Fact and fantasy collide at the Penang War Museum in Malaysia.
Friday 30 September 2016Now offering tours here
In April 2016 I travelled 5,600 km across the Balkans – 3,600 km of that by road – in search of memorials to the ‘National Liberation Struggle.’ Or, as the locals tend to call them, Spomeniks. Passing through nine countries in 30 days, our small group travelled by train, taxi, plane and boat; we hired five cars (and damaged them all), made 14 border crossings (once, illegally); we dodged landmines, ran away from bears, and got lost more often than I’d like to admit.
There were plenty of adventures along the way, and I’ve already written up a handful of stories from that trip – the ‘Colourful Revolution’ in Macedonia, war tourism in Bosnia and our visit to a deserted Croatian island. But all along, my main goal was to see the spomeniks: a series of bizarre, futuristic monuments constructed across the Balkans back when these lands were united as Yugoslavia.
The first time I encountered these things was online, in an article titled: 25 Abandoned Yugoslavia Monuments that look like they’re from the Future.
The article explained how the structures had been “commissioned by former Yugoslavian president Josip Broz Tito in the 1960s and 70s”; how they’d stood as physical propaganda, until the republic tore itself apart in the early 1990s and the monuments were abandoned: at which point “their symbolic meanings were forever lost.”
The accompanying images were captured by Belgian photographer Jan Kempenaers. They detailed an unlikely assortment of rockets and towers, fists, wings and stars – huge, surreal yet melancholy shapes in steel and concrete, that stood in parks and mountain landscapes, forlorn, grey, and seemingly unloved. I was hooked immediately.
The following report details the results of my research trip in April 2016: the 37 memorial sites that I visited along with details on when they were built, by whom, and (as best as I can tell you) what they stood for.
But first, a little background to my quest.
Memorials to the National Liberation Struggle
Driving into Nikšić, Montenegro, we passed a giant concrete swan. It was some kind of monument, and though I’d have loved to stop for a better photo the road just wouldn’t allow it. Like many of the roads in Montenegro, this one was a serpentine stretch of tarmac that clung to the cliff above a deep, twisting river gorge. With overconfident drivers speeding both ways round the corners, there was simply nowhere to pull over without risking certain death; and so we kept going, and soon after that we were in the city.
The Balkans are littered with curious monuments; particularly during the 1960s and 70s, thousands of memorial sites were raised to celebrate the struggle of Yugoslav Partisan forces against the Axis regimes that occupied the region for much of WWII. Nazi Germany controlled large portions of the Balkans, with support from their political allies in Italy, Bulgaria, and the fascist Ustaše regime in Croatia. Unspeakable deeds were committed – concentration camps, mass murder, ethnic cleansing – and the partisan movement was formed as a grassroots resistance to the occupation. They called it the ‘National Liberation Struggle.’
After the war, these countries were united and many of the partisan leaders went on to assume positions of power within the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, headed by the League of Communists of Yugoslavia. The monuments I was looking for were products of this ‘communist era’… but to call them ‘communist monuments,’ would seem to miss the point of them. Yugoslavia’s memorials to the National Liberation Struggle featured little or no political branding, with ambiguous shapes that expressed abstract concepts of honour, sacrifice, suffering and liberty: these spomeniks were not pro-communist, so much as anti-fascist.
These monuments also avoided the traditional representation of human form; it has been said that Josip Broz Tito – former partisan leader and now the president of a vast and multiethnic federation – preferred to celebrate universal ideals rather than focussing on individuals who might be seen as representative of one ethnicity or another.
The photographer Jan Kempenaers borrowed the Serbo-Croat word ‘spomenik’ to describe the largest, most extravagant of these objects – and I’m going to use that word too. These things are wonderful, they’re unique, and they deserve a title that sets them apart from the regular monuments – busts and stones and plinths and columns – that decorate every other country in the world.
Besides, the word spomenik has a fitting etymology. In Serbo-Croat, a spomenik is to remembrance (‘spomen’) what a worker (‘radnik’) is to work (‘rad’). Put simply, it is a doer or maker of remembrance, and so closer in meaning to the English word ‘memorial’ than to ‘monument.’ (And while we’re on linguistics, just to note: ‘spomenik’ refers to a single object. The Serbo-Croat plural form is ‘spomenici,’ but here I’ll treat it as a loan word adding the standard English pluralisation: spomeniks.)
The spomeniks typically appeared in significant locations: on former battlefields, or in forest clearings once reserved for mass executions. During the Yugoslav period these were busy places, full of buses, tourists, and school children. Nowadays though, without such state endorsement, many of these sites have become difficult to reach – and finding them can be even harder. Before my journey began I spent months compiling a location database. Night after night I trawled through Google Earth, searching mountains, towns and forests for concrete monoliths. Often I only recognised the spomeniks by their shadows on the trees. I searched the web in a handful of different languages, digging up co-ordinates and pinning stars on my map to create a vast red cloud that covered seven sovereign states.
I didn’t always know what I was looking for. These Yugoslav WWII memorials vary dramatically from one to the next: some are elaborate, others are poignantly plain. I found monumental structures that stood over 40 metres high on mountain peaks – and others that barely reached as high as my waist. In the end I simply photographed my favourites.
This is far from a comprehensive list of Yugoslav memorial sites. There are maps floating around the Internet that claim to point the location of every spomenik – but in reality it just didn’t work that way. There was no centralised committee responsible for managing these places, there was no official list. Sometimes a monumental project would receive federal endorsement and a visit from Tito himself… but there were just as many that were funded by local communities to remember events with uniquely local significance. All that unites them is their abstract style, an architectural aesthetic that promoted subjective interpretation over traditionally narrative forms.
Some of the spomeniks I visited I had seen before in pictures – but other times, I’d arrive into a new town and encounter something entirely unexpected. I’m sure there are many more out there, well known by local communities but as yet undiscovered by the Internet. If I were to do this same trip all over again, I could quite easily come back with an entirely different set of 37 (case in point, this list doesn’t feature a single Slovenian monument), so perhaps you can consider this my Spomeniks: Part 1.
For now at least, here’s what I’ve learned about these places.
The Spomeniks are not Abandoned
When writing about the spomeniks, most media outlets seem to struggle finding the words to describe precisely what they’re looking at. All the usual, well-worn tropes come out: I have seen these monuments called ‘haunting,’ ‘creepy,’ ‘eerie’ and ‘forgotten’; I have even seen them labelled ‘Soviet’. The one word that all these websites seem to agree on however, is ‘abandoned.’
Myself, I have difficulties with the concept of an abandoned monument. A monument is generally designed to be left somewhere and looked at – so it strikes me that as long as it remains standing and is occasionally seen, then it’s doing its job. Sometimes emotional responses to the object might change over time, of course. The monument might decay (it happens to the best of us), and sometimes its audience changes too: from coach loads of domestic tourists, to an online audience marvelling at this haunting/creepy/eerie structure from the other side of the world. But so long as someone, somewhere, is still looking at that monument and feeling an emotional response, I can’t see how you could really call it ‘abandoned.’
Semantics aside, we rarely had a monument to ourselves that month. Very few of them feel abandoned, but rather, in 2016, I found they fell largely into three camps: as places of memory, places of life and places of protest.
Places of Memory
Many of the spomeniks – these memory-places – maintain their primary function. Often we’d stumble across freshly laid flowers, evidence that the memorials still provided a focal point for local memory. Colourful wreaths lay at Ostra, Serbia, in the shadow of the Monument to the Brave; we found flowers at Sisak, Croatia, too, though here they were not so recent: a dead bouquet, in whose rotting sump a snake had made its home.
The Stone Flower monument at Jasenovac in Croatia, far from abandoned, is today as active as it ever was in offering a space for remembrance. It is part of a memorial park, built on the site of a former WWII concentration camp operated by the fascist Ustaše regime. The Jasenovac camp was one of the largest of its kind in Europe, and would later be dubbed the ‘Auschwitz of the Balkans’ – a BBC article claims that “even the Nazis were shocked by what happened here.”
Victims of the camp were typically Serbs, Roma and Jews, though it also claimed the lives of Croatian dissidents, those who resisted their country’s swing towards fascism. A 1964 Yugoslav report suggested that a total of 59,188 people had been killed in the camp; although other estimates have ranged from 20,000 to 1.4 million victims, and the precise figure is still a matter of heated debate.
Today, the old buildings are destroyed. A novel system of memorialisation places mounds of earth around the forest clearing to mark the location of former camp facilities; a building near the entrance has become a museum and education centre; a transport train stands rusting on the tracks, while the ‘Stone Flower’ itself – a 1966 monument designed by Bogdan Bogdanović – rises as a solemn focal point at the heart of the former camp.
To call this place ‘abandoned’ is worse than simply incorrect. It undermines the effort that Croatians have made to preserve and remember such a difficult period of their history. For people a world away to look at a photo and lazily imply that the locals have ‘forgotten’ this place, is naive, distasteful, and so very far from the truth.
As Places of Memory, special mention should also be made of the ‘spomen-doms’ – or ‘memorial houses.’ They appear often alongside larger monuments, or other times alone, sealed and stylised buildings that contain artwork, museum exhibitions and even occasionally the bones of local partisans. We found a fine example at Tjentište, Bosnia.
Deep in the Sutjeska National Park – inside the borders of Republika Srpska, an ethnically Serbian region of Bosnia & Herzegovina where Serbian flags can be seen fluttering above houses or pinned to cars – two vast, fractal wings remember the 1943 Battle of Sutjeska. The event marked a co-ordinated Axis attack on the main force of the Yugoslav Partisans; and when that offensive failed, it proved a crucial turning point in the war.
I had seen the Valley of Heroes monument before, in pictures; but the Tjentište Spomendom was new to me, an incredible brutalist structure that sat nestled against forests at the foot of the hill. The place was locked up tight, but peering through a keyhole I made out colourful murals inside, alongside a panel engraved with a quote from President Tito: “Across these lands there were many battlefields on which bloody conflicts occurred, but Sutjeska, which has always been an enduring symbol in our fight for freedom, is suited best to be a place where our people will always proudly think on and remember that great price that was paid for this freedom to be possible” (translation courtesy of Spomenik Database).
I spent a while circling the spomendom, searching for an entrance; it was locked up tight, although somehow a bird had found its way into the building. I spotted it through the thick glass near the structure’s apex, fluttering wildly and throwing itself against the window, again and again, in a futile effort to escape.
There were several abandoned buildings near the monument – an old hotel and the remnants of a museum, both of them riddled with bullet holes. This place had formed a whole memorial resort at one point, it seemed, built to commemorate one war only to be caught in the crossfire of another. Only the Tjentište Spomendom had survived intact, an impenetrable concrete fortress in the shadow of those wings atop the hill.
Another spomendom – titled the ‘Museum of Genocide’ – stands in the Šumarice Memorial Park in Kragujevac, Serbia; it commemorates the place where some 3,000 men and boys from the town were executed by German forces in October 1941. There was another one in Kolašin, Montenegro – the ‘Memorial and Cultural Centre’ – and we explored the place inside and out, though exactly what it was built to remember I never quite discovered. The town of Kolašin played a significant role in the national liberation struggle, but this so-called memorial centre made no obvious reference to the past; rather serving now as administrative offices focussed solely on facilitating the present.
The most beautifully preserved memorial houses we found, however, were those in Macedonia.
At Kruševo we visited the Makedonium: a memorial house shaped like the business end of a mace, containing a pristine, modern museum that details a local 1903 uprising against the Ottomans. The museum is curated, entry is charged, while market stalls lining the approach sell souvenirs. I purchased a couple of spomenik-shaped fridge magnets as I passed.
At Veles, the Memorial Ossuary had just recently been renovated. It sits on the hillside like a beached, bone-white whale, its front end opening up in a maw of lips and curves and plastered arches. As we peered in through the glass doors, a caretaker approached; I asked to look inside and he unlocked it right away, revealing a bizarre mosaic hall designed, it appeared, by Yugoslavia’s answer to Salvador Dali. The caretaker grumbled as he pointed to empty plaques outside the ossuary. There had once been commemorative panels, he explained, listing the names of the fallen… but metal thieves had stolen them away. Since then, the Veles Memorial Ossuary has been fitted with security cameras.
I had travelled across the nations of former Yugoslavia on a hunt for abandoned monuments… but I was surprised to find how many of these places were staffed by caretakers, curators or security guards. As I suggested above, ‘abandoned’ is a somewhat subjective term – but at a lot of these sites it didn’t apply in any sense whatsoever. I wonder if ‘orphaned’ is a better description, for memorials once endorsed by a state that no longer exists.
In recent years some of these orphans have been successfully adopted by the new governments of their respective republics; see Veles, Kruševo, Kolašin and Kragujevac above. There are plenty more, however, which have failed to gain official recognition in the post-Yugoslav, democratic landscape of the Balkans. Poorly maintained, unprotected, in these cases it might be fair to describe the monuments as ‘abandoned’ – at least from a managerial perspective. However my experience, on exploring these sites, was that even though governments may have stopped thinking about the spomeniks their citizens have not; and in spite of vandalism, graffiti and neglect, many of these memorial complexes still function regardless as places of life and activity.
Places of Life
More than merely focal points for remembrance, often the spomeniks I saw had become places of playful interaction… and the more of them I visited, the more I realised this had always been the plan.
These structures were typically designed to invite participation. Rather than stiff, solemn effigies to be observed from a distance, many featured staircases to viewing platforms or interior spaces for learning and reflection. They invited visitors to pass through them, changing shape when viewed from different angles so that the complete experience could only be had by exploring every corner, path and stair.
The movement of visitors at these spomeniks provided a crucial aspect of the memorial process – play was actively encouraged – and more than once while visiting these sites I was reminded of the words of Emma Goldman; “A revolution without dancing is not a revolution worth having.”
Most of these memorial parks and plazas still draw a steady stream of visitors today… and sometimes, this made it hard to get the photographs I wanted. At Kragujevac, Serbia, there was a young couple kissing passionately in front of the Memorial to the People of Croatia; I felt slightly creepy pointing a camera at them, so I lingered instead, and waited (though on reflection, that might have looked worse). Five minutes later they showed no sign of stopping and so we went for a walk, exploring a derelict house in the woods behind the monument. When I came back they were still at it, and so with frustration I photographed the monument, and them, regardless.
At Berane, Montenegro, we took a three-hour round trip to visit a memorial site tucked away in a forest at the northern end of the country. We had just an hour there, before the last bus back to our lodgings in the capital; so we raced up the hillside, ducking under branches, over stones, before bursting into a clearing where the spomenik rose like a rounded pink pyramid from the grass.
Around the outskirts of the clearing, where a wall of stones stood carved with cryptic symbols, a group of young men were working out – doing push-ups, squats, and leaping from one stone to the next. I was just taking my photos when one of them approached me: “It represents a bullet,” he said quite abruptly.
We chatted about local history for a while and then he asked me why we’d come here; to a small Montenegrin town, way off the tourist trail. “To visit monuments like this,” I replied, and he smiled a slow-dawning smile that looked something like unexpected pride.
When the locals aren’t kissing or working out at these places they’re kicking balls around, skateboarding, picnicking… or climbing. At Čačak, Serbia, we saw an imposing mausoleum: its outer walls decorated in the stone heads of dragons, serpents, wolves and basilisks. No two creatures were alike, and while we inspected the massive object a local came to talk with us.
“You want to see the view from the top?” he asked, and slipping his fingers into the eye socket of a nearby dragon he began to demonstrate the easiest climbing route up the flank of the towering structure.
Another day we visited the House of Revolution in Nikšić, Montenegro. The colossal, unfinished spomendom had become an accidental playground for local kids; they climbed and explored within the walls of their own private kingdom. In all of Montenegro, I saw nowhere that felt so alive with youthful energy and imagination.
Joggers ran in loops around the monument at Prilep, Macedonia. Curious neighbours watched us from porches around the monument in Sanski Most, Bosnia. At Podgarić, Croatia, children climbed on the Monument to the Revolution of the People of Moslavina. At Popina, Serbia, a local woman grazed her goats in the shadow of the spomenik.
My friend flew his drone over the Makedonium in Kruševo, Macedonia, and was immediately swarmed by school children eager for a turn at the controls; while the Petrova Gora monument in Croatia is used now as a television mast, and the entire structure was audibly buzzing with power as we explored. Everywhere I looked, there was life.
In Niš, Serbia, watching the football players weave in and out of a trio of concrete fists that burst from the grass of a busy public park, I thought back to the first photograph I had seen of this place: an image of grey pillars in an empty forest clearing. I tried to recreate the same shot myself… waiting for two hours before I had a clear view of the monument without a single human being in the frame.
In those first spomenik photos I saw, the objects had appeared drained of colour; grim and oppressive things. I read an article on The Guardian that concluded: “What is apparent from Kempenaers’s photos is that today, nobody – old or young – cares about them.” The observation seemed logical, but now I couldn’t help feeling that the photographic evidence it was based on – colours carefully faded down, other visitors out of frame – did a disservice to these memorials.
In reality the Balkan region is one of the most colourful places I’ve ever been… and the spomeniks themselves are vibrant things, full of energy and very often surrounded by people. I was beginning to realise that it takes a real effort on the part of the photographer to make these objects look so lifeless; and so such images, perhaps, tell us more about the photographer’s preconceptions of the post-communist world, than they do about the spomeniks themselves.
Then again, the representation of these memorial sites in grim and colourless pictures might speak rather to a larger theme – illustrating two very different cultural attitudes to remembrance.
That park in Niš, Serbia, with the three concrete fists, was once the site of massacre: beneath these trees more than 10,000 people had been rounded up for execution during WWII. During my visit Jamaican reggae pumped from the windows of a parked car, while peaceful pedestrians pushed prams, walked dogs, and kicked balls around the open space.
At the Slobodište Memorial Park in Kruševac, Serbia, almost 1,650 people were shot between 1941 and 1944. It was a killing field, whose geography is still contoured by the humps of mass graves and burial mounds. Today however, children race up and down the slopes of barrows, there is an amphitheatre filled with the sound of laughter while another area, the ‘Valley of Life,’ is fitted with twelve stone birds that double as surprisingly comfortable seats.
This interactive, playful attitude to remembrance is so far removed from that of Western Europe. Take the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, for example – a place that makes news headlines when some tourist is caught taking a selfie, or doing handstands in the vicinity. A spokesman from the Berlin site commented, “We cannot understand this trivialising of the memory of the dead at such a place.”
But the Balkan memorial sites dedicated to that same period demonstrate how it is possible to encourage play without trivialisation. While in Western Europe it is more traditional to preserve places of death and suffering in a vacuum of solemn contemplation, here in the states of former Yugoslavia, where regular citizens have witnessed more death and lived through worse recent conflict than most Westerners will ever know, death is not awarded quite so much power over the present. Instead, these memorial sites – these spomeniks – were designed to answer death with life… and it’s a function that most of them continue to deliver, whether their governments maintain them or not.
Places of Protest
The spomeniks certainly don’t get as much attention as they used to – the busloads of tourists, the school trips – but roughly half of those I saw were maintained in some form or another. There were only five places where we didn’t run into other visitors, yet even at these we’d invariably still find signs of recent activity.
By design, the spomeniks had always invited debate. An article by Gal Kirn and Robert Burghardt explains: “In the abstract formal language of the Yugoslav revolution, memorials instigate a certain sense of openness that allows for personal associations. They remain receptive to multiple interpretations, and they awaken fantasies. Their abstract vocabulary allows for an appropriation of meaning that bypasses official narrations, allowing access to the monuments even for people who disagree with their official politic.”
Perhaps then it was inevitable that once the onsite guards were dismissed, once the politicians had turned their backs, these ‘multiple interpretations’ would begin to manifest in the form of graffiti.
One of the most severely dilapidated spomeniks I saw was at Brezovica, Kosovo – a small Serbian enclave, surrounded by Albanian Kosovar towns. There was an uncomfortable atmosphere in the village. We passed by a police van on the way in, while the main street was decorated in Serbian flags and security cameras.
The local memorial plaza was a mess, all broken stones, smashed lightbulbs and thick graffiti slogans.
“Kosovo is Serbia!” read the first piece, sprayed in Cyrillic, that greeted us as we walked the memorial path. Just then an elderly woman appeared from behind the monument; dressed in a shawl, a sack full of wood slung over her back. I almost greeted her in Albanian – ‘Përshëndetje’ – the word for ‘Hello’ I’d been using in every other town that day. I caught myself just in time though: ‘Здраво,’ I said, and she returned the greeting with a friendly wave.
It was difficult to tell how this monument had been intended to look – large sections had been dismantled, pulled away, leaving a rusted skeleton visible between poorly-fitted concrete petals. More graffiti appeared across the body of the spomenik itself: “Serbia 1389” appeared several times, the date of the Battle of Kosovo when the Serbs had rallied to fight Islamic invaders out of these lands. The comparison it seemed to invite with contemporary Albanian Muslim settlers made me uncomfortable… but not as much as the next piece, a sketch that illustrated the three-finger salute popular amongst Serbian nationalists. The last time I’d seen that sign, was in newsreel footage; a salute given by a soldier who was gleefully firing mortar shells into a Muslim district of Sarajevo.
The Brezovica spomenik, more than most, felt alive with energy; with anger. It had been designed to remember history, to “remain receptive to multiple interpretations,” and “awaken fantasies”; in that sense at least, it was functioning as efficiently as ever.
Rather than simply being forgotten, often the political charge of these monuments attracts unwanted attention.
Many of the thousands of memorial sites across Yugoslavia were destroyed during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. The spomenik at Košute, Croatia, lies broken on its side; while the structure at Makljen, Bosnia, is now little more than a concrete skeleton. Then there’s the Monument to the Victory of the People of Slavonia – a fantastical pair of stainless steel wings – which was erected at Kamenska, Croatia. It took more than a decade to build, and at 30 metres in height it was once the largest postmodern sculpture in the world. However in February 1992 the Croatian Army brought the monument down with dynamite. Other sites shared a similar fate; as icons of a united Yugoslavia many of these spomeniks became symbolic targets when the respective republics began their wars for independence.
We saw another war casualty on Mount Grmeč in Bosnia & Herzegovina: the Korčanica Spomenpark, an overgrown site hidden deep inside the forest. Broken glass lay scattered across the floor of a former museum, while the decorative pond had congealed into a cesspit of toads and slime. It was the only one of these locations I’d feel comfortable describing in terms such as ‘haunting’ or ‘eerie.’ (You can read more about my visit here.)
In Mostar, Bosnia, we visited the Partisan Cemetery: a park necropolis opened in 1965, a symbol of post-war unity that commemorated 810 partisan fighters from this town. The cemetery was severely damaged during the Bosnian War however, and even though it was later repaired the vandalism continued. Today, litter lies strewn around the cobblestones; many of the original structures are gone while the grave markers have been smashed and broken, daubed with anti-communist graffiti.
The architect Arna Mackic comments, “the monument is too loaded with meaning to be left alone and too charged with emotion to be protected after the horrors and ruination of the war.”
Yet even here, in a politically contested location that Mackic describes as a “neglected and a shady hangout,” I sensed a glimmer of hope. As we explored the Partisan Cemetery I watched a group of young Bosnians arrive, picking their way across the stones to sit on a high wall and open up bottles of beer. They talked and laughed, they smoked and drank, and when they’d finished they collected their empty bottles into a bag and left.
From an architect’s perspective the memorial site may have been ‘destroyed’ by vandals – but for the younger generation, for Bosnian millennials with no recollection of the country’s former conflicts, it simply was what it was. The past and ongoing politicisation of this space, the social taboo attached to the memorialisation of communist heroes, has less effect with every year that passes; while the place itself, its design and physical presence, maintains a certain power of attraction even in ruined form. Perhaps one day, when the word ‘communism’ no longer elicits emotional responses here, it’s possible that whatever’s left standing of these places might yet enjoy some kind of renaissance… I guess we just have to wait and see whether concrete, or stigma, dies first.
On Politics, Patronage & Propaganda
There is a popular romantic notion that the spomeniks were all “commissioned by former Yugoslavian President Josip Broz Tito.” The theory is cited far and wide – it’s one of the first things I ever read about these places – but I’ve never seen it backed with historical evidence. Rather I suspect that someone, sometime, simply made that assumption and everyone else has quoted them.
In Serbia I heard a story from a retired construction worker: Nemanja told me how each Yugoslav state, each region, had a budget available for spending on public memorials. They’d pick a popular theme (for example, Eternal Glory to the Yugoslav Partisans!), come up with a design, then submit their quote for approval. If the proposal got the rubber stamp, the local council would then go and have the monument built… usually for less than half the price they’d quoted.
It was a scam, Nemanja told me with a cynical smile; an illicit money-making scheme perpetrated by local officials and disguised as something that nobody dared to disagree with.
Anecdotal evidence aside, Slovenian political philosopher Gal Kirn suggests that largely these structures were commissioned by independent groups – cultural institutions or workers’ collectives. Sometimes designs were picked from local architecture competitions, as was the case with Marko Mušič’s Memorial Hall in Kolasin, Montenegro. In some cases, once a design was approved, the federal government would show its support by offering funding for the project. Other times, the funds would come from within the individual republics themselves.
Not all of the spomeniks were funded by governments, however – for example, the memorial site at Kozara, Bosnia, was paid for entirely in voluntary donations. These came from more than 50,000 people, with the largest donors listed on stone tablets around the complex. (It’s interesting to note that unlike other, federally-funded battlefield memorials, those at Tjentište or Užice for example, Tito’s own partisan brigade did not participate in the battle on Mount Kozara.)
I also find it difficult to accept the popular contemporary narrative that describes the spomeniks as ‘communist propaganda.’
Rather, the Yugoslav memorials provide a counterargument to the prescriptive styles of traditional communist architecture. From memoirs and interviews with architects, Gal Kirn shows how the sites’ creators enjoyed absolute freedom to design as they pleased. The spomeniks share a common theme of remembering the dead, but their forms are largely apolitical; too abstract to serve as conventional propaganda and a world apart from the rigid ideological architecture that was popping up elsewhere in Eastern Europe. As Robert Burghardt notes, “The openness which originates in the abstract language of the monuments is a visual manifestation of the emancipation from the Stalinist dominance of socialist realism in the eastern bloc.”
Perhaps these spomeniks celebrated an idea of ‘Yugoslavia’ – but it was a national identity expressed in the language of artistic freedom. More telling still, is the fact that this style of memorialisation has outlived Yugoslavia itself.
Driving through Foča, Bosnia, one day, we passed a bizarre memorial that wasn’t on my map. On investigation I found that it was new – post-Yugoslav – and dedicated to the Muslim victims of local atrocities committed from 1991-95. In Krusevac, Serbia, we saw the Monument to Peace; another brand new memorial site that looked perfectly at home amongst all the others on my list.
I started spotting more of them, from one country to the next: post-Yugoslav memorials built in a similarly abstract style… yet remembering a different war altogether. By the time I’d seen a dozen it was overwhelmingly clear that the spomeniks – those forgotten, abandoned monuments to the national liberation struggle – were not a communist phenomenon at all. They hadn’t been Yugoslav so much as Yugo-Slavic: an architectural aesthetic proliferated by the South Slavic people in response to the spread of Soviet-style formalism and reductive socialist-realism.
It was a style of protest, of remembrance and the freedom of expression: unthinkable deeds commemorated by inconceivable shapes. These places were the product of people, not politics – of culture rather than ideology – and even today, decades after the end of Balkan communism, a new generation of spomeniks are being raised over places of memory and meaning.
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