Negotiating past, present in Eastern Europe
by Wes Kovarik
Wes Kovarik received a summer Foreign Language and Area Studies award for the study of Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian in 2012. This award allowed him to build on two years of prior language instruction in a 7-week course of intensive language instruction at Azbukum Centre for Serbian Language and Culture in Novi Sad, Serbia. While the language instruction and his daily life in Serbia is an experience he will never forget, the journey to get there made it all the more enriching.
Observer: A dog in Sarajevo watches passersby on their way to the Yellow Fortress .
I started my summer adventure in the Baltics; my winding trek to Serbia allowed me to explore the capitals of Estonia, Latvia, Slovakia, Hungary, and Bosnia & Herzegovina on the way. Though I had previously travelled in West Africa and Australia, never before had I simply set off on my own with only my backpack and wits to guide me. The cities I explored showcased complicated histories that often included invasion, occupation, oppression and long-sought independence. From my experience it seemed each city was negotiating its modern identity, balancing a common tension between reconciliation with events of the past and disagreement of how to continue in the future. These tensions were most prominent in the many museums I visited along my trip. These institutions both highlight the rich traditions of each centuries-old culture, as well as help to form current perspectives on a history under socialism.
Reflections: The sun sets over the Vanšu Brigde spanning the Daugava River in Riga, Latvia.
In Riga, Latvia, stand the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, and the Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum. Each museum provides visitors with a unique opportunity to learn how Latvian society views what has been a painful past. The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia encapsulates life under both Nazi and Soviet occupation. It embodies a larger struggle to understand the complicated history of 20th century Eastern Europe with attempts to navigate between highlighting acts of resistance and acts of complicity under the authoritarian regimes of Hitler and Stalin, while also documenting the oppression of the Latvian population. My interests were further piqued by a visit to an institution supported by the small Latvian Jewish community, the Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum. I arrived at the outdoor museum in the midst of a rainstorm and was greeted by a very eager and informative docent who personally led me through the exhibits that showed life in the Riga Ghetto, as well as explained the rich history of Latvian Jews until their near-extermination during the Holocaust.
Bridging the gap: A man jumps from the Stari Most (Old Bridge) in Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina.
From the Baltics I ventured south. In perhaps no other area was the tension between recent history and self-identity on display than in Sarajevo and Mostar, in Bosnia & Herzegovina. The architecture of Sarajevo reveals its history as a crossroads between Islam, Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity, and Judaism. The city appears as a gem within the valleys of Bosnia, studded with countless minarets. While many new shopping malls, apartment buildings, and offices are currently under construction, one cannot help but notice both bullet holes and political divisions. The city itself is divided between Sarajevo (or Federal Sarajevo) under the administration of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and East Sarajevo, which is under the administration of the Republika Srpska. Though simply crossing a road crosses the border between the two entities, there are still palpable divisions. The Museum of Sarajevo and Bosnian Historical Museum both present views of Bosnian history in the 20th century. While the Museum of Sarajevo focuses primarily on the role of Sarajevo in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the events that triggered World War I, the Bosnian Historical Museum devotes a large portion of its exhibition space to the longest military siege in modern history, the Siege of Sarajevo. The artifacts from the siege display both the hopelessness of the situation and the resilience of the people of Sarajevo. While Mostar is known most for its stunning bridge spanning the two sides of the city, the divisions of the city reveal a majority Croat population on one side, and majority Muslim population on the other.
Wartime Scars: Remnants of NATO's 1999 Operation Allied Force against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in Belgrade, Serbia.
Crossing into Serbia, I became immersed in the fascinating place that is Belgrade. The city has an inherent vitality, cosmopolitan feel, and stunning history spanning many eras. Graffiti on the walls and conversations with residents revealed a myriad of sentiments regarding Serbia’s candidacy to join the European Union, the status of Kosovo, and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Belgrade also presented a stark reminder of the NATO bombings of 1999; aside from anti-American and anti-NATO graffiti, the crippled frames of bombed out buildings are still on display for all passersby to see. It was a strange and unnerving feeling to walk beside the remains of military operations that occurred in my lifetime.
Travelling from Tallinn, Estonia to Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina was an experience in exploring extraordinarily different countries, but all countries that have witnessed in various forms oppression, violence, and now, healing. Historical monuments and new commercial developments stand side by side as a testament to the future, and as a reminder of the past. This journey allowed a type of real world application of coursework taken at the Jackson School and reflection upon the histories unique to each country. Museums in each capital helped to explain how these historical events are being remembered (or at least presented), and how residents and tourists are engaging with both the past and the future.
Wes Kovarik is a 2014 Jackson School MAIS student.