Spomenik – Iconic Modern Art from Tito’s Yugoslavia

Soon after the end of the war Tito and the Communist Party of Yugoslavia started a fight against the Soviet Union to escape Stalin’s direct control – a fight where they succeeded, creating in Yugoslavia a unique, truly communist dictatorship totally under Tito’s power, and not just another soviet satellite country.

To make differences from the USSR more apparent, artistic production, often representing an internationally recognized value for a country on the international stage, needed to part from the rhetoric of socialist realism of Stalin’s years. New, original aesthetics were sought, capable of expressing the modernity of Yugoslavia, while being not free from the control of the State, celebrating and promoting unity in a country which had never enjoyed national unity – something later reflected in the bloody split of the 1990s.

Tito’s aesthetic views for the new post-WWII Yugoslavia are greatly reflected in the project for the realization of an array of hundreds of monuments, to be designed and erected in locations scattered over the whole territory of the former Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia. These monuments go under the name of ‘spomenik’ – an internationally known word in the local idiom, simply translating into ‘monument’.

Most of these spomeniks commemorate some bloody facts of the Second World War – most often a local battle between Yugoslav communist partisans and the German Wehrmacht, or the Italian Army of the ‘Duce’, but also clandestine congresses of local subversive communist groups, mass murders by the Axis invaders, and so on. The realization of the project, sometimes fueled by the local interest to keep the memory of a historical fact of regional relevance, but in any case coordinated by the Communist Party, took a long time span, with most of the monuments designed and built over the 1960s and 1970s, before Marshall Tito died (1980).

Besides the historical significance bound to the events they commemorate, two facts make spomeniks an interesting target for curious travelers. The aesthetics of these monuments is often non banal, showing an attention to details and an artistic sensibility which is not usual to communist-ruled countries. In this sense, spomeniks sometimes stand out as very original, interesting – and pretty massive… – works of art. Secondarily, as the events they commemorate often took place in remote areas, spomeniks can be found in incredible natural spots of the former territory of Yugoslavia, immersed in the wilderness or in the middle of a gorgeous natural scenery, not easy to reach and isolated from civilization.

After the end of communism and following the secession wars of the 1990s in the Balcans, many spomeniks fell into disrepair. Today, some of them have been refurbished, while others have been completely demolished, reflecting a mixed feeling of the local population towards this artistic heritage. A good share of them has been simply left behind, gaining the typical ‘ghost aura’ of the architectures of former communist countries.

For hunters of historical relics, spomeniks are double-attractive – not only are they tangible traces of a bygone communist dictatorship with unique traits, but they stand out for their often severe appearance, like traces of a mysterious alien civilization, now long gone.

This chapter presents a handful of these monuments, which you can find along an ideal itinerary connecting the capital cities of todays republics of Montenegro, Serbia and Bosnia & Hercegovina. These are just a very small set out of the total, yet some of them are among the most famous and artistically valuable. Furthermore, they can be reached without any substantial detour from the major roads connecting Podgorica, Belgrade and Sarajevo, thus making for an interesting ‘side visit’ on your way from one of these nice cities to the next, on a cultural trip to the area. Photographs were taken in Spring 2019, during a week-long trip to the area.

If you are interested in a deeper analysis on the history and art behind spomeniks, or you are looking for a more complete directory of these monuments, please refer to this great resource site.

Map

The following map shows the detailed location of all the spomeniks listed in this post. I personally checked all of them, so the location is very precise. As you will notice, most of them are fairly easily accessible from major or paved roads. Some of them will require a little bit of walking from a parking area to the monument itself.

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Sights

Kolašin, Montenegro

This spomenik is actually a one-of-a-kind example of ‘spomen-dom’, i.e. a monument not designed just to be admired from the outside, but conceived as a building, to host meetings and services inside. The site is right in the central square of the village of Kolašin, in the southeast of Montenegro not far from the Serbian border. This town has been a vital center of the anti-fascist resistance in WWII, when the territory was first subjugated by the Italians, and later by the Germans.

The spomenik was designed and built under the supervision of the renowned architect Marko Mušič in the early 1970s. Its age is especially reflected in the use of gray concrete for most of the visible structure. The triangular shape dominating the highest part of the building may recall the typical shape of the traditional houses built in the area – chalet-type, with a triangular roof – or even the tops of the Dinaric Alps all around.

Being a building more than a monument, this spomenik is rather big. Today, the village is an active skiing center, thanks to the great position in the mountains. The spomenik is being used for administrative functions, and blends effectively in the central square of the village. Yet its appearance is today so-so, and maintenance is clearly not enough to preserve it for long. As a matter of fact, inspite of the architectural value which gained it a place in books of architecture, a long future for this spomenik is reportedly not assured.

Getting there and moving around

The spomenik is easily reachable right in the city center of Kolasin, a small town with some up-to-date touristic structures for the winter season – the location is really gorgeous. Free parking all around the central square. You can walk around the spomenik without restriction, but stepping inside is possible only compatibly with the local administrative functions.

Berane, Montenegro

Possibly one of the most elaborated spomeniks, the monument in Berane was built on the spot of an ancient Turkish fortress, now totally gone, in a secluded location immersed in a forest close to this contended town. In the close vicinity of the spomenik, nine students suspected of being part of the resistance were executed by the Italians in 1941. The town of Berane changed hands several times during WWII, and it is estimated that about 6’000 people were killed in the area in the military and para-military actions over the war years.

The spomenik, designed by the Serbian designer Bogdan Bogdanović, was inaugurated in 1977 on a small grassy field, a really nice spot in the forest. It is mainly composed of a more than 50 ft tall conical dome, with a number of massive dark stone slabs delimiting a regular curved perimeter around it. These slabs are carved with interesting symbolic ideograms, telling – among other things the story – of a local clan.

Today, despite its relative remoteness with respect to the town center, the place is actively maintained, frequented by the locals, and in a definitely good shape. Thanks to the secluded position, as well as to the inscriptions in a fantastic archaic language, this spomenik is very mysterious and particularly fascinating – it resembles a megalithic alignment, or a setting from the Lord of the Rings!

Getting there and moving around

The spomenik in Berane cannot be approached by car directly. You will need to face a steep climb uphill on a well-prepared and maintained trail. A 10 minutes walk uphill is needed for a well-trained person. The location has been used for local concerts and commemorations, and is carefully maintained as a park area.

Ostra, Serbia

This spomenik was built on the site of a battle which took place between opposing factions of locals – some of them collaborating with the Axis forces – in 1943. This was just an episode in the larger confrontation between these groups, taking place in the area of the nearby center of Cacak. Notably, the soviet Red Army contributed to the struggle in the last stages of the Axis occupation period, obviously on the side of the local communist partisans.

The monument, designed by Miodrag Živković and Svetislav Licina, was inaugurated in 1969, and was composed of a concrete slab with an inscription in Cyrillic, and a perspective leading to the focal point of the spomenik – an abstract aluminum sculpture, with a sober appearance, pointing diagonally towards the sky. By looking closely to this monument, you can see stylized human faces in the side of it. The metal sculpture is located on top of a hill, with a very scenic view of the surrounding hills.

Despite the metal sculpture being today still in a fairly good condition, the original appearance of the site has been heavily altered by the building an Orthodox church between the concrete commemorative stone and the prominent sculpture. This happened around 2010. Strangely enough, at the time of my visit the church was not open, with parts of furniture provisionally stored ahead of the main door, giving a bad sense of neglect.

Clearly, a church built right in the middle of the spomenik area means that there is not a particular good feeling about this monument. Also the inscriptions by the entrance of the perspective are largely spoiled, with many letters now missing. Yet somebody put flowers by the metal sculpture, which is not heavily spoiled by writers.

All in all, despite the bad general shape and the strong alteration, the location dominating the area and the imposing, sober appearance of the aluminum part is particularly suggestive, and makes for good photo opportunities.

Getting there and moving around

Accessing this spomenik is rather easy. The road reaching the top of the hill is a local asphalt road, which does not pose any special difficulty. Close to the church there is a small parking area, and the metal monument can be reached from there walking on a flat, open grassy area.

Kragujevac, Serbia

What you can find in Kragujevac is not just one spomenik, but a huge and very nice city park with several monuments scattered around. Construction of this park was started by an official decree back in the early 1950s, on the site of the major massacre of Kragujevac. This bloody episode is one of the worst suffered by the civilian population in occupied Yugoslavia, when by the order of the Nazi governors, more than 2’300 from the local population – selected based on race, political views or religion – were systematically killed in a field. The general governor of Yugoslavia responsible for issuing the order – which can be traced back to the German OKW in Wünsdorf – was later trialled for this in Nürnberg after WWII.

The park is still today very well-kept, interdicted to road traffic and only open for walking. Several spomeniks can be found scattered over the park, together with a museum dedicated to the massacre close to the main road access. One of them, and likely the oldest, is the monument called ‘Pain and Defiance’, dating from 1959.

The most famous, and one of the most internationally well-known, is dedicated to pupils and teachers killed in the massacre. It was designed by architect Miodrag Živković in a distinctive ‘V’-shape, about 25 ft tall and 45 long. Despite looking granite, it is made of almost-white concrete. On the face of the monument, it is possible to spot the shapes of human faces and figures. This monument was inaugurated in late 1963.

Located on a gentle slope on the side of a grassy valley, this spomenik occupies a really nice and quiet spot. The nice and peaceful walk leading to it encourages remembrance.

Getting there and moving around

The park is a very well-kept city park, crossed by a few roads which are interdicted to general traffic – basically no cars can enter, I guess these roads can be accessed by car only on special commemorations or similar occasions. Parking is easy close to the museum – itself a rather distinctive construction. A big map of the site can be found on a post close to the parking area (see pics above), and several signs allow you to tour the park, meeting the many monuments according to your interests. Reaching the ‘V’-shaped monument from the main access involves a 10-15 minutes walk along a perfectly prepared road.

Kosmaj, Serbia

Possibly one of the most iconic of all spomeniks, the Kosmaj monument is located on top of a hill, and partly visible from quite a distance, emerging from the treetops. The location was chosen as the foundation site of the Kosmaj partisan detachment, who contributed substantially to the resistance efforts against German occupation forces, with thousands effectives killed or wounded.

The monument was designed by sculptor Vojin Stojić, and unveiled in 1971.

The sinister shape of this monument, looking like an alien creature landed on top of the hill, on an isolated spot far from civilization, may strongly appeal to hunters of weird places. What further adds to the ‘mystery aura’ of the place is the fact that, while generally not in a bad shape and far from rotting, the monument appears somewhat forgotten – far from everything, little maintained or looked after.

Another impressive feature which is rarely captured by photographs, is that this object is about 90 ft tall! Access is via a poorly maintained stair, or by a little longer access walkway. Getting closer, you have a clearer impression of its gigantic size. The five concrete pinnacles composing the monument and making for a spiky whole from the distance, are actually separated from each other. The monument appears to change shape continuously as you walk around and under it, making it very interesting to watch from different angles.

Considering the remote, silent location, the late evening time of my visit, and the wind blowing in the trees, this was possible the most mysterious and magnetic of the spomeniks I could see on this trip!

Getting there and moving around

Due to its size and prominence, the Kosmaj spomenik was conceived as the focal point of an area for war commemorations, as well as for more widely themed social events. The area on top of the hill comprises a football field, a playground and parking areas. All this today is far less used than in the communist era, and its ‘ghost appearance’ adds greatly to the mystery aura of the place. The spomenik can be accessed along a one-way loop road, going around the top of the hill. Today you can freely get access to this road and get very close to the spomenik with your car. The monument can be finally reached via a poorly maintained, short concrete staircase, or via a longer walkway. I would say access is of course very easy. The location is also reasonably close to Belgrade, with a modern highway connecting the area with the Serbian capital city.

Avala, Serbia

This monument stands out of the crowd of the Yugoslavian spomeniks for it is not built to commemorate an event of WWII, but instead it remembers the fatal crash of a passenger flight, which occurred in approach to Belgrade. The year was 1964, and the flight was carrying 22 Soviet war veterans, who had participated in the ‘Liberation war’ of Yugoslavia against the Germans, from Moscow to a commemoration ceremony to be held the following day. The cause of the accident was never clearly determined, but it was likely due to a technical mishap.

The bronze spomenik you can see today was designed by sculptor Jovan Kratohvil on the very location of the crash, and inaugurated in 1965 on the first anniversary of the fatal accident. The names of the war veterans who perished are recorded on a stone.

This monument is more modest in size than most famous spomeniks, and the good quality of materials, its proportion and the great view over the hills leading to Belgrade – the famous Avala tower, with its famous panoramic deck, is less than a mile from here – make for a very nice and scenic ensemble. Furthermore, the mint state of conservation is really noteworthy.

Getting there and moving around

This spomenik can be reached along the same loop road going to the Avala WWI memorial and to the Avala tower with its panoramic view. There is a small parking nearby, and access is via a short staircase which is already part of the monument. The monument is well cared for, and the area is rather busy with local and international tourists.

Kadinjača, Serbia

The scenic spot where this extensive monumental ensemble has been arranged was the setting of one of the first battles between the partisan army – a group called the ‘Workers’ Battalion’ – and the German Wehrmacht. The latter was trying to reach the town of Užice, giving shelter to the top ranking staff of the Liberation army, including Marshal Tito. The battle was finally lost by the partisans in 1941, but they allowed the local population and the partisan commanders to flee the area, before the Germans troops poured in.

The area of the final fight was selected for a national monument as soon as 1952. A plain obelisk was put in place. Years later, in 1979, a huge monument designed by Miodrag Živković was unveiled at the presence of Tito, with a huge crowd attending.

The plan of the monument has its focus in the old prismatic monument of 1952. Around it, an interesting ensemble was added in 1979, with an amphitheater on one side, and two sets of granite and concrete abstract sculptures on the other.

A first group of sculptures, with very stylized human faces emerging from the sides and on top of the stones, constitute a first circle.

A second group is made of massive white slabs, culminating in one loosely resembling an armor pierced by a bullet. The installation is about 300 ft long, and the ‘pierced armor’ piece is about 45 ft tall. Yet the group is well proportioned and blends perfectly in the panorama around it.

The great state of conservation is testified by a modern multi-language placard with explanations about the history of the place. The spomenik is complemented by a museum and by a few weapons permanently displayed outside – themselves a memorial of the battle fought in the area.

This is a popular tourist destination, on the road going to nearby Visegrad (in Bosnia & Hercegovina), with its famous ancient Ottoman bridge.

Getting there and moving around

This spomenik is difficult to miss, visible from quite afar and perfectly accessible from a major road. Extensive parking ahead of the museum. Walking around does not pose any particular difficulty.

Tjentište, Bosnia & Hercegovina

Really an iconic masterpiece in the panorama of Yugoslav spomeniks, the monument in Tjentište benefits also from the fantastic location in the mountain range marking the border between Bosnia & Hercegovina and the republic of Montenegro. The proportions of the scenic views of this mountainous area are really more typical to the Americas than Europe!

This famous ‘winged’ monument is located on the area of a bloody battle fought in spring 1943, when the Axis force attacked some partisan groups commanded directly by Marshal Tito, in a deliberate attempt to kill their commander, hoping that in so doing they would succeed in undermining the rebel force. In the ensuing battle of Sutjeska around 7’000 besieged partisans were killed, but Tito finally was able to escape the area.

This battle acquired a special, almost mythological meaning in the history of communist Yugoslavia. A first commemoration stone – actually a mass grave for some thousands partisans – was put in place already in 1958, whereas the huge spomenik you see today, designed by Miodrag Živković, was unveiled in 1971 at the presence of Tito, who reportedly put much personal attention on the realization of this very monument.

The two massive concrete wings are enriched by human faces, only sketched and arranged so to form the roots of the wings themselves. Looking closely, you realize that the two monoliths are different from one another. Furthermore, their irregular, strongly 3D shape makes them look different depending on the point of view.

The monument is located half way on an ascending slope. Going further uphill you meet a termination point of the perspective, where the names of several partisan brigades are recorded. Looking down to the wings, you see them taking yet another shape!

This monument blends really well with the majestic scenery around. While being a sober and proportioned work of art, it is at the same time massive and sinister. The ensemble is really an artistic masterpiece, yet it bears some authentic ‘Yugoslav-communist style’ marker, making it a somewhat paradoxical ‘official communist ghost’!

On the side of the perspective leading to the winged monument, there is another spomenik – actually a ‘spomen-dom’ – which is known for hosting commemoration inscriptions and rare war-themed artistic frescoes, which were unfortunately damaged in the 1990s wars.

While in the years of Tito this was one of the most visited national monuments in the Country, its fame went down dramatically with the end of communism and with the following wars of secession, which struck heavily in this uninhabited valley reaching to ill-fated Sarajevo. With this in mind, the main perspective and the winged monument are surprisingly well kept, and they are gaining further popularity among relic-hunters, thanks to the undeniable charm of this spomenik. There are reportedly several other less prominent spomeniks in the area of the 1943 battle, including the ‘spomen-dom’, but unfortunately I had not the chance to investigate further about their state of conservation.

Getting and there and moving around

Getting there is possible along a national road going from Sarajevo to central Montenegro. Free parking is available at the base of the perspective leading to the winged monument. Getting closer to the latter involves climbing a flight of stairs. To get to the far end of the perspective you will need to climb another conspicuous flight of stairs. The winged spomenik is very well kept, and the area is really scenic – today it is a national park -, really justifying a detour from Sarajevo, or choosing this road to go to Montenegro from the Bosnian capital city.

Obadov Brijeg, Montenegro

This spomenik is an example of smaller designs, which constitute the majority of these monuments around former Yugoslavia.

The ‘bird-like’ monument in Obadov Brijeg, not far from the famous Orthodox monastery of Ostrog – built in the side of a mountain ridge nearby -, commemorates the victorious fight against the retreating Germans in fall 1944 of a coordinated force of local partisans troops, British artillery and Allied aircraft.

The spomenik was designed by the renowned architect Slobodan Vukajlović, and unveiled in 1974.

Unfortunately, as of today, this small monument appears little respected – mostly used as a roadside dump by travelers.

Getting there and moving around

Totally easy to reach if you are traveling north on the M18 road. The site is immediately visible when passing by, it is easily accessible thanks to a small rest area nearby, but unfortunately not well maintained and even dangerous to come close to, due to the garbage around it.

Golubovci, Montenegro

This monument by the local architect Vukota Tupa Vukotic was erected in 1974 close to the airport of Podgorica, the capital city of Montenegro, which received the name of Titograd in the years of communist Yugoslavia. This happened in recognition of its sacrificial role in the years of WWII, when after the Germans took over control of the area conquered by Italians, following the end of fascism in Italy in 1943, the city was stricken by heavy Allied aerial bombing, causing its almost complete destruction.

Podgorica was strategically located along a communication route going to the occupied territories of Albania and Greece, and for this reason the German Army was particularly present in the area – thanks to the airbase already in place in WWII. As a result, attrition with local partisans caused further casualties.

The monument commemorates the action of the partisans in the area. The abstract sculpture is sober and well proportioned. Besides the focal point – the sickle-shaped object in the middle of the construction – there are metal panels with a more traditional iconography, portraying battle scenes, as well as writings and tombstone-like stone panels.

The ensemble is located in residential area very close to the airport, and is actively maintained, so it has a sober, not derelict aspect.

Getting there and moving around

Very easy to reach along a major local road on the western side of the airport. Parking nearby is easy, and there are no major obstacles impeding access. The monument is well-kept and cared after.

Barutana, Montenegro

This spomenik honors the many losses experienced by the population from the area west of Podgorica in the Balcan wars, WWI and WWII. Three distinct monuments based on the same design are located on the side of an ascending path, leading to a double terrace on top of the monument.

Half of the double terrace features a full-scale amphitheater, with small granite seats forming a nice ensemble. The focal point of the double terrace is a torch-like sculpture about 30 ft tall, made of several separated adjoining components.

Between the torch-shaped sculpture and the amphitheater there is a stage. The object was created for meeting purposes, especially for schools but more generally for social events. Traces of the lighting for night performance can be still be seen.

This nice ensemble was completed in 1980 after a five-years-long construction work. The design is due to the local architect Svetlana Kana Radević.

Unfortunately, the place is not maintained any more, and while still in a relatively good shape – sufficiently far from downtown Podgorica to be spared misuse and vandalism – it is apparently falling into oblivion. This adds to the ‘communist ghost’ aura of the place, which you can perceive also in plain sunlight!

Getting there and moving around

This spomenik can be spotted from the road going from Podgorica to the coast. It is located immediately on the side of the road, but the only feature you see when driving by is the torch-like monument – vegetation is hiding the base of the monument. There are three small access roads, and once there you find a large parking area. The monument is not degraded – no garbage around – but it is clearly in need of restoration works. The stairway gently ascending to the top terraces are consumed and will be soon unserviceable.

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