Remembering Yugoslavia: Even the Drugs Were Cleaner

Café Hag, Sarajevo (Credit: Gerwin Peelen)

Nostalgia reflects the present as well as fragments of the past in the former Yugoslavia.

In recent years, Bosnia and Herzegovina has held commemorations for a century of historic events. In 2014, it was the 100-year anniversary of Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, an act that led to the First World War. It was also the 30-year anniversary of the Sarajevo Olympics. In 2015, it was the 20-year anniversary of the massacre of Srebrenica, and on 14 December 2015, it will be 20 years since the end of the Bosnian War.

Remembering in Bosnia is complex and fragmented, fraught with ethnic, cultural and political undertones. According to Moll (2013), the competition of memory in Bosnia-Herzegovina is unique, since most European and Western Balkan countries have a dominant memory and a dominant group that colors the political landscape. In Bosnia there are three official narratives of memory. The narratives of the Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks compete with each other on several levels, especially in relation to the war and their suffering as a result.

All the successor states of former Yugoslavia have formed a national memory. Yet, in every one of these countries we witness a positive remembering towards the former republic. It occurs in movies, documentaries, posters, parties and exhibitions. Positive remembering is often described as nostalgia, and in remembering Yugoslavia it is called Yugo-nostalgia.

According to different scholars, nostalgia is not based purely on historical phenomena. The longing for the past can say more about the present. Dissatisfaction with current social phenomena inspires an idealized version of the past, imagined through memory and formulated by desire. Some scholars conclude the influence of the present on the remembering of the past makes nostalgia a one-sided presentation of history. In the words of Jameson (1991: 169) nostalgia is nothing more than a stereotype or a cultural fantasy.

Nostalgia is often experienced through popular culture. One key-thinker on the concept of nostalgia, Boym (2001), argues it is nearly impossible to experience nostalgia without it being propagated in popular culture and commercial activities, such as music or movies. In former communist states this might seem paradoxical, because nostalgia is being promoted by a capitalistic system, and flourishes only because of its profitability.

The inauthenticity of nostalgia is highlighted by Enns (2007) in his discussion about nostalgia in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). Enns quotes the director of the movie Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) explaining how the film plays with peoples’ acts of remembering.

We created a GDR that in a way is truer than the true thing. People would come up to us and say, “Wow! It is incredible. It is exactly how it was.” And that is because in our memories things become stronger than they were. And so if there was a dominance of certain colors, we almost forget about the other colors (Enns, 2007: 490).

Whilst nostalgia can function as an escapist tool, especially as the negative aspects of the past are not remembered, there is value in nostalgia. Nostalgia highlights relations between the past and present. Its specifics reflect on what is longed for and missed in the current state. Thus, nostalgia reflects people’s criticisms of current society.

Places like cafés where Yugoslavia is remembered can be described as heterochronic places. Such places contest current time by reliving a past even though the place is an integral part of current society (Foucault, 1986). In 2013, I researched such a place—a small exclusive café in Sarajevo called Café Hag. The café is hidden behind a parking lot. It is so difficult to find one has to know someone who knows were it is. According to visitors, Café Hag is decorated like a typical bar in the times of former Yugoslavia. It features artefacts from that time, including Yugoslavian calendars. Tito continues to watch customers from the wall. I asked the owner of the café, Mesa, and a good friend of his, Srđan, why the café is decorated in this way.

Mesa: “Because this is a multicultural, multi-ethnic place. Everybody is welcome ­ – Gypsy, Muslim, Serb.”

Srđan: “It is for regular, mixed people in Sarajevo. Now I can’t explain to you these things because Sarajevo now is not like Sarajevo before, fifteen or twenty years ago.”

Mesa: “Before the war.”

Srđan: “Before the war lots of people go out. Lots of people come.” [Or, in other words, the interethnic places Sarajevo once boasted before the war have since vanished.]

The café is an alternative space in current Sarajevo. It displays what no longer exists, and allows customers to reflect on the past, present and future of Bosnia-Herzegovina. It shows the possibilities: the welfare, economic prosperity and the multi-ethnic Bosnian society of the past, which is now seen to be lost. As one of the older men told me, “In Yugoslavia they were stealing from us. But we knew who was stealing. Now we don’t have a clue who is stealing what.”

A man arrives and Mesa tells me he was one of Yugoslavia’s first drug addicts. “He is still alive. That’s a miracle but I think the drugs were cleaner in those days, not mixed up with other chemicals.”

In another conversation a customer explains to me that everyone in Sarajevo has created their own microcosm. Some of these microcosms appeal to a nostalgic feeling for the former republic. He says Café Hag tries to push itself away from the current problems in Sarajevo society, which Srđan referred to as “the jungle”. Yet, the problems voiced by the people of Café Hag, the owner, his friends and customers, are those experienced in the society at large. The café does not fly from history. Nor does it fly from the present. The power of the microcosm created by Café Hag is that in the café people feel more secure and safe to be themselves and say what they like. They say they do not feel this security outside the café. Bosnia is seen as an unsolvable problem. Or as Mesa told me, “It is problematic and it is too complicated. There is no real solution. So I am happy, I will thank God if [the café] will stay the same. I pray to God it can stay like it is.


Boym, S. (2001). The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic Books.

Enns, A. (2007). The Politics of Ostalgie: post-socialist nostalgia in recent German film. Screen, 48 (4), pp. 475–491.

Foucault, M., & Miskowiec, J. (1986). Of other spaces. Diacritics, 16 (1), pp. 22–27.

Jameson, F. (1991). Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press.

Moll, N. (2013). Fragmented memories in a fragmented country: Memory competition and political identity-building in today’s Bosnia and Herzegovina. Nationalities Papers, (ahead-of-print), pp. 1–26.

Silva, F. & Faught, J. (1982). Nostalgia: A Sphere and Process of Contemporary Ideology. Qualitative Sociology, 5 (1), pp. 47–61.

Volcic, Z. (2007). Yugo-Nostalgia: Cultural Memory and Media in the Former Yugoslavia. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 24 (1), pp. 21–38.

Gerwin Peelen is a journalist and works for a variety of broadcasting organizations in The Netherlands. He previously studied Anthropology at the VU in Amsterdam, during which he conducted field research in Sarajevo.

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