Ritual giving to Tito should be understood as only one part of the exchange of gifts between the nation and the leader, and the second, ritualised, part constitutes the offering of Tito to the nation. The latter, top-down, part of the offering is at the beginning of the exchange, since it relates to the miraculous appearance of Tito and his historic role in the struggle, which “gave” Tito to the nation of Yugoslavia.

In the symbolic order established during the Tito era, an important place was occupied by various forms of expression of love and respect for Tito’s “person and works”[1]. One of these forms was sending collective and individual presents on the occasion of his birthday and other holidays, together with appropriate wishes for a long life and an oath of loyalty to the path which he had set out. A more original form was Tito’s Relay – known as the Relay of Youth from 1975 – which was something along the lines of a secular pilgrimage, during which “male and female members of the communist youth organisation” and “soldiers and athletes”, went from one place to the next, carrying a special hollow baton in the shape of a torch, inside which was a greeting card for “Comrade Tito”.

Amongst the presents inventoried and catalogued in the former Museum May 25th (since 1981 the “Josip Broz Tito” Memorial Centre[2]), two large groups can be singled out. The first group is made up of objects derived from traditional rural culture, which even today correspond to what would generally be considered appropriate presents. These are objects such as handkerchiefs, tablecloths, pillows, pillowcases, tapestries, socks, slippers, sheet music, hats and other similar handicrafts. There are also several table lamps, a pullover, a liqueur set and a case for glasses. Tito, known as a passionate smoker, also received very many snuff boxes, cigarette holders and cases, ashtrays and lighters. The donors of such gifts were women from the countryside, carpenters, hatters and other “ordinary people”, amongst them were people to whose child (usually the tenth in succession) he was comrade[3]. For example, the catalogue lists a “cotton handkerchief”, a present from his comrade, Pajazit Sahat, from the Kosovan village of Orlate (23rd April 1955).

The political value of these types of gifts could stem from their poverty and simplicity, for such qualities suggested that they were “gifts from the heart” and the recipient was the object of sincere and deep love of the poor masses. This suggestion is supported by the fact that the donors usually made these objects with their own hands, and thus they were not only a “gift from the heart”, but also from the hands of common people. They were most often the handiwork of women, fitting in with the picture of Yugoslavia as a harmonious family, whose most important member was not the father of these nations and national minorities, but their “greatest son”. And what else would our caring mothers donate to their son if not embroidered handkerchiefs and knitted socks?

This first group of gifts usually came from women and people from the countryside, whereas the second large group is made up of objects sent mainly by men, soldiers and workers. These are mainly scale models of various machines, tools, manufactured goods and other objects linked with the activities of the “working man”. The arms industry is well represented, including many light and heavy weapons, from hand grenades and rifles to artillery and tanks. There are also models of torpedoes with a torpedo launcher, as well as a scale model of a whole naval base with a lighthouse and three rocket ships.

However, other models of products, machines, utensils, tools and similar objects characteristic of various branches of industry dominate in this group. Small locomotives, miniature bridges, trucks, buses, cars, rollers, cranes, tractors, bulldozers, mining wagons, ploughs, pincers, pliers and stoves, all arrived as presents for Tito. There was also a small vacuum cleaner, a camera, skis with poles, a pair of shoes, a fi re extinguisher, a model of Jugodent dental surgery and a model of an object, which in the collection catalogue is described as an “orthopaedic support tool for the left leg, hip and chest”.

Other branches of work are represented more modestly. Schools and cultural institutions tended to choose different types of present. In this part of the collection, two scale models are particularly interesting: a classroom, which was sent to Tito by Čurug Primary School in 1957, and also a theatre stage with decorations, a present from the National Theatre in Rijeka, presented in 1950.

Also related to these models are statues of soldiers from different service backgrounds (border guards and communications) and workers (an electrician, metalworker, stoker, blacksmith, steelworker and miner). As a rule, beside or in the hands of the figure portrayed by the given statue is an object symbolising their profession. Thus, hammers and anvils help to identify a blacksmith, a lantern and pickaxe indicate a miner, and a steelworks furnace a steelworker.

What was the symbolic function of bestowing gifts on Tito in the form of models and statues? In looking for an answer to this question, we may be helped by the following information: nearly all the models rep-resent specific objects or a series of things (type of product), either exclusively or originally linked with the donor. An example of this is a model of a steam railway crane, which was offered to Tito by Skopje Roundhouse. Railroad workers from Skopje did not send a miniature crane that was similar to the one used by them at work as a present, but a model of the actual crane, marked with the number “JDŽ – steam crane 999􀀑004”. More often models of typical products, usually industrial ones, that were not linked with the donors personally (as above), but represented the type and “make” of products (used by the donors) were given as presents. However, even in such situations, the emphasis on marking the model is striking. For ex-ample, a scale model of an FAP lorry has the marking 7GVLF.L, and a scale model of a locomotive – DC 328. This is why most of Tito’s presents look like a collection of objects from the daily life of Lilliputians located in an imaginary Gulliver Memorial Centre.

The giving of these models and statues to the lead-er shows that the donors wanted the present to not just be a sign of respect, devotion, gratitude or some other feeling towards him, but also to actually symbolise the donor. In some cases, the desire to com-bine two types of sign within one gift in accordance with their established code – a conventional sign of respect and a sign which represented the donor – led to unusual compositions, including a locomotive with a bottle of perfume positioned on it. Moreover, signs of a low-level of abstraction were usually used to represent the donor, which according to Charles S. Peirce’s classification can be categorised as iconic signs, in other words ones which show what they mean directly – as if the givers of presents were trying their hardest to actually give themselves (or at least themselves as “working people”), but in a miniaturised format.

Such a method of giving, in which the gift and the donor are one and the same, is consistent with one of the main slogans of Tito’s regime: “We are Tito’s, Tito is ours”, an adapted form of the slogan of the Pašić Radicals[4] from the end of the 19th century: “We belong to Pašić, Pašić belongs to us”. The second part of this slogan: “Tito is ours” leads to the conclusion that ritual giving to Tito should be understood as only one part of the exchange of gifts between the nation and the leader, and the second, ritualised, part constitutes the offering of Tito to the nation. The latter, top-down, part of the offering is at the beginning of the exchange, since it relates to the miraculous appearance of Tito and his historic role in the struggle (“Our Struggle gave us Tito as Field Marshal”), which “gave” Tito to the nation of Yugoslavia. Since then, the nation has to ceaselessly try to return the favour, although its offerings will always be inadequate compared to the immense size of the present with which Tito has “bound” the people to himself.

What is not very well-known is that from 1945 to 1987, over 20,000 batons with birthday cards for Tito were carried by the relay teams. The relays were divided into localised and main ones. The main ones included relay teams carrying batons of the republic and also dozens of other batons, whose senders varied over time depending on the political situation. And thus the senders included: the Yugoslav People’s Army or particular military units and formations, the larger cities, builders of important objects, various workplaces, as well as social and sporting organisations. For example, in 1952, besides batons from the republics, “batons from the free territory of Trieste, the pioneers of Yugoslavia, citizens of Belgrade and Carinthia, the anti-aircraft defence and fire service organisations SFRJ, border guards, builders of Vinodol power station, cooperatives, unions and associations of motorists and motorcyclists, tourists, sailors, airmen, riflemen, cyclists and the Equestrian Sports Association of Yugoslavia were relayed to Comrade Tito”[5]. Up until 1956, Tito personally accepted batons from those who carried them last, whilst batons of local relay teams were handed to representatives of the local authorities in their headquarters, and were then sent back to the storehouse in Belgrade.

The receiving, carrying and handing over of batons can be described as a form of symbolic contact communication. It connected – although today we would say: “it formed a network of” – all those who had the opportunity to take a baton into their hand and pass it on, and also those who only came to see and greet the relay teams. In a similar way, also through symbolic touch, the baton linked all the towns, paths, mountains, rivers and horizons, through, along and over which, the relay teams ran, swam, sailed by boat and flew by plane. Care was taken to choose a route along which the ba-tons “would visit” all the important points in the symbolic geography of the Tito regime, in other words “all the historic cities and battlefields of our revolution”[6].

The aim of relay baton communication was to establish a direct, so-to-speak physical, bond between the citizens of Yugoslavia and its regions, and for everyone to be linked with “Comrade Tito” as the last person who accepted the baton and the only one who kept the baton for himself for ever, without obligation to pass it on further. In contrast to a sceptre in the hands of kings and the heads of churches, un-touchable by all other people, the baton was given symbolic political value precisely through being touched by as many hands as possible. Whilst a sceptre, with one end facing towards the ground, and the other facing towards heaven, symbolises the bond of the person holding it with heavenly power and his right to represent this power on earth, the relay was a symbol of the bond between the leader and the nation, and thus a symbol of legitimate authority exercised on behalf of the people. At the same time, especially in the first period until 1957, eff orts were made to ensure that the batons were relayed by as many pairs of hands as possible and travelled as far as possible, as if the intention was for the batons to really bear traces of every hand that had held them and dirt from every place through which they were carried.

Year by year, the number of participants in the relay and the length of the route increased. In 1945 there 12,500 participants, and the length of the route was 9,000 kilometres. Ten years later, 1.4 million people took part in the relay, and the route was 96,000 kilometres. However, it seems that these were the maximum numbers achieved. In any case, from 1957, the Tito Relay policy changed. From that year, “respecting the will of Comrade Tito, the youth of Yugoslavia celebrates the day of his birth as its holiday, Youth Day, and the Tito Relay becomes the Youth Relay”[7]. One of the changes con-sisted in the fact that Tito stopped personally accepting several main batons; from then on only one baton reached him, which was ceremoniously handed to him by only one person (who had carried it last).

This “great” baton acquired a new role, significantly distinguishing it from all the others. For it was not only supposed to be a sacral object, accumulating miraculous energy (love, gratitude and hope) thanks to being touched by thousands of hands and travelling thousands of kilometres – and hence being a sort of “fuel” for the political power of Tito – but also a symbol of the other batons, the hundreds of “small ones” which did not reach his hands. It is described in a book about the relays: “The Relay of Youth hands the baton – as a symbol of all the relay teams which continue to bring greetings from all the regions of Yugoslavia – to Comrade Tito on his birthday”[8]. From the beginning of the 1960s, the “small”, ie “local”, relays gradually lost their importance, which was the result of the development of television. The magical baton could be in every home and, as it were, in everyone’s hand by watching just one relay and the ceremonial handing over to Tito of one baton at the JNA Stadium in Belgrade on television. Tito used the magic of the relay less and less for the purpose of the ritual depiction of the merging of the leader with the country and nations of Yugoslavia, whilst making increasing use of the much greater magic of television. In the last phase of the regime, as much remained of the relay as was suitable for television.

Tito’s Relay, that is the Relay of Youth, was held for the last time in 1987, the same year in which Slobodan Milošević took power in Serbia. Shortly afterwards, in place of the relay another type of symbol of political power and unity would appear on our roads: relics of saints and poets. Some of them, including the relics of Prince Lazar, set off at the beginning of June 1989 from Ravanica, and reached Gračanica on June 28th, on the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo. At the same moment, not far from there in Gazimestan, Milošević was delivering his famous political speech, predicting the armed conflict in Yugoslavia which was to begin shortly afterwards.

Translated from Polish by George Lisowski


This essay was published in a book by Ivan Čolovic, Za njima smo isli pevajuci (Pelago, Zagreb 2011), and also in the publication, Vlas Tito iskustvo, under the editorship of Radonji Leposavica (Samizdat B92, Belgrad 2004).


[1] This wording is from the constitution of the former Yugoslavia, protecting not only the president-for-life, but also his work (footnotes marked with an asterisk have been added by the translator).

[2] Tito’s birthday was celebrated on May 25th (although he was supposedly born on May 7th). This day was later named the Day of Youth. His grave is located in the Memorial Centre, also known as the House of Flowers.

[3] A symbolic institution similar to the folk custom of (spiritual) brotherhood, involving swearing an oath of brotherhood etc.

[4] Nikola Pašić (1845-1926), politician and co-founder of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, later the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes; represented the SChS at the Versaille Conference; he held many state positions, including premier (1921-1926); in his youth he was a socialist, then an advocate of parliamentary democracy and finally a conservative and first leader of the Radical Party.

[5] Titova štafeta – Štafeta mladosti, Memorial “Josip Broz Tito”, Belgrade 1986, 7th edition, supplemented and extended, p. 18.

[6] Ibidem, p. 17.

[7] Ibidem, p. 8.

[8] Ibidem.

About authors

Ivan Čolović

An eminent Serbian intellectual, translator, ethnologist, anthropologist, human rights activist and promoter of civil society. He studied at the Modern Languages Department of Belgrade University, has translated French literature, including Roland Barthes, Georges Bataille, Georges Poulet and Claude Lévi-Strauss and received a doctoral degree in ethnology at the same university. He actively opposed the war, co-founded the Society of Independent Intellectuals, the Belgrade Circle and the independent Writers’ Forum. He is one of the creators of the independent academic network by the Open Society Foundation and now runs a private publishing house, Biblioteka XX vek, based on a series which he initiated (1971) and edited in state-owned publishing houses. He has been engaged in exploding myths which incite nationalism and is investigating the role of the widely conceived culture in creating these myths. His publications include Književnost na groblju (1983), Divjla knijževnost (1983, 2000), Bordel ratnika (1993, 1994, 2000, 2008), Politika simbola, 1997. Laureate of the Herder Prize, Knight of the French Legion d’Honeur and holder of an Honorary Doctorship from Warsaw University.


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