“If people would know how little brain is ruling the world, they would die of fear.”
― Ivo Andric
Last year in the autumn it seemed that staying in Belgrade was the best possible choice. No one had any idea what was going to happen or what the consequences would be on my life. Everything was running its course in peace and quiet without any special luxury or opulence in life. My apartment, my books, my three dogs and some of my friends made me feel safe in Serbia. Maybe I never got the proper job I was prepared for; I didn’t even get a substitute professorship! I used to work and write for free, sometimes for a little money, but somehow it was possible to accept it. A quiet sense of discontent and a slight sense of humiliation have always been inside me but I still had enough to survive as a freelancer. Life was beautiful with the scents of the Balkans and the spring blossom of lime and the autumn flowering of walnuts on my street. All those little things that mean life made me not use my immigrant visa to the United States.
How I started to recognize the roadside signs still wasn’t clear to me. It may have been a late spring day or early autumn 2021 and I headed to Sava Square in the city center to see a friend. All of a sudden, I saw a sinisterly fascinating metal iron monument that stood a little bent, shutting down that whole savski (square) proscenium, which should show the confluence of the Sava into Danube. To me this monument seemed to be a mockery of the city.
There was already a lot of discussion about the monument even before its unveiling, from the complete destruction of Sava Square, to the monumental size of the building, which is supposed to represent medieval ruler Stefan Nemanja. Up close the monument looks worse than in the pictures, especially the evening scenes depicting this shrubbery at 23 meters high and weighing 68 tons. The author is Alexander Rukavishnikov, a Russian sculptor, whose name is clearly visible on the monument. According to him, the monument shows the continuity of Serbian culture, which was born out of Byzantine culture. If I were to say that this Rukavishnikov’s work is a typical representative of the post-Soviet trend, it would be nothing new.
Nevertheless, the place and time of the appearance of this colossus, its basic visual features as well as geo-political intent, not just urban misanthrope, form its meaning. It is by no means, nor can it be contained in the historical figure after which it was named. A key cultural tradition inherited by post-Soviet kitsch is certainly socialist realism, in this case mature, Zdanovsky type.
By placing Rukavishnikov’s monument in one of Belgrade’s largest squares, it closes the full circle and marks the end of Serbia’s independence as a state by celebrating the Russian ideal (the Soviet ideal of aesthetic monumentality) and marking Serbia’s fall under one sphere of influence. Rukavishnikov’s monument is not only an act of violence against taste, but above all against spirit. This kind of violence is widespread in Serbia, and it erupts every time spirituality is used as an instrument to benefit the state.
I’ve been educated enough; I’ve seen enough monuments all over the world and in the whole of Ex-Yugoslavia. Just asking myself: did Rukavishnikov confuse Stefan Nemanja with Alexander Nevsky or either with Ivan the Terrible? In the post-Soviet period, that process was reversed, and in a thoroughly secularized aesthetic, religion was installed in a place once occupied by ideology. The result cannot possibly be a simple understatement. This negation carries a huge symbolism, even violence. Speaking or writing against this monument provokes the worse reactions in the so-called first nationalistic Serbia. It even sticks to a person who, after all, has professional qualities to write and judge such issues. Yet to do so brought me all kinds of epithets. My criticism of the monument on social media platforms brought me the worst kind of insults.
The issue is that Sava Square is the square of Belgrade Central Station. The building is the purposefully dominant object of that space. The Central Station building was “breathing,” thanks to an urban solution that includes the Sava Square. The square exists because of the building, not the monument. But the railway station was destroyed during the Corona time and only object left was the façade of the building, erected back in 1882-1885.
Then came this terrifyingly ugly sculptural monument Most of the Serbs do not want to admit to themselves this fact because of their national pride. To them what matters is that the monument exists! But there’s an empty echo and applause from the grotesque behind the stage. To me such a monument in such a prominent public place says Serbia has become like a colony, at least as represented by the ugly aesthetics of this statue created by a Russian sculptor.
Meanwhile, political monkeys grumbled that Serbia was a colony of the West. On the contrary, we became a colony of petrol — an oil–dependent colony of the biggest Eurasian state in Europe. Putin understands that Serbian mentality is rooted in fatalism, fearlessness, pride, self-sabotage. Mikhail Lermontov wrote a story about Serbia’s fatalism that served Russia’s interest.
Once upon a time Belgrade was presented on many postcards and on Wikipedia showing the confluence of the Sava into the Danube. It included a magnificent monument by Mestrovic, a Croatian sculptor, set up in the former Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The monument was subject to criticism from Serbian nationalists. For a time it was removed, allegedly for restoration. But it was put back under pressure from the professional public.
The second roadside sign is represented by the Temple of Saint Sava, a replica of Byzantium type of building, except in concrete. During Milosevic’s rule in the 1990s, a replica of the Hagia Sophie Church was erected there, intended to say that Serbia would be a hub for all Orthodox believers in the Western Balkans. But even after the 2000s and the so-called democratic changes in Serbia, the building of this church did not stop. Money continued to flow and the Russians gilded the inner crypt of this mockery to achieve its maximum influence on the Serbian people, who began to identify their national identity with the church, with pan-Slavism, with Russia.
“In Moscow today essentially the same forces are consolidating themselves as are doing so in Belgrade. They are replacing the communist mythology with pseudo patriotic mythology. It is simplemindedness, which is worse than thievery. This is especially true in very complicated conflicts between nationalities.”- Andrey Kozyrev, June 1992.
The signs were there but the meaning wasn’t clear. But I saw the movement of society and social values was increasingly shifting to the right and that the electorate and public opinion had become much more conservative.
This is autumn 2022. Almost seven months after the war began in Ukraine. Now it is now clear what the roadside signs symbolized. The riddle was exposed as Serbian society has shown its ugly, antipathy face to the world. Outrages, missing empathy for devastated Ukraine, rotting for the aggressor.
The ruling voice here for the war is responsibility lies with NATO-USA and with the EU. Accordingly, rulers say, western society has brainwashed its society with materialistic values. But shouldn’t we as a society of common people have empathy for the Ukrainian people dying in their homeland, shelled and bombed by Russian rockets and artillery? We in Serbia survived this horror thought the First and Second WW?! Yet people me who show empathy for Ukraine are outcast, put on some unknown list by own neighbors and bullies on social media platform’s — or in private life.
All Serbs do not have a bad opinion of the West. Many young and well-educated people left Serbia a long time ago for EU countries and the U.S. And in Belgrade there are many ordinary people who believe the West is the best possible option for Serbia. What’s ugly is the costly violence against the mind, stark warnings if you criticize the Russian military or the war. I’ve had some longtime friends turn their backs on me completely. We don’t talk anymore because, in their opinion, I’m just listening to CNN.
The Serbian president’s message is that we must remain neutral in this clash between Russia and Ukraine, while the rest of European society is opposed to the aggressor. Russian agents are roaming Belgrade, people who represent the interest of Russian propaganda have slowly advanced their careers and today these average minds rule in spheres of public cultural life and in education. Virtually every opportunity to get a proper job has been slammed by the wind blowing from the steppes.
We welcome winter to total uncertainty.
Are we going to have electricity?
Are we going to have heat?
Will inflation eat up what little money we have for food and bills?
Will the ruling pro-fascist Community Party in Serbia push country to the black hole.
Most people of my generation remember the sanctions of the 1990s but I think this winter will be even worse. Regimes in Belgrade and Serbia are gradually closing all doors due to the fatalistic attitude towards the so-called Russians brothers that are hundreds of miles away. If you ask me, they’ve never been brothers, much less friends. But try to prove that to the people who drink and eat Russian propaganda. They think these fake brothers are going to help them. Actually, the Russians are in a lot worse trouble than ourselves.
What can I hope for next winter? I don’t know. I haven’t slept normally since February 2022. I also don’t eat normally. I try to control fear but it seems fear is stronger than me. And now that summer is over and the vortex has become even stronger, existential questions have become even more sharpened. The possibility of nuclear war is present. Far worse at the moment is the thought of winter, hunger, misery and disease. I try to positively fulfill my days, through reading and writing, but that existential concern always hangs over my head. As an individual, I cannot influence this outside world.
I ask myself who has helped Serbia, which imagines that it should be part of European society? We ave been always member of Europe and life’s of my ancestors who are died in WW war and died as Jews in concentration camps should not be denied by this government.
Here’s what Jordan Paterson says: https://youtu.be/sz8r
Ph.D.Anja Weber, philosopher, temporary living in Belgrade…
“The ruling power is always faced with the question, ‘In such and such circumstances, what would you do?’, whereas the opposition is not obliged to take responsibility or make any real decisions.”
― George Orwell
Russia and the Balkans, partnership and the power