The Issues of Socialist Monuments in Post-socialist Balkan Countries
By Anja Ivic
Just a few days ago I stumbled upon an article online regarding Balkan war monuments and how they are being used as a parkour playgrounds. Interesting, I thought. Also, a very contemporary topic in Croatian art history and conservation studies. Further researching and lurking got me to various articles all based on the premise that Balkan World War II monuments all look like ‘from the future’, ‘unreal’ or ‘magical’. So, speak of this exact moment - what are we doing with them? Not much, basically.
I would like to point out a few issues regarding socialist monuments that stop us from making the most of them. Just to be clear, I am referring to socialist monuments on the geographical area of the Balkans, specifically, the countries of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia which fell apart at the beginning of the nineties of the 20th Century. After a bloody and horrifying five-year war, Yugoslavia dissimilated into several countries and some of the questions still remain rather open. The many nationalities, Croatian, Bosnian, Serbian, Albanian, Kosovar, Macedonian and Monte Negro, all bear positive and negative memory regarding the war, but also the pre-war socialist era of Yugoslavia, Tito and restraints demonstrated on many levels.
When I say “socialist monuments”, I refer to the monuments built after World War II during the life of Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia all over its territory, by various artists, sculptors and architects. As socialist and communist regime colored a big part of the history of many countries, it is obvious that much of their art and especially monument corpus are socialist and communist-themed. Monuments that celebrate victory over fascism, anti-fascist heroes, partisan troops, women anti-fascist fighters… These can all be found in various forms and shapes, of course, adjusted to the culture and specific surrounding of the country or local community they are inserted into.
The first issue regarding a big number of socialist monuments is the fact that some of them are geographical cut-off. Getting to a certain number of them is a big problem, especially if you intend to make a tour and see all of them, which will mean that you will travel through the whole region and pass several borders. Not only is the size of the territory a problem, but how to reach some of those marginal inhabited villages when there is no road going to them (the option of a public transportation is immediately discarded).
As those borders were been created, local people developed a certain hate towards those monuments and we have examples of their intended destruction. For example, the monument to the Revolutionary victory of the people of Slavonia in Kamenska was bombed in 1992, leaving a devastated landscape and wiping out the biggest (by dimensions) abstract monument in the whole country.
The hint I am aiming at with this example is the negative cultural memory that these monuments bear for the people who saw and experienced the transition from the old, socialist regime to the democratic one in independent countries. How to look at these monuments without any symbolic significance? Observe them and not hear them screaming out socialist values because the people were oppressed by the regime who praised the same values? How to teach people to look at these truly divine examples of monumental plastic as masterpieces in both design and idea? We always search for a “deeper” symbolic in works of art, thinking that there is where the secret of its point hides. So how to avoid that deeper symbolic and to dissolve these monuments of their primary context in which and for which they were created?
In order to do so, we should make peace with the contextual and cultural past and memory that the generations bear. Also, with new generations of cultural workers and art historians rationally grading the value of these monuments we can begin to nurture them as individual pieces in our past and cultural memory. But, how do we protect these monuments as we protect the ancient cores of cities? This is, hopefully, the last issue. The conservation departments still partially don’t know how to cope with the problem of preserving modernist monuments. Simply put, they don’t know which tools to use in order to save modernist buildings and monuments from the mid 20th Century built with materials that are meant to last for a top of hundred years. Of course, if not maintained (and this is the case in most of these monuments), their life span is to be even shorter.
True, the awareness of the existence and value of these monuments is growing due to the scholars who dedicate their careers to these topics. In the last few years there is a big interest for these themes, as the time laps since the war has passed. But, to close the chapter of neglecting this parts of our culture(s) and to bite into the new one we should start to think about new ways of preserving what we have now and that is a challenge for art history, conservation studies, architectural and monument preservation and the people themselves.