“When I walk downtown and see these communist, concrete structures built right up alongside the older buildings from before the world wars — I see scars, scars on the face of a beast that refused to be caged.”
I met an old Serbian friend of mine the other day in a little cafe across the street from the Church of Saint Sava, a massive orthodox cathedral in Belgrade’s Vracar district. Over espresso and tea we talked about the usual things– our respective studies and work, the U.S presidential election, politics– before finding ourselves on the subject of Serbia itself: its culture, its history, and most of all, its city– Beograd.
Few people I’ve met have been so passionate about their city and their country as this friend of mine, and in a way that is far from blind nationalism that so often colors the politics of this country. For him, to love his country isn’t just to acknowledge its flaws, but to appreciate it even more for them. For Serbia isn’t the same groomed, sleek showdog as France, or a sturdy working animal like Germany: it is a mutt, scarred from its fair share of scrapes and wounds earned from past fights, yet nevertheless loveable, proud, and loyal to a fault.
Belgrade, like Serbia and the Serbs, is much the same. A “beast that refused to be caged”, as my friend said to me: weathered, beaten, and bruised, yet still proud, still independent, still nothing but not entirely, wholly, and unashamedly itself.
The weight of history is different here from the rest of the Balkans. Sarajevo, Zagreb– for most of their past, they sat well within the borders of their respective Empires, far enough from the front lines to avoid the worst of the wars that cropped up every few decades between Russia, the Ottomans, and the Austrians. But Serbia.. throughout the medieval ages and the continent-spanning conflicts of the 18th and 19th centuries, Serbia and its capital were a battleground. Between 1690 and 1790 alone, Belgrade was raised to the ground three times as the city changed hands between Hapsburg and Ottoman armies.
Most importantly, though, Serbia was, and has always been, a country of rebellion against Empires. The First Serbian Uprising happened in 1807 against the Ottomans, the second in 1815. The nation was occupied by the Austrians in World War 1 and, later, the Germans in World War 2– occupations that both saw their own share of resistance and rebellion, including Tito’s partizan guerrilla campaign which led tot he communist Yugoslav state.
But rebellion carries a cost: just as Belgrade was sacked three times in the 18th century, the city found itself once again nearly destroyed in the conflicts of the 20th. Shelling during the First World War, bombing by the Axis in the first half of WW2 and by the Allies in the second half. In 1999, a concentrated bombing campaign by America and NATO during its intervention in Kosovo.
Regardless of how the individual Serb feels about Milosevic’s rule or the Kosovo conflict, the NATO bombings of Yugoslavia feed into this very national story, repeated over and over: a story of a Serbian independence and resistance against a greater, global-spanning power, be it Ottoman, Austrian, Russian or American. The NATO bombings are but a part of this much larger tale, a tale that has caused Serbs to at heart view themselves as rebels, the same “beast that refused to be caged” as this city.
Belgrade’s scars are different from Sarajevo’s. In Bosnia, there is an effort to repair damaged history, to reclaim what has been lost or destroyed from the past. Serbia has instead always looked forward, ever pushing to be new and modern.
Every sacking, every bombing is thus seen as a chance of rebirth into something new: the older, Austrian-style buildings were themselves only built after the original city was raised in the 1700s in emulation what was then the capital of civilization and culture, Vienna. After World War 1, the style of Paris was seen as the new, modern re-birth, and following World War 2– by far the most destructive conflict to affect the city in modern times– communism was seen as the way forward.
Instead of being rebuilt, Austrian and French style buildings bombed by the Germans and Allies were replaced with the very gray, imposing concrete blocks seen today. Walk down the streets, and you can trace the bombing paths of the world war by the pattern of these communist buildings as they wind their way through the city. Today they may seem ugly, crude, or archaic, but in the 1940s they were seen as the peak of modernity, just as the older, 1800s-style buildings that stand shoulder-to-shoulder beside them were once perceived.
I know many who would consider Belgrade ugly, especially compared to Vienna, Paris, or even Zagreb or Sarajevo. But to see its “ugliness” for what it really is– the wounds of resistance– is to see Serbia and the Serbs for what they are at heart: rebels, fighters, independent for all their faults. Once you take that into account, Belgrade’s ugliness takes on a new meaning, and dare I say even begins to have a bit of a romantic quality to it.
Something else also impresses me about this city: it’s vibrant street art scene, which colors every street and marks nearly every building. It seems to me a way for Serbs to reclaim their city, to turn its wounds into something beautiful, as a person might incorporate a tattoo around their own body’s scars.
In the end, Serbia, and its capital, are hard to come to absolutes on– so much of this city and this are bathed in shades of gray. It has resisted oppression and been the oppressor, the victim of violence and the perpetrator. It has at some moments in history allied with and sought to emulate the West, at other times been vehemently against it, and at still other periods occupying some tenuous, neutral middle ground between world powers.
But I love it, not despite its faults, but in many ways for them. And, just like Sarajevo, I will miss it when I’m gone.
Photo credits: Sydne Mass @Syd_Mass