What Punk Rock Meant to Communist Yugoslavia

A concert of the band Laibach in Sarajevo, 1989. Credit Milomir Kovacevic

In Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, during the 1984 Winter Olympics, Elvis J. Kurtovic and his Meteors were performing a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm” in a stifling little basement hall before 300 wild punk rock fans. But it wasn’t Dylan’s rendition they were playing, it was their own, a deliberate extension that ostensibly was about Margaret Thatcher, the prime minister of Britain. But actually, Elvis J. Kurtovic and his Meteors were singing about — in an extremely brutal way that should have been unacceptable to the Communist authorities — Yugoslavia’s own prime minister, Milka Planinc.

It was a brilliant trading of identities that mocked the Yugoslav regime and its ideology while playing with the form and content of a three-minute punk song. It could be included in any global anthology of protest punk, though the editors would have to have heard of this strange Sarajevo group, which was led by Mirko Srdic, a 22-year-old engineering student and one of the cleverest and most lucid authors on the Yugoslav rock scene.

In their version of the song, Elvis J. Kurtovic and his Meteors accused Planinc — all while calling her Margaret Thatcher — of ineptitude and corruption in Kosovo, then a rebellious Yugoslav province. If a journalist had tried to publish anything of the sort, she would have ended up in prison and been banned forever from working for Yugoslav papers. If an ordinary citizen had talked like this in a cafe or on a tram, he would at the very least have been investigated by the police for “spreading false reports and alarming the public.” But this was a song that referred to Margaret Thatcher. The police and the Communist Party pretended that it really was about Thatcher, and nothing happened.

Punk rock appeared early in Yugoslavia. Yugoslav punk bands already existed by 1977, the year the Clash released its first album in Britain. The first major punk concert, at least that I remember, took place in Pula, a town on the Croatian coast, on March 22, 1978. Soon after, the first LPs came out from bands like Pankrti, from Ljubljana, whose name in Slovene means “illegitimate” or “bastard children.” These records were released through state-run record companies, which were under a kind of informal but ever-present party censorship.

From the standpoint of the regime these groups had extremely problematic lyrics. They attacked the police, the authorities and the tenets of Communist ideology. But still, they were sung and published with virtually no interference. The reason was simple: It is less dangerous for something to exist in the shop windows of record stores and on the stages of Party-sponsored “houses of culture” than for it to live underground, conspiring against the system. Such was the strategy of the leaders at the time, a group that would be further liberalized after the death of Yugoslavia’s lifelong president, Marshal Josip Broz Tito, in the spring of 1980.

Like its British and American counterparts, Yugoslav punk rock was steeped in social scandal and radical political engagement. It was a time when people were able to make a good living, and young people could find regular paid work through youth services (a Party invention that allowed high school and college students to work for money in their spare time), and with their earnings they would go to the Italian border city of Trieste or to Vienna or even to London to witness the new subcultural trends and buy records. Because of this, the music of punk classics like the Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Buzzcocks and the Damned found its way to Yugoslavia, along with that of Patti Smith, the Stooges and New York Dolls.

Not everything was the same for us in Yugoslavia as it was in New York or London, though. Yugoslav punk was based on rebellion, with the youth escapism that characterized some parts of the punk scene in the West almost completely absent. Punk rock in Yugoslavia emerged and developed as a way to blaspheme the government and everything — or almost everything — that our parents’ generation believed in. The artistry consisted in writing songs that would be more anti-establishment than any before but would not be censored. There was just one topic that was untouchable: Tito. Everything else was allowed. One could sing more or less openly against everything. Even against Communism.

The ideology of Yugoslav punk boiled down to anti-Communism, conscious or unconscious. And here again is the intriguing paradox: Why did the Communist authorities allow an anti-Communist youth subculture to flourish? Yes, it was a useful outlet for youth rebellion. But the other answer to this question became clearer a decade later.

In 1990 and ’91, Yugoslavia collapsed and Communism was replaced by ethno-nationalism. That was when the old world would destroy itself from within, and yesterday’s Communists, the heads of secret agencies and central committees, would seize power in the Yugoslav republics with lightning speed, transforming themselves into nationalists and right-wingers. The people who at the beginning of the ’80s were convening Party conferences to discuss anti-Communist excesses and in the 1990s would take control of the newly established countries never cared much about anti-Communism; they cared about power.

Punk and New Wave music in Yugoslavia in the early ’80s was a unique phenomenon in the Communist world. In the other countries of Eastern Europe — with the partial exception of Poland — punk rock truly appeared only once Communism had practically ceased to be. Russian punk rockers, notably the women from Pussy Riot, revolted against a conservative, Vladimir Putin, at a time when Communism had faded into the past. Punk rock arrived in Russia — as it had somewhat earlier in Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia — as a tardy echo of something that had taken place long before in the West, and usually it was merely an imitation of American and British models.

For many years, this was how popular and youth culture developed in Yugoslavia, too. But with the liberalization of the political regime, and with the material enrichment of society and the expansion of the middle class, things had begun to change radically by the end of the ’70s. In 1968, just a year after it was produced in New York, the Broadway musical “Hair” was staged in Belgrade, a landmark event in Yugoslav popular culture. From Belgrade’s “Hair” to Yugoslav punk rock, and then until the fall of Yugoslavia, things played out largely in synchronicity with the West.

In contrast to the Soviet Union and most other Eastern European Communist Parties, whose leaders and commissars saw control of culture, particularly popular and youth culture, as a means of safeguarding their power, the Yugoslav Communists offered culture to their citizens, especially the young, as an outlet to safely relieve social trauma, one that would also present the illusion of freedom. Simply put, in contrast to the Leonid Brezhnev of the Soviet Union, Tito did not think that young people with drums and guitars would bring down the state. And in the end, he was right.

Miljenko Jergovic is the author of Mama Leone and other novels. This essay was translated by Russell Scott Valentino from the Serbo-Croatian.

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