Life, Novels

Road to Freedom
The Drina is not a river, it’s a spine. Its great history still hasn’t been written. Generations from the 1960s were born and prepared for one and found themselves in a completely different world. Difficult and exciting times enabled us to see things and people as they really are. After everything we’ve survived, it was impossible to remain apolitical. The Serbian demographic drama is a consequence of a spiritual and ethical crisis, not economic. It’s a question of all our questions. Self-chauvinism and ”spirit of self-denial” are nothing new in Serbian history. An attempt to replace the central Serbian myth with a foreign one, more convenient for shaping ”the class of the obedient”, is in progress. In the battle for the souls of our children, tradition is not a tie, it’s a means of defense and liberation

By: Branislav Matić
Photo: Guest’s Archive

He moves through époques and spaces with ease and seriousness, always more ready to understand and explain than to judge. He learnt the skill of a historian from true masters and became one of them. He graduated and defended his dissertation in Belgrade, continued his studies in Oxford, participated in international conferences in London, Florence, Jena, Sofia… He often visits Corfu as a pilgrim. He tours Serbia with his sons, so they would love it through their own experiences. His lectures are among the most popular ones and his books are read outside of academic circles. The appearance of an entire circle of excellent young Serbian historians is related to his teaching work, as well as the rebirth of authentic Serbian historiography.
Miloš Ković (Šabac, 1969) in National Review.

Spine. The Drina is my river. I like to say that it runs through my spine, like a spinal cord. My ancestors moved within the areas between the Bosna and the Resava rivers, between the Tara and the Sava, but the Drina was their main path and deeply determined their destinies. My parents came from its two banks, the eastern and the western. My father’s family lived in Mačva, while my mother’s came from the Sarajevo-Romanija plateau, from where they were exiled to the Resava area in 1942. The Drina meant salvation for them and source of fertility and life for the people of Mačva. In my childhood, swimming in its fast waters on the beach in Crna Bara was a kind of a heroic initiation for me; my grandmother always warned me that the Drina takes its toll every year, like a capricious pagan deity, and carries away incautious swimmers. Today I also like to, especially in Zvornik, enjoy its green color; they called it Zelenika (Serbian ”zelen”: green) in the Middle Ages. Many still believe the propaganda fabrication that the Drina is a border between two worlds, the East and the West. The real, great history of this river still hasn’t been written.

Coziness. The family heritage is something I’m still trying to understand. My personal experiences are much more tangible and related, in my childhood and early youth, to Šabac. Only now I realize how lucky I was and how happy my childhood was. I spent it as if in a cozy cradle, in a plain between two distant, tranquil mountains, Cer and Fruška Gora. My parents were full of love and support, my sister a role-model, showing me what could be achieved with brains and hard work. The city was small enough so that we, children from the city center, were safe anywhere our games would take us, from the banks of the Sava to Trkalište, from Kamičak to ”Zorka”. Yet it was still big enough to offer us excellent schools, famous, strict teachers, rich libraries where we could get any new book, theater, cinema, sports clubs, including ”Metaloplastika”, which played world-class handball at the time. The vicinity of Belgrade enabled us to participate in all the craziness of a big city. As teenagers, we used to come to Knez Mihailova and Bezistan in Terazije by bus to buy new records, audio tapes, posters and badges.
I grew up in the world of the Serbian middle class – journalists, administrative employees, artists, professors, teachers. The main feature of that class was education. Their lifestyle was humble – apartments comfortable but never too big, summer and winter holidays, several families camping together for a month in Dalmatian pine forests, with VW and Zastava 101 cars. Conversations about books, history, movies and politics. By the end of the 1970s, the self-management socialism succeeded in producing and establishing its educated, loyal middle class. When the breakdown of socialism and Yugoslavia began, that class suffered the strongest blows. Some of us left this world, others left the country and moved to the West, some simply reconciled with degradation in order to survive, but there were also those who made nice careers while the country was collapsing.

Promises and Curses. The moving of my family to Belgrade in 1986, a bit more than thirty years ago, meant the end of the times of coziness and naivety. The sobering already happened in the army. I went to Split to serve the army a few days after Aziz Kelmendi killed the recruits in Paraćin and a few weeks before the Eighth Session. The Navy Academy cadets were thrown into the sea in Split and soldiers were forbidden to enter most of the cafés. Walking through the narrow passageways of the old town, breathing the stale scents of the seafront, having morning coffees in ”Luxor”, I really fell in love with the city. But then, talking with the Dalmatians, I realized what was coming.
In my early childhood, Belgrade for me was Dobračina Street, where my uncle lived. I remember parking the car on the Marx and Engels Square and the inscription ”FEST 1977” on the Syndicate Home. This was later followed by teenage wanderings through the city center alone and coming to rock concerts, most often to ”Pioneer” Hall. When we moved to Belgrade, however, I confronted a big, intimate city, which accepted and absorbed me from the very beginning. As if, in that year of 1988, when I returned from the army, Belgrade was also surprised by the freedom it experienced much before other Eastern-European capital cities. We rushed from forum to forum, to festivals and concerts, read the long-forbidden truths in newspapers and books, talked about politics in kafanas. We traveled to Budapest and Prague to watch the destruction of an empire and downfall of a world with our own eyes. For history students, it was an unforgettable experience. Through all that excitement, a muffled threat was already looming. The war that broke out later turned all promises into curses.

In the Workshop of History. When we listened to the song of Atomsko Sklonište Don’t Be Afraid, Generation in elementary school, we never even thought we would be the ”unfortunate generation, which will suffer the ultimate great raid”. We grew up and prepared ourselves for living in one world, but we found ourselves in something completely different. Brought up for ”fraternity and unity”, we were given rifles to kill each other. I prepared my exams and went to bed without knowing whether already tomorrow I’d be mobilized, sent to the army or the Vukovar front. Lulled in guided socialist economy, we found ourselves in wild capitalism. Taught that poverty is not a shame and that wealth doesn’t have to be a blessing, we found ourselves in a world in which money became a measure of everything. We wanted the freedom of initiative, canceling political bans and state repression, but not the destruction of the economy and ruthless plundering. We asked for canceling the illogical and unequal position of Serbia in the Yugoslav federation, not the breakdown of the country.
I never, however, participated too deeply in the wailing of my generation friends. It’s true that we stopped traveling abroad, that we became poor and socially degraded. However, we were given the opportunity to live in an interesting, exciting time, to watch the workshop of history operate. The previous time of peace seemed to me as a time of illusions, while the time of crisis and war gave us an opportunity to see things, especially human nature, as they really are. I remember, as a student, finding confirmation of such perceptions in Thucydides’ description of plague in Athens.
Sometimes it seems to me that I lived at least three different lives. The first, peaceful and naïve, until the beginning of the wars; the second, in the time of truth during the nineties; and the third in which, after founding my family and thus completing my bringing up and maturing, I’m living now. When I try to connect with myself from the prewar period, it seems as if I’m collecting pieces of a mirror broken a long time ago. We simply lived in two different historical époques and one turbulent, wartime period of transition. Who knows what still awaits us?

Codes. I still keep Somerset Fry’s History of the World with my parents’ dedication from 1976. I saw it at my friend’s house and explicitly requested my parents to buy it for me. That is when, at the age of seven, I fell in love with history. When another friend told me that it was also his favorite book when he was a child, we realized it was one of the crucial points of my generation. Just like the fear we felt in 1973, when we saw Đorđe Kadijević’s Butterfly on one of the two channels of TV Belgrade. A generation doesn’t consist of years of birth, but of shared experiences and memories.
The Faculty of Philosophy was never just a school which gave me education in history. It’s where my parents graduated. It’s where my wife and I work today. For decades now, my social life has been going on in cafés and kafanas around the Faculty of Philosophy. It’s where I learnt much more than bare knowledge of the past. We don’t have the kind of devotion such as, for example, the English have for their Oxford or Cambridge universities or colleges. I have to say I feel something similar towards the Faculty of Philosophy. I especially like the view from the window of the new Faculty building to the façade of Kapetan-Miša’s Edifice, where the Great School, First Belgrade Gymnasium, Serbian Royal Academy, national museum, several libraries used to be.

Craft. I was lucky to learn my craft of a historian in a good school, with good masters. One best realizes he had completed a good school only when he compares his knowledge and skills with colleagues from other schools. I felt it when I came to the Faculty of Philosophy from the Šabac Gymnasium, as well as after my studies at the Faculty of Philosophy Department of History, when I cooperated with colleagues from abroad. One of the things I learnt from my professors was that things in history are most often not as they seem at first glance, that the past is always different from our time and that it’s necessary to observe steadily, with concentration, sometimes for a long time, before stating a conclusion, which, again, can never be final. The past simply resists simplifications and political usage. That is why, whenever possible, evaluating and rating should give way to understanding and explaining. The reader is then free to form his own, value or political judgment.

Serbia in ”Our Days”. The rules of the craft cannot prevent a historian from having his own political stand and expressing it in public, in a public space, especially in difficult times. It’s a tradition of the greatest historians, from Thucydides to Mark Bloch and from Stojan Novaković to Slobodan Jovanović. It’s impossible for someone who experienced everything my generation did to remain apolitical. On the contrary, I believe that life in turbulent times and more intensive participation in them offer historians deep insight and additional understanding of even distant historical phenomena. I believe that life between four walls, in order to preserve alleged objectivity, leads to a lifeless, dried and boring historiography.
I spent my entire life in the time of deterioration, weakening and downfall, from ”measures of economic stabilization” in the 1980s to the present devastated Serbian economy, colonized culture and limited sovereignty. The most serious issue Serbia and Republic of Srpska are facing today is a rapid demographic decline. It’s even more interesting knowing the fact that in 1901 Serbs had the highest birthrate in Europe. It’s simple: when we cease existing or when we become only a statistical error among other nations, all other issues will become insignificant.
I’m convinced that the root of that problem is not in a ”low living standard” and economic decline, but in the spiritual, ethical devastation in the Serbian nation. Those who used to believe they were ”the second Israel” and people of the Testament are now turning into a bunch of selfish individuals, who care only about themselves and their own material needs. Religious societies, including the poor ones, Muslim, Christian or any other faith, have children; atheistic, selfish, rich societies head towards the change of identity of those who have offspring.

Faith and Supper. What we today call ”self-chauvinism” or ”spirit of denial” is nothing new in Serbian history. Since the arrival of the Turks to the Balkans, that history is full of temptations, including periodic mass destructions of Serbian civilians. In the XX century, Serbs confronted genocide, comparable only with that experienced by the Armenians or Jews. Anti-Serbian hysteria, which grabbed the biggest Western media and served as justification of the mass destruction of Serbs in Croatia, parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo and Metohija, cannot be compared with anything in previous Serbian history. Difficult times always had those who wanted to make their position easier and advance by not only denying themselves and their ancestors, but also assaulting their previous compatriots, to prove and recommend themselves. Such phenomena were very frequent and mass among Serbs. According to some studies, every fourth Serb converted to Islam during the Turkish dominion. Present events in Montenegro best depict such processes.

Myth as Destiny. At the time of powerful ”means of convincing”, from the media and internet to bombs and rockets, the intention to ”change the consciousness” of Serbian people is not even concealed. It’s even recommended by the president of our republic himself. Such projects are nothing new. We should, for example, read suggestions of historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, classical British liberal, from 1835, about changing the school system in India, so that ”a class of people Indian by blood and color of their skin, but English by their taste, stands, ethics and intellect” would be produced. This is, therefore, colonization, already conducted on many nations before the Serbs. The participation of the allegedly democratically elected authorities in Serbia in it is no wonder either. The president of the Republic tells us about the harmfulness of our ”Kosovo myth” and, at the same time, wholeheartedly recommends the myth about the cultural, civilizational, political and ethical superiority of the Western world. Historians are there, however, to remind that people do live from myths, that suppressing one (Serbian) myth doesn’t end with a rationalization of consciousness and public life, but with putting another myth (Western, Anglo-American) in its place, and that the biggest Western nations, considering their result in exterminating entire human populations in the European, Asian and American continent, have no grounds to refer to their ethical or civilizational superiority. Read the great book Myth as Faith written by sociologist Srđan Šljukić.

About Souls and Resistance. Serbs are persistently given the message that their tradition is incompatible with the contemporary world and that they must ”modernize” as fast as possible. However, the modernization story was proclaimed as one of the means of colonization in the world a long time ago. It is mainly reduced to westernization and most often to Anglo-Americanization.
The main means of defense is preserving tradition. It is necessary to find points of resistance inside it, because, in such circumstances, resistance is the main precondition for survival. This battle is led in the realm of culture and spirit, which is exactly why cultural policy initiates so much passion and provokes such irreconcilable conflicts. Its means are schools, media, all cultural institutions. It is literally a fight for the souls of our children. We must understand that tradition should be adjusted to contemporariness, following the old saying: ”Change in order to preserve.”
Tradition, therefore, mustn’t be something imposed. On the contrary, we just have to look around us and remember that everything imposed through mass media, as well as rockets and bombs with depleted uranium, is the Western, ”modern” culture of materialism, consumerism and hedonism. ”World Wide Web” or the internet is exactly what it name states – a cobweb woven across the entire planet, catching our souls and the souls of our children like small fish. We must be capable of fleeing from the fishermen and hunters together. Under such circumstances, tradition is the means of liberation, a road to freedom.

Places I Always Return To. There are many places, throughout Europe and North America, which I love and return to. The most important among them is Oxford, which, after Belgrade, enabled most new insights and mostly changed my life. Ottawa is a city I especially like, because my sister lives there with her wonderful family. However, I’m fed up with the West. Greece is a country I most frequently travel to. Corfu is a place I always return to, as a pilgrim, with my family. Recently I began discovering St. Petersburg and Moscow. Only now I feel I’m ready to truly dedicate myself to Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Still, the world I’m moving in is somewhere between Banjaluka, Subotica, Jagodina and Herceg-Novi. Each trip to Pale, where I also teach, through Šabac, Mačva, Javor and Romanija, means unriddling the riddle of my own identity. It’s also our old family house in Bogatić, built by my grandfather. I try to travel as often as possible through Serbia with my family, so that my sons would love it through their own, real experiences.


Life, Work
Miloš Ković was born in Šabac in 1969. He was seventeen when his family moved to Belgrade. He graduated history at the Faculty of Philosophy in 1995, got his master degree in 2003 (Western European Political Ideas in Serbian Literary Gazette” 1901–1914), and his doctoral degree in 2006 (Benjamin Disraeli and Great Britain’s Balkan Politics). He continued his studies in Oxford in 2004/2005. His specialization is general history of the new age and he is specifically interested in international relations and political ideas from late XVIII to early XX century. He is author of numerous texts in reputable scientific magazines and collections of lectures. Especially attractive are his books: Disraeli and the Eastern Issue (2007), Gavrilo Princip. Documents and Memories (2014), The Only Way. Entante Powers and Defending of Serbia in 1915 (2016)...


Kosovo, Metohija
– In the brave, new world we live in today, the Kosovo Pledge or vow to the Heavenly Empire, to eternal instead of temporary, to spiritual instead of material, to feats instead of enjoyment, to justice opposite to force, is a first-grade subversive idea. The commitment to the Heavenly Empire has been our crucial stronghold for more than six centuries. It can be the same today. This is not just pressure on Serbia to deny its territories and hand them over to Albanian chauvinists and Islamic fundamentalists. It’s also necessary to make Serbs abandon the ”harmful”, ”warlike” and ”outdated” ”Kosovo Myth”. That is why our crucial battle, metaphorically and literally, is led on Kosovo today.


We Shall Win
– I’m a pessimist short-term and optimist long-term. The long history of the Serbian nation confirms that Serbs have survived much worse times that this and that, after all, they had the wisdom and strength for new great victories. Our current existences, individual and group, are not especially glorious, but our generation is just one in a long, millennial series. All we need is to preserve the pledges of our ancestors and – we shall win.


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