Serbska utopia. Między utraconą Arkadią a nieodnalezionym miastem

Cities for Thought

The Serbian Utopia. Between the Lost Arcadia and the Unrecovered City

Publication: 11 October 2021

NO. 5 2011



The utopian yearnings of our ancestors would seem to have been orientated more towards natural surroundings than urban ones.

In the wilds of eastern Serbia, in a place called Gamzigrad, in the ruins that are all that remains of a once bristlingly fortified palace complex, there is a mosaic depicting a mysterious ideograph of a labyrinthine city. If an imaginary traveller were to set off for its centre, he would have to pass through the first, then the second, then the third sector of the city, and turn precisely twenty-seven times to three points of the compass. Whether coincidentally or deliberately, the number of turns (3 × 3 × 3 × 3) corresponds to the number of years of Plato’s life.

This is an esoteric diagram that teaches us that man passes through degrees of visible and invisible reality to reach the world of transcendence. By taking a wise course through the illusion of life he may, if he is successful, reach the spiritual centre and, as in all mystical cults, come to identify with the essence of the universe…. While it is difficult to follow this type of speculation today, it is immediately clear that within this symbolic representation of the city is a refined religious philosophical concept. As the Gamzigrad labyrinth is in an area where there is not even a village on the horizon, let alone a town or city, we may indirectly deduce that there were once educated urban people here, with urban cults and an urban philosophy.

The idyllic peace of the labyrinthine city depicted here is all the more astonishing that the mosaic must have been created in the early days of the great Migration Period, when the ancient world was in the inexorable grip of collapse. Around thirty years ago, in the direct vicinity of the mosaic, in the corner of the basilica, it was still possible to see a newly excavated, very basic clay hut, barely bigger than a fox’s hole. This was probably a dwelling of elder brothers of ours, ur-Slavs who had arrived in the Balkans. How terrified they must have been at the incomprehensible forms of these magnificent ruins and the foreboding magic of the scenes on the mosaics.

Our present-day notions of the Migration Period should take into account that after they were razed many cities somehow picked themselves up, refortified, and lived on, two or three times smaller. The delicate thread of urban civilisation along the Mediterranean coast and in central regions of Europe was not severed in spite of everything. Roman urbanisation along the Sava and the Danube does not appear to have penetrated further into the territory of present-day Serbia, however. The collapse of the ancient world brought a drastic decline in what today we would call the overall indicator of urbanisation. And by the beginning of the Middle Ages, at least in the centre of the nascent Serbian state, this indicator, irrespective of the criteria by which we might calculate it, was virtually zero.

If we collate all we know today of medieval Serbian towns, it becomes clear that Serbia was not a country of either rich, influential people or architecturally impressive towns. A more accurate description would be “a country of former towns”. The fantastical toponyms in the folkloric tradition – Leđen-grad [Frozen City][1], Smrčaj-grad [Spruce City], Nedođin-grad [The City of No Return] – are extremely mysterious. One might say that they are no more than elusive shadows of other times and circumstances. A repeat, as if in miniature, of the situation described in the epic poems from the times of the German invasion, when the city was believed to be an ancient, abandoned superhuman creation of the djinns (eald enta geweorc) and, likely for that reason, in the name of a pre-urban morality, the object of disdain and punishment. There are texts in early Serbian literature that certainly indicate that a feature of this Serbian punishment was a truth-loving fire that on occasion could outblaze even parables from the Bible, the Koran, the Mesopotamian epics and the Rigweda. The catalogue of Stefan Nemanja’s terrible expeditions to destroy cities, recorded by his son, Stefan the First-Crowned (in the 13th c.), even as an anachronistic literary form gives the impression of exaggerated passion: “And so it was that the merciful saint Simeon (Stefan Nemanja) set out with the Hungarian king and came to a town called Sredca, and razed it and ravaged it completely. And when the Hungarian king returned to his state, the Saint left him and marched with his army on the town of Pernik; it, too, he razed with his armies and ravaged, and the town of Stob, and the town of Zemln, and the town of Velbazhd, and the town of Žitomisk, the town of Skopje, and the town of Leški in Donji Polog, and the town of Gradac, and the town of Prizren, and the famous town of Nisz, and the town of Svrljig, and the town of Ravni, and the town of Kozli. These towns he razed and destroyed to their last foundations, for he left no stone upon any stone, that was not razed. And they have not arisen to this day. But their lands and their riches and their fame he added to the riches of his fatherland and the fame of his noblemen and his nation.”[2]

This list came from the time when Serbia was emerging from its seat in Rascia in the Dinarides, where there were no towns at all, and was starting to expand eastwards and southeastwards.

The instability of towns and urban life would become evident again a few centuries later, across what was by then the far broader area of Serbia. The fact that over this relatively short period of history the state capital changed frequently – there were seven capitals, if I recall correctly – suggests an undeveloped rather than a highly developed urban life. The seat of the last Serbian ruler, the imposing fortress in Smederevo, was not a town but a gigantic oppidum with a keep for the court. The rest of the vast land it encompassed clearly served as a military camp and shelter for refugees. Kruševac, the mythical centre of the medieval Serbian state, from where the troops set out for the Battle of Kosovo [1389], is insignificant in terms of the history of urbanisation. The foundations of the eulogised courts of Lazar are scarcely bigger than the slightly superior 19th-century artisan’s house in Kruševac.

Myths have no need of a real setting, which can, in fact, detract from them. The legend in which Prince Lazar Hrebeljanović is forced into a situation in which he has to choose between his earthly kingdom and the heavenly kingdom is based partly on something of a scenographic mistake. The Augustine – and to a slightly lesser degree Manichaean – antithesis of the Divine State vs. the world is in the naïve poetic theological version replaced by metaphor and the identification of two “kingdoms”. The kingdom must have been something very remote and vague, and thus probably seemed more suitable for a poetic version than the meagre notions of state and world.

Ethnography, perhaps even more so than archaeology, evinces unfamiliarity with, even lack of respect for the town. When one looks more closely at the vast body of materials on human customs and beliefs, one realises that there is no mention either of the day-to-day situation in the urban environment or of attitudes typical for urban dwellers. Instead there is a wealth of information about nature, about the animal and plant world, and even the very rare attempts at cosmography are closer to a biomorphic and vitalistic image of the world than they allude to geometry or basic mathematics. And it is this latter type of allusion that is characteristic of urban civilisations and their cosmographic models, as the Gamzigrad labyrinthine city mosaic illustrates in its own way.

Evidently the town/city did not attract particular attention from our ancestors, did not awaken their ambitions, and so could not function as an ideal for them. Incidentally, there have been other nations in the history of European civilisation that did not keen after city life. Suffice it to recall the controversy between the Spartans and the Athenians, blood brothers. The Spartans, in thrall to an ancient Doric, bucolic exaltation, refuted the idea of urban life, so that for them Sparta the city was merely a kind of spreading, unfortified military camp – a step down from our Smederevo. Neighbouring Athens was a more “urban” city than many present-day urban settlements of the same size.

The fundamental intention of both camps was influenced by choice, but also by a certain motivating category of psychology that I would term a “utopian yearning”. The utopian yearnings of our ancestors would seem to have been orientated more towards natural surroundings than urban ones. Towards the end of the period of Serbian independence and the Middle Ages Constantine the Philosopher resolved to paint, in exquisite words, an ideal, virtually paradisiacal landscape of the Serbian world. His utopian projection – for this is what we must call it – situates the territory of the Serbia of the times in such an important region of the world that from its interior the purest air spills over to the four corners of the earth, as far as the Hellespont. He also describes the wonderful properties of this air, which render it virtually an ur-element. He then adds to his description the 36 great rivers of the universe, including, of course, the Fison, i.e. the Danube, but also the more earthly river Sava, “which stands here like a wall, for both sides, and joins in the most beautiful place, where the Fison flows in from three sources, with two islands, on which the bright White City[3] is built.” In the mind of this intellectual from the days of the despot Stefan Lazarević, i.e. at the very dawn of the Renaissance, the real natural environment of Serbia was still an isolated example of a far broader metaphysical whole. Whether, as a settler in the White City, granted to the despotic Stefan by the Hungarians, he really believed that the Danube flowed out of paradise is not deducible from his immensely ornamental work.

It was certainly no coincidence that Constantine set such store by hydrography. By no means beyond the scope of his experience – on the contrary, before his very eyes – he had a mesh of rivers and marshes, a “land of seven rivers”, if one counts from where the Drava flows into the Danube and the Drina into the Sava, to where the Sava, Tisa, Tamiš and Morava flow into the Danube. In the Middle Ages and beyond, these rivers had to pass through their own marshes and bogs. Austrian military maps from the 17th and 18th centuries show labyrinths of bogs all across the land north of Belgrade, and the only “terra firma” in present-day Vojvodina was the embankments created to either side of communication routes, and isolated islands of dry land. Water threatened not only the left bank of the Sava and the Danube; vast flood plains stretched south of Belgrade, too, from the mouths of these rivers and further on up the Great Morava and the West Morava.

A cursory glance at the hydrological map of Serbia, or at its geological map (at the landslides and erosion sites caused by flooding), could give the erroneous impression that overall, conditions for urban development in northern Serbia and present-day Vojvodina were extremely unfavourable. And indeed, there were territories that cited these disadvantages as the reason for the delay in their urbanisation. Yet it is a well-known fact that, almost paradoxically, urban civilisations have been born in far less favourable conditions at the intersections of great rivers – in the Nile delta, in Mesopotamia (the Tigris-Euphrates basin), on the Yellow and Yangtze rivers in China, in the Punjab (the “Land of Five Waters”). In fact, our own “land of seven waters” had a role in the emergence of highly developed Neolithic cultures whose sphere of influence radiated as far as the Aegean. Ultimately also the Roman colonisation of our present-day territory, and later the Austrian colonisation of contemporary Vojvodina negate theories attempting to explain solely in terms of external causes something that is hard to explain as anything other than impulses residing deep within man himself.

The situation of the towns in Turkish Serbia, Serbistan, is sure to be studied and compared with the accumulated, unsolved mysteries of non-urban, pre-Turkish Serbia. After Rome, Turkey was the second empire with a highly developed urban culture and culture of urban life. The wealth and beauty of the towns of Bosnia, Macedonia and Wallachia was out of reach of the Turkish towns, at least those in northern Serbia, particularly after the great wars around Belgrade…. History is often ironic. The hapless towns in the catalogue listed by Stefan the First-Crowned, that Saint Simeon “razed and ravaged to the ground”, were now in the prime of their second life, more peaceful and wealthier than the small towns of the now legendary Belgrade pashalik, and shortly after the Serbian uprisings [1804, 1815] would once again become the half-empty nests of the revived Serbian state.

During the peace negotiated in Požarevac [between Austria and Turkey, 1718] it was noted that northern Serbia had something over 500,000 “taxable heads”, i.e. families. We should add that in the previous small Turkish towns there was virtually no Serbian population. Travellers describing Belgrade cite many languages that could be heard there, but mentions of Serbian or Serbs are few and far between. Yet the well-known Erlangenski rukopis [“The Erlangen Manuscript”, beginning of the 17th c.], in descriptions of excursions outside Austrian Belgrade and visits to surrounding villages, speaks solely of Serbs, and among the names mentioned are some that have survived to this day.

There is reason to suspect that the medieval model as outlined by Stojan Novaković (Selo – “The village”) survived in the Turkish period, too. In simplified form, this went as follows: agriculture in valleys and areas of mild climate, vineyards in the foothills, and cattle rearing on mountain slopes and plateaus. We know for certain, however, that swathes of cultivated land shrank during the Austro-Turkish wars and forests began to spread…. One naïve, overly brief, intensely sentimental novel (Milorad Šapčanin, Sanialo – “The dreamer”) describes life as recently as in the first half of the 19th century in the cleared glades in Lamartine’s famous “ocean of Serbian forests”. The plot, such as it is in this novel, is played out in the romantic surroundings of a lonely Serbian school. The time comes when the main character, a somewhat overgrown rural rascal, bids farewell to his village, his teacher and the teacher’s daughter (his childhood sweetheart), and sets off on foot for Belgrade with his father to continue his studies. Just outside the town, which at that time was slightly larger than Kalemegdan Hill and Terazije Square, the future grammar-school student stops his father and exclaims something to the effect of “O father, what a beautiful, what a huge village!”

The fact that in the first decades of the 19th century even the citizens of liberated towns were not entirely clear on what constituted a village and what a town is also reflected in the well-known comment by Vuk Stefanović Karadžić that some Serbian villages are larger in size than many European towns. What he was referring to were the spreading villages, which in his times were so spread out that today no-one would call them villages at all; they were no more than sparsely populated territories. Similar misunderstandings are reflected in the shocking fact that in Vuk Karadžić’s lexicon [Srpski rječnik, 1818] the concept of “town” in the full and sole sense in which the word is used today did not exist at all.

But though the inhabitants of the new Serbia – who were virtually pioneers – had no notion in their conceptual system of what a town really was, they knew, or at least believed they knew, that it was also possible to live well and happily without a town. Šapčanin’s idyll, even if it does not describe the true reality of his times, gives credible expression to the “utopian longing” of the Serb to remain in his blissful childhood for ever. This novel, however, may be treated as a snapshot – a Momentaufnahme – of the situation in which Serbia found itself in the short interlude in the middle years of the 19th century. Those circumstances may have resembled a briefly fulfilled, happy land, outside the world and history. Serbia was under the control and protection of great powers, without a true army of its own, without megalomanic ambitions, self-absorbed, and essentially pleased with itself.

The rural construction system in this forest-bound country, where oak, beech and other timber was abundant, was completely wood-based. Everything was made from wood, from the cradle to the grave marker. The houses were wooden, as were the roof beams and the roofing material itself. Even the chimney flues were wood, constructed to take account of a calculated partial burn-up – oxidisation, which at least partly reduced the risk of frequent fires. Locks were wooden, and the tools used to open them, along with all other types of instruments and mechanisms. The comical hydraulic devices would require only slight exaggeration to be reminiscent of a technical imagination of the league of Leonardo da Vinci…. Even Karađorđe’s legendary cherry cannon is not a loose metaphor but a paradoxical historical fact. Indeed, the very “structural engineering” of the heavens themselves was based on existing concepts of wood-based technology. The vault of heaven in folk cosmography was supported on “forked branches of heaven”, which performed their function as ingenuously and precariously as ordinary sticks supporting the fern roofs of improvised shepherds’ huts.

Towns, both those that were erected on the ruins of their predecessors and those built from scratch, were also largely built from wood. And all structural elements that were not wooden were usually painted white. This was in itself a reflection of a wood-based technique – more precisely a technique based on destroying wood. Nowadays few people realise how much firewood it took to burn even a modest quantity of lime. The idyllic white walls whose gleam was the ornament of the Serbian land were extremely expensive. Lime was used not only to whitewash walls, but also in masonry. And so this enchanted wheel revolved: when prime-quality timber began to be in short supply, the main structural material became brick, which still consumed too much wood in the firing process.

Like their naïve techniques, the worldview of the archaic Serbian Arcadian idyll was simple, but very durable – alas, too durable. And when later the process of moving from a world of naïve technology to one of technological naivety began, it is easy to imagine the uncertainty, mistrust and fear this must have aroused; fear of the new, of the language of technical form and function, and thus of the terrible, indecipherable messages it brought. Even at the end of the 19th century, when at the Congress of Berlin Serbia was ordered to build an international railway line, the deeply rooted utopian ideal of this “happy land” provoked resistance in Serbian souls. As a matter of fact, the political demagogues did far more to incite these souls. The radical party, the populist, anti-western scourge of modern Serbia, whipped people up with tales that this railway was a “fiery serpent” that would splice their land in two and burn their crops. It should not be forgotten that at the other extreme to the radicals was a more progressive party of educated urban people that was desperately fighting for the modernisation of Serbia and its inclusion in the western world. But its abstract arguments of progress seemed unconvincing to the broad masses, who did not want their dreams of a “happy land” destroyed for anything. And their land would be fully happy only when taxes were abolished, the “official” class trampled and some form of self-government implemented along the lines of the Old Serbian family zadruga [community] model.

It is hard to conceal a smile at such reminiscences. I wonder what would have happened had the radicals succeeded in creating this Arcadia of theirs, and if it had somehow miraculously managed to survive to our times. Would this Arcadia have satisfied the ideals of today’s green parties? Or would it have become some kind of outlandish, distorted Balkan Amish reserve? Indeed, perhaps Peter Handke’s travelogue[4] does betray some trace of fascination with the Amish, which I suspect was fed to him craftily and unnoticed.

The sensible western European reader attempting to follow Balkan, and in particular Slavic Balkan thought imagery – la pensée imagée – which often takes the form of parallel and even contradictory images, is fully justified in asking how they are to reconcile the ideal of the small, autarkic, autistic Serbia with the dreams of a Great Serbia. This is a contradiction that is very hard to explain. I can only suspect that Srbijanacs (Serbs from pre-Kumanov Serbian territory, not Serbs from Vojvodina or Croatia or Bosnia)[5] harbour a kind of dual-track nationalistic dream. They have their small utopia, they know what this “happy land” is, and they have all they need there to live it up to their hearts’ content, but from time to time, in moments of patriotic euphoria, they have proposed this model of happiness to other Serbs, on condition that this goes hand in hand with territorial expansion on a suitable scale, of course. But there is another possibility which I suspect is somewhat more likely. These other Serbs, those from outside this Arcadia, accepted this utopia as a joint programme back in the first decades of the 19th century, and they want to see this Arcadia expanded to include “all Serbs everywhere”, even at the price of ethnic cleansing, wars and urban destruction. And if the plan does not succeed, there is always the small Serbia, the common home of all the Serbs in the world.

The whole of the western and central Balkans are a region of vast, strange migrations in various directions and for various reasons. Does this need recalling at all at a time when Croatian Serbs, to a man, are leaving their home of ages and heading for Serbia? The Serbs of Sarajevo are also leaving, who knows where for? And it is a matter of days before those from eastern Slavonia cross the Danube. Only people steered by deeply rooted, utopian, or perhaps more precisely mythical-utopian notions could have allowed themselves to be drawn into an absurd political and military game that ultimately was doomed to end in resettlements as the only possible solution.

The routes and visible classic mechanisms of migration outlined by Jovan Cvijić are explained exhaustively enough; what is less well explained is their deeply hidden psychological motives. When the Serbs left Kosovo under pressure of another Balkan migration, the direct motives were clear. When they then continued their wanderings from southern Hungary toward the Russian steppes in search of a New Serbia, they were driven by obsessions and visions known only to themselves.

Present-day Vojvodina tended to be settled by waves from the south, which often included some early urban dwellers, but those who reached northern Serbia tended to be predominantly from the completely unurbanised Dinarides. In Vojvodina Austria staged a planned European-type colonisation, while the settlement process under Miloš Obrenović basically came down to more or less unrestricted occupation of abandoned land and clearing of forest, which was more reminiscent of the North American settler movement than European colonisation. In thrall to the habits they had brought with them, and perhaps for some other reasons, the settlers tended to prefer a more scattered model of building. Farmsteads tended to be prudently located at a rifle shot’s distance from each other, and even slightly further apart if the oral tradition of the residents of Šumadija is to be believed. Given the abundance of building material and the size of the family communities, both “farms” and houses were rather spreading. One Russian traveller even thought the houses were more robust and larger than those of the more modest Russian landowners…. But at the same time, this was also the end of the idyll – Šapčanin’s idyll, of course. Rifles were being improved and could shoot farther, and because the population density was increasing, the distances between farmsteads was diminishing.

North of the Sava and the Danube, new villages (Kolonialdörfer) were springing up built along the road, i.e. in perpendicular, linear fashion, and some of them were imperceptibly growing into small towns. This type of civilisation was spread outwards from towns to villages. In the southern part of the Serbian lands, however, things were entirely different. In the initial phases of urbanisation not only were towns unable to exert any influence on villages, but villages, up until the most recent times, actually impacted on the customs of urban life. This reversed process is clearly visible on one particular old photograph that has been preserved in the municipal museum in Prokuplje. It is a panorama of the town, evidently taken in the last days of Turkish rule, before this region fell to Serbia. It seems almost incredible how the urban and suburban landscape in the Toplica river valley has changed barely a century since the Congress of Berlin. Turkish Prokuplje was sited in empty territory that – probably in view of the Anatolian goats – is reminiscent of Asia Minor. Yet even on the photograph it is clear that the town was full of gardens and poplars rising amid the harmoniously modelled roofs of the houses and konaks [manors]. Today we would say that Turkish Prokuplje was something along the lines of an oriental garden city in a wasteland setting. By just a few generations later, this image had changed diametrically. The traditional arable culture had transformed the Toplica valley into a domesticated landscape, and had even reduced Prokuplje to a large, unconvincingly regulated village with barely a few attributes of the beginnings of urban Europeanisation…. The barracks, railway stations and district authorities’ offices, though surprisingly well designed and executed, look like implants from another world in this climate.

The scenography of Arcadia was changing rapidly at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. The patriarchal communities were falling apart, vast family estates were being divided up, and cottage crafts were dying out. The countryside was growing increasingly poor, and towns large and small were rather uncertainly, and even fearfully, coming to grips with the first elements of urban standards. Land surveyors – the first urban planners, but also the first architects educated in the West – did what they could to bring civilisation to the settlements south of the great rivers. Despite their efforts, and due in part to the impoverishment of society and state, in part to a lack of real urban traditions, and in part to a deep-rooted anti-western conservatism, instead of true urbanisation the early 20th century saw the beginnings of hybrid semi-urbanisation processes.

Naturally, migration mechanisms were still active within these processes, sometimes silently and invisibly, at other times turbulently and all too evidently. Belgrade today has as many residents as Vienna, but in my childhood it had barely as many as Innsbruck. Over the lifespan of just one generation it has been rocked by several demographic shocks that have had the effect of symbolic damage to the city from within. In the years 1945–1948, following what we might call an armed demographic implosion, even the urban style of speech, rapid and slightly edgy, was almost entirely supplanted by the epic cadence of the conquerors, slowed for pathetic effect. As the style of interpersonal contacts was destroyed, the delicate threads of urban memory and the relatively established structure of urban self-awareness were also severed.

The constant current from the non-urban – or more precisely suburban – world, the uninterrupted inflow of suburban constructs and fictions, especially after World War II, kept towns in the Serbian region hostage to vague, dangerous, archaic prejudices that time after time were mixed up with the views of the new para-religious “science” on life and the world.

In this chaotic muddle of two utopian schemes – the one social, stridently eloquent “worldly historical” and the other minutely local, quaintly rustic – the town, to the disorientated semi-urban man, was virtually a no-man’s land, a barren space in both mental and moral terms, devoid of beauty or merits. The semi-urban man was thus prepared altruistically to offer, and even impose upon the town his own code of values. The misfortune was all the greater that when he reached the pinnacle of society he could alter and remodel the town…. In the 1950s and 1960s this semi-urban builder (as a client, as a patron, as an ideological tyrant, but also as an under-educated, culturally deficient specialist) revelled, like every Johnny-come-lately, in delighting himself with his grand architectural projects. This was most likely his way of stifling his frustration at the true, invisible gates of the town not having opened up to him…. And so it was that in this period the now traditional Serbian semi-urbanisation began to evolve into a pompous, propaganda-oriented pseudo-urbanisation; beneath the cheap, gaudy cloak of our socialist city landscape, beneath the excessively heavy concrete ceilings, the glass and oxidised aluminium ornaments, cowered a small, terrified barbarian, still living in his isolated Gamzigrad clay hut.

Unfortunately, the circumstances I describe no longer require proof. In the horror of the recent war, the destroyers of towns and takers of ruins were not only inhabitants of epic plateaus, but also declassed, or, more accurately, as yet “unclassed” urban dwellers, people without an urban memory, perhaps without any memory of a native locus, people without knowledge or trade, those who found both their home and their craft in the very horror of war…. And so, let us hope, we have come full circle. The small Serbian utopia has been proved once again to have started with innocent dreams (are not utopian novels essentially light reading?) and ended in blood and madness.

Two great names, Dositej Obradović and Vuk Stefanović Karadžić, symbolically but faithfully personify the archetypical rift in our Serbian souls, our love-hate relationship with the town, our dalliance between reality and utopia.

The Dositej model of an as yet unrealised secular Serbian culture was in its very genesis urban, western and, as far as its modest potential allowed, cosmopolitan. Today the fact that Dositej was for these very views much respected in his own time, not only in the region of present-day Vojvodina and not only among his contemporary urban Serbs, is a fact that is deliberately ignored. People saw in him a teacher, a wise man, even a philosopher – at least in the broad, Enlightenment sense of the word. Dositej was well travelled and knew a lot, and so he knew which roads, what type of roads, lead to the wide world and the spiritual treasury of civilisation, and this was certainly much appreciated.

Slowly but surely the Enlightenment drew to an end and the age of Romanticism dawned. South of the Sava and the Danube, beyond the then border between Europe and Asia, a new state and a new society were forming, and thus it was entirely natural that a totally new model of culture also emerged. Vuk’s vision of the future buildings of the Serbian soul was neither consummate nor particularly clear, but it flattered the ears of those who came to Serbia chiefly from an orally defined mythical-epic time and space…. Dositej’s model was closely connected with the written word and scholarly discourse, and his teaching called for careful, dedicated study, hence to the fiery Dinaric nature it might have seemed pedantic and wearying.

There cannot be the least doubt that the appearance of Vuk set in train entirely new processes. But today, precisely today, we would have sufficient reason to ask whether, aside from all the good this brought, it did not revive, unawares, the mechanisms of certain age-old Serbian obsessions. This great reformer of the language and creator of the modern Serbian national consciousness came from an archaic, pre-urban environment and was rather ill-disposed towards urban phenomena and values. Our great Vuk, as we know, had a tendency to be hasty to strike even the few town-dwelling Serbs from the list of true Serbs and rule them heartless sons lost to the nation. Conversely, the non-urban – and therefore ideal – Serbs were talented children of nature, untouched by civilisation. They were not entirely reminiscent of Rousseau’s literary philosophical dolls, but to a certain extent, at least, they might suggest the “noble savages” from the archipelagos of the Southern Ocean as depicted in early 18th-century rapturous but fictional travelogues.

Dositej and Vuk thus represented two diametrically opposed approaches to Serbian culture, Serbia’s future, and even Serbia’s fate. This was in some way even deducible from their attire. Dositej’s dress of choice was a redingote with a lace ruffle and cuffs, knee-high stockings and comfortable moccasins with large buckles. All this was of good stuff and in perfect condition, as befitted an intellectual, and, most importantly, carefully selected according to the English bourgeois fashion as interpreted by the encyclopaedists in absolutist France.

Vuk’s attire had an oriental elegance about it, defiant and expressing self-defence: his Christian fez (no, this is not an oxymoron!), exotic moustache and baggy, knee-length trousers in the Zouave style must have seemed ridiculous to the youth of Belgrade and Kragujevac, students and those who dressed and behaved according to the European fashion. These were, of course, two different fashions, two tastes, but also two aspirations – two manifestations of how Serbia’s future should unfold.

There is no need to stress particularly that both models, the Enlightenment and the Romantic, were equally necessary, that they could have a harmoniously supplementary impact – this would seem entirely natural. And so it was, for a long time. Even in my own now-distant school days Dositej and Vuk, Vuk and Dositej, though different in spirit and appearance, were somehow always together, on classroom walls, for instance, and at school ceremonies, and it would have occurred to no-one to separate them.

But over the past few decades a strange kind of match has developed: Vuk was increasingly elevated, and the memory of Dositej displaced. A particular type of journalistic rhetoric began lauding, increasingly frequently, almost agitprop-style, not only Vuk’s actual achievements, but also some kind of vague “Vukesque thought”, “Vukesque world view”, and even “Vukesque philosophy”. Vuk’s undeniably great oeuvre, hitherto fully coded in philological and ethnographic terms, suddenly began to take on a new, autonomous, myth-ical value. The annual folk festivals in Tršić [Vuk’s na-tive village], featuring dancing and singing, increasingly came to resemble church fêtes, with Vuk himself gradually metamorphosing into a latter-day saint.

I once had the honour of speaking at one of these fêtes in Tršić. I was of the opinion that Vuk’s genius de-served a few more objective words rather than empty praise. I went through his lexicon carefully in advance and underscored all the terms that had anything at all to do with the town and urban life. Although I was not expecting to make great discoveries, I was astounded to see what was missing. It sounds improbable, but Vuk’s lexicon does not contain the entry “street” in its con-temporary meaning. His definition of “street” is an in-sufficiently defined space outside the front of a house (and only in Mačva, if my memory serves me correctly), and only as its second or third meaning – in Dubrovnik – also sokak [a short, narrow lane]. The entry grad [town, fortified gord, fortress] refers to a fortress and not to a town, and gradjanka [here: female citizen] to a female resident of a fortress – and, probably under-standably, a Turkish concubine, femina ex arce…

I attempted, sadly but with conviction, to emphasise the greatness of Vuk’s work. He had the courage, in conditions of tragic backwardness, to articulate the cultural ambitions of a nation which was in the majority still living in a country without streets… Interestingly, my categorical theses offended not the national but the political sentiments of the personages in the front rows. It was with astonishment that I realised that Vuk, aside from who he really was, was now being venerated as a solemnly appointed, un-touchable Serbian party icon.

Naturally, Vuk cannot be held guilty for everything that was subsequently squeezed from his romantic rapture over a Serbia without streets, just as in another sequence of events neither Wagner nor Nietzsche are guilty. But in the grim years that we lived through, this sick fascination with the icon that was Vuk reached its apogee. In the preparations for war and the course of war Vuk was cult figure number one; the most active activists grew exaggeratedly anti-western moustaches and sometimes even dressed in costumes styled on that of the great Serbian linguist and writer. All that they lacked was his unfortunate fez, because the undereducated angry Vukists – who do exist – did not know that there was also a Christian, and therefore Serbian fez….

In this collective madness, the stupefied masses carried large photographs of Vuk on placards; there were more of them than there were of St Sava and his father, a saint by the name of Simeon Mirotočivi [the Myrrh-Streaming], the less than mild destroyer of Byzantine and Bulgarian towns…. Parliaments in the krajiny[6] and the so-called Serbian Republic convened and took decisions beneath huge portraits of Vuk. Pursuant to decisions taken by these parliaments, towns were razed and local Serbs, from Zagreb, Sarajevo and the towns of Slavonia, were condemned to an uncertain fate; while in revenge campaigns empty, barely settled plateaus were looted, and villages and orchards taken. This was a very cruel, very bloody, but also very archaic war. Some future “ethno-psychoanalysis” will measure how many subconscious phantasms there were in the Serbs’ absurd, strange choices of military targets, and whether those who bore the huge likenesses of Vuk were not promised by his demonic[7], semi-divine figure escape from the contemporary world and a return to a long-lost paradise.

The undereducated man succumbs easily to visual and audio suggestion (we might add that the fiddle as much as the television played an effective part in this enchantment), but on occasion can decode the most hidden messages with astonishing ease and accuracy. Everyone understood what Vuk Karadžić’s Zouave, anti-western attire had to offer the Serbs, and where it was calling them, just as with unerring instinct the primitive people at once sensed that Dositej Obradović’s dress was a decisive rejection of them, because it was facing in an entirely different direction. This is probably why in the vile masquerade that preceded and later accompanied the bloodshed, among the thousands of copies of icons of mythical ancestors and Serbian demigods there was not one image or mention of the wise, moderate Diderotesque figure of Dositej Obradović. And it is this that offers a glimmer of hope for the future “life and adventures”[8] of the new Serbs in Dositej’s mould.


From the editors: We publish this essay with the kind permission of Ksenija Anastasijević, the author’s wife; it was first printed in the periodical Republika 1996, no. 138, and reissued in the volume Bogdan Bogdanović, Tri ratne knjige (Three wartime books), Mediterran, Novi Sad 2008.

Republika was the first opposition periodical in the former Yugoslavia, and came out from March 1989. Its vignette featured the subtitle “Organ of civic self-liberation”, which took on particular significance when instead of the process of democratisation a belligerent elemental force of fear, hatred and violence was unleashed. Not only did Republika remain an organ of civic resistance to the war, but the circle of those who worked and sympathised with it spared no effort to initiate dialogue and curb escalation of the conflict. In 1996 it launched the series “Grad i gradjanin” (The town and its citizen), starting with the ruined towns of Bosnia, and over time addressing the subject of the Serbian towns ruined in a different sense. Bogdanović’s essay was a voice in this debate.


[1] Wherever I feel it is necessary for comprehension of the text, I include in square brackets notes such as the date of an event or the meaning of a word. (Aside from the asterisked footnote, all others are added by the translator from the Serbian.)

[2] Cited after Bogdan Bogdanović.

[3] Beli grad, i.e. Belgrade.

[4] The extremely controversial book Eine winterliche Reise zu den Flüssen Donau, Save, Morawa und Drina oder Gerechtigkeit für Serbien (A winter journey along the Danube, the Sava, the Morava and the Drina, or justice for Serbia), published in 1996.

[5] I.e. in the most general terms Serbs specifically from “old” Serbia.

[6] The self-proclaimed Serb “states” in Croatian territory.

[7] It is hard to refrain from slightly abnormal musings on what are frighteningly abnormal developments. I am convinced that neither the romantic views that hold language to be a faded mythology (Herder, Schelling) nor the contrary deductions that linguistic misunderstandings (including homonyms and paronyms) generate often paradoxical mythical notions (Max Müller, and later Cassirer) have yet lost their currency. If this is the case, a profound chasm of chain associations opens up: Vuk (Karadžić) = vuk (canus lupus, wolf) = vuk (wolf), a Serbian totemic animal… and further: chromy vuk = Chromy Daba (the Devil) = a Slavic deity demonised in Christianity, etc., etc. (see Čajkanović, Stara srpska religija).

[8] An allusion to the title of Obradović’s autobiography: Život i priključenija Dimitrija Obradovića.

About authors

Bogdan Bogdanović

Eminent Serbian archi­tect and urban planner, urban theoretician and philosopher of the city, writer and essayist. During World War II he fought in Tito’s partisan army. On graduating in architecture in Belgrade he worked in both design and research. He lectured at the De­partment of Architecture at Belgrade University. In the years 1982–1986 he was mayor of Belgrade. He retired in 1987. In 1993, when Slobodan Milošević came to power, he emigrated, first to Paris and later to Vienna, where he settled and lived until the end of his life. In his architecture he created an individual language of forms, which is exemplified in one of his best-known built designs, the memorial complex on the site of the former fascist concentration camp in Jasenovac. Bogdanović’s work is at the forefront of 20th‑century central and eastern Euro­pean architecture. His essays reflecting on the town and city are no less seminal, in particular in light of what happened in the Balkans in the 1990s. Bogdanović is considered the creator of the concept of urbicide (the killing of the city).


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