Non-Aligned Punk: The Last Yugoslav Generation

Ljubica Spaskovska
University of Exeter

‘As a regular reader of NME I feel insulted by the way you write about Yugoslavia in your issues of May 3 and May 17′, wrote a New Musical Express reader from Zagreb in 1975.

In your ‘Teazers’ column you worry about »How will the Communist Bloc take to British pub rock when Kilburn And The High Roads tour Yugoslavia and Poland in August.« Now try to get this: Yugoslavia does not belong to any bloc, so you better don’t try to make jokes about something that may be irrelevant to you, but is of principal meaning for Yugoslav people […] This is not fair toward your Yugoslav readers and many other rock fans in our country. The same singles, albums, groups and singers that top the Pop Polls in Britain are very popular in Yugoslavia, too.[1]

Similarly a Tomaz Domicelj from Ljubljana complained in a 1978 issue of Melody Maker that he was ‘fed up with reading again and again about Yugoslavia being behind the Iron Curtain. We are, if anything, on the border of that Curtain, which MM staff and other British people involved in the music business should know by now. Remember 1948, when we told Stalin off? If not, ask some historians about that.’[2] Two years later, Melody Maker columnist Chris Bohn visited Yugoslavia, a visit that he summarised in a two-page article entitled ‘Non-aligned punk’.[3]

The geopolitical positioning of Yugoslavia had a significant impact on the way the youth conceptualised and articulated their self-identification and sense of belonging in wider global terms. It also enabled the development of a burgeoning youth culture.

Scholarly literature on Yugoslavia views the 1980s primarily as the prelude to the violent dissolution of the country and has generally dealt with the end of Yugoslavia as a fait accompli. The existence of alternatives and other attempts at rethinking of the Yugoslav framework have been overshadowed by an imperative to explain the violent break-up and establish the major reasons behind it.

My recently published book The Last Yugoslav Generation explores this alternative world of the Yugoslav 1980s through a generational lens, taking the variety of political and cultural projects that sought to redefine – but not destroy – the Yugoslav project. Focussing on the politically and culturally prominent amongst this younger generation, through oral history and archival material, the book addresses how the Yugoslav youth in the 1980s attempted to rearticulate, question and rethink Yugoslav socialism. Contestation and negotiation were intricately mixed, as the Yugoslav youth elite of the 1980s essentially strove to decouple Yugoslavism and dogmatic socialism.

New ideas about the socialist project, about the extent of media freedoms, and notions of Yugoslavism were for the most part concentrated in critiques advanced by the League of Socialist Youth of Yugoslavia (SSOJ), a younger aged cohort that had been socialised in the 1960s and 1970s, and within an institutional space devoted to socialisation of the young. A more daring style of journalistic writing, new forms of music and art and new forms of political expression and activism found shelter within the institutional youth sphere.

Adopting a generational lens gives fresh perspectives on the decline of state socialism, as in the realm of post-socialist studies there has been an increased interest in examining the rise and fall of socialism in Eastern Europe in generational terms.[4] By analysing a particular social group, it is possible to view the exit from socialism in other ways and challenge the teleological accounts of socialism’s decline and Yugoslavia’s collapse. More specifically, it enables us to examine the experience of crisis.

This book embeds the ‘last Yugoslav generation’ within the discourse of crisis that marked Yugoslav late socialism. It designates three prominent generational markers of the ‘crisis generation’ (generacija krize) – the multi-level economic and political crisis, internationalism/Europeanism, and a new understanding of Yugoslavism as citizenship in its dimensions of rights and identity.[5]

Until the late 1980s, the young activists involved in the different issue-oriented campaigns that used the institutional youth realm as a platform to gain visibility in the public space, still operated within the discourse of socialist self-management, social justice and solidarity, seeking to put under scrutiny the malfunctions of the system. Nevertheless, new areas for political expression opened up around issues of peace, anti-militarism, environmentalism/nuclear disarmament and sexuality and it was the League of Socialist Youth that brought these issues to public attention.

front page from another of the official youth magazines Mlad borec [Young fighter], 1986.

The multilayered sense of citizenship this generation embodied, where the ethno-national and the Yugoslav dimensions complemented each other, could only exist under the specific political consensus and the post-war social context. At the end of the 1980s, as the ethno-national became an omnipresent identity marker and frame of reference, the tension between these different identities increased to the point that this multilayered citizenship began to fragment irretrievably. Last but not least, the Slovene activists – those who stood at the helm of this generation’s political, media and cultural activism, at the end of the decade decided to retreat, i.e. shift their focus away from the rest of the Yugoslav space and abandoned any attempts at forging a pan-Yugoslav alternative – which might explain why a viable Yugoslav political option failed to consolidate within the Yugoslav youth realm.

The last Yugoslav generation has often been represented as a generation that epitomises urbanity, cosmopolitanism, non-conformism and late Yugoslav culture. In reality, individuals who were actively involved in late socialist youth politics, media or culture followed diverse trajectories – some pursued their ‘non-conformist’ engagements in the realms of media and culture, some remained wholly or partially faithful to their liberal/progressive youthful ideals, while some chose to abandon or even erase their socialist past and redefine their politics. Narratives of loss of ‘geo-political dignity’ and disillusionment with the post-Yugoslav reality and post-socialist politics were intertwined among my interviewees with wider reflections on the Yugoslav past, as well as with evocations of a sense of cosmopolitanism, a different way of engaging with both the Eastern and the Western world and a generational obsession with freedom.

———-

[1] J. Siftar, Zagreb, Yugoslavia, ‘Serbo-Croats rule – ok?’, New Musical Express, 14 June, 1975, p. 42.

[2] ‘Raising the Curtain’, Melody Maker, 18 February 1978, p. 14.

[3] Chris Bohn, ‘Non-aligned punk’, Melody Maker, 22 March 1980, pp. 24-5.

[4] Donald J. Raleigh, Soviet Baby Boomers: An Oral History of Russia’s Cold War Generation (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); Anna Saunders, Honecker’s Children: Youth and Patriotism in East Germany, 1979-2002 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011); Juliane Fürst, Stalin’s Last Generation: Soviet Post-War Youth and the Emergence of Mature Socialism (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); Alexei Yurchak, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).

[5] Christian Joppke, ‘Transformation of Citizenship: Status, Rights, Identity’, Citizenship Studies 11:1 (2007), 37-48.

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