Lawrence Mitchell reflects on the changing face of Yugostalgic Belgrade
Although Josep Broz Tito was half Croat and half Slovene, he spent most of his time as the Yugoslav hero in the Serbian capital, Belgrade. It is here, in the leafy Topčider suburb of South Belgrade, where you can find the former leader’s memorial complex – an art gallery, museum and mausoleum scattered among birches, landscaped lawns and whimsical statuary. When I first visited back in 2005, this was a fairly neglected place; once the guards had let me through I had the place to myself. What I remember as being poignant were the one-way arrows on the walkway that led up to the mausoleum – indicators of pedestrian traffic control that were no longer needed.
Fast-forward seven years to a return visit. This time it is certainly busier, with new English-language signs and even a gift shop at the gatehouse. Although the House of Flowers does not see the crowds that would have assembled here in the 1980s, there appears to be a slow renaissance and I am informed that even a group of Slovene Hells Angels now make an annual pilgrimage here on 25 May, Tito’s birthday. The Old Museum next door bears a collection of the gifts presented to Tito during his long presidency. The gifts range from homemade socks and hand-stitched blouses to weaponry and musical instruments. Tito apparently loved dressing up and correspondingly, there are plenty of costumes on display too, the most remarkable of which is a Bolivian witchdoctor’s outfit.
Tito ruled for 35 years until his death in 1980, but his memory has been laced with ambiguity since the traumatic breakup of the Yugoslav federation. In recent years, there has been a considerable amount of revisionism taking place in the Balkans. So-called ‘Yugostalgia’ is one reflection of this. Playful and ironic, as well as sentimental and nostalgic, the commonest expression of this phenomenon seems to be the Yugostalgia theme-café.
On my last trip to Serbia, the Republika café in Belgrade’s Skadarlija quarter, a former bastion of Yugostalgia, seemed to have closed for business but I was more than compensated in discovering a new kafana (traditional café-restaurant) behind the Vuk Theatre in the city centre. Tucked away down a graffiti-scrawled alleyway, its presence is given away by a menu card in a steamed-up window that proudly displays the red star and hammer and sickle. Inside, it’s an Aladdin’s cave of Yugostalgic bric-a-brac – framed photos of Tito, Lenin and even Stalin, and dog-eared photo books of old Yugoslavia. On the wall hangs a map of the former Yugoslavia in the shape of a red star.
Of course, all this serves as homage to a country that no longer exists, but at least you can get a taste of what it might have been at rare enclaves such as this. Just be sure to bring along a sense of irony and check in your cynicism at the door.