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Mitja Velikonja: "The transitional decades have been marked by a rather schizophrenic situation..."

Mitja Velikonja: “The transitional decades have been marked by a rather schizophrenic situation, where political rejections of the socialist Yugoslav period of Slovene history coexist with a (pop)cultural fond or at least nuanced acceptance of this part o

Memory landscapes in (post)Yugoslavia

Edited by Milica Popović, Sciences Po CERI and University of Ljubljana and Natalija Majsova, University of Ljubljana and Catholic University of Louvain.

Yugoslavia as a state existed twice, once as a monarchy and once as a socialist republic. Different historical legacies, state regimes, cultural and religious heritage are woven into the region – there is a myriad of different political entities and also a plenitude of political and/or national/ethnic identities. The dissolution of the socialist republic, responsible for an advanced modernization of the country and an unprecedented development of the region, ensued during the crisis of the 1980s, and continued all the way into the violent wars of the 1990s. In January 1992, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia fell apart. The end of the Yugoslav state, however, did not feature the end of the Yugoslav idea or the end of Yugoslav memory. While all are marked by “political abuse of power and the deeply unjust privatization processes” (Dolenec 2013: 7), each of the seven republics of Yugoslavia: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, North Macedonia and Kosovo,[1] - reveals a particular memoryscape, abundant in internal battles, which sometimes converge and sometimes diverge, weaving a complex net of (post)Yugoslav memory.

In line with Catherine Baker's observation that “nationalism was an instrument, not a cause” (Baker 2015: 129), (post)Yugoslav memory continues to evolve in dialogue across the borders of (post)Yugoslav states. Although our approach in this series of interviews remains “republic-centered”, this does not in any way imply that we do not believe that (post)Yugoslav memory works as “nœuds de mémoire” (Rothberg 2009), producing new solidarities and possibilities for thought and action.

Before you is the second in a series of seven interviews with seven leading scholars in memory studies, each discussing memory politics within one of the (post)Yugoslav republics. While the online edition of Historical Expertise will publish them one by one as they are ready, the printed edition of the journal will gather them all together and provide a well-rounded whole – a comprehensive, in-depth outlook on the memory landscapes in the (post)Yugoslav space today

M.P. and N.M.

  1. The case of Slovenia.

“The transitional decades have been marked by a rather schizophrenic situation, where political rejections of the socialist Yugoslav period of Slovene history coexist with a (pop)cultural fond or at least nuanced acceptance of this part of this same history”

Interview with Prof Dr Mitja Velikonja, University of Ljubljana.

Questions and Introduction by Dr Natalija Majsova.

Rotterdam – New Haven, 27.02.2020.

Abstract: The Republic of Slovenia, the first to declare independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 and the first of the post-Yugoslav states to join the EU in 2004, demonstrates a complex set of attitudes to its Yugoslav past. Political discourse, mass media and historiography are not at all exempt from historical revisionism, which targets WWII and the significance of the Yugoslav past in particular, and aiming to ground Slovenian nationalism in its alleged “European” rather than “socialist” or “Yugoslav” essence. Since 1991, this kind of revisionism has enjoyed various degrees of support in the public sphere, dependent on the specific domestic (e.g. regular parliamentary elections) and international (e.g. EU-accession) political priorities at hand. In this interview, cultural studies scholar and sociologist Prof Dr Mitja Velikonja outlines the limitations of these memory struggles, and demonstrates to what extent they are complicit in obscuring broader processes, such as the contemporary surge in ethnocentric discourse and economic neoliberalism. The vibrant, critical and polyphonic domain of art and popular culture in Slovenia, on the other hand, emerges as a welcome alternative, which both preserves the memory of the Yugoslav idea and its history, and offers a springboard for critical reflections on contemporary problems, from refugee crises to epidemics.

Key words: memory politics; revisionism; nostalgia; popular culture; art

Slovenia was the first republic to declare independence from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia on 25 June 1991. A 10-day war followed, as the Yugoslav army was activated in the newly-formed state on 27 June. Apart from statehood, the truce agreement signed between Yugoslavia and Slovenia on 7 July 1991 meant that the Republic of Slovenia would avoid the traumatic and economically devastating Yugoslav wars, which would mark the other (post)Yugoslav republics for decades to come.

Since Josip Broz Tito’s death in 1980, Slovenia’s efforts toward independence had been fueled by concerted efforts of national political and intellectual elites to position the republic as a spiritual, economic and political outlier in the socialist Federation, closer to Central Europe than to the Balkans in terms of mentality and development. Accordingly, from the early 1990s, Slovenia’s post-socialist transition involved economic liberalization and denationalization, as well as a clear political declaration of an ideological shift away from its socialist past, westward, toward a rediscovery of its “European” origins (cf. Bajt 2017). Pušnik (1999) convincingly argues that this shift was facilitated by constructions of the nation in the media, such as television and newspapers, and, in line with Hobsbawm’s (1992, 143) observation on the nature of national discourse after 1918, a particular interpretation of the significance of sports, such as Alpine skiing – as a culture and a national asset.

These processes went hand-in-hand with the development of a nation-branding policy, reflected in entrepreneurial attempts at representing the country in rather ahistorical terms, as a destination with a particular atmosphere: “the green piece of Europe”, “the sunny side of the Alps”, or the more recent “green heart of Europe”. In short, a cozy, healthy, luscious corner of the Adriatic, populated by a calm and sporty people, with a remarkable work ethic. Accompanied by stable economic progress, the “Eurotic” (Velikonja 2005) rhetoric of the time, aimed at accelerating the process of integration into the capitalist European community and its institutional frameworks, bore tangible results. Slovenia became the first (post)Yugoslav state to join the EU and NATO in 2004, and to adopt Euro as its currency in 2007. According to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, Slovenia is a high-income advanced economy, ranked 24th in the world on the Human Development Index (HDR 2019).

These data do not reveal much about the significance of the country’s Yugoslav past, but this certainly does not mean that it has been completely effaced from the state or the nation’s collective memory, or that ties to other (post)Yugoslav states play no role in Slovenian politics, its mediascape or culture at large. Namely, historiography, social and cultural analyses unanimously reveal that the processes that the Slovenian state has emphatically sworn by under the umbrella-term of democracy since 1991 take the memory of Yugoslavia as their reference point again and again (cf. Jogan and Broder 2016; Pušnik 2019). Kirn (2014, 2-3) stipulates that memory struggles over this historical period point to the persistence of the dominant political stakeholders’ binary view of the past, characteristic of Slovenia’s transition in the 1990s. This results in both praise and glorification of the good old days and the demonization of everything that is associated with the Partisan movement, socialism, Tito and Yugoslavia – simultaneously.

Analogously to – and at the same time, with very different results to – Serbia, whose contemporary memory politics have been the subject of the previously published insightful analysis, offered by Dr Jelena Đureinović in her interview with Milica Popović, the key object of historical revisionism in Slovenia is the Partisan-led National Liberation Struggle (1941-1945) during the Second World War. A polemic around WWII persists, revolving around the value of the Partisan struggle for the Slovenian national project (perhaps we should have waited to be liberated by the Allies?) and around the extremely severe post-war punishment of the alternative Catholic-Church-supported Home Guard movement that had collaborated with the Nazi and Fascist occupiers. The question of the political agenda of both the Partisans and the Slovene Home Guard plays an emphatically divisive role in contemporary Slovenian politics.

After the country’s accession to the EU, the landscape of material commemorative sites has also been transformed. While monuments, statues and memorials of the Yugoslav past and the Partisan movement were not attacked as, for example, in the neighbouring Croatia, a series of new monuments, commemorating the Slovene Home Guard, has been erected to stand almost by their side (Kirn 2012, 268). But instead of nationwide reconciliation, such amendments to Slovenia’s material memoryscape contribute to the persistence of a contested memory of WWII, which is evident in both political statements and their media coverage (cf. Pušnik 2019).

Almost three decades of political revisions of narratives on WWII have resulted in debates over post-Yugoslav national state symbols (Bajt 2017), alterations of street names and new editions of school textbooks. Reflecting a general nationalist and neoliberal agenda, these alterations have also contributed to a gradual and stable increase in the percentage of the Slovenian population that does not have an opinion on the impact of the Partisan and the Home Guard movements on the future of the Slovenian nation, or consider the Partisan struggle to have necessarily been a struggle against ethnocide and for greater social justice. While longitudinal surveys (1993-2012) reveal that the views of older (aged 31+) populations have remained relatively stable over the years, with a slight preference for the Partisans’ over the Home Guard’s cause, respondents aged 18-30 appear to be increasingly reluctant to take a definite stance on this and related issues (Jogan and Broder 2016, 109).

This resonates with incidents, such as the public discontent regarding the erection of the Monument to Victims of All Wars in the center of Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital, which was unveiled in 2017 and vandalized repeatedly, even in 2015, when it had just been a prototype.

The abstract monument, consisting of two grand white monoliths, was commissioned by the Ministry of Labor, Family and Social Affairs in 2013, as a gesture of reconciliation, and a tacit affirmation of the European Parliament’s 2009 Resolution on Conscience and Totalitarianism, which, in particular, condemned the Communist regimes in Eastern and Central Europe.

The opening ceremony in 2017 featured a speech by the Slovenian President Borut Pahor and a prayer for “all victims” by the Slovenian head of the Catholic Church, Archbishop Stanislav Zore. As a gesture of dangerous forgetting rather than reconciliation, it was boycotted by all political political parties whose rhetoric in memory battles related to WWII relies on clear oppositions between victims and perpetrators (Čokl 2017).

“Stop playing Partisans and Home Guard,”[2] an anonymous rebel had prophetically sprayed onto the monument’s prototype in July 2015, adding a swastika. More slogans of varying ideological nature followed over the years, as reactions to particular governmental policies. Clearly, memory politics is not exercised by the state, its statesmen and mass information media alone.

The domain of popular culture and art sheds a much needed, nuanced and critical perspective on the significance of Yugoslavia as an idea, state, and legacy, for Slovenian history, present and future. In the following interview, Velikonja examines Yugoslav memory in Slovenia with a particular emphasis these domains, arguing for the critical, ideational, and aesthetic potential of Yugonostalgia beyond the confines of its utilitarian political appropriations.

Velikonja is a Professor for Cultural Studies and head of Center for Cultural and Religious Studies at University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. Main areas of his research include Central-European and Balkan political ideologies, subcultures and graffiti culture, collective memory and post-socialist nostalgia.

His last monographs are Post-Socialist Political Graffiti in the Balkans and Central Europe (Routledge; 2020), Rock'n'Retro - New Yugoslavism in Contemporary Slovenian Music (Sophia; 2013), Titostalgia – A Study of Nostalgia for Josip Broz (Peace Institute; 2008), Eurosis – A Critique of the New Eurocentrism (Peace Institute; 2005) and Religious Separation and Political Intolerance in Bosnia-Herzegovina (TAMU Press; 2003). He is co-author of the book in Serbian Celestial Yugoslavia: Interaction of Political Mythologies and Popular Culture (XX vek; 2012), co-editor of the book Post-Yugoslavia – New Cultural and Political Perspectives (Palgrave; 2014), and co-editor and co-author of the book Yugoslavia From A Historical Perspective (HCHR; 2017).

For his achievements, he received three national and one international award (Erasmus EuroMedia Award by European Society for Education and Communication, ESEC, Vienna, 2008). He was a full-time visiting professor at Jagiellonian University in Krakow (2002 and 2003), at Columbia University in New York (2009 and 2014), at University of Rijeka (2015), at the New York Institute in St. Petersburg (2015 and 2016), as well as at Yale University (2020). He was also a Fulbright visiting researcher at Rosemont College in Philadelphia (2004/2005), research fellow at The Netherlands Institute of Advanced Studies in Wassenaar (2012), and visiting researcher at the Remarque Institute of the New York University (2018).

  1. Your work always navigates between various registries, from social and cultural theory to political science, combining qualitative and quantitative methodologies, comparative case studies, and in-depth analysis of cultural phenomena, from popular music to graffiti. What are the advantages and challenges of using contemporary popular culture to access cultural memory and remembrance practices?

I approach the challenges and advantages of memory research through various cultural practices, using several somewhat abstract, that is theoretical, and more tangible, methodological, starting points. Firstly, to always combine horizontal and vertical analysis. That is, I understand the cultural variegations, the diversity and diffusion of a certain social phenomenon alongside its ideological depth, accounting for the – almost as a rule unequal – structures of power in society that determine a particular phenomenon to a certain extent. In other words: I develop the “going wide” principle alongside the “going deep” one. The second starting point entails combining understanding cultural phenomena in terms of continuity, evolution, la longue durée, to use a term from French historiography (the Annales school), with analyzing them in terms of discontinuities, shifts, regressions, revolutions, breaks, as Walter Benjamin teaches us in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1942). Thirdly, I follow Claude Lévi-Strauss’s imperative of the complementary relation between diachronic and synchronic analysis. One has to investigate particular cultural phenomena both from the historical perspective, paying attention to its “historical tail” (“Always historicize!”, Fredric Jameson insists in the very introduction to his book “The Political Unconscious” (1981)), and from the point of view of its presence, its contemporary structure and breadth. Last but not least, the research always has to take place on two levels: the macro, possibly even global scale, and the narrower, local level, such as a particular case study. It is essential to search for both the broader reach and the micro adaptations of the same phenomenon, looking at generalities and particularities at the same time. In doing so, one has to be wary of two pitfalls: essentialism, inscribing cultural and historical specificities into the very “unchangeable nature”, the “core” of a certain phenomenon, and exceptionalism, the perspective that a certain phenomenon is entirely unique, incomparably special. In brief: I try to transform certain analytical contradictions which often seem irreconcilable, and to use them as dynamic complementarities.

It is the very nature of my research field that pushes me to do this. There are no mechanics in culture, no law of gravity, no Archimedean point; to cultural studies scholars, this circumstance is particularly alluring, presenting a challenge and, at the same time, ensuring that our research is never dull (needless to say, some critics use it to argue that it is unscientific). Culture presents an endless dialectic with unpredictable and unimaginable solutions, “syntheses” that are actually new “theses” from their very inception, and which are immediately confronted by “antitheses” and so on and on and on... Scientific paradigms in the field of cultural inquiry adapt, or at least should adapt to this. It is this very characteristic that makes behaviorist and classical positivist explanations that adhere to a “physical”, causal understanding of cultural phenomena, always fall short. Their modern successors, who are so persistent and self-assured in their search for perfect algorithms of human and social behavior – which is very popular today! –, are plagued by the same shortcoming. For instance: did anyone from the numerous ranks of Kremlinologists, Sovietologists, local and foreign regional specialists for Eastern Europe, the Balkans and the socialist world at large, predict the implosion of socialist states 30 years ago? Or, more specifically, to take an example from one of my research fields: in the wake of “democratic revolutions” in what was once the socialist part of Europe, could anyone even imagine that a nostalgia for those very times, that very regime and even its controversial leaders would appear so quickly and with such force? Or even: why do some people still take risks and spray-paint the walls with graffiti, in our 21st century, so rich in other accessible media? And that graffiti, traditionally the medium of the left, the “weapon of the weak”, to use anthropologist James C. Scott’s term, would turn into the “weapon of those in power” as well, as more and more walls all around the world appear to feature an increasing amount of racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, sexist, homophobic and similar calls to action? The unwritten assumption of cultural studies is “be open to surprises”: sooner or later, a good and well-prepared researcher will find herself/himself surprised, and her/his background knowledge will help her/him not to ignore, avoid or disregard these surprises.

  1. What does the current popular-cultural landscape in Slovenia tell us about the contemporary symbolic imaginary in Slovenian society? What are the tacit points of agreement regarding the nature of this society and its history, and what are the main points of discussion and competition in the narratives advanced in popular culture?

The past three decades of transition have not only brought profound political, economic and institutional transformations, but also social, cultural and individual, personality-related changes. To put it schematically: postsocialism is not merely a political-economic, but also a cultural and mentality-formation. To paraphrase the anthropology-classic James C. Scott whom I mentioned earlier: postsocialism is not “just an economic and political fact”; it is also “a fact of everyday life, of interpersonal relations, a fact in terms of emotions and mentality”. Postsocialist transition is ruled by two ideological paradigms and particular political practices: neoliberalism (and everything that comes along with it, for example new Eurocentrism, a Hobbesian, competitive vision of society, the untouchable status of private interest and property) and ethnonationalism (again, with its usual luggage, such as new traditionalism, clericalism, xenophobia, patriarchalism etc.). Of course, neither appeared overnight: ethnonationalism has been one of the leading ideologies and practices of the past two centuries, the necessary collective and “cultural” corrective to neoliberalism, which is based on individualism and the primacy of the economic sphere. It existed throughout the entire history of the Yugoslavia of “brotherhood and unity”. And economic neoliberalism appeared in this same socialist Yugoslavia as early as from the second decade after the period of primary, post-WWII economic accumulation, i.e. in the mid-1960s, along with the gradual independence of banks, loan offices, insurance companies, and with the emergence of the new managerial class. Social critic Darko Suvin argues this in his excellent book “Samo jednom se ljubi. Radiografija SFR Jugoslavije 1945.-72., uz hipoteze o početku, kraju u suštini” (2014) / “Splendour, Misery, and Possibilities: An X-Ray of Socialist Yugoslavia” (2016). But to return to our present day: neoliberalism and ethnonationalism intervene in the cultural and artistic spheres too, where they encounter various forms of resistance. These forms either draw inspiration from existent alternatives at home and abroad, or take the (recent) past as their role-model. To put it very broadly and generally, I find that, in Slovenia, the spheres of culture and art remain much more pluralist and critically-oriented than other domains, and, what is more important, they are also more insightful and progressive. If we consider the sphere of politics, what we will see is political parties and institutions that, with minor deviations, all adhere to the same game, abide by the same rules, and their horizon of thought and action remains more or less equally limited. The fields of culture and arts, on the other hand – despite many problems and various (class, gender, ethnic) divisions – fortunately offer a much less unilateral perspective. This holds both with regard to practices that qualify for the highest distinction of the state, the Prešeren award, and with regard to the countless marginal practices, which originate in the autonomous Metelkova and Rog cultural squats, or, in vibrant youth subcultures. It is this field which, more than others – except, perhaps, to an extent the social sciences and humanities – opens and critically reflects on the most vital, most pressing social issues, such as social injustices, exclusions, exploitation, the destruction of the environment, new totalitarianisms, i.e., in short, all of the painful aspects of the “brave new world”, in which existence various preachers attempt to convince us.

  1. How have these narratives about Slovenia’s relation to the past in popular culture evolved over the past three decades of Slovenia’s independence. Most notably, how have attitudes to and evaluations of the socialist Yugoslav past evolved? What kind of an effect did Slovenia’s accession to the EU have on attitudes toward Yugoslavia?

After big breaks (wars, revolutions, human catastrophes), the relationship to the recent past is always an antagonistic one. The victors demonize it, thereby legitimizing and strengthening their own position, whereas other stakeholders retain a much more complex image of this past. In the Slovenian case, this double constellation, to a considerable degree, coincides with the dominant political discourses, parties and institutions on the one hand, and alternative, popular and everyday culture on the other. Over the past three decades, the official positions of the state, political parties and national institutions have almost unequivocally rejected the previous political and economic system and its inherent multiculturalism. According to them, the socialist Yugoslavia (like Austria-Hungary had been to the First Yugoslavia) was “a prison of nations”, especially of their own nation. They are relentless in this demonization of the previous regime, and in the concurrent self-victimization, fiercely holding onto the two new dominant ideologies and practices, namely, neoliberalism and ethnonationalism. On the other hand, a very different attitude to the recent past began to form – first shyly and in the domain of alternative culture and everyday life. In these spheres, the attitude toward the Yugoslav past is completely uncritical and nostalgic for some, but at the same time more balanced and gracious for others. In short: a complex, bitter-sweet, but also critical and realistic attitude. I claim, and longitudinal public opinion surveys confirm this, that such an attitude is shared by the majority of the Slovenes. Over three decades of transition, this calm relation to the recent past has grown stronger and has spread to popular culture, marketing, tourism, consumer culture, design and art. Several years ago, I conducted an in-depth qualitative and quantitative study of the imagery of Yugoslavia, its socialism, its Partisan movement etc. in contemporary Slovenian popular music. I did not find a single example, which would be against all of these features of Yugoslavia, despite the fact that I considered very different genres, from alternative rap to Slovenian folk-pop, to mainstream pop and nu-metal and everything in-between. Not a single one. In other words: anti-Yugoslav popular culture is practically inexistent. To summarize: the transitional decades have been marked by a rather schizophrenic situation, where political rejections of the socialist Yugoslav period of Slovene history coexist with a (pop)cultural fond or at least nuanced acceptance of this part of this same history.

  1. Popular culture is, of course, in a very complicated relationship to narratives advanced within the political sphere and through ideological state apparatuses, such as the school system. What is the dynamic of remembrance and forgetting if we set political and popular-cultural discourses side by side? What kinds of discourses on Yugoslav socialism emerge?

This question is inherently linked to your previous question, so I will formulate my response accordingly. In very general terms: political rejection necessarily causes cultural affirmation, which eventually also acquires an increasingly clear political profile. This is the classical, textbook version of the Freudian “return of the repressed”: the more you suppress certain inclinations, the more these very inclinations persistently emerge in unexpected places, uncontrollably and with surprising force. Let’s have a closer look at the contents of nostalgia for Yugoslavia. It refers to the main achievements of this state, which, in my opinion, are as follows: 1) the victory of home-grown, authentic antifascism in WWII, 2) the accelerated modernization of society, 3) the emancipation of the formerly oppressed, marginalized social groups (the youth, women, peasants), 4) a particular form of multiculturalism, “brotherhood and unity”, and 5) a political alternative (with self-management-based socialism in terms of internal politics and with the policy of non-alignment and active coexistence in foreign affairs). But the key to understanding nostalgia is not so much in treating it as a bare apology of the past, of “la belle époque”, as in accepting it as an implicit critique of the present. In other words: what is stressed, is what is lacking today, and not so much what was good back then. First in alternative culture and in everyday life, and gradually increasingly prominent in popular culture, nostalgia therefore provides a critique of the present condition; it is an ideological corrective of the contemporary rehabilitation of fascism and present historical revisionism; of the current new traditionalization, allied with crude economic liberalism; of the current new patriarchization and new sexisms; the current affinity for chauvinism and ethnicity-based exclusionism; finally, the current peripheral, not to say postcolonial condition of the successor-states. We are witnessing the pendulum effect: the more politics swings to and persists on one side, the more cultural and everyday life gravitate to the other side. Or to use the words of Michel Foucault, another inspiring author: repression always and necessarily causes resistance, no matter how subtle and sophisticated it becomes and no matter how much voluntary submission it requires.

  1. Yugonostalgia has now long been recognized as a socially and politically important aspect of societies in the (post)Yugoslav space, but recent research also convincingly demonstrates that it is a relatively loose umbrella-term, which denotes different attitudes, memories, policies and people in different (post)Yugoslav republics. What are the specificities of Yugonostalgia in Slovenia today, and how has it evolved over the past three decades?

Let me reply with a question that I have often encountered during my fieldwork in other post-Yugoslav republics: “Why are you Slovenes so nostalgic about Yugoslavia if you were the first to leave it?” Nostalgia is, as a psychoanalytic approach might describe it, an impossible desire, which is broken at its very core, a desire that cannot be fulfilled due to its unrealizable composition. It is safe, remote daydreaming about something that is unrepeatable, that cannot be summoned or awoken. There is no causality to nostalgia, nothing objective, nothing “real” is behind its appearance. I can somehow understand what Andreas Huyssen called “the nostalgia of despair”, which characterizes those who have survived war, poverty or persecution after good times before all that. But the point of nostalgia as I described it a moment ago, is its persistence among those people who, according to numerous external indicators, now live “better” than they lived before. A good illustration of this phenomenon is in the film “Citizen Kane” (1941, dir. Orson Welles), where the protagonist’s path leads him “per aspera ad astra”, but at the very end, all he seems to care about is a seemingly unimportant object from his childhood. Another instance is worth mentioning: my understanding of nostalgia allows us to look at it both in the domain of collective (or individual) memory and in the sphere of contemporary narratives. This is to say, we can long for something that we have actually experienced in our lives (first-hand nostalgia), or for something that we have appropriated as our own, from others and from elsewhere (second-hand: from popular culture, media, popular-scientific narratives, advertisement, the numerous constructions of the “good old days” offered by the internet etc.). In other words: in my work, I am shifting the understanding of nostalgia from the realm of “fate” also to that of “choice”.

Present-day Slovenia therefore features three types of nostalgia. There is the purely sentimental, passive, intimate nostalgia that cherishes actual (those experienced by the older, Yugoslav generations), or acquired (among post-Yugoslav generations) images of “the better tomorrow, which is already in the past”. But there is also a lot of instrumental nostalgia: the past always “sells”, and nostalgia sells even better. Over the past 15 years, advertisers, tourism promotors, popular music producers, organizers of various commercial events, that is, everyone who can cash in on these embellished images of the past, have recognized nostalgia as a profitable niche. And finally, there is also an emancipatory mode of nostalgia, i.e. the kind of nostalgia that criticizes the present from the point of view of a more just, more humane past, with a greater sense of solidarity than the one that is offered by today’s ideologies and realized by contemporary policies. This kind of nostalgia is manifest in various forms of symbolic and actual resistance, from oppositions to historical revisionism to participation in protests against the injustices of today, from pop-leftism on the world wide web to connections with new leftist movements.

  1. In Slovenia, memories of Yugoslavia are in an interesting relationship with other narratives on the development of the Slovenian national project. For instance, there has recently been an increase in academic and cultural-heritage-institutions’ attention to the First Yugoslav period of Slovenian history. As a cultural memory scholar, how do you assess current memory narratives on the Yugoslav monarchy, the first Yugoslavia? How do they feed into the dominant narrative on the development of the Slovenian national project?

Yes, there have been several exhibitions and round tables on this topic, but its public resonance remains much lower than the one dedicated to the second, socialist Yugoslavia both in public and academic discourse. I think this is due to several factors. The first one is purely generational: very, very few Slovenes still retain first-hand memories of the period of 1918-1941. Secondly, Karađorđević’s Yugoslavia was systematically smeared in the post-WWII period; socialist propaganda treated it very negatively, foregrounding its economic problems, social injustice, ethnic discrimination and its reliance on foreign support. Thirdly, there is an argument that would please the nationalists: in the socialist federation, the status of Slovenia as socialist republic was very close to that of independent statehood, especially after the de facto confederative constitution of 1974. Before WWII, almost a third of the territory that is a part of Slovenia today was ruled by the Kingdom of Italy, whereas the rest only had administrative significance (the so-called Maribor and Ljubljana “regions” (“oblast” in 1922-1929 and “banovina” in 1929-1941)). Moreover, what had “saved” the Slovenes and the other Habsburg south Slavs that were on the side of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, defeated in WWI, from the territorial appetites of their neighbors, was joining the kingdoms of Serbia and Montenegro, which had come out of WWI on the victorious side.

A very telling anecdote took place in the dramatic period right after the disintegration of Austria-Hungary, just weeks and months after this event. The “northern border” of Slovenia was “saved” by the Slovenian volunteers (later with the help of the Serbian army), whereas the “western border” was secured – by coincidence, rather than as the outcome of a consolidated policy of the government in Ljubljana – by Stevan Švabić, a lieutenant-colonel of the royal Serbian army, who stopped in Ljubljana on his way home from captivity in Austria, accompanied by several hundreds of Serbian ex-POWs. He put up resistance against the Italians, who had, up until that moment, been advancing eastward, and made it all the way to Vrhnika, a small town just 20 kilometers outside of Ljubljana. Švabić stopped the Italian troops there, claiming that the entente, meaning his own army, had already claimed this land, and sent them back, precisely to the line which was later established as a state border between Italy and Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in the Rapallo agreement of 1920. This episode is practically unknown today; understandably, it is of no interest to the Serbs, nor is being saved by foreign troops something that the official political discourses in Slovenia would take pride in.

In any case, to my mind, the main reason for the relative absence of the memory of the first Yugoslavia in Slovenia (and probably in other post-Yugoslav countries, too) today lies in its inability to accomplish the essential project of the 20th century: the project of social, economic and cultural modernization. This demanding task was left to its successor, which had anticipated these developments as soon as during WWII (one of the most repeated Partisan slogans was simple and efficient: “There is no way back!”). I am firmly convinced that, for a fairly long time, this very project was the main pillar of socialist Yugoslavia’s political and social legitimacy.

  1. The Slovenian national project was born in the Austrian empire. How would you assess the importance of the Austrian/Austro-Hungarian legacy in Slovenian cultural memory today? School textbooks, for instance still grant it very detailed attention, particularly in comparison to the more recent Yugoslav past… But does how this historical discourse translate into current policies, political priorities, etc.?

One of the main characteristics of Slovenian politics is its tactical loyalism, and the 20th century provided ample evidence of this. Almost until the end of WWI, all Slovenian political parties and leading institutions swore by Austroslavism; only a couple of weeks later, these very people proclaimed Austria to be “the prison of nations” and joined the “safe haven” of Yugoslavia. This pattern was repeated following the occupation by the Axis (Italian, German and Hungarian) forces in April 1941: the leading men and institutions were quick to demonstrate their loyalty to the new masters. A similar situation emerged in the late 1980s: almost the entire former elite, which had come to prominence and built its career in the socialist Yugoslavia, suddenly attacked it as an anti-Slovene formation and embarked on projects of “democratization” and “complete national sovereignty”; it was “Europe” that suddenly presented a “safe haven” to the Slovenes. As we can see, the continuity with the Habsburg monarchy was broken on several occasions. In contrast to certain other regions of the black-yellow monarchy (such as the Friuli Venezia Giulia region, which organizes an annual “Festival of Central European Peoples” with posters of Franz Joseph I, as well as the Polonia Minor region, and of course all around Austria, as well as in Hungary, where it is the Hungarian historical period that is granted the most attention), I see no signs of Austrostalgia among the Slovenian people today.

And yet, a tacit continuity with the resented “late Austria” persists, albeit under a different, a more neutral name. Ever since the 1980s, the entire Slovenian national project has been oriented toward the so-called “Central Europe”, especially its most militant aspect, centered around the Nova revija circle. It was greatly inspired by the famous self-victimizing essay by Milan Kundera, “The Tragedy of Central Europe” (1984), which was translated in Slovenian and republished several times. Various attempts were made to have Slovenia join the “Višegrad three” (and later four), but none succeeded – the Višegrad protagonists were very protective of the formation, and cautious about expansion. Nevertheless, Slovenia itself eventually rather effectively internalized the ideological construct of “Mitteleuropa” as our new “natural habitat” that was juxtaposed to Yugoslavia, “the Balkans”, a barbaric alien, which Slovenia had had to enter twice (the first time, due to Great Serb and the second time, due to communist domination). However, this break with Yugoslavia was not entirely successful; as a cultural studies scholar, I’m well aware that the Slovenian cultural space – from popular culture to institutionalized art – is still much more connected to the region of former Yugoslavia than it is with the so-called Central Europe. Ask anyone on the street, how many music bands they know from Croatia or Serbia. Then ask them, how many they know from Hungary or the Czech Republic, and you will understand what I mean.

  1. What are the main points of debate in academic, political, and popular interpretations of WWII, the creation of socialist Yugoslavia, and Slovenia’s role in it?

In Slovenia, the Partisan resistance movement had been formed as early as three weeks after the Nazi and Fascist occupation, and it persisted a week after the German capitulation, with last battles in the North-Eastern region. From the very beginning, it was also conceived as a profound political, social and economic reform, as progress. In Slovenia – and in Yugoslavia at large – the Partisan side not only defeated the occupiers and the collaborationists in the battlefield, but also, and predominantly, in the political field. They were the only one able to motivate, mobilize and emancipate groups of people – the largest and the most powerless groups of people, those, to quote Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto (1848), “who had nothing to lose but their chains” – offering them a better future, social progress. In short: The Partisans fought for liberation, as well as for profound social transformation, this was clear from the beginning. Because of these focal points of the antifascist movement, the Yugoslav authorities had much greater legitimacy for four decades following WWII than those in other postwar socialist countries, established in the shade of Soviet tanks. Alas, today, the legacy of the antifascist resistance and the revolution is attacked by both the right and the left options on the political spectrum. Right-wing revisionism, clearly incapable of coming to terms with the defeat of the Slovenian collaborators with fascism and Nazism, proclaims the Partisan resistance and antifascism in general as illegitimate, antinational, criminal, and as a communist coup d’état. On the other hand, the representatives of the official left (“leftist” parties, former high-level party functionaries, even the WWII Partisan Veteran Association) are a) relinquishing the revolutionary aspect of the liberation struggle, which was inherent to it, and b) tearing the Slovenian Partisan resistance out of the context of the general Yugoslav Partisan resistance. Their revisionism entails considering the Partisan movement in terms of a national, and not a revolutionary project, and as a solely Slovenian, rather than an all-Yugoslav one. Nevertheless, such systematic assaults on the history of the Slovene Partisan movement, supported by various power structures (dominant politics, the Catholic Church, various ideological apparatuses of the state, the dominant media) is not entirely successful. Contesting examples are abundant, from very popular nostalgia to serious scientific studies, from various exhibitions to spontaneous preservation of the tradition of Partisan antifascism, post-WWII socialist modernization and alliances with other Yugoslav nations.

  1. What/who are the most publicly resonant mnemonic agents in Slovenia? What are the priorities of memory activists in Slovenia and what are the tools they have at their disposal to advocate for a more nuanced memory culture in Slovenia?

Let me expound on my previous answers, by offering some more specific data. Maurice Halbwachs, a classic memory studies scholar, set out his research in emphatically constructivist, rather than positivist terms: »remembrance is in very large measure a reconstruction of the past achieved with data borrowed from the present, a reconstruction prepared, furthermore, by reconstructions of earlier periods wherein past images had already been altered«. Each time, the main political question is, what exactly is being reconstructed at a certain moment; how this reconstruction takes place, why, and by/for whom. Official memory is zealously – as is usually the case in all new states, which are in the process of building their self-consciousness – taken care of by official, dominant institutions: from the system of state holidays, sites that are considered to be important for the independence process of the early 1990s and in the “battle for the northern border” of 1918 and 1919, to the system of religious holidays and “all-Slovenian”, in fact Catholic pilgrimage sites; from various monuments and reminders of Slovenian culture, including the national Day of Culture (it should not be forgotten that Slovenian nationalism is a cultural nationalism, a “culturism” – the axes of Slovenian national ideology are “culture” and “language”) to sports venues, particularly the Alpine ones (the late lucid cultural studies scholar Boštjan Šaver offered a brilliant deconstruction of the so-called “Slovenian Alpine culture”). In an attempt to reconcile disputes regarding the most controversial period of Slovenian history, i.e. disputes on the 20th-century wars that the nation took part in, the state erected an impressive “Monument to the Victims of All Wars” in the center of Ljubljana. In its monumentality, it reminds one of Anselm Kiefer’s monoliths, except that their leaden gloom is, in our case, replaced by the literal neutrality of the color white. Piety is to replace politics, and national unity is to replace the ideological breach, dividing the Slovenes. Needless to say, national unity is the deepest, the most efficient ideological construct, precisely because it presents itself as a non- or supra-ideological idea. In my opinion, more than a symbol of reconciliation, this monument symbolizes the current domination of two ruling and complementary ideologies: liberalism (a pluralism of truths, everyone is right in their own way) and nationalism (primacy of the national above or beyond “political divisions”). The former elevates political discussions to a suprapolitical level, where the latter fixes it to provide a phantasmatic National Unity.

At the same time, other mnemonic agents are keeping alive a deeply polarized memory of WWII: on the one hand, we have the Partisan Veterans Association, their supporters in different groups on the one hand, and, on the other, there are groups and organizations that, eagerly supported by the Catholic Church, advocate for the collaborationists. Both organize various events, celebrations, commemorations at memory sites, which are of traumatic or triumphant significance for those times. Despite the persistent historical revisionism, public opinion is still more aligned with the former, which forces politicians under different governments to symbolically support it, albeit only to a certain extent, shyly and gradually. They do so by providing honorary platoons and integrating state symbols into these events, taking part in commemorations, and, not unimportantly, by commemorating state holidays – albeit, clearly, completely ignoring their broader Yugoslav and revolutionary context. April 27, once known as the “Day of the Liberation Front”, a broad political, popular-front-based organization of the Slovenian Partisan movement, was therefore renamed, becoming the “Day of Uprising Against Occupation”. Apart from all the above mentioned mechanisms, parallel to them, a range of other mnemonic communities and individuals engage in alternative remembrance. These entail various cultural associations and history enthusiasts, meme-creators and Facebook initiatives. Perfectly in line with the current Zeitgeist, mnemonic strategies, productions and communities are migrating to the non-material, digital world. To summarize: like everywhere else, and like in other periods of Slovenian history, various mnemonic compositions and configurations co-exist. They are antagonistic in two respects: firstly, in relation to one another and secondly, in relation to official, state-created and state-sponsored remembrance. And, like everywhere else, mnemonic practices in Slovenia is a conscious political decision and an instrumental political act, which tells us more about the remembering subject than it does about the object of remembrance, revealing more about the present of the former than about the past of the latter.

  1. What would you define as specifics of memory politics in Slovenia in relation to the rest of (post)Yugoslav space? What is the role of the Catholic Church in the creation of the mainstream memory narratives today? How is Slovenian memory politics affected by ongoing border arguments, cultural-heritage polemics and memory debates in the neighboring Croatia?

Slovenia actually never witnessed such harsh symbolic battles over the Yugoslav past as some other successor-states. Just recently, I have come across some statistical studies which sate that only in Croatia, over 3000 Partisan monuments were destroyed in the 1990s. Nevertheless, the Slovenes have also undergone the interrelated anti-Yugoslav and counterrevolutionary turns. Memory politics and policies in Slovenia reflect the broader particularities of the transition in Slovenia. On a most general level: no one “side” was victorious in Slovenia in the 1990s, as it had happened in, for instance, Croatia and Serbia, when the options represented by Franjo Tuđman and Slobodan Milošević respectively triumphed, with the unequivocal support of the local most powerful churches, dominating all possible spheres. The Slovenian transition, in contrast, entailed a quiet, never publicly articulated agreement on the division of power between the moderate nationalists and the reformed communists (who accommodated the nationalist line); what is even more important is that this agreement was also an accord on the distribution of the transitional bounty. Although the transition was often naively perceived – and is sometimes still perceived – as a “project of national liberation” and at the same time as a “project of political democratization”, it was actually closer to a project of radical redistribution of common wealth, a project of literal “privatization” of the assets, accumulated through collective labor over the decades of socialism. It was, in short, an appropriation of various capitals (in Pierre Bourdieu’s sense of the word) by the transitional “victors”, new or reformed old politicians and oligarchs. Both “sides” completely accepted the two new dominant ideologies and political practices – neoliberalism and ethnonationalism – for the simple reason that these created the conditions for their, let’s be frank, legal thievery.

Such a pragmatically and quietly shared governance of the transitional “left” and “right” has to compensate by publicly proving its “leftist” or “rightist” inclinations, for purely populist purposes. This is the source of “preserving the memory” of, for instance, the Partisan resistance on one side, accompanied by an entire arsenal of mnemonic practices, and of the strongly clerical anti-Partisan other side, reinforced by an arsenal of opposing practices. Even a superficial analysis of the speeches at such commemorative events reveals that these are no more than a part of the organizers’ broader current political agenda. In other words: they divide the public and homogenize their own camps by preaching either the “Partisan” or the “anti-Partisan” truth, only in the function of the current power struggle and, most importantly, the material privileges that a position in power involves. Active, emancipatory remembrance, which does not unilaterally glorify the past, but interrogates it in a critical way, and which focusses on the forgotten, the overheard, the oppressed, the missing historical episodes and protagonists – the kind of remembrance that the outstanding Serbian sociologist Todor Kuljić defines in his book “Kultura sjećanja” / “The Culture of Remembrance” (2006) – is still left to the informal actors and initiatives and, last but not least, everyday practices. Here is a small example: have a look at the myriad of humorously-sharp “Youth Day” (“Dan mladosti”, May 25th, Tito’s alleged birthday) or “Republic Day” (“Dan republike”, November 29th, the “birthday” of socialist Yugoslavia) – two important national holidays from Yugoslav times – greeting cards circulating around the internet.

  1. Given that the interview will be published in a Russian journal, another question remains relevant. What is the public discourse towards the Russian Federation, on one hand, and USSR on the other hand, today? What are the key Russian figures prominent in Slovenian memory narratives?

I am not a specialist in international relations, so I would prefer to speak about the cultural domain, which I follow closely. In contrast to some other Central European milieux, Russia and the Soviet Union were and are geographically and historically rather far from our own environment; direct political contact was relatively scarce or took place in the context of multinational states, where our predecessors lived. No particularly strong Russophilia or Russophobia is notable in Slovenia (which does not mean other philias and phobias are not abundant). During the socialist period, when Yugoslavia developed its signature exceptionalism – the tricky impression that we shared about our own particularity, our difference from everyone, the West and the East! – all other socialist states were regarded from a particularly palpable distance. The term “real-socialism” was used as almost a condemnation. There was a widespread conviction that in other socialist states, people really live “behind the iron curtain”, whereas we were somewhere else and had it much better. Nevertheless, such political oscillations never really affected the various substantial influences of Russian culture in Slovenia, in all spheres. Allow me a brief family digression: my parents had attended high school in Slovenia in the late 1940s, and they were, among other teachers, also instructed by the descendants of Russian emigrants, who had settled down in this region. To this day, my mother remembers the erudition and thoroughness of these professors with great gratitude and respect. Perhaps this influenced my parents’ decision to name all of their three children after characters from classical Russian literature, which they were great fans of.

On a broader scale, the retrogardist Neue Slowenische Kunst cultural collective constantly sought inspiration in Russian and Soviet futurism, constructivism, suprematism, from Kazimir Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin to the later socialist realism. When I was still a boy, my older acquaintances that belonged to the hippie generation, which, back then, listened to Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Lou Reed, eventually introduced me to their Russian contemporary, the poet with the guitar, Vladimir Vysotski. From the 1980s, I remember retrospectives of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films at the cinematheque in Ljubljana, the only ones apart from Pier Paolo Pasolini and Michelangelo Antonioni’s that were completely sold out. Last but not least, the Slovenian popular musical audience follows and appreciates the new Russian music wave. Several years ago, there was a lot of interest for Pussy Riot, already a modern classic, which is at odds with the authorities; two years ago, Ljubljana hosted the, for many comparably controversial, dark-wave duo IC3PEAK. And just recently, I received– as I am currently teaching abroad – several enthusiastic reviews from Ljubljana, including that of the performance of the Belorussian synth pop band Molchat doma, and of Kantemir Balagov’s new film Beanpole. More of that, please.


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[1] All references to Kosovo, whether to the territory, institutions or population, in this text shall be understood in full compliance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 and without prejudice to the status of Kosovo. It is important to note that in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Kosovo had the status of an autonomous province, while the other six states had a status of a republic.

[2] An allusion to children's games such as »Cowboys and Indians«, with local protagonists.

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