka, Literatura pogranicza, pogranicza literatury, Kraków 2004, pp. 147−166.

[6] Brankovo kolo was a ritualistic element of mass events and official ceremonies in the “second Yugoslavia.” It served as a symbol of the brotherhood and unity of national and ethnic communities living within it. The name of this dance of “Slav reconciliation” first appeared in an epic poem by Branko Radičević, a nineteenth-century Serbian poet.

[7] An epic poem by the Montenegrin ruler Petar II Petrović-Njegoš published in 1847, functioning as the Serb national epic and codifying the Serb national ideology based on the Kosovo myth.

[8] See Dubravka Ugrešić, “Elementarz”, in Dubravka Ugrešić, Kultura kłamstwa (eseje antypolityczne), (The Culture of Lies) translated by Dorota Jovanka Ćirlić, Wrocław 1998.

[9] See Magdalena Dyras, W poszukiwaniu prawdy. “Nowa serbska proza” na przełomie lat sześćdziesiątych i siedemdziesiątych, Kraków 2000.

[10] The term referring to the generation of Croatian writers connected with the magazine Krugovi (published in the 1950s), who radically changed the nature of the post-war Croatian literature.

[11] See Sabina Giergiel, Obcość jako los. O prozie Borislava Pekicia, Opole 2008.

[12] See Aleksandra Borowiec, Termin “droga krzyżowa” w najnowszej historii Chorwacji, in Przemiany w świadomości i kulturze duchowej narodów Jugosławii po 1991 roku, Julian Kornhauser (ed.), Kraków 1999.

[13] Ivan Čolović, Granice, in idem, Polityka symboli, translated by Magdalena Petryńska, Kraków 2001, p. 48: “Piles of skulls fill up the graves  /  in our country bold and brave,  /  in Slavonia rich in corn,  /  in Krajina with crags forlorn.  /  The ancestral bones command  /  the borders of the Serbian land” (Dragoslav Knežević Krunica); “Where are the (Western) borders of Serbia? […] They were marked by […] Ante Pavelić: they are where the Serbian tombs and collective graves lie” (Vuk Drasković).

[14] M. Dąbrowska-Partyka, Domoljublje i kulturocid. Retoryka chorwackich tekstów o tematyce narodowej, in Przemiany w świadomości i kulturze duchowej…, op. cit., pp. 195-208.

[15] “Tuđman wanted to have the Drina as a border, thus to flow beside Knin the river was ordered” (Mirko Pajćin, Mały Knindža), quoted from I. Čolović, Granice, op. cit., p. 43.

[16] The Drina as the backbone of the Serbian nation (“Since times immemorial flows the Drina  /  through the bucolic stretches of this land, /  it is the mighty backbone,  /  binding the Serbian nation with a lustrous band” – Milutin Savić, quoted from ibidem, p. 45), Neretva as the aorta in its blood system, Kosovo as the heart, holy land and so on. As Čolović adds sarcastically, the biggest problems have been presented by the brain, which in the geographical vision of Radovan Karadžić appeared in Bosnia, otherwise troubled with the national “leopard skin disease;” this is a metaphor, popular some years ago, for the territorial dispersion of the Serbian ethnic enclaves in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Veselin Đuretić, speech at the Congress of Serbian Intellectuals, 1994, quoted from ibidem, p. 46).

[17] See Ivo Žanić, “Zvonimir na remontu. Politika kao pučka književnost”, Erazmus 1996, no. 15.

[18] See Magdalena Dyras, Re-inkarnacje narodu. Chorwackie narracje tożsamościowe w latach dziewięćdziesiątych XX wieku, Kraków 2009.

[19] See Lech Miodyński, Powroty znaczeń. Aktualizacje tradycji kulturowych w literaturze macedońskiej po 1945 roku, Katowice 1999, and especially Lilla Moroz-Grzelak, Aleksander Wielki a macedońska idea narodowa, Warszawa 2004.

[20] It is an important ideological theme in the Serbian nationalist discourse, omnipresent in the political rhetoric of the 1990s. See Dorota Gil, Prawosławie. Historia. Naród. Miejsce kultury duchowej w serbskiej tradycji i współczesności, Kraków 2005.

[21] In the excerpts quoted Etrascija is, of course, an allegory of Serbia governed by the administration of Slobodan Milošević. Quoted from Sylwia Nowak-Bajcar, Prawda literatury, prawda rzeczywistości. Przywołanie dzieł klasyków literatury serbskiej we współczesnej prozie serbskiej, in W poszukiwaniu nowego kanonu. Reinterpretacje tradycji kulturalnej w krajach postjugosłowiańskich po 1995 roku, M. Dąbrowska-Partyka (ed.), Kraków 2005, p. 414.

[22] Ibidem.

About authors

Maria Dąbrowska-Partyka

Professor of Serbian and Croatian studies, literary and cultural theorist, translator. Lectures at the Jagiellonian University. She studies literature from the cultural perspective, she is interested in the theory and practice of translation, especially of literature, and in the issues of discourse. Her many publications include the monographs: Poetyka i polityka. Proza serbskiej lewicy międzywojennej (Poetics and Politics: the writings of the interwar Serbian Left, PWN, Kraków-Wrocław 1988), Teksty i konteksty. Awangarda w kulturze literackiej Serbów i Chorwatów (Texsts and Contexsts: the avant-garde in the literary culture of the Serbs and Croats, WUJ, Kraków 1999), Świadectwa i mistyfikacje. Przed i po Jugosławii (Testimonies and mystifications: before and after Yugoslavia, WUJ, Krakow 2003). In 2005 the book Literatura pogranicza, pogranicza literatury (Literature of the Frontier, the Frontiers of Literature, WUJ, Kraków 2004) won her the prize of the Literatura na Świecie monthly in translatology, lexicography and literary theory.


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