The Birth of the Belgrade Circle

Notes of one of the a founders

A group of Serbian historians recently began collecting documents and testimonies about the anti-war movement in Serbia in the 1990s, in which the Association of Independent Intellectuals Belgrade Circle, founded on January 25, 1992, played an important role. As one of the founders of this association and one of its three co-presidents, from its foundation until the end of 1993 (the other two were Miladin Životić and Filip David), I was able to provide historians with some of my notes that were created when we were discussing the goals and the program of the Belgrade Circle, when we gave public statements about various current events or when we made plans in connection with the Circle’s public forums. Along with them, there were about a dozen newspaper clippings with articles about the Belgrade Circle, its public forums and publications. And very little living memory, the kind expected of a so-called witness and participant. I am one of those who know about past events in which they participated about as much as they can read in their own or other people’s records.

I wrote my notes about the Belgrade Circle on a typewriter (it was a “Biser” from Bugojno), and then made corrections by hand, which is how I can tell that I am indeed their author. There are some parts in those notes that reveal my desire for things to be “well written”. Other people gathered around the Belgrade Circle also aspired to this, because they were mostly writers, journalists and others whose pens were their trade. We believed that a powerful word in the name of peace and freedom, our “j’accuse”, could, if not suppress, at least expose the evil that had come to power here.

After all, the Circle was created at the initiative of a group of writers. In the words of Pavle Ugrinov, to whom we owe the most important testimony about the founding of this association, it was first supposed to be an alternative association of Serbian writers. In order for other intellectuals to join it, its first name – Independent Writers was changed to New Academy. They tried their hardest to draw up one common declaration, a document that would be called Charter 92. It was supposed to be, wrote Ugrinov, “a platform which would continue to exist even after the war.” Several people were involved in writing, editing and supplementing this declaration, several versions of the text were made. It was important to them not to act hastily. However, they never reached the final version of the declaration and gave up on that effort.

Despite the failure to draw up a program declaration of writers and intellectuals united against the war and nationalism in Yugoslavia, one such association was nevertheless founded and given a name that had not been mentioned before – the Belgrade Circle. Among its founders were writers who intended to found an alternative literary society or an alternative academy. But the Belgrade Circle would become something else. It would also gather intellectuals, but it was conceived and acted above all as a public forum where a critical word can be expressed about the causes of the war in Yugoslavia, mostly about the role of the Serbian side in that war. As Ugrinov wrote, the Belgrade Circle was founded when the “activists”, who gave priority to the everyday public struggle against Milošević, took the initiative from the “fundamentalists”, who were not interested in that struggle. Therefore, it can be said that the Belgrade Circle was the product of the intersection of two ideas about the social engagement of intellectuals in times of crisis, one that understands such engagement as the elaboration of concepts and arguments needed to defend endangered social values and human rights, and the other, which calls on intellectuals to participate in concrete actions.

As one of the Circle’s founders, I found myself as an “activist”, together with a dozen other people who at that time were already involved in various anti-war actions, the organizers of which were the first civil initiatives launched at the beginning of the war in Yugoslavia, such as “The Center for Anti-War Action” and “The Women in Black”. One of those actions was a public protest against the war in Croatia, which we organized every evening from October 8, 1991 to February 8, 1992, in the park between the City Assembly and the Presidency of Serbia. The participants of the protest would write down their opinions about the war in the book of epitaphs dedicated to the memory of JNA reservist Miroslav Milenković, who killed himself when he was at the front in Croatia, because he did not want to fight in the war or desert and be accused of being a traitor. We gave the book the title A Tomb for Miroslav Milenković, after Kiš’s A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, that way it was also in memory of Kiš, who died two years before.

The organizers and participants of these actions also took part in the programs of the Belgrade Circle. Its public forums (for some reason we called them “sessions”), held on Saturdays at noon, became regular gatherings of the anti-war Belgrade and anti-war Serbia. Although in the beginning it was an association with registered members, the Circle soon had collaborators, supporters and audiences who were usually not formal members. In fact, the question of formal membership in the Circle was not considered important. Many of us were also involved in the work of other anti-war initiatives, we were collaborators of Nebojša Popov and his Republika and supporters of the Civil Alliance, with which we shared headquarters in the Sedmog Jula Street (now Kralja Petra Street). An exceptional woman, the tireless secretary of the Alliance, Dunja Frković, was of great help to us there.

An important document about the founding of the Circle was the article published in Politika (V. Vujć, “’Belgrade Circle’ Founded”, January 26, 1992). It testifies to the fact that the propaganda strategy of this newspaper even then, when it was completely in Milosevic’s service, was based on the idea that Politika should nurture the image of an open forum, which is why it was possible even then to find some critical words at the expense of the government there, as it is today. A reader of this article could even think that its author welcomed the establishment of the Circle. “In the presence of a large number of interested parties, in the crowded Hall of the Student Cultural Center” – it says – “the Founding Assembly (150 members) was held, which unanimously adopted the Statute and elected the Management Board”.

The article also quoted some passages from the press release read at the assembly, so a reader of Politika discovered that the Belgrade Circle is standing up against “the government’s aspiration to, in the name of the supposed national interest, subjugate scientific and cultural institutions, universities and public newspapers, especially television, to its short-sighted and disastrous politics”. The names of the members of the Board of Directors were also given, information that is difficult to find elsewhere. That’s why I’m listing those names here, in the order in which they were listed by Politika’s journalist: Ivan Čolović, Filip David, Miladin Životić, Đorđe Lebović, Miodrag Zupanc, Branko Baletić, Stojan Cerović, Nenad Prokić, Ivan Vejvoda, Radomir Konstantinović, Pavle Ugrinov, Miladin Ševarlić, Mileta Prodanović, Obrad Savić, Aljoša Mimica, Slobodan Blagojević and Mirjana Miočinović. When I read this list today, I notice that there is only one woman. This is how the Belgrade Circle differed from other anti-war associations and initiatives founded at that time, which were mostly lead by women: Vesna Pešić, Staša Zajović, Biljana Jovanović, Nataša Kandić, Sonja Biserko, Borka Pavićević. But at the time when the Circle was founded, this almost exclusive masculinity of its leadership was not noticed nor commented on, it was not seen as a problem. At that time, the perception of women’s participation in public affairs was not as sharp as it is today, but despite this, the absence of women from the leadership of the Belgrade Circle would not have gone unnoticed if it had affected the work of the Circle, but this was not the case. Many women participated in its work, as well as in the work of other civic initiatives, including the ones mentioned. They often made the most important contribution to the discussions on the topics that the Circle was focused on.

This article in Politika is an important document about the founding of the Belgrade Circle also because it also quotes Filip David’s words that the new organization brings together people who want Serbia to be “different than the one today”, which means that the idea of the Other Serbia, which will be the basis of the program of the Belgrade Circle, its “trademark”, was presented to the public for the first time at its founding assembly. It was also written in this article that David announced that the Belgrade Circle would prepare a special document about the vision of a Serbia different from Milosevic’s, “a kind of charter… in which the history of dishonor and madness would be laid out, as well as vision of a free, democratic Serbia, prosperous and open to the world, free from fear and repression”. So, here we have evidence that the idea of a program declaration, of a charter, which the initiators of the alternative association of writers failed to complete and adopt, was not abandoned, that some of the founders of the Belgrade Circle also thought that such a document was necessary, that it should be written. But, as far as I know, the Circle did not even try to deal with that business.

Instead of one common idea, a common vision of a “different Serbia”, we offered several ideas, several visions, which were interconnected only by the desire of the people who expressed those ideas and visions to publicly stand up against Milosevic’s politics, against war and nationalism. In fact, we agreed on the kind of Serbia that we didn’t want, but not on how it ought to be. That is why it is more accurate to say that several Other Serbias were born in the fold of the Belgrade Circle, and not just one. Later (in 2002), Radomir Konstantinović spoke very highly of this pluralism, although he was also among the writers who, before the Circle was founded, tried to write a program for an alternative association of writers and intellectuals. “I was not a supporter of any ‘platform’, any program,” says Konstantinović. “I believed that we should not speak collectively, through a program, so namelessly (anonymously). But that each of us, individually, under our full name, can say what we want (and what we can, of course). We agreed on this easily: the Belgrade Circle rested on the idea of personality – or, if you like, on personality as a categorical imperative. I thought that individual (or real) speech should not be drowned in program, collective (or abstract) speech”. The title of this work by Konstantinović, written ten years after the founding of the Belgrade Circle, remains to this day the most accurate and therefore often quoted answer to the question of what is the Other Serbia, what the people gathered around it agree, and what they disagree with: “Other Serbia is a Serbia that does not put up with atrocities”. (Other Serbia, Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, 2002, p. 11).

Since the end of 1993, I have not participated in the work of the Belgrade Circle. I don’t know how long it lasted. For a while there was a publishing house under the same name, held by Obrad Savić. In the spring of 1996, Predrag Matvejević wrote, “As I am writing these lines, the Belgrade Circle barely exists, but its example has not lost any of its importance.” The following year, 1997, Miladin Životić died suddenly. Today, several people who participated in the founding of the Circle are gone: Konstantinović, Ugrinov, Lebović, Cerović, Mimica, as well as many others who were its important collaborators.

About what the Belgrade Circle was and what came after, to paraphrase the title of Katherine Verdery’s famous book on socialism – little has been published so far, least of all argumentative presentations and analyses. That is why this topic is still waiting for researchers who will give it their full attention. Perhaps some of the historians who encouraged me to look through my old notes on the founding and work of the Belgrade Circle will devote themselves to it.

Ivan Čolović (Belgrade, 1938) is a political anthropologist, publisher and writer. He has published around twenty books, most recently: Death on the Kosovo Field. History of the Kosovo myth (2017), Pictures and Images. In the order in which they appeared (2018) and Virus in the text. Essays on Political Anthropology 4 (2020) Some of his books have been translated into English, French, Greek, Italian, Macedonian, German, Slovenian and Polish. Čolović is the founder and editor (1971), and since 1989, the publisher of the book series Biblioteka XX Vek. He received several awards, including the Herder Award (2000), the National Order of the Legion of Honour (2001), the title of Honorary Doctor of the University of Warsaw (2010) and the “Mirko Kovač” award for the book Death on the Kosovo Field (2017).

Translated by Luna Đorđević