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Brutal Socialist-era Yugoslavian Monuments – the Spomenik

In the friendly, disputatious, sometimes fatalist, Adidas-tracksuit-wearing nations that make up the former Yugoslavia, “spomenik” simply means “monument”. Futuristic, modernist, and concrete, this page is an explanation and guide to the most brutal set of memorials anywhere on the planet – “The Spomenik”.

Articles about the land formerly known as Yugoslavia often stray towards themes of war, economic struggle, decaying infrastructure, and brutal grey “communist architecture“. It seems almost too easy, slipping into these hackneyed motifs, when writing about modern day Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, or Slovenia. Of course, any contemporary allegory of the former Yugoslavia wouldn’t be complete without contrasting mentions of splendid natural beauty, and tales of the charming locals.

However, these are the Spomenik. They are indeed Yugoslavian monuments and memorials to war, tragedy, hope, unity, and resistance. They actually are located in a formerly Socialist land, built under the rule of a man rudimentarily referred to as “the benevolent dictator of a Communist nation”, and, well, they’re mostly grey, concrete, and in a state of beautiful crumbling decay. And often, they do exist in spectacular surroundings, and you’ll usually find a charming local on hand to guide you there. So, really it’s impossible to talk about these Spomenik, without tip-toeing very closely to some of the more well-trodden Yugoslavian tropes.

Within my personal long-term travel journey, now encompassing over sixty countries during the course of four years, it’s been difficult to escape the former Yugoslavia – these days referred to as “the Balkans”. I’ve got to know this place. And, after intermittently visiting these monuments within this over-arcing journey, I’ve learned they’re far more than just an incredible collection of futuristic architectural brutalism.

These Spomenik (literally, monuments) represent the ironic contradictions of the former Yugoslavia. They’re reminders of an unspeakably painful past, and an uncertain future. Physically, they’re bold, concrete, and heavy. Conceptually, they’re even heavier. Built at locations of immense tragedy, representing death, victory, unity, and peace, they’re often edifices that recall deep pain and the absolute worst of humanity.

 

Yugoslavian monuments - communist architecture three fists nis
Three Fists Monument at Bubanj Memorial Park, Niš, Serbia, designed by Ivan Sabolić, 1963. Located in Bubanj Park, site of the execution of more than 10,000 Serbian citizens. The three concrete clenched fists rising from beneath the earth represent the men, women, and children defying the enemy.
Bubanj Memorial Park, Niš, Serbia - yugoslavia monument
Bubanj Memorial Park, Niš, Serbia. Motif indicating the thousands of people who were systematically murdered by German execution squads. Serbs, Gypsies (Roma) and Jews were killed, buried, and then finally the bodies of the corpses were dug up and burned in an attempt to remove traces of the atrocities committed here. Ivan Sabolić, 1963.

 

Located all over the former Yugoslavia, the series of monuments are reminders of a past that for some people is best forgotten, and for others, cherished and yearned-for. In some ways they’re outdated, in others, perpetually relevant. They’re rough, but sculptured and beautiful. Sad faces, at a happy wedding. Adidas tracksuits, at cocktail parties. Over-achieving high-schoolers, slathering ketchup on a slice of pizza, folding it in half, smoking a cigarette, and washing it all down with their uncle’s home-made Rakija. To understand the historical intention of these monuments, the events they recall, and their lack of firm place in the modern-day psyche of the region – is to understand the lands, and the people, that they exist among. The monuments, are unapologetically Yugoslavian.

No, they’re not all abandoned, despite what every – article – ever – written – on – this – subject – may – say. The Ilinden (Makedonium) Monument in Kruševo, Macedonia, contains a small museum inside, and is currently being renovated and re-painted on the outside. The Jasenovac Flower Monument in Croatia rests in fairly landscaped and well-kept surroundings, and also has a nearby museum. Perhaps the “abandoned” angle fits a well-worn media-narrative of this region, but it doesn’t always reflect the truth.

 

socialist yugoslavian communist monument krusevo macedonium
Even the most nerdly fans of concrete socialist Yugoslavian monuments, have girlfriends. Phillipa (and Emma) at the Ilenden Makedonium monument, Krusevo, Macedonia. Jordan Grabuloski and Iskra Grabuloska, 1974.

 

It’s true, these Spomenik are somewhat forgotten. And sure, the usual throwaway media descriptions like “alien” and “appearing to be from the future”, are indeed accurate. Even the more melodramatic characterisations including “melancholy” and “haunting” would be acceptable. The monuments are reasonably well known, due to the large number of articles that continue to re-circulate through the internet. But, the photos are usually stolen, the paragraphs are regurgitated, the authors have rarely visited these sites, and despite all the mentions of Yugoslavia, nobody really knows where they all are.

So, here’s a map of the socialist-era Yugoslavian monuments (spomenik).

Zoom out, and you can see exactly where the monuments are located. This isn’t every Yugoslavian-era monument, it’s a curated map showing the precise location of monuments that fit the brutalist/modernist aesthetic. Each marker contains links to more information.

 

Yugoslavia during this time was led by Josip Broz Tito, a revolutionary who dominated the nation for the decades leading to his death in 1980. Predominantly initiated at a federal level, but often financed by local communities, the memorials were built to remember the tragedy and valor of war, frequently, with relevance to the “The Partisans” – Europe’s most effective anti-Axis resistance group that Tito led throughout World War II. During the 1960’s and 1970’s, Spomenik were built all over the country – cities, villages, mountain-tops – usually, at the actual location where the events being remembered took place.

Internationally acclaimed architects and sculptors were employed to conceptualise the monuments, designed to forge a purpose of national unity. Yugoslavia was created from disparate cultural groups – and although it’s common for people who lived through Tito’s Yugoslavia to look back with nostalgic fondness – a young nation comprised of ethnic diversity with differing strata and purpose, will always have more than a few teething problems.

It would be a mistake to characterise this endeavour as being typical of a totalitarian, communist, or socialist government. Although fairly seen as propaganda-ish, the concept of memorialising events of war, or promoting nationalism, was not unique to the East, the West, to Socialism, Capitalism, or Communism. Yugoslavia did precisely what every other country around the world did – local communities built memorials and monuments to certain chosen events of war, sacrifice, and peace, and fans of brutalist architecture rejoiced.

Uniquely, Yugoslavia employed a futurist architectural aesthetic – the beautiful abstract designs and concrete construction were an antithesis to the more typical figurative bronze statues used throughout history. In real life, they’re simply breath-taking.

 

Kosmaj Monument spomenik
Kosmaj Monument, Serbia (former Yugoslavia), 1970.

 

It’s taken me several years to visit just a small number of these Yugoslavian monuments. As you can tell, this isn’t a serious commitment. They’re just a thing to see as I’m travelling through the former Yugoslavia. During my time in the Balkans, I’ve become attached to larger cities like Belgrade, Serbia, and smaller places like Ohrid, Macedonia and Kotor, Montenegro. In Sarajevo, I’ve listened to the stories of an expert on the 1990’s Balkan Wars – describing his personal life living inside the city during the longest modern-day city-siege on the planet. Surrounded by death and destruction, bullets and bombs incessantly raining down from the surrounding hills, he had the ironic revelation that life wasn’t so bad. Similar tales were told to me by people who lived through the NATO bombing in Belgrade.

However, a homeless man, a veteran of war, showed me his war-injuries in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, inside an abandoned Bank Tower – used during times of war as a sniper-den. Several times, he mentioned to me that he wasn’t suicidal, but that he really just wants to die, seeing death as the only option to relieve the pain caused by his memories.

These stories, and there are many more, helped me to slowly piece together an understanding of a complicated, and often quarrelsome (to put it mildly) region. I’ve learned the historical events behind the Spomenik – wars, battles, concentration camps, resistance, hope, mass-murder – and the contemporary reasons that explain why some Spomenik are vandalised, left to decay, or even destroyed, whilst others are actively maintained and preserved.

In each case, I came for the concrete, and I walked away with another lesson of the region. Importantly, these are lessons that can be applied universally – the architecture of the monuments may be unique, but tumultuous history is common with every region of the planet. Suffice to say, the complexities of the stories behind each Spomenik are well beyond the scope of a simple blog post.

 

Ilinden Makedonium Monument spomenik
Inside the Ilinden (Makedonium) Monument, Krusevo, Macedonia.
partisan cemetary mostar
Partisan Memorial Cemetery in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Built in 1965 to honor the local Yugoslav Partisans who died during World War II.
podgaric spomenik moslavina
Yugoslavian monument or “spomenik” dedicated to the World War II revolution in Moslavina. Located in Podgaric, Croatia. Constructed in 1967, designed by Dušan Džamonja.
Monument Moslavina yugoslavia spomenik
Detailed view of the Monument Moslavina in Podgaric, Croatia.
Jasenovac Flower Monument
Jasenovac Flower Monument, Bogdan Bogdanović, 1966. Built at the site of the Jasenovac concentration camp – an extermination camp established by the Croatian Ustaše regime during world war two. The primary goal of the camp was murder. Debate continues with regards to the actual number of predominantly Serbian prisoners that were brutally executed by the Croatians. In 1946 the Croatian State Commission estimated that 500,000 – 600,000 murders had occurred here. Indeed, Jasenovac was one of the largest concentration camps in Europe, and the only camp in the Third Reich dominated Europe in which Nazi’s were not directly involved. The Serbian prisoners (as well as Jews, Roma/Gypsies, and local Croatians who were opposed to their Ustaše regime) were detained in cruel and inhumane conditions by the Croatian authorities, and this deplorable site became known as “the Auschwitz of the Balkans”.
Jasenovac Flower spomenik Yugoslavian monuments
Detail of the concrete – Jasenovac Flower Monument, Bogdan Bogdanović, 1966.

 

As a long-time fan of brutalism, the architecture is what initially attracted me to these monuments – and I dare say the few tourists that visit are also there for the concrete, not the history lesson. Sure, around the world the popularity of the brutalist architectural style continues to bubble, as it has for several decades now, with an adherent set of fans. However, most of the Spomenik remain unpopular, with international tourists and locals alike. The fascinating mid-century Yugoslavian monuments are usually deserted.

Remote locations, cities, spectacular natural settings, winding mountain roads – these monuments make a great set of pin-points for an incredible road-trip. It’s unlikely that you will ever see them all, indeed only the most time-rich and completest lovers of brutalist architecture or Yugoslavian history ever would. So, in the spirit of free-style travel, the map above is accurate for each Spomenik location, and the pop-up info includes notes and links to other sources. No suggested routes are offered, roll your own adventure.

Like all good things, the Yugoslavian monuments are not going to last forever.

Nate.

PS, It’s been over three years since I visited my first Spomenik, in Nis, Serbia, and my most recent visit was just a couple of weeks ago in Macedonia. New readers to Yomadic – I’m currently on a long-term journey that began in July 2012 – travelling and living from a 35 litre backpack, using a single camera with one non-zoom lens, and visiting over sixty countries so far. 

During this time, I’ve discovered two parts of the world that remain my favourite – Eastern and South Eastern Europe, and Iran. In both of these areas, I’ve provided small-gang “untours” to bring these regions to people from all over the planet. You can read about any upcoming tours by clicking this link, I hope you can join me.

Yomadic remains ad-free, independent, personal, and non-sponsored. If you enjoyed his page, sharing is the best way you can help me. I prefer word-of-mouth over a drink or two, but social media is also a great way to share. And, if you would like to receive the next update via email (hopefully, this won’t be the last time you check out Yomadic, because I know you’ll enjoy what’s coming next), join the thousands of people who already know that my email followers are my favourite followers, just pop your email address in below. Spam free, one-click unsubscribe, and you’ll have a direct line through to me.

yugoslavian monuments map
Detail from the back cover of a circa-1978 collectible sticker album, showing a more complete map of the many Yugoslavian monuments of varying styles.. Photo courtesy of “Jakob” from Germany.

27 thoughts on “Brutal Socialist-era Yugoslavian Monuments – the Spomenik

  1. Excellent piece! I unfortunately didn’t get to see any of these monuments when I was in the area but am planning on going back sooner than later to visit a couple, especially the one in Tjentiste!
    Thanks for sharing! Greetings from Berlin, Seb

  2. Thanks for this post, Nate. It did give me a new perspective on the Spomenik as they’re not just monuments to the glory of Communism and Socialism, but they were built also to signify events which left profound mark on the local people. Kosmaj Monument particularly looks very atmospheric, futuristic, and utopian. Indonesia saw a fair share of Soviet-style brutalist monuments constructed in the early 1960s as Jakarta was a close ally of Moscow. So I have those structures to look up the next time I explore the city.

  3. Hi Nate. Wonderful stuff and terrific photographs. The spomenik always leave me full of awe, but also full of melancholy. Beautiful yet largely unloved.
    I wonder whether you have seen A Second World? A fantastic short film (18 minutes) that is moving, touching, fascinating and quirky all at once. This is the ‘official’ blurb: “An old Serbian man communicates with a galaxy of communist aliens whilst a series of futuristic Yugoslavian war monuments stand abandoned & crumbling across a non-existent state. Nostalgia for the unrealised & the unreal simmers in these parallel visions of Yugoslav utopia lost.”

    I love it and hope you do too.

    All the best, Murray.

  4. Hey Nate,

    Typing this from the Tokyo Conrad hotel lounge. 4 nights here, freeeee :-)

    I need to get my tickets to Iran at some point, my return trip is taken care of…

    Love these pics, there is something about these Soviet structures that always fascinated me…like North Korea!

    See you

    1. Wassup G! Yes, you will need to get your Iran tickets… and BTW, just a technicality, but none of these are “Soviet”… however, I agree, I’m totally fascinated by these structures, as well as comparable Soviet and North Korean monuments. So cool.

  5. You’re upset by how everyone claims that they are abandonned or forgotten, but on the other hand you say that you’ve mapped them all… good luck and sory to tell you, but not even close!
    Just don’t pretend such stuff, especially not to blame others without being by any kind better.
    Here a map on the back of a 1978 sticker-collecting-album for students, with 252 monuments in it. Not all of them are of the famous type but neither have you listed all of those on your map.

    Apart from that I loved this page, it is the best I have seen on the Yugoslavian monuments.

    1. Jakob, even though your comment reflexively prompted me to think “wow, there really are some strange people on this planet”, and even though we now live in this high-tech-era of interactive-online-mapping, dear Jakob, your comment has indeed left me wondering why I don’t just throw this entire blog away and concentrate on a new life of making sticker-collecting-albums.

      Damn you Jakob.

  6. Dear Nate, this is a wonderful article and thank you so much for putting so many on a detailed map – as you point out, visiting all of them is a big job but your map is a great starting point. I’m assuming you visited most of these using your own transport, have you had any experience of picking up a hire car in one Balkan country and driving it through the others or do you think it is less hassle to hire separate cars in each country – any advice would be appreciated. Thanks, Mark

    1. Hi Mark – almost all of them I have visited, have been with my own transport (I had a car here in Europe at one point – you can find the posts on this page: https://yomadic.com/tag/road-trip/).

      As for hiring a car, it’s easy. You do need to ensure that the rental agreement includes that the can be taken to “non-EU” countries (such as Serbia and Macedonia). Kosovo is sometimes a problem as far as rental-car companies are concerned. But, in general, it’s easy enough to find a car in any country that can be rented and taken to any other country. The alternative is catching public transport between the major cities, and renting a car in each city. I would lean towards renting a car for a week or two, and creating your own “circuit” to follow.

      Either way, good luck!

  7. Nate,

    As I am learning to walk again, I get encouraged by your unscheduled postings. There is joy in not knowing when a “Nate Post “Arrives!

    I said this before and it bears repeating: your skill set in photography keeps getting better or you have come to the point of being a razor’s edge in defining your shot taking. When you reach execellence, it then becomes transcendant.

    I do hope you find a place to stay for several months, you and Phillipa settle. And together you put together a book or series of books that are not travelogues of trips but travelogues of human spirit. Of you, yours and the amazing folks who you come in contact with.

    Be well,

    Laurence

    1. Hey Laurence – first up, I hope the recovery is going as well as expected, and that you get back to “normal”.

      Second, thanks for the compliments, it means a lot. Third, wow, you are reading my mind – I’m really having quite an internal dialogue right now about finding a base for several months. It’s a really tough decision, and I know it’s going to happen at some stage, but I just can’t say when. Could be tomorrow, could be next year, could be in decades from now. But, if that is my main problem in life, I feel very fortunate indeed.

      Take care buddy.
      Nate

  8. Thanks for the post. Excellent information. I enjoyed the ’78 sticker album of all the monuments. Particularly when you realize that the country doesn’t exist any more. Keep up the good work.

  9. Wow these are really quite special, I especially love the photo of the Kosmaj Monument in the fog it looks so mysterious and alien like. I had no idea these existed so thank you for bringing these works of art to my attention!

  10. I find nothing fascinating about these. Symbols of extreme oppression, of an ideology that destroys countries and drives them in civil war and misery. Communism is the death of a stable society, prosperity, personal freedom, and creativity. The latter, I think, is very well represented in these monuments, which are of a depressing concrete grey, left in decay, as communist societies are by their own leaders, who spend all the money they confiscated from their citizens in propaganda, and building monuments like these, which are the embodiment of useless, while the society starves and stagnates in abject poverty. Disgusting.

    PS: I’m not accusing the author of anything, these are simply my thoughts.

  11. Hi,

    I lived several years in former yugoslavia. On the picture from Bubanj Memorial Park in Niš there is more or less something written, that people for who the monument was build could feel insulted aboit. Smrt komunizmu, which means death to communism. Considering that communist troops freed this area itis a very bad statement.
    Communism was the best time people in that region had so far. Also they were not too rich, at least they had peace and a better health system than capitalistic countries, because everybody had a health insurance.

    1. Thanks Chris… almost everyone I speak to from former Yugoslavia who was old enough to have lived through life under Tito, says that life was better then than under the current system. I think you’ll find the message was written by someone too young to remember those times. Thanks for you comment, I really appreciate hearing personal stories.

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