Saturday, February 23, 2008

Red Stars, Black Mountains: Roger in Yugoslavia ’87 (Introduction).

My recollections of Yugoslavia in 1987 are bubbling to the surface now because of two entirely unrelated events.

First was the selection of Tony Judt's "Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945" for our on-line reading group of almost nine years, which we call Samizdat. Early chapters detail the ideological struggle between Marshall Tito and Stalin, documenting the way that Tito eventually sidestepped the issue internationally, choosing to accept aid from the West and chart a third, "nonaligned" path while retaining an iron hand (and a socialist one) internally.

The second enticement was sitting on the couch at the pub a few weeks back and hearing an army veteran tell stories about her brief stint in Bosnia while serving in the military in the mid-1990's, a visit necessitated in the aftermath of the conflagration visited upon what we now call the former Yugoslavia when the remnants of Tito's patriarchal control mechanism were seized by Slobodan Milosevic and co-opted in an effort to consolidate control. Judt recounts the tragic story of Yugoslavia’s disintegration of the country, and there are too many curs and too few heroes in the tale.

Telling the story of my visit to a then-peaceful Yugoslavia just a few years before the violence was unleashed is more difficult than might be expected, as attested by dismayed glances at the admittedly sketchy records I kept at the time. Retrospectives help explain matters, but they also erode the authenticity of the narrative. While there, I knew that a multi-ethnic, -linguistic and -religious conglomeration had been kept together for various complicated reasons. Having no way of knowing what was about to happen, I have to be careful now not to read conclusions into the story, ones that weren't reached until much later.

My primary reason for wandering through Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Hungary, the USSR, Poland and Czechoslovakia in the spring and summer of 1987 was to see Communism up close and personal. It was not to apologize for it, but to see for myself what it was like. The geographical area had interested me since childhood, and I kept returning to it when given the option during collegiate history classes.

Besides that, the East Bloc was just plain cheap, for the most part. My three-week Hungarian idyll in 1987 ended up costing about $13 a day, and I was neither starving nor doing without (mostly bottled) beer and an occasional dose of Bull's Blood wine. A train ticket from Budapest to Moscow, with two nights in a three-bunk sleeping berth, cost $17 one-way at the discounted student rate (I didn't say anything about not cheating here and there; I wasn't a student, but I had a student ID).

I'm thankful every day that I traveled the Bloc during those times instead of keeping dead-end jobs for the sake of normalcy. In fact, I was never very good at normalcy anyway, and now there's no longer a Bloc to see.

The Yugoslav tale will take up the next few Sundays. I hope you enjoy it.

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