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”.
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.
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!'”
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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,
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).
May 1st was a date when the rapidly declining position of Yugoslav blue-collar workers throughout the 1980s crystallised. The notion that directors were abusing the symbolic capital of blue-collar workers featured prominently. On the May 1988 front page of outspoken Beogradski radnik, a trade union publication produced jointly by editorial staff and workers of a number of Belgrade industrial heavyweights, this dynamic was expressed in lurid detail. Depoliticised Labour Day festivities are taking place with the typical trappings of the holiday – spit-roast ox, alcohol and accordion music performed to the merriment of suited older men (presumably directors and politicians) – under the banner ‘long live May 1st’. The festivities however are disturbing, perhaps even endangering, the work of a despondent miner underground who knocks the handle of his hammer up at them to no avail.
2. What nationalism has buried: Yugoslav social scientists on the crisis, grassroots powerlessness and Yugoslavism (Ana Dević)
3. The gastarbajteri as a transnational Yugoslav working class (Brigitte Le Normand)
4. ‘Paid for by the workers, occupied by the bureaucrats’: housing inequalities in 1980s Belgrade (Rory Archer) Chapter 4 Archer
5. Education, conflict and class reproduction in socialist Yugoslavia (Jana Bacevic)
6. Roma between ethnic group and an ‘underclass’ as portrayed through newspaper discourses in socialist Slovenia (Julija Sardelić)
7. Of social inequalities in a socialist society: the creation of a rural underclass in Yugoslav Kosovo (Isabel Ströhle)
8 ‘They came as workers and left as Serbs’: the role of Rakovica’s blue-collar workers in Serbian social mobilisations of the late 1980s (Goran Musić) Chapter 8 Music
9 ‘ Buy me a silk skirt mile!’ Celebrity culture, gender and
social positioning in socialist Yugoslavia (Ana Hofman and Polona Sitar)
10 When capitalism and socialism get along best: tourism, consumer culture and the idea of progress in Malo misto (Igor Duda)
Socialist countries like Yugoslavia garnered legitimacy through appealing to social equality. Yet social stratification was characteristic of Yugoslav society and increased over the course of the state’s existence. By the 1980s the country was divided on socio-economic as well as national lines. Through case studies from a range of social millieux, contributors to this volume seek to ‘bring class back in’ to Yugoslav historiography, exploring how theorisations of social class informed the politics and policies of social mobility and conversely, how societal or grassroots understandings of class have influenced politics and policy. Rather than focusing on regional differentiation between Yugoslav republics and provinces the emphasis is placed on social differentiation and discontent within particular communities. The contributing authors of these historical studies come from diverse disciplinary backgrounds, linking scholarship from the socialist era to contemporary research based on accessing newly available primary sources. Voices of a wide spectrum of informants are included in the volume; from factory workers and subsistence farmers to fictional television characters and pop-folk music superstars.
The introduction of workers’ self-management placed concrete limits on the control the party-state could exercise over industry and paved the way for a stronger voice of workers from below. Paradoxically, it also enabled the emergence of a powerful layer of directors or ‘technocrats’ as they were named in the party terminology. The rising enterprise autonomy, greater insistence on market criteria in business decisions and the possibility for workers to elect individuals to the leading managerial positions nurtured strong bonds between the workforces of single factories and their professional management. An accomplished general manager (director) was expected to fine tune economic expertise and political connections in order to obtain up to date technology (usually through licensing and cooperation with foreign companies) and find a market for the company’s output. Most importantly, a talented director had to balance the interests of different occupational groups within the factory and unify the work collective behind common business goals.
During the four decades under the system of self-management, the workers of Yugoslav factories frequently developed and cultivated myths around a particular type of strong handed, but just director. In these local narratives, the ‘golden years’ in the enterprise history are connected to the personal characteristics of a distinguished general manager. In the same vein, the periods of hardship are less related to broader economic junctures, but the alleged foul play and political intrigue against the upcoming director unleashed by rival producers or envious politicians.
Highhanded directors with strong personalities and paternalistic management culture marked the early development of Yugoslav automotive industry in the 1950s. Stojan Perhavc headed Tovarna avtomobila Maribor (TAM). Zavodi Crvena Zastava from Kragujevac had Prvoslav Raković. The person credited for establishing modern manufacturing in the economically underdeveloped Polimlje region was Radmilo Lavrenčić. The legend of the ‘rise and fall’ of this controversial executive is an important trope for the building of local identity in Priboj, the town that grew around the once prominent Yugoslav truck manufacturing factory Fabrika automobile Priboj (FAP).
The Flamboyant Modernizer
Radmilo Lavrenčić gained his first experience in industrialization policy as an employee of the Slovene Ministry of Heavy Industry in the early postwar years under the guidance of celebrated Slovene Partisan and party functionary Franc ‘Luka’ Leskošek. His subsequent engineering studies in Belgrade were cut short in 1952 when the Serbian authorities decided to put his knowledge to use and dispatched him to the rural, mountainous municipality of Priboj with the task of setting up a truck production plant. In a few years under his leadership, FAP evolved from small repair shop into a proper manufacturing plant with the help of the licensed technology from the Swiss automotive company Saurer. FAP gave great impetus to the overall development of Priboj, attracting the first nucleus of educated staff, training the local workforce and investing in the local infrastructure.
Lavrenčić proved himself as a skillful economic strategist and the trailblazer of Priboj’s industrialization. However, in the narratives of former and current FAP workers, the first director appears not solely as a successful manager, but a much more comprehensive agent of economic modernization and cultural emancipation. Lavrenčić comes across as an outsider who embraced the economically underdeveloped region and its inhabitants with all their vices and virtues, thus becoming an activist for the local cause. The small town that local journalist and former FAP employee Mujo Bjelopoljac describes as a ‘god forsaken place’ (nedođija) where ‘almost nobody had ever seen a car and people only knew wooden carts pulled by oxen’ gained a champion who was determined that Priboj would catch up with larger industrial centers in Yugoslavia and adopt global modernizing trends.
The key aspect of this ‘civilizing mission’ was the arrival of young educated professionals from other parts of the country and contact with a Western European business partners. Lavrenčić’s business trips abroad in the mid-1950s are routinely seen as the first steps of a continuous process, which culminated in the 1970s when FAP established long-term cooperation with prestigious German producer Mercedes-Benz. Direct contact with Western European companies, their know-how and experts are seen as the crucial factor helping to instill modern organization, work discipline and more sophisticated lifestyles in Priboj.
In the collective memory of the local workforce, the factory canteen stands out as the most vanguard and enduring symbol of Lavrenčić’s emancipatory project. Not a single interviewee failed to mention the FAP restaurant and its allegedly unique architectonic features. The responsibility to design the hall was given to a young female architect fresh out of university who was to become Lavrenčić’s wife. The director allegedly had very precise demands when it came to the project, keeping in mind the central role the factory canteen played in workers’ everyday life. The entire roof construction of the hall, with capacity for over 300 people had to be supported without inner columns, allegedly a rather unique construction in the 1950s.
Far from being the caprice of a powerful director, the challenging spatial design was supposed to permit transparency, eye contact between the workers and managers seated behind different tables and provide a direct view of the stage during political manifestations and festivities. Lavrenčić’s utilization of modernistic architecture for cultural and political emancipation is allegedly also mirrored in the restaurant’s frontal staircase. Local legend claims that the staircase was constructed as steeply as possible in order to dissuade a local troublemaker nicknamed Džafo from continuing his drunken prank of entering cafes on his horse.
Radmilo Lavrenčić did not mind drawing attention to himself in Priboj or anywhere else for that matter. FAP’s director seems to have been an energetic and flamboyant character, a perfect match for the pioneering stages of local industrialization where improvisation and personal initiative was often more important than long-term planning and economic rationale. He did not shy away from seeking personal connections at the top of the party state and stood up for the interests of the company in political forums and during frequent trips abroad. According to Bjelopoljac, Lavrenčić escorted the first shipment of FAP trucks exported to Turkey personally, heading the column of heavy trucks in a Chevrolet limousine via Belgrade and organizing a stunning showcase of truck’s durability for the Turkish press in Istanbul.
The pioneering work of successfully establishing automotive production in a short time span in a formerly unindustrialized region assured Radmilo Lavrenčić’s place in local history. But, what truly sparked the imagination of Priboj’s citizens and fed the myth that subsequently flourished around him, was not Lavrenčić’s rapid ascent, but his even faster and more spectacular downfall. Thirty years before the famous Agrokomerc affair, FAP was the site of Yugoslavia’s first highly publicized case of financial crime.
In 1957, FAP’s leading manager was put on trial for using the factory funds on his personal initiative without the consent of the workers’ council. The trial broke into the national headlines becoming one of Yugoslavia’s very first public affairs involving highly positioned individuals. Lavrenčić’s gaudy style of management fed the media, which created the image of a reckless and decadent director who mismanaged public funds and disregarded the work collective. The newspapers accused him of using business trips to party and gamble in bars and casinos of Western European metropolises. As an illustration of his opulent lifestyle, the Zagreb-based daily Vjesnik wrote how Lavrenčić drank champagne from the shoe of the Italian singer Caterina Valente in Vienna’s famous 1950s nightclub Eden.
FAP’s general manager was found guilty and given a fifteen yearlong prison sentence. After serving nearly four years the sentence was cut short and Lavrenčić was set free. In 1967 the disgraced director lost his life in a car accident. Needless to say this fatal event only added controversy to the case inspiring allegations that foul play was involved.
In the collective memory of FAP’s workforce and the citizens of Priboj this is a traumatic historical period, as it is widely believed Lavrenčić was the victim of a conspiracy. Allegedly, the entire trial was staged and the main ‘crime’ Lavrenčić ever committed was giving Priboj’s nearby village a jeep and the local school a radio set without the consent of FAP’s workers’ council. These acts confirm the popular image of a benevolent director using all means at hand to modernize the backward surroundings even to his own personal detriment. According to the stories circulating in the factory milieu, the real reasons for Lavrenčić’s arrest remain hidden until this very day.
The unofficial popular narrative claims the following: The young star of Yugoslav industrialization allegedly made many enemies on his way to the top. Lavrenčić’s arch rival was his former mentor, the Slovene politician Franc Leskošek. Furious with the fact that Lavrenčić created a direct rival to his own project, Slovene truck producer TAM, Leskošek offered a merger to FAP’s management. Once Lavrenčić refused the offer, legend claims Leskošek swore that he would bring him down: ‘I made you and I will destroy you.’ Of course, the conspiracy could not be successful and the legend incomplete without the act of betrayal amidst FAP’s own ranks. Apparently, a band of bad workers and bureaucrats disliked Lavrenčić’s pushes toward more work discipline inside the enterprise. They had sent a secret report to Tito defaming their director after which Lavrenčić lost political protection. The factory conspirators were also instrumental in hiding the documents proving that workers’ council approved all financial transactions for which the general manager had been accused.
It is unclear at which point of time the myth surrounding Radmilo Lavrenčić gained a foothold in Priboj. It is very likely that different layers of the story were added over time. The study of other factories shows us that the tendency to claim past injustices increases when the work collective is faced with economic hardship and crisis. In the post-socialist landscape of deindustrialization, political changes and mass scale historical revisionism, the story of FAP’s legendary director gained fresh impetus and became embedded in new ideological tropes. In the late 1980s the growing nationalist frenzy inside Serbia promted tales of the intentional deindustrialization of Serbia after World War II by the communist authorities and transfer of technology to Croatia and Slovenia. This claim became a sort of common wisdom in popular historical narratives in Serbia today.
Following the changing intellectual and media climate nationally, FAP’s local narratives also became highly ethnicized. The rivalry between Yugoslavia’s two major truck producers, FAP and TAM, is now commonly seen as the struggle between the national interests of Serbs and Slovenes. Stemming from a mixed marriage between a Slovene father and Serbian mother, Lavrenčić’s ethnicity and national allegiance also became a topic of consideration. Allegedly, Lavrenčić’s love for his newfound home made him overcome his ethnic and political allegiance to Slovenia and adopt the interests of Priboj and Serbia.
In 2011, Lavrenčič’s widow and a group of former associates tried to renew the case inside the courthouse and appealed for the Serbian state to officially rehabilitate FAP’s first director. In its public addresses, the initiative and its legal representatives used the rhetoric of national victimization and anti-communism usually encountered in the ongoing wave of rehabilitations of entrepreneurs, distinguished citizens and politicians which were associated with the Serbian bourgeois traditions and condemned by the communist authorities in the early postwar years.
The depiction of intra-party factional clashes at different levels was thus exchanged for a simpler narrative of a totalitarian state, its prosecution of nonconforming individuals and national resistance. The local court in Užice declined the appeal for rehabilitation as Lavrenčić was prosecuted for economic, not political crime. In 2013, Priboj’s local government named a local street connecting the factory to the town center after Radmilo Lavrenčić and erected a plaque in his honor
 One of the outcomes of the cooperation with Mercedes was the presence of a dozen German engineers in Priboj. The workers and staff we talked to were all fond of pointing out the fact that German engineers lived in their town and contributed to Priboj becoming more cosmopolitan with their civic manners.
 According to many interviewees this was a very demanding feature for the construction technology of the 1950s, implemented in very few places in Europe at the time.
 FAP’s restaurant building has been privatized recently and turned into a nightclub. The older workers perceive this change of function and ownership over the restaurant as an insult and paradigmatic of the fate of the factory/city as whole.