“Kosovo” on the Rakovica shop-floor (and on getting beyond the shop-floor and into the field)


This is the last academic year of the “Between class and nation” project and as we wrap up our research, Goran and I are starting to compare the working class communities we have been studying in Serbia and Montenegro with other locations in Yugoslavia. This asymmetric comparison is a means to determine the extent to which issues of concern to workers in the 1980s were unique to Serbia (and Montenegro) or had a broader, Yugoslav resonance.

As well as consulting sources from cities and towns like Maribor, Rijeka, Pula, Banja Luka and Skopje we also wish to include perspectives from Kosovo. As well as being home to around a tenth of Yugoslavia’s population, the autonomous province was formally part of the socialist republic of Serbia and site of a number of tumultuous events in the 1980s.

The common language of bread and shared predicament of Serb and Albanian workers. Featured in the workplace periodical of Kolubara mine near Belgrade, December 1988.

While Kosovo as a trope is a perennial trope of Serbian (and Montenegrin) historiography and political histories of the period recount Milosevic’s rise to power via Kosovo ad nauseum, very little Yugoslav social and cultural history deals with Kosovo empirically. For example in three jam-packed and diverse “Socialism on the bench” conferences in Pula (see here and here) that showcase cutting edge research on Yugoslav socialism just a single contribution on Kosovo has featured (by Pieter Troch in 2017 -“Ideology in the periphery: the Communist vanguard in (Kosovska) Mitrovica and the ideological reform programme of the Yugoslav League of Communists during the 1960s”).

In volumes examining cultural and social history of Yugoslavia, the socialist province is largely absent (though for a noteworthy exception see Isabel Ströhle’s “Of social inequalities in a socialist society: the creation of a rural underclass in Yugoslav Kosovo”  in Social Inequalities and Discontent in Yugoslav Socialism)

A recent conference in Pristina on social movements in Kosovo during socialism and the 1990s was a great impetus to start thinking about how to approach Kosovo in these terms – actually existing socialism in an actually existing place.


The conference, organised by Elife Krasniqi and her colleagues at Alter Habitus was a stimulating introduction to the history of social movements in Kosovo. The three day programme featured numerous activists of the 1980s and 1990s (in addition to presentations of scholars from Kosovo and beyond who switched between English and Albanian). Vetëvendosje’s Albin Kurti popped in from the election campaign trail to speak about the 20th anniversary of the 1997 student demonstrations with Mihane Salihu Bala and Bujar Dugolli (see here). Keynote speeches were delivered by feminist activists Shukrije Gashi and Igballe Rogova and was followed by a promotion of the Albanian language translation of Mary Motes’s Kosova Kosova: predlude to war 1966-1999 (which, as Konrad Clewing pointed out, is one of the rare accounts of every life and history from below in socialist Kosovo).


For the panel on working class and social movements we presented ongoing research which diachronically explores the ways in which workers and managers articulated problems related to Kosovo in the Belgrade working class suburb of Rakovica during the 1980s. This is an attempt to uncover (or recover) more nuanced, multi-layered perspectives of Yugoslav brotherhood and (dis)unity along the Belgrade-Pristina axis.

Beogradski radnik (Belgrade worker, trade union publication, 1983). Headline: “Every nationalism is against the worker”

The thrust of the argument is that for many workers in Rakovica in the early 1980s (following the immediate fall-out of the 1981 demonstrations in Kosovo) the antidote to Albanian nationalism was not considered to be the greater unity of the Serbian nation, but in the insistence on the more integral (Titoist) Yugoslavism and the strengthening of class-consciousness to combat delinquencies in the system. In this way Rakovica’s workers diverged from Serbia’s nationalist intelligentsia until well into the second half of the 1980s when a reinterpretation of the hitherto dominant notion of dichotomy between the ‘exploiter and the exploited’ would be expressed in nationalist terms and any semblance of solidarity with the Albanian working class had evaporated in Rakovica.

The (yet unfinished) goal of the research is to better situate Kosovo in the historical narrative of Yugoslav labour history – beyond its symbolic value – through empirical research. But can working class communities and labour movements in Kosovo be approached in a similar way to Serbia and Montenegro in terms of the methods and sources we have been utilising?

One obvious barrier is that documents and media from the 1970s and 1980s are often in Albanian. While most Serbo-Croatian speakers can get the gist of a text in Macedonian and Slovene, this is not the case with Albanian. Beyond surmountable linguistic barriers however, is a more pressing issue – the (un)availability of sources and the particular context they were produced in.

While locating and accessing factory sources in Serbia and Montenegro is not always easy, the coercive conditions in Kosovo after 1981 (and more significantly after 1989), complicate this even further. Regular and comprehensive factory periodicals are the “bread and butter” of Yugoslav labour history between 1976 and 1989. In conditions of socialist pluralism they represented sites of quite diverse viewpoints relating to the workplace and the broader social context (e.g. on housing, leisure, politics, family life). While these were certainly constrained to varying degrees in Serbia and Montenegro examples of blatant censorship are far and few between (see: Archer and Musić 2006, pp. 55-56).

In Kosovo however, the repression following the protests of Spring 1981 resulted in some workplace periodicals simply vanishing for months at a time. For example, the large rubber plant and tire producer “Ballkan/Balkan” in Suva Reka, Kosovo, regularly published its bilingual periodical but stopped abruptly for a number of months after March 1981. Its first issue after the 1981 demonstrations featured a reprint of a text admonishing the events of Spring 1981 republished from Belgrade tabloid Politika Ekspres.

“Ballkan”, Suva Reka (Summer 1981)

While the archives of factories in Serbia and Montenegro are not always accessible, Kosovo archives are complicated further by multiple and mutually hostile administrations (in addition holdings at Kosovo state and municipal archives some holdings were moved to Serbia in 1999, see: here). Some factory archives are reportedly in the possession of the Kosovo Agency for Privatisation.


One “creative” way to access documents may be to seek out Kosovo related material in other Yugoslav archives. For example archives in Slovenia or Serbia hold communication with and reports from the authorities in Kosovo. For a bottom-up perspective however (i.e. detailed materials at the level of the community, workplace or municipality) such documents are less insightful.

Teleks from Mahmut Bakalli, President of the Kosovo League of Communists, reporting on the participation of workers in the 1981 demonstrations, 01.04.1981.

Oral history is perhaps best poised to gain insights into the world of work in late socialist Kosovo and fill in the historical record, particularly in the absence of other sources. The Kosovo Oral History Initiative is an excellent resource and platform (though the diversity of oral histories showcased does not yet extend to workers and labour movements).

Rory Archer, 11.10.2017.



New article: “The moral economy of home construction in late socialist Yugoslavia” (History and Anthropology)

kumodraz bg
“Old and new – high-rise towers and shacks in Kumodraž, Belgrade” (Večernje novosti, 17.11.1976).

We are pleased to announce publication of an open access article by Rory Archer in History and Anthroplogy, “The moral economy of home construction in late socialist Yugoslavia” (29:2, 2018).

Housing shortages in Yugoslav cities were a perennial concern for authorities and citizens alike. They disproportionately affected Yugoslav workers who as a consequence were the demographic most likely to independently construct a family home. The article explores how informal builders justified home construction in moral terms, legitimizing it on the basis of physical labour that was invested in home construction. This was couched in both the language register of Yugoslav socialism and patriarchal custom (according to which a male-headed household should enjoy the right to a family home). Construction was also conditioned by the opportunities and constraints of late socialist temporalities.

The article is available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02757206.2017.1340279

Here are a few of accompanying pictures that did not make it into the published text.

The first image is an interview in folk music magazine Sabor with Tomislav “Mali mrav” Čolović with the headline “Brick by brick – three houses”. The lead text is underscored by notions of morality in home building. Čolović declares “The singer of newly composed folk music, our host Čolović, known also as “Mali mrav” [Little ant]: Look at these houses in the neighbourhood, for half of them I laid half the bricks myself. And I’m not ashamed. I worked honourably and honestly – I didn’t steal. Now that I have it, I want to enjoy it!'”

Pantelić, 1988.


Protagonist Staniša Simić’s rogue construction was destroyed by authorities in Belgrade. In a 1983 interview with tabloid weekly Novosti 8 the cook implores: “If they had to destroy it, did they have to do it so evilly? Nobody has their house levelled like that; they always usually let the person take out the materials, not to totally destroy him. Nobody builds a house out of anger!”

Kordić 1983.
Staniša Simić’s demolished house (Kordić 1983).


Kaluđerica, Belgrade’s largest informally built neighbourhood (photo: Wikimedia commons, 2009).


Croatian daily Vjesnik aptly proclaimed in 1980, “Life does not wait for spatial plans” (Jambrović 1980).

The social life of small archives and emotional labour

In a recent talk, Excavating Yugoslav: Socialism Archives, Social History and Research Methodology, delivered at the University of Graz, Vladan Vukliš drew from his dual roles as historian and archivist (at Arhiv Republike Srpske, Banja Luka) in outlining some key issues for undertaking historical research in Bosnia Herzegovina and the wider post-Yugoslav space. As part of his presentation, Vladan displayed a graph which maps out the chances of document preservation against scales of hierarchy and function. A broken green line divides the fonds. The material Goran Musić and I have been working with for the “Between class and nation” project tends to lie stubbornly north of the division in the “low chance of preservation” space. For the last two years, archival research more often than not has meant attempts to access living archives (i.e. still located inside factory premises) or to negotiate a few hours to consult unprocessed and haphazardly organised holdings under the watchful eye of reluctant local archivists.

vuklis hierarchy of dox
Graph prepared by Vladan Vukliš (2017)

Reflections about the value of conducting research in smaller archives and the unpredictable, time limited nature of access has been doing the rounds in recent weeks (in my facebook echo-chamber at least). An excellent piece by Max Bergholz recalls his time-limited access to archives in Bosnian Krajina while researching Violence as a Generative Force: Identity, Nationalism, and Memory in a Balkan Community:

But it was in the field—in the basements and storage depots of dusty Bosnian archives—where I learned something that universities don’t really teach. This is the importance of capitalizing on small windows of opportunity to literally grab hold of the past, which sometimes unexpectedly open up, and must be seized immediately, or perhaps lost forever.

Despite the contemporaneous nature of our research on late socialism, these small window of opportunity revealed themselves repeatedly. On at least three occasions access to documents was time limited and I suspect cannot be repeated. The postsocialist afterlife of socially owned firms and the tumultuous local events will lead to the documents’ disappearance or destruction rather than preservation. Ongoing bankruptcies, (usually failed) privatisations, flawed “social programmes” as well as elections and political battles from the level of state president and premier right down to the municipal level negatively impact upon archive preservation.

The small windows of opportunity that emerged for us did so because of a factor that Bergholz does not elaborate on – as a consequence of managing of social relations. Attempting to gain access to obscure local archives and living archives still inside factories is an intensely social process. It is dependent on finding connections and entry points, negotiating with gatekeepers, presenting oneself in a way that engenders trust and many, many hours of chatting, waiting, and drinking unwanted coffees with whoever may staff the factory offices. One should be affable in terms that are socially recognisable. This form of emotional labour appears to be largely unacknowledged in social history. Oral history methodology can offer some pointers – certainly in terms of ethical guidelines and on ways of establishing a cooperative working relationship with interlocutors. It is social anthropology however, that probably most capable of providing the vocabulary and concepts for interrogating the processes taking place.

Even though in his talk Vladan advocated formal institutional cooperation and the professionalisation of archival and research practices in the discussion that followed having “connections” [veze] was cited by some of the audience members as an essential component when undertaking research in local libraries and archives in former Yugoslav states. While this is certainly true I am of the view that social historians underestimate the emotional labour that fieldwork entails and at times confuse this labour with the cultivation of veze. The social historian does not always need friends in high places to access materials (though it undoubtedly helps). They do however have to be willing to painstakingly attend to social relations in the field. In non-institutional conditions where access to archives is personalised and depends on informal, negotiable rules, not only does the historian have to manage their own feelings towards interlocutors while conducting research but must also attend to the expectations, assumptions, grievances, suspicions and hopes of the various gatekeepers and interlocutors through whom access to archives rests. The researcher’s affective display should be appropriate for the particular context. To simply request access to documents in a transactional manner is likely to yield limited results.

In Serbia and Montenegro during 2015 and 2016 the locations where we were seeking access to archives were deindustrialised and economically depressed. Those workers who were still in formal employment often had not been paid for months, even years. Pension and healthcare contributions were in arrears. In at least two of the plants which were still functioning heavy handed private security had quashed stirrings of labour movements. The initial meetings, coffees and discussions at our fieldwork sites were understandably dominated by these concerns which were ravaging these communities. As our research topic was labour and everyday life in late socialism interlocutors would invariably compare contemporary working conditions with those of the socialist era. In fact, it would be impossible to begin our research without engaging in such conversations.

In FAP Priboj, a truck and heavily vehicle manufacturer in Sandžak, a pattern emerged whereby on average each hour spent in the archives would need to be matched by an hour drinking coffee and chatting to a rotating cast of employees (mostly white collar employees in offices – blue-collar workers would occasionally enter to have documentation stamped or signed but were not usually encouraged to converse with us by the interlocutors). Though never explicitly stated, we were expected to “sing for our supper”, by listening sympathetically and respectfully. Each working day would begin with an extended coffee. This was frustrating at times – time was limited, it was clear that access would be a one-off event and the quantity of materials we were attempting to scour in five days was formidable.

priboj archive
FAP Priboj archive, 2015

18 months after this stint of archival research in Priboj was undertaken the main FAP building containing the archives is under lock and key. The entire plant is now shut and the last workers have been made redundant. At times when tensions rise in the municipality – usually because of broken promises related to redundancy packages – private security patrol the parking lot and prevent anybody from approaching the entrance. I did not dare to park by it on my visit last summer but I did meet some of the interlocutors for coffee.

Rory Archer, 07.04.2017

New article: Approaching the socialist factory and its workforce: considerations from fieldwork in (former) Yugoslavia

We are pleased to announce the open access publication of our recent article in Labor History. The print version will be published in early 2017 but it is already available online:

Approaching the socialist factory and its workforce: considerations from fieldwork in (former) Yugoslavia Labor History
by Rory Archer & Goran Musić
Pages 1-23 | Received 23 Nov 2015, Accepted 23 May 2016, Published online: 18 Oct 2016

Abstract: The socialist factory, as the ‘incubator’ of the new socialist (wo)man, is a productive entry point for the study of socialist modernization and its contradictions. By outlining some theoretical and methodological insights gathered through field-research in factories in former Yugoslavia, we seek to connect the state of labour history in the Balkans to recent breakthroughs made by labour historians of other socialist countries. The first part of this article sketches some of the specificities of the Yugoslav self-managed factory and its heterogeneous workforce. It presents the ambiguous relationship between workers and the factory and demonstrates the variety of life trajectories for workers in Yugoslav state-socialism (from model communists to alienated workers). The second part engages with the available sources for conducting research inside and outside the factory advocating an approach which combines factory and local archives, print media and oral history.

Keywords: Yugoslavia, Yugoslav working class, socialism, workers’ self-management, factory sources,


Planning a ‘miting’ on the back of a notebook (Nikšić, Montenegro 1989)

From the archives of the local branch of the Socialist Alliance of Working People of Yugoslavia (SSRN OK Nikšić) this is a rough plan of a ‘miting of the hungry’ which took place on Nikšić’s main square on 20 August 1989. This meeting was an attempt to shore up the legitimacy of the newly installed republican and municipal leadership and deflect social discontent towards the ‘bureaucrats’ who had been ousted the previous January. The nearly unbroken continuity of many Montenegrin political actors since the events of the late 1980s makes historical research more tricky than anticipated (more on this in a later post).




Niksicke novine.jpg
“Faith in the young Montenegrin leadership” (Nikšićke novine, 01.09.1989)


Drawing discontent. Cartoons in workplace periodicals in the 1980s

A few months ago I wrote about using Yugoslav workplace periodicals as sources. One very fruitful source in these publications is informal content – jokes, aphorisms, interviews with workers on everyday life topics, and cartoons. Much of this content was produced, written and drawn by workers for workers.

Cartoons in particular offer interesting perspectives on social relations. Visual critique often went far beyond the bounds of what would be appropriate for the textual content. Yet, in the workplaces I have explored, the cartoons and informal content did not appear to have caused major controversy.

What follows below is a selection of cartoons from various Yugoslav workplace publications. Some common themes are visible including divisions between blue and white collar workers, corrupt management, problems of theft, laziness and absenteeism and cynicism about the widening gap between theory and practice in Yugoslav socialism.

From Rakovica to Prizren and from Titograd to Pula cartoons in worker periodicals revolve around similar themes and concerns. They serve to remind that despite decentralisation and increasingly divergent conditions between the republics (autarky), common working class tropes of dissatisfaction remained remarkably similar across the country for much of the 1980s.

Rory Archer, 15.04.2016




“Bringing class back in: An introduction”

Below are the introductory pages of the new volume Social inequalities and discontent in Yugoslav socialism.

“Bringing class back in: An introduction” (Rory Archer, Igor Duda and Paul Stubbs)

In January 1986, Yugoslav women’s magazine Bazar published a human interest story about a single-parent family’s inability to pay its electricity bill. The article was part of an initiative from the Alliance of Trade Unions to induce the electricity provider to provide subsidised electricity to the poorest Belgraders. It told the story of Zora, a 37-year-old widow and mother of four daughters living on Ruzveltova Street in Belgrade. Because she was unable to work outside of the home due to chronic illness, her precarious situation was described as being representative of over 2,000 Belgrade residents who had had their electricity supply cut off due to a frequent failure to pay their bills. Zora was widowed when her husband, a factory worker in Valjevo, was killed in a traffic accident. Following his death the factory did not assist his widow, and the pension that his children received (15,000 dinars) was not sufficient to live on (the minimum advance payment for electricity would amount to 11,350 dinars). As she did not yet fulfil the minimum criteria to receive a pension, Zora earned money by selling needlework informally. This did not cover basic living costs, however, and during the winter of 1984–1985 the electricity was cut off. Her eldest daughter Verica was an excellent student, among the top of her class. Although she wished to continue her education by attending university, Zora feared that this would remain an ‘unachievable dream’. In the presentation of the story for Bazar, Zora pleaded that her electricity bill be reduced. She argued that her four daughters would one day be diligent workers contributing to their society. Therefore, society should help her ensure that she could feed, educate and raise her daughters as honest persons.


Bazar (broj 458, 17.01.1986)

In the lively Yugoslav press, stories about so-called ‘social cases’ were a staple component presented to induce action on the part of the authorities in a context where progressive mechanisms of social welfare had failed to take root (Zora noted that no municipal social worker was interested in their case). The Bazar article was in fact not Zora’s first public platform to speak about her precarious living conditions. She had appeared on a television programme some years previously in an ad hoc appeal to resolve her difficult housing situation. She then lived in a basement flat into which sewage was leaking. Journalists found out about it and publicised her story. According to Bazar by some turn of fortune she found an audience with Tito himself. ‘Quickly after that I was received by comrade Tito. He listened to me and told me that I was a hero [žena heroj]. Three days after that conversation I got this flat’.

Bazar’s report of Zora’s story reveals some of the dilemmas and contradictions of late socialist Yugoslavia which are the subject of this edited volume. Such concerns include her worries about limited and differential access to education and housing, a concern with falling living standards and reduced social mobility, deficient social welfare and unpredictable responses by the authorities and reflections on the individual’s relation to the state and society couched in the appropriate language of Yugoslav socialism. Zora’s actions, in presenting herself as a ‘social case’ and appealing for an ad hoc solution through a media outlet, indicates a degree of agency; an ability to manoeuvre and navigate difficult conditions. Her story also resonates with cleavages between market forces and political control of the economy. Zora’s fate was publicly invoked by trade union representatives to highlight what they viewed as the unreasonable behaviour on the part of the electricity distributor which failed to cooperate with the trade union in ensuring cheaper electricity for Belgrade’s poor. Indicative of Yugoslavia’s ‘third way’, examples of best practice from Western Europe were provided by the president of the Commission for Living and Working Conditions and Social Policy of the Alliance of Trade Unions, Milorad Vujasinović. He stated that it was well known that electricity was cheaper in other socialist states, but the progressive examples he detailed were the UK, Italy and Belgium,where he claimed the price of electricity was heavily reduced for the poorest citizens.

This volume examines some of the structural causes and social consequences of inequalities in Yugoslavia through case studies of interrelated milieux (such as the workplace, the home, education, migration, rural and urban locales and amongst particular ethno-national communities). It is a collection of historical case studies with contributing authors coming from diverse disciplinary backgrounds (including sociology, anthropology, public policy, economics and ethnomusicology as well as history). It is an attempt to link scholarship from the socialist Yugoslav era to current research based on accessing newly available primary sources and to provide a platform for further explorations of the social history of Yugoslavia. In gathering research by a diverse group of scholars interested in social class we seek to ‘bring class back in’ to (post-) Yugoslav historiography and create a solid base for further debate and research. The contributions that follow explore how theorisations of social class informed the politics and policies of social mobility and, conversely, how societal or grassroots understandings of class may have influenced politics and policy. These processes are examined in a range of Yugoslav locales. Empirical data has been gleaned from across the country, from Slovenia through the bustling industrial suburbs of the federal capital Belgrade to the peripheries of Kosovo, Herzegovina and Dalmatia. Rather than focus on regional differentiation between republics and provinces the emphasis is placed on social differentiation and discontent within particular communities. The case studies have sought to include the voices of a wide spectrum of informants from factory workers and subsistence farmers to fictional television characters and pop-folk music superstars, from precarious rural and urban migrants to wealthy migrant workers and well-to-do children of local elites.

*Research for this chapter was supported by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF): P27008
(Between class and nation: Working class communities in 1980s Serbia and Montenegro).