Mark W Hopkins
Mark Hopkins

Fellowship Title:

Yugoslavia: Notes and Episodes

Mark Hopkins
May 1, 1970

Fellowship Year

Belgrade, Yugoslavia

Sketches from the program of Atelje 212 production of “Hair”.

The Hotel Esplanade’s lobby and lounge this particular night were ornamented with uncommon glitter and elegance. For one thing, a  flock of more affluent Italians was in the Croatian capital of Zagreb f or a pigeon shoot, for which each sportsman paid an entrance fee of 3,000 dinars, the equivalent of just under $250, plus an additional $2-50 for every live bird put up before his gun. The call boards, carried silently through public rooms by bellhops in forest green jackets matching a muffling expanse of carpet, were chalked with distinctly Italian names. And a few of the younger shooters in mod Edwardian coats and bellbottoms hunted through the lobby, eased in red velvet chairs around the bar, or strolled into the gambling casino for roulette.cabaret

Equally as conspicuous as the Italian crowd was the gathering of Zagreb journalists, wives and guests. For their annual dinner dance, clearly an “in” event of the Zagreb social season, the men, most of them, were in black tie and the women, in a dazzling ensemble of maxi and mini, beaded and spangled, white and pastel, fur covered and bare shouldered.

In the main dining room, a domed hall of Austro-Hungarian flavor softly lit with graceful silver candelabras, a corps of waiters poured wine for the gentlemen of the press and their friends. An orchestra excited gentle talk and laughter, while in the overflow room, no less imposing with its orderly rank of chandeliers, its wine red cloth covered walls and displays of paintings and prints, colleagues dined to subdued cabaret music of the Benny Goodman era.

An interloper surveying this unexpected splendor in Yugoslavia is mentally caught up short. The temptation is to draw some momentous political significance—in concert with one young woman in Zagreb who with a soft burning of social revolution denounced privilege and wealth for the few in a socialist society while factory workers labored monotonously for meager wages. And, of course, a thick dossier can be compiled of Yugoslavia’s falling away from the proletarian dream. But after some months here, one gets the feeling that there is too much forced judgement of this country as to whether it is essentially capitalist or communist, as a pawn or prize between east and west.

Certainly these are the ever present concerns of global strategists. They are the stuff of diplomatic reports and working luncheons in Belgrade. And one accepts on faith, if not out of practice, that the quality of Yugoslav life will somehow be determined by the quantity of west European and American money, expertise and tourists entering the country, or the volume of Soviet trade and propaganda, or the political deals struck between ministries here and in other capitals.

The offices of the League of Communists rise above nearby apartment buildings and Belgrade’s museum of modern art in the foreground. They are located across the Sava River in New Belgrade.

But none of the standard indices for measuring a nation’s direction and content quite prepares one for the daily reality of Yugoslavia. Counterposed to the obvious sophistication of the Esplanade: Popcorn came to Belgrade’s Terazije, a check of notes confirms, on the warm evening of October 22, 19,69 in the form of a red and white mobile stand tended by a plump woman in a white surgical-like gown and cap. Across the stand, POPCORN in red, block letters advertised the wares. Belgraders strolling the main downtown intersection of the Yugoslav capital crowded forward to gawk at the neon lighted marvel bubbling over hot popcorn from an automatic electric cooker. Dozens lined up to pay one dinar–8~–for a bag. The test marketing was eminently successful. This spring, five popcorn stands operate on the Terazije, and the Kasina Hotel has stamped its advertising on the plastic sacks.

It is not that Zagreb is more cosmopolitan than Serbian Belgrade (although Croatians confidently believe this to be so; a tourist brochure flatly claims that, “Zagreb is the cultural and economic center of Yugoslavia.”). It is simply that none of the common word labels quite portray or encompass Yugoslavia in its human terms—not communist, or Titoist, or revisionist, which refer primarily to political acts and documents considerably above the street level.

On that plane, a panoply of sights and sounds resists a title. On an afternoon, one glimpses two peasant girls ambling arm in arm along the street. Their cheeks are unbelievably rosy, almost a parody of peasant robustness. Their faces are round and scrubbed, framed with large knitted shawls that drape over their shoulders and that are set off by rainbow colored hoop skirts fluffed out by ten layers of white petticoats. Of another, wholly incompatible species, a young Belgrade couple of the mod generation hurries purposefully down the sidewalk. They document that the vinyl maxi-coat is the fashion of the city, along with matching accessories—global sunglasses, tailored bellbottoms, black leather knee boots, dust blue eye shadow. The young males of the with-it crowd wear their hair long. The females bleach theirs blond. Their heroes are pop singers (one of whom, the Yugoslav favorite, endorses a hair tonic on Belgrade TV commercials) and the beat sound. Tom Jones and Beatles records sell at all department and music stores. A weekly live telecast called Maxi-meter allows young and painfully amateurish singers a few minutes exposure so that audience applause can be recorded on the studio audio barometer. The House of Youth schedules weekly jazz sessions and another small retreat for youth advertises “Go-Go Dancing (sia) 20 to 2.11

Belgrade’s publicized avant-garde theater—Atelje 212–contains in its repertoire a lively, fast paced production of “Hair,” which has drawn a full house approximately three times a month since last May (while a few weeks ago a road company received full praise in the Zagreb press). A newer production, “Operetta,” authored by an expatriate Pole, carries the message of an old world effete nobility giving way to chaotic, violent revolution, giving way to a new generation of purity and integrity—symbolized in the final act by a young actress who draws full upright and stark naked to sing, with a poise and self assurance that dispels all erotica about the scene.

Mira Trailovic, a large, commanding and handsome woman who manages Atelje 212 will tell you amidst telephone calls and half sentence discussions with staff people that she dislikes vulgar, cabaret nudity, but not the variety that appears in “Hair” and “Operetta 11 Nor, in this city so provincial and unsophisticated in many ways, has she encountered blue nose protest, at least none that she has not been able to deflect. And even if the vibrant Atelje 212 were marketing sex, which it is not, it would be against awesome competition.

It is clear that someone here has discovered the profit potential of erotica. Kiosks display pillow size photographs of nudes that easily preempt the appeal of Playboy, which at $1.50 lags behind cheaper and sexier domestic products like Adam & Eve, Start Magazine and Chik. The evening tabloid newspapers such as Vechernje Novosti in Belgrade and Vecghernji List in Zagreb offer a lively selection of pinups, sports, features and such specials as a series on sexual frigidity of woman. A few weeks ago Zagreb put on a showing of “erotic films.” The Majestic and Metropol Hotels in Belgrade, the Esplanade in Zagreb and the Slon in Ljubljana operate a profitable nightclub business with one hour shows by strippers who exhibit more willingness than talent in taking off the g-string (for which they are paid up to $500 a month, or about five times the factory worker’s wage).

This particular slice of Yugoslav life—the embryonic sex revolution—seems either comical or absurd in uva textiles. Within eyesight of the newsstand pinups there are the green markets where stout peasant women, as modestly clothed as nuns, some easily the masters of plow and oxen, spend the day hawking vegetables, chickens, cheese, eggs, flowers, and fruits. The voyeurism of the kiosks and nightclubs is, you sense, from another society, one that has written off its peasant culture and has bored of consumerism.

A flower woman at the Zagreb open market

A Coca-Cola truck is unloaded along one of Belbrade,b main streets. Though PepsiCola was the first into the Yugoslav market, Coca-Cola now leads in sales, partly because of a persistent advertising campaign.

Yugoslavia has done neither. But because of its tourists, whose billfolds of hard currency make them especially welcome, and because of its open frontiers and airwaves, Yugoslavia is vulnerable to other societies. In the northern republics of Slovenia and Croatia, television antennas pick up Austrian and Italian programs. One of the most popular serials on Zagreb TV at this writing is Peyton Place. Belgrade TV has just finished a run of Mannix, and the Thursday night programming now includes The Jerry Lewis Show and Route 66. Belgrade movie houses feature foreign films at least three-fourths of the time and predominantly American. Technicolor westerns are enduring favorites. The last Yugoslav spectacular, “Battle on the Neretva,” a four hour blood soaked glorification of Partisan valor, won little praise here except among some undiscriminating newspaper critics. One student classified the nomination of the film for an Academy Award Oscar as “reactionary.”

The cultural intervention is evident elsewhere. Small shops sell British made Levis. Tobacco stalls market Kents (manufactured under license in the town of Nis). Self-service groceries display CocaCola and Pepsi-Cola, the later having lost out, however, in the battle for the soft drink market. A contest sponsored jointly by Coca-Cola and the Belgrade evening tabloid Politika Ekspres offered approximately $40,000 worth of prizes, including a first place trip to Expo 70, plus cars, TV sets and cameras. It drew 70,000 entries a week, each with ten Coca-Cola bottle caps.

A Helena Rubinstein 11 Kozmetički Salon in the new Belgrade Tas Hotel provides Paris trained stylists and a complete beauty treatment and counseling for the equivalent of $4, all in a carpeted salon trimmed in imitation French provincial. The newest boutique in the capital is stuffed with Italian dresses, handbags and shoes.

In all these ways—a sip of Coca-Cola, a half hour with Jerry Lewis, a facial at the Helena Rubinstein salon, an excursion to the Italian dress shop—the western mass culture infiltrates Yugoslavia. To those professionally involved in the “struggle for men’s minds,” the tote board is satisfying. There are others, both Yugoslavs and foreigners, who are less exhilarated by the impact of western culture. With clinical detachment, a Belgrade sociologist shows you a drawing done by his six year old daughter of a woman bare breasted. “Poor girl”, he half laughs, “she is a victim of the sex revolution.” An American embassy official ponders whether an American influence on Yugoslavia in the form of Mannix or Peyton Place really constitutes a plus.

Perhaps the concern is overdrawn. Foreign mass culture vies-with native attitudes and mores sunk deep in centuries. Now, in these warm spring days, when the first transparent green leaves are on the trees, the Kafana’s have set out their dusty sidewalk tables and chairs. The Serbian men hunch and sprawl around them with a miniature cup of sweet, thick Turkish coffee, or a cognac or slivovitz, a fiery plum brandy, to banter away the afternoon. Parks are reoccupied again, after the winter evacuation. Wedding feasts consume two and three days’ time in the villages and unregistered bottles of wine, beer and slivovitz. In the cities, a Sunday wedding celebration begins shortly after dawn and continues with singing and dancing into the night.

A wedding banquet in the courtyard of a Belgrade home.

With the same spirit of abandon, a militiaman lounges at the curb, watching with total interest and inaction a hopeless snarl of cars, trucks and buses at an intersection. The Shiptars—the Albanians who stream into Belgrade to fill the menial jobs—plod along with a battered shovel over one shoulder, or pushing a makeshift cart piled with scrap metal. The Shiptars—it is a derogatory Serbian translation of Albanian—are the blacks of Belgrade. A poor, ill educated minority, the Shiptars are the butt of Belgrade’s own “Polish jokes.” The gypsies are out on the streets, also, although the city government is after them. The women, atrociously dirty and unkept, squat on the sidewalk, clutching a half naked and equally unwashed child, and beg for dinars in a low, dark moan. The gypsies come to the door to beg and sell, and they will force their way into the house in their determination. “The gypsies will steal everything,” you are warned.

As in a village, the greetings of old friends along the street is joyful and effusive. Men kiss one another’s cheeks. They gossip for a few moments. Everyone knows everyone else, and everyone else’s business, in Belgrade. “You can’t keep a secret for more than 24 hours,” someone said. The young salesgirl at the self-service across the street is marrying a soldier. A city official married a young thing half his age. Jovan Bul, the “ballet master” traffic policeman, has been demoted from the choice Terazije to a lesser corner. You can see a certain high official of the League of Communists at the movies lots of mornings.

And, as in the village, urgency is a rare companion. The first word a foreigner learns here is ‘sutra’-tomorrow. The repairman comes ‘sutra’ The part for the car will be in ‘sutra’ The kids’ rides at the park will start ‘sutra’ The efficiency ethic has yet to gain priority, especially in Serbia, but in Croatia and Slovenia, too. If Yugoslavs were as regimented and disciplined as Americans, as engrossed with labor and production, with business and commerce, the GNP would surely stand twice as high. But you watch two Serbian children play Monopoly with two American. The Americans know the routine as easily as the alphabet—buy, build, profit. The Serbians are reluctant to buy, and then they prefer Baltic place to Boardwalk, and they would rather hold their money than invest in hotels. The culture of an industrialized society has yet to filter through all ranks.

Attitudes and habits are mixed, of course, and contradictory. Kindness and gentleness blend with cruelty and crudity. On a Belgrade street, a sandy haired young boy leaps into his father’s open arms to be lovingly kissed. An aging white haired professor intercepts you in a hotel to share a steamy pot full of black clams. But at the crumbling Belgrade zoo, young men jab sticks at caged lions, and a half a dozen schoolboys surround a wire pen and terrorize birds with shrieks and yells. Fresh spittle spots sidewalks. Raw garbage overflows from cans. The first in any line is the one with the most daring and quickest elbows. In the cities, at least, one senses an increasingly vicious, wholly personal striving for self-gain.

Success stories are becoming more commonplace. Executives at INA, the Croatian oil giant, earn the equivalent of $400 to $800 a month, envious by Yugoslav standards. INA’s glass and steel headquarters, originally begun as an old peoples home but the money ran out, is rivaled only by the new tan and brown skyscraper of the Vjesniy Publishing House (whose gross income of $32 million last year from 10 publications makes it the largest such enterprise in Yugoslavia) and by the brilliant glass and steel offices of the League of Communists of Croatia.

The pecking order is changing, clearly. The self management entrepreneurs are making their way rapidly. In Belgrade, General Export—better known as Genex—reveals in its glossy paper annual report a net profit of $8.5 million for 1969, or about $3 million more than the year before. Genex headquarters in a handsome old villa in a now rundown part of town are linked to offices in 17 countries. The firm has investments in tourism (including its own airline, Aviogenex) food processing, textiles, chemicals, metals and wood processing. It is sinking about $12 million into Yugoslavia’s Zastava auto manufacturers and intends to move into the shipbuilding business.

The success instinct remains channeled and constricted. An unmeasurable commitment to the common good is built into social institutions—into the workers councils in plants and enterprises, into the schooling of youth, into the public declarations. The poorness of the country discourages aspirations for large power and wealth. University graduates struggle for jobs in cities. Medical doctors practice in western Europe, unable to find hospital positions in oitica here and unwilling to go to the villages. Those who have good jobs feel almost immobilized, apprehensive of losing what they have. The common biography is birth, life and death in one village or city. Few Croats seek their careers in Serbia. Few Belgraders believe that they could break into the familial relationships of Zagreb or Ljubljana. And few really succeed in Yugoslavia without the party card,

For a glimpse into the pattern of private lives, one Belgrader advised, turn to the classified advertisements of the evening tabloids. In six point type, he argued, is recorded the daily concerns of people. Here in the first column is the Milinovich family searching for a housekeeper to help with two children during the day. Another person, a working mother, urgently needs someone to care for her four month old baby five hours a day. A university student, signing her ad with the code “Lydia,” needs work of any kind. A woman will do all the kitchen chores for five dinars–40~-an hour.

In the housing columns, someone will rent a room to a “married couple or an intellectual,” use of bath included. Someone else wants to exchange a “super-furnished” apartment with terrace and telephone in the center of town for quarters in the suburbs. Another ad pleads: “I want to buy a grave site in the New Cemetery. Urgent, call 446-073.”

The used car section runs long. A 1967 Land Rover is priced at $2,000. Fiats and Volkswagens, vintage 1959 and newer, dominate the list. A few Mercedes, even an ancient Chevrolet, appear on the market. In the loan department, someone wants a 50,000 dinar fund-44,000–to expand his business. He offers solid collateral and “double success”—that is, double your money in six months. Another will lend 139000 dinars—a little over $19000–interest free in exchange for a large room.

Part of the classified section from Belgrade’s Vechernie Novosti

“Under ‘personals’ there are the lonely hearts: Girl, 47, working, nice, not tall, brown hair, wants to meet a man to marry. Only serious offers. Code ‘Serious Offer.’ A second appeal: ‘Divorced woman, without obligations, working, without children, wants to marry a good man with a pension between ages 60 and 70. Code 150 Good.’ And a third: ‘Working woman, with flat, material means, and without obligations, dark hair, good looking, high morals, 45 years old, 165 centimeters tall, wants to meet a man of similar qualities. One child allowed.’ Marriage is possible. Code Discriminating.”

The days newspapers also announce, besides the crises and decisions of governments, all so far removed from an individual, that the price of milk in Novi Sad will not be increased. A murder trial is in progress in Tuzla. A truck hit the new bridge over the Sava River. The government is suing an insurance company for the equivalent of $12 million. The cost of cars is going up. Unemployed workers are being given job training. A man in Leskovac strangled his wife. There was a slight earthquake in Vranje. Belgrade has a meat shortage. An embezzler has been arrested in Mostar. An American company is financing a manganese plant in Kicevo. Narcotic smugglers have been sentenced to prison. Students at the Cacak school of agriculture refuse to attend classes. One man was killed and ten hurt when there was an explosion at a wedding. Belgrade will get foreign loans for a subway. Carnations are being smuggled into Yugoslavia from Italy. There were 10,371 petty crimes in Zemun last year. A priest has been sentenced to jail for predicting the fall of communism. Gasoline will cost more. A diesel locomotive derailed. The Jugobank is raising interest rates. A 19 year old girl died after taking drugs. A woman has been given a 12 year sentence for murder. Triplets were born in Ljubljana. Every fifth car has something wrong with it.

Naturally, there is also the political news, the record of the federal assembly debates, the League of Communists decisions and the government resolutions. As everywhere, they command public life. They are distilled and condensed, and in that form, if not in the original, provide slight sampling of Yugoslav society. Certainly the labels have not been redesigned as rapidly as the country. Titoism is aging with its namesake. Communism means something different here than in Moscow, Peking or Washington. In Zagreb, a member of the editorial board of Praxis, a scholarly journal that has been a strong critic of officialdom, explains:  Praxis is part of humanist Marxism. We’re putting man in the center of the movement. Technological progress is essential, but if you think only of production per capita you can forget man. Even in socialism you get alienation of man, The social scientists are gaining currency. They are amassing data and descriptions of the country. The appetite for introspection and self-examination remains unsatisfied. The descent from lofty visions to common concerns is accelerating. Speaking at least for himself and friends, one Zagreb university student reflected; “After the war, we had a tradition of heroes, but now we are reacting against this. It is not nihilism. We could call our feeling realistic. We don1t go to heroic heights. We want to deal with everyday problems.”

At the Belgrade market

Received in New York on May 1, 1970.

Mark Hopkins is an Alicia Patterson fund award winner on leave from The Milwaukee Journal. This article may be published with credit to Mark W. Hopkins, The Milwaukee Journal and the Alicia Patterson Fund.