Serbia: Too Much History

I was talking with my dad the other night and he asked me again where I’m heading next month. “Bosnia? Slovakia? Uzbekistan?!” Wrong all all three accounts, but part of me can’t blame him. The country is Serbia, home to an old nation with a new identity. Like my dad, my own image of Serbia was fairly anonymous. Headlines from CNN from a dozen years ago, and a vague sense that this was a place that was not safe, not modern.

See, Serbia has a marketing problem. Memories of the recent struggles, which seem almost inevitable given what I’ve learned about the area’s history, dominate an otherwise (deeply) multicutural and rich history. History, it seems, overwhelms the present. History piles on, sometimes without the chance for a break to let the region and the world gather its thoughts. Slavenka Drakulic, author of Tito Between Legend and Thriller agrees, “We often hear that there is too much history in the Balkans. This is indeed true, but only in the sense of historical events, not history as a discipline.”

I think that our work in Serbia is as much about writing history as it is selling tubs of mayonnaise (more on that later). Over the next few weeks, I’ll bring you lots of great updates from Serbia, sharing lots of great bits about life, business, food, and history. Today, I’ll leave you with one bit that you may not have known.

Serbia used to be the administrative center of Yugoslavia, a communist state that included modern-day Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, and Slovenia. The very idea of “Yugoslavia” suggests that they are going to take a whole lot of different cultures and put them other one roof. History has taught us that this doesnt work out well, but amazingly it did work out well – at least while Tito was around.

Yugoslavia’s leader from 1943 until his death in 1980 was Josip Broz Tito. I grew up lumping the name Tito in with Stalin, Ceaușescu, and other dictators. It turns out that the reality is much more interesting. I’ll let Slavenka do the explaining;

“He spent his holidays working – as the head of state, chairman of the communist party and commander of the military. At the same time he played host to political leaders from Fidel Castro to Queen Elisabeth, Indira Gandhi to Willy Brandt, Leonid Brezhnev to the Persian tsar Reza Pahlavi – and many, many others. Stars fascinated Tito, and many popular personalities, from opera singers like Mario del Monaco, to Valentina Tereskova, the first woman in space, were invited to Brijuni too. But he enjoyed visits by film stars the most – Elizabeth Taylor and Sofia Loren, to mention just two.”

He certainly had good taste in movie stars. I’m looking forward to learning more about this guy.

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