The Vice of Memory: Vidovdan and Serbia’s Jerusalem

In the Belgrade fortress that used to boast one of the Ottoman Empire’s most formidable bastions rests a charming church aromatic with incense.  A strict placard lies in wait at the entrance, warning the attendees that they should dress properly, keep their hands out of pockets, take their hats off and observe in respect.  The side entrance of the ‘Rose’ or Ružica church is flanked by the sentimental sculptures of two Serbian soldiers from different eras – one from World War I, the other from the 14th century.

It is an apt setting of memory given the Kosovo anniversary – each year, the date approaches Serbs like a fast moving train, heavy with purpose.  The occupants of that train are the usual grievances and sad reflections, the stock that has been held in thought since the martyrdom of Saint Lazar (Prince Lazar Hrebeljanović) on June 28, 1389 before the fast advancing Ottoman Turks.  Depending on which history book you consult, it was either a remarkable feat that checked the advance of Islam into Europe, or a disastrous loss to the Serbian nation which saw its army wiped out.  (Whether it was anybody’s victory is questionable: both Lazar and the Turkish leader Sultan Murad I lost their lives.)

The celebration of St. Vitus’ Day in Serbia, Vidovdan, is as auspicious as it is overwhelming.  That said, every state needs its orchestrated rituals, its salutary gestures to events that supposedly mould the ‘imaginary community’.  In 1889, the Serbian authorities agreed that Vidovdan would indeed be deemed unique, though students of that day and its powerful exertion suggest that the phenomenon was far from imposed.  With visceral power, Serbian peasants latched on to that day with conviction.  The Orthodox Church did its bit.

The superstitious, when reading history, will find Vidovdan significant for many reasons. It is a tantalizing moment of demise and rebirth, of slaughter and resurrection.  The descending darkness is only ever a prelude for a pallid light that is bound to break through. The date has offered a platform for the declaration of wars, the forming of treaties, and, in somewhat less exaggerated form, the granting of awards for students.

The war of 1876 against the Ottoman Turks was declared on Vidovdan.  The 1881 Secret Convention with Austria-Hungary received its signatures on that day.  The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 which then plunged Europe into a global war was timed for that occasion too.  Remarkable, indeed, how a few bullets can have such grave consequences.

Memory in the Balkans is serpentine in length – sinewy, curvaceous and seemingly endless.  It is also soaked in layers of blood, its viscosity hardened only for its scabs to be reopened.  The dead of all nationalities in that troubled part of the world are foisted upon altars to be commemorated, millions of silent beings who have found form in communal reflection.  That is affirmed by old rituals involving peasant girls who soak, if indeed they still do, the herb vidovica in water which they bathe their faces in.  Then come the dreams of avenging Lazar and re-constituting the Serbian state.

This year, the international agencies in Kosovo hope that the blood will not turn red in sanguinary reflection.  A rash of attacks tends to be a frequent occurrence, though these have been confined over the last few years.  Serbian pilgrims make an annual pilgrimage to various sacred sites in the disputed territory, and the Serbian Patriarch has openly declared Kosovo to be Serbia’s Jerusalem.  Freedom, he has proclaimed, was God’s gift to humanity, suggesting a strong synergy between liberty and the cross (Press Online, June 28).

The latest reports show that Lazar’s spirit is never far off from making a stellar appearance.  He did, after all, show a generosity of spirit in issuing his curse on all Serbs who refused to turn up to the Battle of Kosovo.  Clashes between the Kosovo police and Serbian supporters at Merdare have left 13 wounded (Vreme, June 28).  Sami Mehmeti, the spokesman for the Kosovo police, claimed that the group of seventy or so protesters were aggressive and inebriated, having cast stones at the officers.  Pepper spray was used to bring the protesters under control.

The living citizens of the current state are bound to a historical memory so heavy it asphyxiates.  It is both admirable in duration, and dangerous in effect.  Finally, it is heartbreaking.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: Read other articles by Binoy.