In this far-ranging interview, our office director, Nino Lejava talks to NIN Award winning author and director of the KROKODIL independent cultural center, Vladimir Arsenijević, about the historical and political foundations of Serbia's current geopolitical as well as cultural position with regard to its immediate neighbors, as well as Europe.
"We are not in good shape at all as a society."
Nino Lejava: As the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990’s were formative and traumatic events for your generation of Serbian authors, what are your reflections, or feelings now, as we are all witnessing another war on another side of Europe, unleashed by Serbia’s geopolitical ally, Russia?
Vladimir Arsenijević: When this whole thing started, it took me basically twelve hours to understand how the Serbian public would react to the war; the only additional layer to my general disappointing, but correct, assessment was the overall lack of general empathy. How are you not sorry? I mean if people are suffering at the most basic level, how can you not feel sorry? To me, it feels that there is a part of our society that really cheers the suffering, which really cheers the destruction. To have had that kind of experience yourself and not be able to connect to other people who are going through similar suffering – this, to me, is a loss of humanity. It has nothing to do even with anything Serbian, it’s just that people have lost their most basic human ties to others; this is a completely new disappointment for me. But as I said, I have reached a point of not expecting anything from this society anymore, so I think maybe it’s a way to protect myself because I don’t really want to be disillusioned anymore.
We are not in good shape at all as a society. People usually prefer easy explanations, and they blame the current government. Of course, the current government is to blame, but unfortunately, I think the problem is much deeper than that. There is a depressive continuity in how we treat the geopolitical relations that we have and our position in Europe ever since the 19th century. Also, there is a tradition of ruthlessness in politics in Serbia; one that goes back to the times when we were liberated from the Ottoman empire in the early 19th century. The kind of authoritarian personal rule that was imposed by Duke Miloš at the beginning of our country became a norm for all politicians from all different systems. So, it’s easy to blame neoliberalism, (just as it used to be easy to blame socialism, or the kingdom before that, or whatever else) but this specific problem has hardly anything to do with global political systems. It has to do with something that is more deeply rooted in Serbian society, and this is the way that this backward patriarchy works, beyond and underneath all ideologies.
The disillusionment of which I speak has deep roots. There was a tiny period of time after the seminal October 5th, 2000 when Milošević’s rule was overthrown and some months before Franjo Tuđman died in Croatia. We knew it was the end of an era, it was the end of the 1990s, and there was this millennial feeling of being able to reset everything – everything seemed to coincide, the century had ended, the millennium had ended, and all around there was really the feeling of future, that we can start anew, and we were exhilarated. Everyone was saying that "we" are going to make a proper society. It took us a while to understand that there was not a single “we” in this crowd that had gathered, that there were nationalists, there was civil society, there were gay activists – and everybody had their own ideas of how this society should develop. Sadly, my own views on the matter were in the small minority. And as time would prove, once again, we developed in such ways that I do not think were good for our society or its future.
In 2007, in an article for the German newspaper DIE ZEIT, you wrote about a certain feeling of collective guilt, or shame, that exists amongst the Serbian people regardless of whether it was admitted or not. Could you reflect on what has changed since then in positive or negative ways?
What has changed since then is that we have had two decades of intense historical revisionism. It has creeped into our schoolbooks, education system, it’s in the media, it appears during the Sunday lunch, it’s within and between families, it’s been promoted everywhere. I think back then I was still kind of optimistic because even with the high level of nationalism in the early 2000s, you still couldn’t really deny the atrocities. You couldn’t. It was obvious that Srebrenica had happened, that Vukovar had happened. For the generations that have grown up since then, it’s not obvious anymore. What they see is this ridiculously reduced version of our recent history, where there were these good Serbs, minding their own business, and then evil NATO flew by and just bombed the hell out of us. There is nothing even remotely resembling responsibility for what was going on before, or even asking of the question of why on earth would an alliance of 18 countries move against a certain state without reason. Nothing but a simplified, ridiculous version of events, which is being promoted all over the country, enters the minds of these people anymore. This, for me, is a major change, because in these past twenty years, this whole new set of so-called truths, emotionally charged “truths”, have replaced the factography and have been installed in society – and it will take a long, long, time and very hard work to try to bring the awareness of the facts back.
"Well, the Russians never bombed us!"
What are the historical and political factors that determine Serbia’s particular outlook towards Europe, or the wider world, from your perspective?
The NATO bombing was the final nail in the coffin of western-minded Serbia, because the current narrative goes like this – well, the Russians never bombed us! Another, somewhat comical problem has emerged in recent years – how to provide the proper narrative about the liberation of Belgrade in October 1944. Belgrade was liberated by Soviet forces and Yugoslav partisan forces, but nowadays you can’t say “Soviet” and you can’t say “partisan” any more, so instead, they say the Russians and Serbs liberated Belgrade – while clearly, from pictures of the main building of the post office, you can see the Soviet’s flag waving and the Yugoslav flag with red stars next to it. So whatever you might think of that historical truth, it nevertheless happened, and you need to find a way to deal with it. I think the “Russia” that figures so strongly in the Serbian imagination has nothing to do with the real Russia. This need for association has nothing to do with political interest. It has to do with social inferiority complex and the need for an older brother, somebody larger than you, who would protect you and who would always stand behind you. There is no historical evidence that Russia has always backed Serbia, quite the contrary, but this does nothing to weaken this illusion which in the case of Serbia is intense.
This, in turn, relates to another matter – to the issue of Kosovo, and to the myth of victory and loss. It has become possible to claim that Serbs just keep losing and then they turn this to their own advantage in these narratives. The problem here is that even if Putin loses this war, in the minds of the Serbs it would be turned into this kind of “victory” because “larger forces were at stake and he was betrayed by the evil West”. This narrative is not about the Ukrainian people, it is about Americans who are “creeping” toward Russia. What the Ukrainian nation wants, or needs is disregarded completely here. I believe it is part of a nation’s autonomy to be able to choose whether or not you want to be a NATO member. But this narrative fails to include more than 40 million Ukrainians, it focuses only on this larger battle between the western and the eastern world.
"I don’t think, back in the 1920s, the members of the DADA movement saw themselves as Romanians, or Germans, or Austrians."
In terms of one’s responsibility to handle difficult political issues, what influence can a writer have on social processes today, in this very hostile and fragmented cultural context?
Well, the whole of reality is very much fragmented, and we need to recognize that this is the world in which we now live. We are partially thankful for the things we have received from the technological side of our civilization over the past couple of decades but we still need to find ways to learn and adapt to these new realities. We as a species are clumsily coming to terms with new means of communication technology has offered us, but it probably needs these generations of kids who are still growing up, who are not connected to some previous realities, to be able to drive this thing a bit better than us.
I think also of this current wave of protests in Belgrade, sparked by what the Informer daily wrote about a rapist and the subsequent sensationalist interview – how women reacted primarily, and some sympathetic males as well, through various feminist groups. It was clear that some younger female writers were not only active but crucial to this movement, those such as Radmila Petrović or Lana Bastašić, were there on the spot the whole time with megaphones, having decided that posting stuff on Facebook was not enough; that in certain crises you just need to go out on the streets. And luckily, they did. Thank God they did. This provided the kind of feeling that they achieved something. Most importantly the Informer newspaper was shamed in public. I just regret the existence of newspapers that actually produce this toxic content day in and day out. If you pass by any kiosk in Belgrade, you get poisoned by that kind of stuff. This scandalous coverage of the rapist needed this kind of reaction, it is good for us that these women reacted, but we should have reacted to this kind of sensationalist media long before, and then maybe this incident would have never happened.
You have a broad experience as a founder and organizer of an annual literature festival. After all the disintegration and wars, are there now at least new cultural spaces where people can come together in the region?
Immediately after that seminal year of 2000, where all of the sudden communication became possible again, it was the writers who started creating bonds. It was the writers, ten or fifteen years before, who created an atmosphere for war, but they were writers of a different mentality. In the year 2000, I returned from exile in Mexico and decided to start the publishing house Rende, because we wanted to engage in publishing contemporary regional authors. I was aware that there were these generations of authors growing up in Croatia, in Slovenia, in Bosnia, in Kosovo, that we didn’t have any contact with. And the Serbian readership had no idea what was going on in these places.
We started perceiving the concept of the region – we could leave any kind of separated identities intact, but still there would be shared language, as a major connecting element, for Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro and Croatia. You can call it whatever you want, but we just understand each other. Throughout the wider territory which is ex-Yugoslavia, there is a similar sensibility and recognition that we share a significant part of history. Nowadays, even the most hardcore nationalists would never travel to Bosnia and think of it as “abroad”. Or to Slovenia despite the linguistic differences. They need to cross the former borders to [“feel”] abroad. So Hungary is abroad, Austria is abroad, Italy is abroad, but Macedonia is not abroad, it’s something else. To me, this is the quality of the region. This is something that is very dynamic and playful, which has a lot of creative possibilities, and something we can appreciate and share.
So when I started with Krokodil it was just a continuation of this idea, that there is regional literature and it’s very varied, and these people enjoy getting together. Lots of people from the region are friends and they overcome national divisions. So, these are the things that are very well worth developing further. We worked a lot on the idea of the common language, and this resulted in the Declaration on the Common Language, which provoked a variety of reactions around the region. And, you know, when you see these nationalist elites getting really giddy, saying, this kind of action is not important – to us, the fact that they react this way demonstrates that it is! And every year the Krokodil festival for us is yet more proof that people genuinely crave these kinds of connections. And this again should have nothing to do with recognition of the fact that we live in separate countries and separate societies, that we have all these national identity tags in place, like passports, and coats of arms, and flags and national anthems and whatever. There is another layer of our communication, which is inclusive. We like to think about working towards recognition of literature, of language – rather than national or even ethnic literary selections. When we started thinking about it in broader European terms, we saw how things have become really narrow-minded all over. If you go to the Leipzig Book Fair, there is only one way to present yourself – within the “national” literature category. I don’t think, back in the 1920s, the members of the DADA movement saw themselves as Romanians, or Germans, or Austrians. No. They recognized themselves as DADA. The surrealists recognized themselves as the surrealists. And people bonded on completely different planes using identifications rather than identities – but somehow, this trait has been overshadowed by an overbearing national tag. As far as Leipzig Book Fair is concerned, you can only participate if you decide to represent Serbian literature. We really wanted to ask if we could just present something different, and we appreciated the fact that the German embassy invited us for discussions. When Germany was the country in focus at the Belgrade Book Fair, they presented not German literature, but literature of the German language. They invited Austria, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein to participate and for us it was an eye-opener: four countries, one language. They all presented themselves as writers in the German language. There was not an Austrian section here, a Liechtenstein section there. It was just all mixed up. And it was really beautiful. And for the public it was intense. It took them a while to understand what actually happened. It was a kind of alchemy they were not used to. This is something we took as a source of inspiration, of possibility. I am not saying that this is going to overcome the nationalistic elites in all four countries but at least it makes the general picture a bit more colorful and layered.
A new, younger generation of self-aware, poignant women writers
When you described the situation with the protest around the Informer newspaper, you mentioned two female writers representing the new generation. Could you name some more of them?
Fortunately, there are a lot of female authors throughout the region – a new, younger generation of self-aware, poignant women writers. They just disregard all these obstacles, they reach out, they communicate, they don’t care much about these boundaries of identity – be it ethnic identities, national identities etc. Rumena Bužarovska in Macedonia is probably the most prominent in terms of presence in the global, or at least the European literary market. Her work has been published by major publishers all over the world. Lana Bastašić, has received the EU Prize for Literature, which was followed with numerous translations all over the world. Lejla Kalamujić from Bosnia and Herzegovina, is a queer author, really fearless, brave, fierce but also really tender and emotional in her writing. Olja Savičević-Ivančević in Croatia, Radmila Petrović; I mean the list goes on and on.
Two years ago, in the time of total Covid lockdown, we decided to nevertheless do the festival and to do the female version of it. We just didn’t know where to start. There were so many exciting literary names among the list of female writers throughout the region especially if we include writers from Macedonia, Slovenia. These writers we can’t read without translations (we can in a way but it’s not the same language), so the work of writers like Rumena Bužarovska in original Macedonian is translated for us. But still, when she comes here, she’s not a “foreign author”. Also, they are very close friends, all of them, they stick together. A lot of them I already mentioned, Lejla also had a pretty big recognition in terms of translations, then Asja Bakić also from Bosnia was translated and had a pretty good readership in the United States. So there are numerous females and this is what makes literature of contemporary times in our region very interesting and much easier to identify with than anything else that goes on the social level.
Thank you very much for this very deep cultural and political gaze.
The full interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This article was first published on rs.boell.org