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Hello again! 

Have you ever reblogged, retweeted, or regrammed a beautiful photo of a Yugoslav spomenik? Have you seen those glossy coffee table books with high-resolution photographs – taken mostly by western photographers? In this week's essay, historian and critic Ivana Mihaela Žimbrek dissects why these books do more harm than good, and how our obsession with "spomeniks" is connected with liberal and nationalist memory politics.

In the recommendations, you will find a couple takes on the just-ended
Chernobyl, Ivan Golunov's report on Russia's funeral black market, photo essays from Transylvania under Ceaușescu and separatist-controlled Ukraine, research on eastern European gender and sexuality; and a call for solidarity with Poland's oldest squat. Did we miss anything interesting? Tweet it at us, or send it in reply!

Cheers,
Judith and Anna
12 June 2019
View over the Tomb of Gül Baba and the Parliament, Budapest, by Judith Langowski

Concrete Socialist Legacies

A view from Ivana Mihaela Žimbrek

In the latest wave of popular publications on state-socialist art and architecture, two that stand out are devoted to the heritage of Socialist Yugoslavia. The first, Donald Nielby's Spomenik Monument Database, based on his amateur-enthusiast web archive, represents a more-researched coffee table approach to Yugoslav WWII monuments. The second is the catalogue to the recently held MoMA exhibition Toward a Concrete Utopia, which similarly demonstrates the ability to create interesting and well-informed reflections on state-socialist history for a wide-spread, non-scholarly consumption.
 
By giving the Yugoslav monuments the historical and political dimension their representations were lacking so far, the two publications attempt to move beyond the damaging perspective that has dominated online and offline bookshelves for almost a decade. Since the Belgian photographer Jan Kempenaers' Spomenik project in 2010, Facebook and Tumblr pages, as well as Instagram accounts have been flooded with pictures of Yugoslav monuments. Common to them are descriptions emphasizing the allegedly "creepy," "bizarre," "futuristic," and "eerie" character of these monuments. Devoid of any contextualization and starkly portrayed as strange and alien, the (mostly photographic) representations of these monuments became — in Owen Hatherley's words — "concrete clickbait." 
 
This science-fictional aestheticization, coupled with a lack of embeddedness in historical and art historical information is dangerous. It enables the perpetuation of an exoticizing approach to the European state-socialist heritage, embodied, in this case, in the immensely irritating use of the Anglicized moniker spomeniks based on the otherwise fairly uninteresting Serbo-Croatian word for monuments and material heritage. The visual and discursive treatment of Yugoslav monuments, therefore, echoes the historical othering of the Slavic, Balkan, and Southeastern European space, as well as of state socialism and its legacies.
 
For example, although the monuments are recognized as "communist," this label is primarily used to mean an unexplored and almost incomprehensible spatio-temporal framework portrayed as inherently separate from European history and geography. In other words, communism or communist heritage, in the sense in which it emerges from the representations of "spomeniks," is a post-communist construct that does not refer to a concrete historical, political, and social context of state socialism, nor to its ideological and intellectual dimension – but rather functions as an exotic and de-politicized phenomenon. 

The Yugoslav WWII monuments have diverse and complex stories of origin, commemoration, and periodization in terms of local and global visual styles and cultural politics, as well as sources of logistics and finances related to institutional and grassroots initiatives. All of these stories, however, are completely erased in the heavily aestheticized, ahistorical, and politically sanitized representations of the monuments. Through this representation, the Yugoslav monuments can be more easily commodified for audiences whose interest in communism might not go beyond a piece of interior décor. Moreover, due to their price and availability, such representations of Yugoslav monuments in the form of coffee table books and exhibition catalogues are mainly intended for privileged consumption in the West. 

In this sense, the West is not only the place of construction, but also of the circulation and consumption of these representations, even in the case of positive examples such as the MoMA exhibition. The result is a stark contrast between the dilapidated state of the monuments themselves, whose protection often depends on voluntary labor, and the expensive pages of these books whose profit remains outside of the post-Yugoslav space. In addition, not only are they not always accessible to the experts, activists or anyone else interested in this topic in former Yugoslavia, but at the same time the knowledge production, cultural projects, and activist initiatives that come from the region — and offer new and challenging narratives — remain largely enclosed to it, unless offered an élite point of entry, such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

This does not mean, however, that the described character of the representations of Yugoslav monuments has no effect or relation to their actual, on-the-ground status, as well as to state-socialist heritage more broadly. In the past years, more and more monuments, large and small, suffer from both spontaneous and institutional destruction and neglect, and their protection comes mainly from enthusiastic local activists and cultural workers, often in conflict with the indifferent or hostile attitude of the authorities. In this regard, the heavily aestheticized and de-politicized depictions of monuments from Yugoslavia and the rest of the former Eastern Bloc, not only obscure the local, mostly grassroots efforts to properly protect and historicize them, but at the same time create an artificial void of meaning that is then filled in by the agendas of the post-socialist regimes.

This void of meaning also conveniently plays into the official anti-totalitarian memory politics promoted by the European Union. The erasure of and ignorance about the anti-fascist struggle in former Yugoslavia – and its crucial communist dimension, which these monuments celebrate and commemorate — facilitates the equation between communism and fascism that forms the core of the liberal, anti-totalitarian agenda. Although the anti-communist damnatio memoriae has been present from the 1990s, the recent developments in East Central and Southeastern Europe vividly show that the liberal critique of the two totalitarianism systems actually enables the rise of state-sanctioned historical revisionism which then seeks to condone and even celebrate fascist crimes and their perpetrators as parts of national (and increasingly nationalist) histories.

Faced with the rising threat of nationalist and fascist violence, the insistence to fill the gaps in scholarly and popular representations of Yugoslav and other state-socialist monuments, to carefully map their historical contexts, as well as to recognize the importance of the messages of anti-fascist resistance are, therefore, both a matter of chronicling state-socialist legacies and protecting their heritage, but also more broadly of fighting the battles of today inspired by the promises of the communist tomorrow.  

 

Ivana Mihaela Žimbrek is a historian and cultural critic from Croatia, currently writing her PhD at Central European University in Budapest. Find her at ivana.su.

This week's recommendations:


Onscreen:


Little seeped out about the actual living conditions in Ceauşescu’s Romania, even to neighboring Hungary, photographer István Jávor went across the border in the seventies to learn about the plight of the people in Transylvania, a region where many ethnic Hungarians live – and published his photos in underground szamizdat papers. Only one copy of his photos remained, Index.hu re-published them now (accompanying text in Hungarian).

Did you watch Chernobyl? Although reluctantly at first, we watched and really liked it too. A lot has been said about it – here are some takes we found interesting:
  • What a Russian screenwriter learned from the success of Chernobyl – and about selling “Russian stories” to a Western audience: TheReaderApp.com
  • #IfYouOnlyReadOne: Russian-American journalist and author Masha Gessen warns that giving in to the seamlessly recreated scenery can distract from the series’ “embellishments” of history, and how this recasting of the narrative can be harmful: NewYorker.com
  • “Is [Chernobyl] a gift to Rosatom’s competitors?” Pro-Kremlin and Russian state media’s scorn for the show is very predictable, and at times quite funny. Meduza compiled some papers’ critique, along with their careful arguments on why the show is rubbish: Meduza.io
  • A collection of photographs from the cleanup of the explosion and various radiation checks from Kyiv: TheAtlantic.com
It’s Pride Month, want to brush up your knowledge of eastern European queer heritage? Have a look at this list of academic books on gender and sexuality in the region. Questions include: how does the narrative of “the East” catching up with “the West” affect how sexuality is conceptualised – in both? What did lesbian activism in Yugoslavia mean? How does gay identity develop in Russia? Blogs.LSE.ac.uk

Tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians cross the border between the government- and separatist-controlled territory every day. Some visit their family – but the majority are elderly people going to pick up their pensions, because in the separatist-controlled territories, there are no Ukrainian banks anymore. Many faint, some die – right there, while queuing. Photo essay and longread about “the killer queues of Ukraine”: BBC.co.uk

The new state of Yugoslavia was a possibility for the young generation in the sixties and seventies, building roads and the socialist middle class. Writer Aleksandar Hemon reflects on growing up in Yugoslavia in the seventies and eighties, feeling a dissonance between his mother’s joy of the new system and his own disenchantment with patriotic rituals: NewYorker.com 

Five days after his arrest, journalist Ivan Golunov was released yesterday. Meduza now released in English his 2018 report on the deep-seated corruption in Russia’s funeral business. With almost two million people dying in Russia every year, the black market in funeral services is worth almost €3,5 billion – how do the police, local authorities, or simple gangs divide it up among themselves?

+1: The oldest Polish squat in Poznań, Rozbrat, is threatened with being auctioned off and evicted. You can read their petition here; and contribute financially to their legal protection here: 
IBAN: PL03 1160 2202 0000 0002 3589 7475 
SWIFT: BIGBPLW
Payment reference: Donation to Defend Rozbrat
We are also on Twitter! Check it out for more recommendations.
That’s it for now! 

Any thoughts? You are more than welcome to share recommendations or pitch essays to us, and we’ll be happy with feedback, too. 

See you in two weeks!
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