Promotion of Ristanovic’s book – „The Illusion of Power: Serbian Critical Intellectuals and Communist Regimes“ in Gracanica and N. Mitrovica

Foto: KoSSev

The promotion of Petar Ristanovic’s book – „The Illusion of Power: Serbian Critical Intellectuals and Communist Regimes“ will be held today at the Culture Center Gracanica at 6 p.m. On Thursday, Ristanovic will be promoting his book at the Private Cultural Center Akvarijus in North Mitrovica at 7 p.m.

Apart from the author, historians Jovan Aleksic, Nemanja Dimitrijevic, and Aleksandar Gudzic will also be discussing Ristanovic’s book.

The book is based on a part of Ristanovic’s Ph.D. thesis at the Department of History of the Faculty of Philosophy in Belgrade.

„It started with writers“ – reads the often-repeated claim in the literature on the breakup of Yugoslavia.

„The authors of the books, mostly written in the West, explicitly claim that Serbian nationalism destroyed the Yugoslav state and that Serbian intellectuals were most responsible for why it flourished. The SANU Memorandum became a symbol of their destructive, nationalist activities.“

Why the illusion of power? (excerpt is published with the author’s permission, without footnotes)

Journalists, sociologists, historians, and other authors of academic and journalistic works reiterate that this document was a kind of spelling-book of Serbian nationalism and manual for Yugoslavia’s breakup.

The consistent understanding of the majority of authors and the number of works, at first glance, indicate thorough research of the topic, which does not leave much room for new interpretations.

However, more detailed insight into the literature presents a different image. It is conspicuous that the claim about the responsibility of Serbian intellectuals was first made by publicists, mostly journalists, during the wars in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The influential books of Miso Gleni, Mark Thompson, Robert Kaplan, Branka Magas, Christopher Bennett, Norman Cigar, Laura Silber, and Alan Little were published in the period from 1992 to 1995.

They defined the narrative and formed a discourse that has yet to be seriously put into question. All of these books, as well as countless reports published in the world’s most influential media, were penned by people who came to an area torn apart by violence, with a complicated history that they often did not even try to adequately understand.

Research works were written years later. An expert in Slavic languages and literature, Andrew Wachtel, a professor at Northwestern University, published a book on the impact of cultural policy on social movements in Yugoslavia in 1998. In 2002, Jasna Dragovic Soso, an associate at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies, published an extremely influential study on the role of Serbian intellectuals in the rise of Serbian nationalism. Five years later, Nick Miller published research conducted during his Ph.D. studies at the Central European University in Budapest, on the activities of Dobrica Cosic, Mico Popovic, and Borislav Mihajlovic Mihiz.

All of them, to a greater or lesser degree, repeated the claims from the previously established narrative. The phenomenon of „darkened years“ or „years under the shadows“ had a great influence on that. In the above-mentioned works, as well as the vast majority of other works that make up the rich literature on the „wars for the Yugoslav heritage“, the decades preceding the 1990s wars are observed and valued based on their consequences. Instead of interpreting the events of the 1980s as the result of earlier processes, which would then make it possible to understand their further impact, the shadow of the wars of the 1990s prompted a selective, often tendentious, view of events, with a clear intention to harmonize their interpretation with the dominant narrative. In the majority part the literature of the 1990s shaped the understanding of the 1980s.

With the conscious acceptance of the risk that each generalization inevitably carries, it can be argued that two errors with far-reaching consequences were woven into the foundations of existing works.

The first is the lack of a broader context. The activities of Serbian intellectuals have not been sufficiently interpreted in the light of broader social processes, which, it seems, is largely a consequence of the complete absence of archival research. The second error stems from the first. Tracking and interpreting the actions of Serbian intellectuals, as a largely independent process, easily leads to conjecturing an excessive influence of those actions.

Since the late 1960s, Serbian critical intellectuals have gradually developed a wide range of activities, which this book addresses in detail. Tracking this activity and the „weight“ the names of intellectuals carried, who were recognized in the entire society, easily create the illusion that their influence was much greater than it was the case. Such an illusion of the power of intellectuals is not found only in the books of publicists and researchers. It was shared by the intellectuals themselves, as well as their political opponents in the communist leadership. This multiple illusion imposed the title of this book.

Evidence for the claim that it is an illusion can be found in the text before you.

The book is not an attempt to „rehabilitate“ Serbian intellectuals and diminish their responsibility for the rise of the uproar and rage in which Yugoslavia collapsed, although such interpretations will inevitably be made. The title itself is a kind of testimony to the main challenge for any researcher on this topic. It is much easier to track the actions of critical intellectuals than to place them in the right social context and assess their impact.

At a time when the activities of the intellectual „opposition“ were at their peak, in 1985, the State Security Service (SDB) monitored them as part of the fight against internal enemies with a „civil-right orientation“. Analysts concluded that 240 persons of interest in the terms of security from this group exerted influence through public forums, publishing and translating books, writing petitions, and via contacts with journalists and other intellectuals from the other parts of Yugoslavia and the West.

The problem arises when attempting to assess the extent of that impact. In November 1986, less than two months after the affair over the SANU Memorandum began, the Serbian SDB submitted a confidential report to the republic’s leadership on the meetings held at the headquarters of the Association of Writers of Serbia.

It was pointed out that „dissatisfied, hostile individuals, as well as a large number of curious people“ attended these meetings. These words summarize the scope of the direct social influence of critical intellectuals. During the meetings and similar public appearances, many – at that time – heretical thoughts were expressed, but their scope remained limited to a narrow circle of „dissatisfied“, „curious“, and „hostile individuals“. By the end of the 1980s, newspapers, and television remained closed to critical intellectuals, which deprived them of direct contact with the wider strata of society.

This, however, does not mean that intellectuals were a peripheral factor in social events. Books by famous writers had a wide circulation. They brought the authors recognizability among the masses. Their words, uttered at rallies in front of several hundred people, were shared and repeated. This type of influence is impossible to quantify methodologically, which puts researchers in an awkward position that each of their conclusions can be interpreted as (accidental or intentional) conjecture.

In order to avoid the trap of arbitrary interpretation, this book aimed to identify the sources of ideas around which critical intellectuals gathered, the way these ideas spread, and their impact on social movements. The results of such an approach revealed a great illusion about the strong influence of critical intellectuals on Serbian society. It turned out that their original ideas, for which they fought with the methods available to them, remained limited to a narrow circle of like-minded people and did not gain significant support. Other ideas, with a much broader social impact, often believed to have been defined by critical intellectuals, actually originated from the ranks of the League of Communists. Intellectuals contributed to their distribution, but their source, the initiator of their distribution and attempts to implement it, was the party.

One of the main conclusions of this book is that until the collapse of the communist east, in 1989, by far the most important ideological factor in Yugoslavia was the League of Communists of Yugoslavia, i.e. the republican and provincial parties.

Petar Ristanovic is a historian and a research associate on the project „Material and Spiritual Culture of Kosovo and Metohija“ of the Institute of Serbian Culture in Pristina/Leposavic. He is the author of the award-winning book „Kosovo issue 1974-1989“ and several scientific papers on the Kosovo issue, published in national and international scientific journals.

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