Our Yugoslavias: Daily Life in the SFRY

Getting this project up and running. Or, as I've often thought about it– relearning to use the internet and reflecting on Yugoslav visual culture and nostalgia.

Over the last several weeks I’ve been designing this site and it has been quite a journey. First, it’s been so exciting to see this project take shape. It has so far to go, but it started as an idea in my dissertation proposal and now it’s starting to come to life, which feels pretty cool (albeit a little scary too). But it’s also been an interesting  experience because I haven’t built a website in a few years, and I’ve never quite built one like this. This is why when anyone asks me what I’ve been up to the last few weeks I say “relearning to use the internet,” because it sure has felt that way! 


As of today this site is only available in English, but over the next several months I will be working to get it translated into all of the languages spoken in the former Yugoslavia. It is so important to me that this happens to demonstrate the inclusivity this project is founded on. Everyone’s experience matters and tells us something about Yugoslavia as a place and experience people formed identities through, so this site needs to be accessible in all of its most relevant languages. 


While getting this project up and running and been challenging in many ways, one of the hardest parts was designing a site that avoids a visual aesthetic that lends itself to Yugonostalgia while also engaging with Yugoslav culture itself. Frankly, I’m not sure I achieved that, but I want to think through it more because it’s an opportunity to reflect on the state of digital visual cultures of Yugoslavia and the narratives and silences they create. 

Yugonostalgia and the Narratives of Yugoslavia Cultivated through Digital Visual Culture

In its most basic form, Yugonostalgia is the idealization of the Yugoslav socialist past. It focuses primarily on the good and erases the bad. Many Yugonostalgics often reflect on and associate the Yugoslav socialist era with things like housing, job, and healthcare access along with a rich and robust cultural life. But they often don’t discuss or reflect on inequalities in Yugoslav society–– republics or groups of people within each republic who had poor material conditions or nationalities within republics and provinces who were considered second class citizens and/or didn’t have proper political representation/full citizenship rights. 


I’ve been intentionally conscious of Yugonostalgia when designing this site, particularly in choosing images as I attempt to make this website visually engaging. My intention is to have a site that portrays relevant images of Yugoslav culture that people who lived in Yugoslavia will recognize, without falling into idealistic visual tropes. Making those selections has forced me to think through Yugoslav visual culture on the internet and the narratives it creates. It seems to me, that online images of or related to socialist Yugoslavia and its culture lend themselves to Yugonostalgia. The images of Yugoslavia that proliferate online today replicate the same kind of power politics of who and what were visible and associated with Yugoslav life; Tito is a central figure, consumer culture is essential, and the states and peoples who experienced material abundance are on display, as are the goods and media which they consumed. But the peoples who could not experience this same kind of material prosperity, who were economically and politically marginalized, those who lived in rural setting, or struggled within the multinational and decentralized Yugoslav socialist system, are difficult to find and perhaps even harder to place in the existing landscape of Yugoslav digital visual culture.


Picturing Yugoslavia


There is no online photo or visual archive about everyday life in the former Yugoslavia that I am aware of (I’m also not aware of any physical archive of this sort). A majority of the images I pulled for this site come from Museum of Yugoslavia‘s photo archive or Lexicon YU Mitologija’s tumblr: A-Ž SFRJ.

Based on my use of the site, it seems that Museum of Yugoslavia’s photo archive primarily holds photos centered on Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito. It records and makes available photos from his official state visits, official holiday activities like the Day of Youth Celebrations, and his recreational activities. There are countless photos of people greeting Tito upon his arrival to cities across the SFRY from Priština to Skoplje and everywhere in between. You can also find photos of Tito on official state visits to places like Iran, Egypt, and the United States, and a few fun ones, like the one I’ve included here of Tito with a lion cub on a ship on the Red Sea heading towards the Suez Canal. The focus on Tito makes sense given that the Museum of Yugoslavia is the institution which inherited the collections of the Museum of the Revolution of Yugoslav Nations and Nationalities in Belgrade and the 25th of May Museum. While the collection’s exact provenance isn’t entirely clear and it seems likely all of these photos were take by Tito’s official photographer, both of these institutions were dedicated to preserving Yugoslav history.

The Museum of the Revolution primary focused on Yugoslav History from the Partisan victory in World War II until the present, and the 25th of May Museum was used to collect and exhibit the various gifts presented to Tito by foreign dignitaries. Located in Yugoslavia’s former capital, Museum of Yugoslavia is also the only institution in the region dedicated to preserving and interpreting Yugoslav History. So while this photo archive has a vast and inclusive geographic focus both within socialist Yugoslavia and beyond, it is very much focused on Tito and his official business. It has little interest in everyday people and their daily lives. 


For its part, Lexicon YU Mitologija’s tumblr: A-Ž SFRJ is much the opposite of Museum of Yugoslavia’s photo archive. It is focused on images and photos of daily life and Yugoslav material culture: ads, school books, movie posters, magazines, and more. This page is nested under the larger Lexicon YU MItologija project which was established and developed in tandem with Yugoslavia’s disintegration. Its purpose was to record the lived experience of Yugoslav pop culture and became a sort of online crowd sourced initiative that called all people to participate. After the 1990s and into the present. the project has become a form of resistance against post-Yugoslav nationalist revisionist narratives of the past that marginalize or ignore the realities of living in Yugoslavia (for more, read Bošković’s excellent article below.) The site keeps public memory of Yugoslavia alive, but does have a nostalgic bend. The images and photos it uses are visually striking, but they’re not well contextualized. We often see a beautiful image without knowing its story. 

For example, this illustration Kakvo je more? from Danica Rusjan shows an idyllic image of children playing by the sea and describes the kinds of activities they would enjoy there.  But it doesn’t tell where this illustration excerpt was drawn from and who its primary audience was. It also doesn’t indicate who could afford to vacation by the sea in Yugoslavia, who could not, and why? Nor does it tell us where people vacationed and what their actual experiences there were like? In fairness, this kind of contextualization likely isn’t the tumblr’s purpose, but it really is the closest thing to a digital and visual archive of daily life in Yugoslavia that seems to exist online. When we examine it in depth, it becomes clear that images that fit the tumblr’s pleasant and nostalgic aesthetic are primarily what is presented. More often than not, these are images from the more wealthy Yugoslav republic’s like Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia and that broader representation of Yugoslav cultural and daily life are not consciously included. 


In my research experience so far, it is quite challenging to find photos and images of daily life and culture from Yugoslav era Macedonia, Kosovo, or Bosnia––the states who had some of the most challenging material conditions in Yugoslavia. We also rarely see photos or images of objects or other cultural attributes associated with experiences of daily life in more rural regions and towns. The visual narrative that Lexicon YU Mitologija’s tumblr: A-Ž SFRJ cultivates is one of urban popular culture. 

Finally, Pinterest is also a popular site of visual culture on Yugoslavia. You can easily find a bounty of Yugoslav (and other socialist era) magazines, ads, posters, and more. They’re largely tagged under a broad category of “vintage poster/ad/magazine” and also attributed to Yugoslavia. They likewise seem to originate from and were crafted for Serbo-Croatian speaking Yugoslav audiences. This too makes some sense since this was Yugoslavia’s “official” language. But there were many languages spoken on a large scale throughout Yugoslavia, and it is hard to believe that not a single ad, poster, or magazine was printed in those languages. Yet, it is much harder to find any Yugoslav era poster/publication on Pinterest or elsewhere written in Hungarian, Albanian, or Macedonian. Much like Museum of Yugoslavia’s photo archive and Lexicon YU Mitologija’s tumblr, Pinterest too crafts a certain and incomplete image and narrative of Yugoslavia. 


Thinking through the narratives of Yugoslavia that digital visual culture cultivates, pushes us to consider why certain images of Yugoslavia were preserved, whose experiences were unrecorded, and what the purpose and effect of cultivating this visual culture was both in the past and in the present. For me, it not only shows that I must be conscious of the images of Yugoslavia I use on these site, but that many stories about Yugoslavia and daily life there remain untold.


Reflecting on the state of Yugoslav digital visual culture reminds me just how urgent and important it is that people in Yugoslavia have the opportunity and resources to preserve and share their stories so that the more multi-vocal and diverse reality of life in Yugoslavia is recognized. This is a challenging and complex project, but I hope that it contributes to that goal.


I’d love to hear your thoughts on the design of my site, Yugoslav visual culture, or Yugonostalgia. Let’s chat in the comments below! 

Selected Readings on/related to Yugonostalgia: 

Bošković, Aleksandar. “Yugonostalgia and Yugoslav Cultural Memory: Lexicon of YU Mythology.” Slavic Review Vol. 72, Nol 1(2013): 54-78. 

Jovanović, Zlatko. “This Is a Country for You”: Yugonostalgia and Antinationalism in the Rock-Music Culture of Bosnia and Herzegovina.” In: Nostalgia, Loss and Creativity in South-East Europe: Political and Cultural Representations of the Past. Catharina Raudvere, ed. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2018. 

Kurtović, Larisa. “Yugonostalgia on Wheels: Commemorating Marshal Tito Across Post-Yugoslav Borders.” ISEEES Newsletter Vol. 28, No. 1 (2011): 2-13. 

Lindstrom, Nicole. “Yugonostalgia: Restorative and Reflective Nostalgia in Former Yugoslavia.” East Central Europe Vol. 32, No. 1–2 (2005): 227–238

Maksimović, Maja. “Unattainable past, unsatisfying present – Yugonostalgia: an omen of a better future?”  Journal of Nationalism and Ethnicity, Vol. 45, No. 6 (2017): 1066-1081. 

Petrov, Ana. “Yugonostalgia in the market: Popular music and consumerism in post-Yugoslav space.” Muzikološki Zbornik Vol. 53 No. 1 (2017): 203-215. 

Petrov, Ana. “Yugonostalgia as a Kind of Love: Politics of Emotional Reconciliations through Yugoslav Popular Music.” Humanities Vol. 7 No. 4 (2018): 119

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