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Slavic Melancholy: Harvesting Hope After the Fall of Yugoslavia

By Sophie Dugas


Via Flickr

In an interview with a psychoanalyst, famous performance artist Marina Abramović described the notion of “Slavic melancholy,” this supposed intergenerational and built-in struggle shared amongst those living in former Yugoslavia, and their descendants. 

Yugoslavia was a single state combining Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Slovenia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina that fragmented after Croatia and Slovenia’s fights for national liberty. Historically, tensions between the previously united countries have always been high. Some leaders demanded the maintenance and success of the unique state, while others’ ethnic nationalism preached to form an independent nation. However, this is far from the only driving force separating these nations: ethno-religious wars, disputes in political ideology, and the reclamation of certain territories contributed to the fall of Yugoslavia and to the sentiments of hope amongst separated communities. 

As a third-generation Croatian immigrant, questions about Slavic identities and Yugoslavian values have been a part of my vocabulary for as long as I can remember. I can recall books entitled “The Truth Behind Yugoslavia,” “Yugoslavian Inferno,” and “The True History of Croatians in Yugoslavia” filling my grandparents’ bookshelves when I was a kid. My grandmother narrated stories about how Yugoslavia was the true evil, and anything reminiscent of the Communist era could only evoke struggle and warfare. 

My grandma’s disdain for these events was unsurprising; she grew up poor in a small Croatian village that was prone to constant bomb threats and attacks. When entering early adulthood, she fought hard for her place in university and her right to a religious marriage. While state-mandated laws repressed religion and spirituality, my grandparents secretly hosted a midnight wedding at church to avoid attention from suspicious soldiers. Yet, her main concern remained her right to live. 

Shortly after WWII, prejudice spread like wildfire amongst the Slavic nations. Slovenia and Croatia condemned the Serbs’ one-state wishes, and Serbia criticized the smaller countries for refusing to ally their forces for “the greater good.” Multi-ethnic marriages in Yugoslavia were then nearly impossible; families even abandoned their children over differences in political views. 

The Yugoslavian separation war in the 90s is an example of a two-sided conflict; Slavics acknowledge each other’s pain, yet fail to define themselves. One could describe this as a thorny “love and hate” relationship in which communities wished the best for one another while simultaneously bombing their ethnic counterparts. Harming those once so close to their own became the price of creating a national identity. 

Decades later, after immigrating to Canada for my grandpa’s engineering job, my grandparents realized this conflict was far from over. Mass violence erupted during the Croatian War for Independence in the early 90s. Balkan tensions reached an all-time high when the Croatian resistance opposed Yugoslavian forces controlled by the Serbian government. My grandmother and grandfather spared a tear for the daily calls from home informing them that a loved one had been incarcerated, injured, or killed. The remaining relatives they had in Croatia huddled in a small apartment in Zagreb, drinking Rakija and praying they would live to see the morning. My family members who were lucky enough to leave the country rushed to Canada to wait until Croatia recovered from the looming threat of violence and insecurity. Others impulsively sought shelter in Hungary via a car that held young kids and all their belongings. Everything was scary: “Remember Sophie, we fought to be here. They fought to get away.” 

Naturally, this supposed return was not a realistic goal. My great aunts and uncles mainly stayed while their kids left looking for a more stable home. They all thought they could return to a post-Yugoslavian territory that did not inspire dread and despair. However, the beginning of Croatian independence meant the start of a Croatian governmental structure which the country needed to be more mature to undertake. Logistical processes in the country’s birth seemed endless, while life in Canada did not seem so terrible. It became a home away from home. Luckily, visits were frequent and long, meaning relatives could finally reconnect and remember the rebuildings of the past they both lost. Yugoslavian struggle endures, but so does national strength, which lives in our blood as fiercely as ever. 

Ethnonationalism tendencies are difficult to break for civilians who sought the long-awaited foundation of a homeland. In taking Croatian courses and traditional folklore dancing lessons at Montreal’s local Croatian Church, I saw what it meant to be a proud community of people who previously thought they would never see their country thrive again. I could begin to sympathize with the struggles of those who remained in the bloody streets of Yugoslavia with a firm belief in a free nation. The melancholy of Slavic efforts is omnipresent, yet this is no excuse to fear our future. 

When I returned to Croatia as a child, I walked under the sun in the nostalgic Croatian heat and, after exiting the fast-paced tram, passed by all the places my mom described with beauty that seemed out of a fairytale. Croatia is a home far away from home; it is my escape back to reality, my cultural center, and the first place I knew I would love forever. Slavic melancholy may exist, but so does Slavic hope, and this is the cause we should promote today.


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