In 1943, a short film entitled Uz časa piva (For a Glass of Beer), performed by actors from the State Theatre in Zagreb was released by the Croatian State Film Institute, Croatia Film (Hrvatski slikopis). Possibly the only comedy film produced during the years of Ustasha rule and one of the few artefacts of popular culture to directly address the realities of everyday life, the film critic Danijel Rafaelić has called it “probably the most subversive film produced during this period.” In some ways, Rafaelić is surely correct. For example, the film opens to the tunes of jazz music as the titles appear under a sketch of two pitchers of beer. The joyous tenor of the film is also at odds with the stern seriousness of the state. Into a crowded beer hall enter four men who have just come from a meeting of a joint stock company. After a number of jokes at the expense of the company president they ask for a “cask of beer and four of your largest glasses.” The barman explains that he can only bring them beer in glasses or pitchers. When one of the male guests then asks the barman why he can’t get an “entire cask,” the waiter explains that “there are others who have asked the same question. If we gave you the entire cask then there would be fifty others who would get nothing.” This greatly disappoints one of the party and he says to the waiter that “this doesn’t concern us. We pay for and are only concerned about ourselves.” The waiter, now in hulking profile, provides them with a moral lecture about how they should be concerned with the welfare of others, not just their own individual needs: “That’s the way it is when so many of those who have money care only for themselves and don’t care about others…If we thought more about the community, we would live better, sir! The selfishness of the individual destroys all of us.” Rafaelić argues that the speech from the waiter represents a specific socialist critique of consumerism and capitalist self-centredness, looking forward to the Yugoslav era.[1] But is it?

When some publisher decides to publish my PhD thesis, you will read about socialist families in more details, together with many other issues such as impacts of collectivization, veil lifting campaign, policies towards workers, and policies towards youth sexuality. Now, however, I will take one source as an example of the crucial problems regarding gender relations in the socialist family.

The letter from ‘comrade Milja’ to the central AFZ’s magazine to women is telling. Milja wrote to the magazine Žena danas asking for advice. She was concerned that her husband is becoming more distant. He was jumpy, grim, and did not want to spend time in the house. Milja accepted that her husband has his own “business”, meaning to meet with his friends, go to cinema and taverns. But she was worried that her husband did not see everything she was doing in the household and wondered if she had to do more to please him. And what was Milja doing? Well, everything.

Recently I stumbled upon an old book by Olive Lodge, Peasant Life in Yugoslavia, written just prior to the Second World War. It is actually a very interesting ethnography, with numerous great illustrations. The book focused mostly on Serbian part of Yugoslavia, with a couple of sections devoted to Muslims, but provided many vivid details about rural life in the interwar Yugoslavia that soon disappeared with the war. What was left was targeted by the socialist modernisation of the countryside afterwards.

Here are some pictures I scanned from the book, showing very colourful mixture of different dress codes, customs and way of living. The quality is not great, but you can't help it. All captions were written by Olive Lodge. By the way, the book was funded by "The Jugoslav Publication Fund administered by the University of London School of Slavonic and East European studies," if only such fund would exist now at SSEES.

While in the Soviet Union socialist realism was the dominant style during the 1930’s, in Yugoslavia it reached its peak in the first years after the Second World War. Numerous scholars have analysed broad social impacts of socialist realism in the Soviet Union, but only recently a few have focused on its application in Yugoslavia. Among those are the studies of Goran Miloradovic, who also recorded how the Yugoslav audience accepted such style of art.

The idea behind socialist realism was that workers should be able to ‘read’ their own lives from exhibited paintings and erected monuments. The Communist Party wanted artists to depict élan, and ardour for work both in the cities and in the countryside. Artists were expected to visit some of the numerous construction sites of the Yugoslav five-year industrialisation plan, and to get inspiration while workers constructed bridges, large dams, highways, “Youth railway”, shipyards, New Belgrade, collective farms, etc.

 Priča o fabrici, sometimes translated as the Factory Story, was released in the late 1949, during the peak of struggle between Yugoslav communists and Stalin’s Eastern Bloc. It was one of the first attempts of Yugoslav cinematography to find its own character following the Yugoslav break with the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, the strong Soviet influences are very visible, not just in the aesthetic of the film, but in the plot as well.

The plot is centred in a textile factory in Zagreb, and the filmmakers intended to show “strive of the Yugoslav working class to build socialism, and struggle against capitalist remnants that are trying to sabotage and obstruct that construction”.1 It tells a story about a worker Marija, who decides to help new factory manager to increase productivity by working on six machines simultaneously. During the test of such method before the factory’s committee, the bomb explodes injuring Marija. It turns out that the conspiracy was organised by the previous owner of the factory (a capitalist), one Ustasha, and one not very smart doorman of the factory, who fall under the Catholic Church influence.  The conspiracy group also tried to win over a pre-war engineer, who did not understand socialism but was an expert in his job. The conspirators were all arrested, but before that an engineer redeem himself by killing the capitalist, and later by testifying at the court against his wife who was also part of the plot.

Didara: životna priča jedne Prizrenke, is one of those books that is particular shame that they were not translated into English, and available for wider audience. Therefore, I will try to summarize the book, and explain why is it a precious piece of history.

The book was published 10 years ago, but I read it only when my supervisor discovered it. Luckily, it was available in the UCL library, and there is a copy in the British Library as well.

Anyway, the book was written by Miroslava Malesevic, it is based on a series of in-depth interviews with Didara Dukajini. Malesevic then compiled these interviews into one coherent story, written in the first person as told by Didara.

Didara Dukajini was an Albanian woman born in interwar Yugoslavia. Through her life one could follow all Yugoslav state policies regarding Muslim women, and her experience of political life in post-war Yugoslavia. She is one of those persons who became the socialist role models, and who were fully influenced by the state decisions. At the age of seventeen she had to lift her veil when her father demanded it, but then she got educated, married in an interfaith marriage (with a Serbian communist), became a prominent AFZ activist, and even a member of the federal parliament.

“Being cultured” was one of the main catchphrases of the entire socialist period. It was never fully defined and it meant different things in different contexts. For example, in 1945 the AFZ delineated initial requirements for peasant women to be considered “cultured”. The first part was political as that “every woman in a village must be cultured so that they can understand new government and new rights. They have to understand brotherhood and unity and then they will not spread chauvinistic hatred.” This call for supporting the government was expanded that all peasant women “need to learn how to raise their children properly and to care about hygiene, and they need to know how to rule their household properly”.

To reach the imagined level of “enlightenment”, the AFZ thought the first step was to liquidate illiteracy with the help of its “conscious” activists. For that purpose thousands of literacy courses were organised all over the country while women consisted up to 80% of the courses attendants. For many women this was a life-time chance for social mobility. The success of such courses, however, was limited. Already in 1947 the Party noted that many forget to read and write during the year (Courses were usually organised during the winter when no field works were done). The same problem was repeated year after year.

The ultimate goal of the AFZ to “create an army of conscious, enlightened women from illiterate and unenlightened peasant women, capable for huge and responsible duties in the shortest period of time” never lived up to its promise.

Last week I went on a trip to Western Serbia, on the mountain called Medvednik. In one remote village, I was invited for a lunch and there I met some people willing to talk about the AFZ (Antifašistički front žena - The Anti-Fascist Women's Front was an organisation of the Yugoslav Communist Party whose purpose was to work with women). I was shocked that 65 years later they still remember names of the AFZ activists and name of the local AFZ leader in the village. They can't remember any of her activities except that she, together with the other state officials, forced peasants to work in the so called Front's brigade - to work on distant infrastructural project. However, they showed me her old house where the AFZ centre was. Unfortunately she is no longer alive, and even her daughter is dead by now. Nevertheless, in that village I have found out another interesting things - that there is still an active fortune teller in another village close by (close by in their terms, one hour walking).

Now this is important because in my sources on the countryside, these fortune-tellers were the main class enemies. They were the only women in the countryside who had agency in the reports, press and speeches. Even Kulak's wives were presented as passive victims. Fortune-tellers, on the other hand, were seen as predators responsible for huge mortality rate of women and children.

So I went to another village (all these villages have only few houses now), and met that woman. She is still an active fortune-teller and she still practices alternative medicine. The closest doctor is in a town called Ljubovija which is around 30km away, so people are still coming to her, and she was not surprised to see me.

Now, talk with her was very hard, because she is almost completely deaf. However, while she was reading my future from the hand, I was able to communicate some things. She is fully illiterate, her father did not allow her to go to school, although her brothers were allowed. She learned this 'craft' when she was ten years old, but not from her mother, and this is very unexpected. She explained that she was brought to the woods by some man, and he taught her. However, while I was talking with her I noticed that she confuses sexes sometimes. So it might still be a woman. Another interesting thing was when I mentioned partisans and chetniks, but she just heard chetniks and started to shout that they were killing and beating people in her village, and praised partisans for liberation. Then I wanted to know if she had any problems with the communists after the war, and she said something important - that there were no problems at all, on contrary, they were allowed to go the city hall, to the courts, and to drive tractors! And while she was telling this she was speaking in female gender.

It is impossible to make structured interview with her due to hard of hearing and her talk is often not very connected, and even fairies were included.

Anyway, I got some really interesting information from this little excursions: even such remote and poor villages had their local AFZ activists. Second, this fortune-teller worked during the entire socialist period as the main fortune-teller in the village, and she works as one now. How successful was the AFZ?

The end of an academic year is a good time to recall the most interesting readings. Last time I talked about Fidelis’ book on Poland, and now I would like to present an article A Parasite from Outer Space: How Sergei Kurekhin Proved That Lenin Was a Mushroom by Alexei Yurchak. Even the title sounds promising.

So what is it all about? Sergey Kuryokhin, a Russian artist, made a TV show in May 1991 on the Russian national TV and provided “scientific evidence” that Lenin was a mushroom. The show shocked the audience and left many wondering if it was the truth. It was carefully planned program that utilised atmosphere in the Soviet society during Perestroika, when many new historical facts were presented to the public for the first time. By presenting his “findings” as scientific, with serious tone, interviews with real scientists not aware of the hoax, historical footages, and images, the artist made difficult for viewers to see that everything he presents was false. The main thesis was that the Bolshevik revolution, and Lenin himself, was influenced by hallucinogenic mushrooms:

“I have absolutely irrefutable proof that the October revolution was carried out by people who had been consuming certain mushrooms for many years. And these mushrooms, in the process of being consumed by these people, had displaced their personalities. These people were turning into mushrooms. In other words, I simply want to say that Lenin was a mushroom.” (As quoted in Yurchak, 2011, p308)

Some did realise that it was an irony, but they were still shocked that such thing was possible to be broadcasted. Other viewers were just left puzzling.

This funny event opens serious question on representation of academic findings and possible hoaxes, and pseudoscience. In past 20 years we have witnessed proliferation of pseudo history in the Balkans. In Serbian version of pseudo history these “scholars” (who never had any formal education in history) claim that Serbs are the oldest people on Earth, predecessors or creators of all great civilisations. In similar paradigm they would argue that Serbs were natives in the Balkans, tracking theirs origins to the Neolithic times. Such rubbish is always disguised in a serious academic tone - some “evidences” would be presented, naively analysed and then conclusions would be made. Similar versions exist among other Balkan pseudo scholars, mostly in Albania, Kosovo, Bosnia, Croatia and Hungary. The only difference is “the nation” that is glorified. Now, the problem is that these pseudo histories are not easily seen as fraud by the general audience. The books are being sold and these pseudo historians are even given the public space to promote them. On the other hand, an academic community often thinks that it is below par to even to discuss these rubbish ideas (bar excellent work by prof. Radivoj Radic who has published a book to debunk most of their “arguments”). Nevertheless, serious historians who are dealing with the medieval and the pre-modern history (and those interests pseudo scholars the most) need to publically engage in debunking pseudo history. After all, being paid by the public institutions and universities should bear some responsibility toward the tax-payers. The fraud, false arguments and conclusions should be explained to ordinary people, as those pseudo historians are not just artists like Kurekhin whose intentions were very positive.

Cut English version

A little better cut version in the Russian language:

In this academic year I have borrowed more than 120 academic books from the UCL library. I am not going to claim that Malgorzata Fidelis’ Women, Communism, and Industrialization in Postwar Poland is the best of them, but is it definitively the one that I have enjoyed the most (together with Goldman’s Women, the State and Revolution). It is well written, and she brings several important arguments on Polish after war gender policies, especially concerning the discussion on women’s agency and the double burden. This is highly applicable to other East European countries as well.

Fidelis is very clear on her methodological and theoretical positions, and through the entire book she sticks to them, providing quality cultural history. I am not going to write in details about all her arguments, as it will go into my literature review, but what is important is that she shows that Stalinist gender practices in Eastern Europe were transforming societies that were already very conservative. As she explains, “Stalinism was a force that brought radical social changes rather than a conservative backlash.” This is very important for the discussion on the retreat in gender policies, which was dominant in the scholarship for quite some time. I will write what exactly is this retreat in one of the future blog posts.

Another important aspect is that she historicizes the double burden and shows that for many women work in the factory and in the home was not the new thing. The difference to the pre-revolutionary times is a support that women received to work during pregnancy, and to return to their old workplace after giving a birth. Ideology was different, but the situation in which women had to combine paid work and domestic labour was familiar.

Fidelis also argues that there was no such thing as universal women’s agency in socialism, nor that there is some kind of female consciousness resistant to historical forces. She also opposes the idea that there was natural opposition between a production-oriented regime and family-oriented women. Instead she sees women’s agency as diverse and female solidarity as fragmented. In analysing women’s agency she looks at women as active participators in the society, and as people who were constantly producing and negotiating messages. Fidelis gives agency to both men and women and studies how they “formulated their demands within the framework of the dominant political discourse”. Even when she deals with the official policies she shows that gender policies were not simply given, but interpreted and disputed even within the Party.

The book is currently very expensive. On Amazon it is around 60£ and the price is pretty much the same everywhere. So, look for it in the library :)

The first decade after the Second World War in Yugoslavia was marked with drastic change of conservative gender policies. Communists tried to make a real shift, which was discussed in couple of articles so far, and which will be discussed in my PhD project even more. However, there are many interesting internal reports that show that things were not that simple, and that struggle against old prejudices was fierce and not always successful.

For example, in 1952 fewer women were elected in the elections for the local councillors than 3 years before. Even in Slovenia, that was considered as the most “advanced” republic there were huge problems with potential female candidates. Those candidates complained that there are prejudices everywhere and that men do not see women as equal participants in political life. There were problems even with the communists.

The Party was keen to mention every single town or village where the problems emerged, especially when in some of them the Party members were against nomination of women. The reports claimed that some women were nominated just because men knew that they would not be elected. The activists complained that everywhere they could hear an opinion that "a women should stay at home and not interfere in politics."

There were bizarre things as well. One already elected councillor did not allow his wife to candidate herself even if she was doing his entire job in the previous mandate. Many officials publicly said that they were not going to listen to a woman if she is elected. Local male party members always mentioned that women need to concentrate on the housework.

There was certainly huge pressure from the local community. One woman ran away when she was nominated, as she was afraid that she would be elected and then suffer from men’s obstructions of her work. Other female activists never got any support from men. Women were elected only when they organised themselves and worked hard to convince other women to vote for them.

Female activists claimed that only in the biggest cities, such as Maribor and Ljubljana there were no problems, while everywhere else "there is strong intention to exclude women from political life."

Tough times for revolutionaries!