Twenty years after the break-up of Yugoslavia, many people in Serbia still feel nostalgic for the socialist country. This so-called Yugonostalgia highlights the lacks and problems in the current Serbian society. And it somehow shows the missed transition between Yugoslav and Serb identities.

“It was our country”.Her voice breaks, her eyes stare into space. “I always cry when I talk about it”, she whispers in a soft voice. 

“It” is Yugoslavia. As millions of people, Stane GleđRadulović was born in this country that doesn’t exist anymore. From its creation in 1918 to its break-up in 1992, Yugoslavia united seven current countries of the Balkans: Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Kosovo. A union that ended in the 1990s, when the republics separated from each other, sometimes in bloody wars. 

Stane lived most of her life in Yugoslavia. Born in 1953 in Dubrovnik (now Croatia), she was part of the youth organizations and the communist party when she was a teenager and then a young adult. In 1972, she moved to Belgrade to study political sciences. A time she remembers with emotion: “I was a poor girl from a village. In Belgrade, education was free, student houses were cheap, the health system was free, you could expect to have a job flat in eight years…”She says to have done “a hundred jobs”, from working in a factory to organizing recreational events. She nowadays sells souvenirs depicting Yugoslavia in the Kalemegdan park, in the centre of Belgrade. 

Twenty years after the break-up, Yugoslavia is still very present in Stane’s mind: “I’m thinking about it every day… It makes me nostalgic.” This feeling is shared by thousands of people in the countries that were once the republics of former Yugoslavia. It became so important that it was given a name: Yugonostalgia. 

Looking at the past

What is nostalgia?  Svetlana Boym, one of the most important authors writing about nostalgia gives this definition: “The word “nostalgia” comes from two Greek roots: nóstos(“return home”) and álgos(“longing”). I would define it as a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed.” 

Far from a glorification of the past, Yugonostalgia is more a way to highlight the problems in today’s society. As Milos Nicic, a cultural studies lecturer at the university of Belgrade says: “The way we look at the past always says something about the present.”

The Yugonostalgia is particularly present among people who lived long enough in Yugoslavia to remember it after the independence wars. People who were born between the beginning of the 1950s and the end of the 1970s and lived their childhood and teenage years in Yugoslavia. Milos Nicic notes: “When you are young, everything seems nicer. And thus, people tend to see the past as something nicer, they forget the negatives aspects of it.” Most of the people are nostalgic for the social stability, the possibility to travel freely, the good education and the welfare system that existed in Yugoslavia.

Stane GleđRadulović feels strong nostalgia for socialist times. She now works in the Kalemegdan park in Belgrade.

Milos Nicic explains: “Older people remember participating in daily activities with companions from Croatia, Slovenia… They understood their mental space as broader than now.”When the country shrank because of the independence of the republics, people’s space also shrank. Many Serbs remember going to the seaside in Croatia for holidays or going to Italy for shopping. Some life pleasures that weren’t possible anymore after the break-up. Partly because of the wars, but also because Serbs were seen as an enemy after that.

Surprisingly, young people can also be nostalgic for Yugoslavia. Even though they were born during the break-up or just after, they’ve still heard or read about the former country. Branislav Dimitrijevic, professor of History of Art and Visual Culture at the School for Art and Design in Belgrade says: “This Yugonostalgia among young people is a sign of the disappointment towards contemporary issues, especially the failure of the transition.”

Nicic agrees:“People are imagining a country in the past, not always corresponding to the past. But the question is:  Why do they need to imagine that?”

“Life during socialist times”

If older people mourn the past and young people imagine it as something nicer, does it actually mean it was better? “Of course, there were a lot of things you couldn’t do in Yugoslavia; the freedom was definitely limited. But it was the only reference point for most of the people. Only a few people had a pre-World War II reference point,”Milos Nicic answers.

Indeed, the Yugonostalgia mainly focuses on Tito’s Yugoslavia and the years before the wars. Dimitrijevic says: “The socialist times were the only times in history where most inhabitants experienced a significant sense of social and economic development.”Between 1952 and the late 1970s, the average GDP growth in Yugoslavia was around 6%, higher than in the Soviet Union or Western Europe. 

The society was also based on social equality and help between the people, as Dimitrijevic explains: “In Yugoslavia, equality was one of the pillars of the country. In the sense of social equality, national equality and unity…”

In the socialist state, the motto was “Brotherhood and unity”. Nicic explains: “It meant that people where only Yugoslavs and active divisions didn’t exist. And even if they did, they wouldn’t matter. It was of course a mistake, because if they didn’t exist, we wouldn’t have had the wars.”

A fall out of heaven

He follows:“The ethnic wars of the 1990s were a huge drop, a fall out of heaven. Especially for the Serbs, who were demonized after that. First, it made people question what happened. And then, it led to a sort of mourning towards the period when things were better. This was the 1990s kind of nostalgia.”

Following the Bosnian wars, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was put under United Nations embargo, from April 1992 to October 1995. Three years later, the country was sanctioned again by the United Nations, the European Union and the United States because of the Kosovo wars.

Serbia was the hardest hit by those international sanctions. Its GDP fell from $24 billion in 1990 to less than $ 10 billion in 1993, while the industries were heavily affected, and poverty rose to high levels. At the time, 39 % of the population was living with less than 2 dollars a day. Restrictions were implemented on gasoline, electricity, heat, medicines and food. 

“It created an enormous impoverishment of the people, underlines Milos Nicic. In Yugoslavia, there were only one type of bread. But in those times of wars, there were no bread at all. So, people tended to think back in time, where there was only one kind of bread, but at least it was there.”

Stane experienced the 1999 NATO bombings in Belgrade. She remembers: “I could have gone home, but I stayed in Belgrade. It was a special time, you could be bombed at any time, any place. It was really scary to look at the bombs and guess where they were going to fall…”

When asked about her feelings towards the break-up, Stane looks away. Her eyes become wet and she simply answers: “The results of destroying Yugoslavia are so bad for everybody.”

Hope without society

With the withdraw of the sanctions in 2000, the economy shifted to capitalism, and the crisis kept going. Milos Nicic underlines: “Suddenly there were huge cuttings in terms of education, there were a privatization of public spaces… So, it came to popular opinion that the changes weren’t to everyone’s benefits.”

The economic shift also left millions of unskilled industry workers behind, as they no longer fitted in the new service economy. Nicic explains: “The 2000s came with some democratic changes, but also with a different sort of world order, more capitalist, more globalized. A lot of people lost their job, which made them wonder: Did we have to go this way? Are we suddenly a profit-oriented society?”

Because of the economic difficulties and of the wars, one third of the population has left the country, since the beginning of the 1990s. Dimitrijevic explains: “The social tissue in Serbia is destroyed because of the migrations, the economic situation, the violence… Boris Buden, a Croatian philosopher, said, “We live in a hope without society”. People had hope in the early 2000s, with the beginning of the transition. This is not the case anymore.”

“Transition needs a clear destination,”Nicic says. A destination which is not very clear in Serbia. The country is still trying to transition toward a successful capitalist economy, while the political landscape is undermined by corruption and instability. Dimitrijevic remains lucid: “From the standards of the liberal democracies, Yugoslavia wasn’t a democratic country. Because there was only one party. But today in Serbia, you also practically have only one party. So, there is not such a big difference.”

In such situation, the temptation is high to look at the past, where things weren’t perfect but still seem better than today.

“Yugonostalgia is easy to trace here”

Nowadays, Yugonostalgia is still very alive in Serbia’s society. Paintings of Yugoslav celebrities decorate some walls, coffee places or exhibitions are dedicated to the socialist country, while Yugoslav symbols are coming back to fashion. The past is far from over.

If there is a place that incarnates Yugonostalgia better than any others, it is certainly the Museum of Yugoslavia, located in the suburbs of Belgrade. A place many Serbs known as the House of Flowers, or Tito’s grave. Indeed, the socialist leader is buried there, in a mausoleum. Back in time, it was his winter garden, not far from his residence, today demolished. 

The House of flowers and Tito’s grave are still a place of homage for thousands of citizens and a place of learning for tourists. 

The site also hosts various exhibitions about Tito and daily life in Yugoslavia. “Yugonostalgia is easy to trace here,”admits Mira Luković, an intern curator at the museum. And this nostalgia reaches its peak every year on the 25thof May, Tito’s official birth date. Under socialism, it was also Youth Day, a day of celebration in the whole federation.

The event was officially organized until 1988, eight years after Tito’s death. However, nowadays, it is still held spontaneously every year at the same date in the House of flowers. “The museum doesn’t organize it,underlines Luković. People just come by themselves to pay homage and remember. It’s a different day, on the 25thof May, people feel freer to come to the curator to talk about their experience of Yugoslavia.”

In one of the rooms, a screen shows images of one of these events. People dressed in beautiful clothes, holding Yugoslav flags and bringing flowers, fill the mausoleum, usually quiet and emptier. An old man appears on the screen.“He comes from Canada every year since the 1980s,”explains Luković.

As this man, hundreds of people make the journey from sometimes far away to honour Tito’s memory on the 25thof May.

Among important dates are also the 4thof May (Tito’s death), the 29thof November (Republic day) and the 28thof October (Liberation day). During these days, thousands of people gathered in the House of Flowers and Tito’s birth place.

Are those people mourning Tito or Yugoslavia?is a question one could wonder. Titostalgia (the nostalgia for Tito) is also a studied phenomenon in the ex-Yugoslav countries. Branislav Dimitrijevic explains: “Tito was one of the pillars of Yugoslavia. He was constantly making a balance: between the republics, East and West, the hard line and the liberal wing in his own party… At the time, Yugoslavia was very respected in foreign policy, it was a strong country internationally.”

Luković adds: “I think the Titostalgia died with the previous generation. However, he remains one of these admired figures, as Kennedy for instance.”

Serbs or Yugoslavs?

When the link between past and future is so torn, how to position yourself? Where does your identity belong?

In the 1960s, the authorities made it possible for citizens to declare themselves as Yugoslavs. Indeed, in the population census realized in 1981, 5% of the population identified as Yugoslavs. But with the rise of nationalism and the wars that followed, ethnical identities took the lead and Yugoslav identity became a non-topic for political leaders. However, nowadays, some people are still identifying themselves as Yugoslavs, and want to be officially recognized as such. 

Dimitrijevic explains: “In the beginning, there were a lot of attempts to create a Yugoslav national identity. This actually never really happened. Tito realized it was impossible to create a Yugoslav identity, because the national identities existed before Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia was most a kind of construction rather than a national identity. But because of this life together, a lot of us still cling to that notion of Yugoslav identity. In a way, it happened more after Yugoslavia than during.”

“I feel Yugoslav,”says Mira Luković. “I see it more as a way to say: “I’m against nationalism.” Also, because I was born in 1984, just before the decade of the war. But I would never say I’m from Yugoslavia.”On the other hand, Milos Nicic, born in 1985, doesn’t doubt: “I’m Serb.”

“I still feel personally Yugoslav,says Dimitrijevic, born in 1967. Because my family comes from different parts of Yugoslavia. I live in Serbia now, but I have family in Slovenia and Bosnia as well.”

A family issue Stane GleđRadulović is also facing: “I was born in Croatia, my husband is from Montenegro, his mother is a Muslim Bosnian… So what nationality is my daughter?”She takes a small pause, staring into space. And finally whispers: “We are Yugoslavs forever.” 

The attitude towards the Yugoslav past is still a matter of debate in Serbia. The current political leaders are mostly nationalists, but among citizens, the feelings are more contrasted. Because people lack trust in the present, they tend to look back to the past, where life seemed easier and more meaningful.