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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Observing subcultures in contemporary Serbia

Serbian society involves several paradoxes. One is that the Serbs are both extremely conservative (one of the most conservative societies in Europe) and at the same time anarchic and libertarian. How can these two things coexist? To understand the answer to this question involves peering deep into the Serbian soil, which is undoubtedly an extremely unusual and complicated national psyche for a foreigner to attempt to understand.

Serbs often say they are simple; but they are not. They are politically simple on the institutional level: they don't naturally create inagitutitons that pursue public social objectives. This is one reason why their government is moderately awful and non-functional. They have little concept of the greater good; the word 'policy' (for example, 'this is sound government policy') has no translation into Serbian. In Serbia, a job in government is a job in pursuing and preserving one's own interests (true, this can be true anywhere but it is much worse a problem in Serbia than elsewhere).

Where Serbs become complex is in the myriad layers of what they call family and common village- or community-like adhesions with people close to them at the expense of open relations with larger society as a whole. This derives potentially as much from the geography as from anything else. Traditionally a hilly country of poor infrastructure with people cut off from one another, Serbs became through their history divided from and suspicious of the other; and this translates into contemporary insularity from other cultures for which Serbia is well-known to those familiar with Serbian culture.

Because generalised government over isolated communities was historically mostly impossible, Serbs, like all other people, needed persons with whom they could harbour relations of trust and those for the most part were found in the (extended) family and in the village where they were born. This explains Serbs' unpleasant tradition for ripping people off who they don't know (they do it to each other as well as to foreigners) and also their sense of social solidarity (one might even call it socialism) within the groups of which they are part: they will often support or subsidise one-another materially, within their close groups, in conditions of adversity (and indeed in disbursing the fruits of wealth and success).

This sounds like an extremely conservative way of living, in which marriages are often arranged by family members of the spouses within the same village or local community; problems are solved within families as a rule; the senior male of the family acts as a sort of local despot over the members of the extended family unit.

So how do we get from here to Belgrade's legendary anarchic nightlife and social liberalism?

The answer from a sociologist's perspective is because the 1990's wars were a particularly harrowing experience that traumatised the Serbs collectively, and left a lot of people dislocated from their traditional family structures due to deaths of family members, refugee movements, and more general social upheaval and poverty that typically accompanies any civil conflict. And all these dislocated people were suddenly at a loss without their traditional family and village structures. So they engaged in an ad hoc exercise of recreating such structures between groups of people in similar situations.

Young people, separated from families through the cruelties of partition between the newly formed states and sub-sovereign entities of Yugoslavia (one country became not less than eight separated units, arguably more) and the barbarism of war, as neighbours murdered one another's families and men young and old died in armed combat, the youth of Serbia recreated their own social units to mirror the way they had lived before. Belgrade was particularly affected by this phenomenon, as it was a cosmopolitan polyglot of different peoples from across Yugoslavia, and hence there were many separations between residents of the capital Belgrade and their families in the outer extremities of the former Yugoslavia. Hence the creation of replacement subcommunities in lieu of broken families and village communities was particularly common.

These new communities revolved in large part around student and other youth driven campaigns to dislodge the Yugoslavian, communist and Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic who they perceived as responsible for the destruction of their traditional way of life. Young people found common cause in underground music, party venues, party drug communities and street demonstrations against the Milosevic regime that sought to impose a totalitarian centralism upon the deeply untotalitarian Serbian people, who have always throughout history had their own very distinctive voices.

The Serbs used typical subculture marks and indices to show their sense of shared identity. Different sub-groups, with different sorts of music or political ideas around which they coalesced, identified themselves one with another through clothing choices, slang lagnauge, common venues and other markings familiar to group identity.

The social liberalism one finds in Belgrade in particular, in which everything from drug taking to homosexuality to unusual interpretations of Christian Orthodoxy to rampant techno music, are found around every corner, is the consequence of each of these liberal strains having been developed as tools of group identification. This is because every Serb wants to feel part of a small group. That is how their society has been organised historically and we see the traces of group self-identity in every angle of modern Belgrade life.

Consider the widespread embrace of tattoos. Serbia must be one of the most highly tattooed countries in the world. What is the point of it all? To show allegiance to subcultures that serve as substitutes for family: a pattern common across the world amongst heavily tattooed subcultures (consider the Yakuza in Japan; drug gangs in northern Mexico). Serbia's variety of tattoos indicate allegiances to different groups, often with different musical tastes. Musical traditions have played very common roles as community identifiers through Serbian history.

Although family units and identity with villages and towns have been reinstated after the end of the Balkan wars over the past 20 years, the senses of common identity that were created as a result of the harrowing experiences of common participation in war remained and the variety of subcultures that exist in Serbia today reflected social groupings that were formed during the war and in the especially difficult years shortly afterwards. Socialist standards of common support each for the other within Serbian subgroups are more common than might be imagined, with hidden traditions of redistribution to help those who have fallen on hard times.

To penetrate Serbian society effectively as an outsider takes a colossal period of time and effort, as one will have to find one's place in a myriad variety of subcultures. The key to survival in Serbian society is to know one's friends and to keep close to them. Few genuine expatriates live in Serbia, virtually all of those who do living in Belgrade. The key to living successfully amongst the Serbs is to find a subcultural group into which one can fit in comfortably; and to stick with them. Serbia is a gossipy society, and your new group of friends will soon know all about you.

Moreover membership of one group may well exclude parallel membership of other groups. Although as a foreigner you may be granted some liberties, don't push it. If you want to live in Serbia, live the way the Serbs do: within a small community that suits the way you like to live. This way you will be able to get a lot more done than most of the foreigners that blunder in and out of the region.

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