Bewitched by The Balkans

For MT
Yana Isakina went on a package tour to Montenegro in 2002. A year later, she quit her job in Moscow to become a professional tour guide in the former Yugoslavia. "I first came to Montenegro on holiday," Isakina said. "Someone literally dragged me to a tour to some monastery. And there it was -- mountains and the shrines. I was amazed by it."

Isakina led Russian pilgrims, professors, academicians and art historians on tours across the Balkans from 2003 to 2007, when she decided to take a break and return to Moscow. After a few months at home, however, she began working on plans to return to the region.

Isakina is one of the regulars at Yugo_ru, a LiveJournal community focusing on Russians who love the the former Yugoslavia. "I started looking for Serbs on the web who would give me books, films and folk music. I was hungry for information," Isakina said, by way of explaining how she got involved in the site. Yugo_ru's moderator, Sergei Zamuruyev, a Russian who now lives in Montenegro, says the number of subscribers has recently exceeded 750 and that it added 150 members in the last year alone. Most of the members are young, and few of them have been to the republics of the former Yugoslavia. Zamuruyev says Yugo_ru was created as a place to promote Slavic languages, announce concerts of Balkan folk bands, share experiences of visiting the Balkans and talk politics, but he adds with regret that, all discussions in the community "have tilted toward Balkan politics."

Pro-Serbian sentiment is hardly new for Russia. In the late 19th century, the Russian empire was obsessed with the "Serbian question." Hundreds of Russian officers volunteered to fight for their "Serbian brothers" and the Orthodox faith against the Ottoman Empire. Another wave of pro-Serbia sentiment flooded Russia in the early 1990s, when Yugoslavia was suffering under economic sanctions and bombing by NATO forces.

Nikita Bondarev, a scholar at the Slavic Studies Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, cites several reasons why Yugoslavia won Russian hearts. "First, there was [Josip Broz] Tito, who confronted Stalin openly," he said, referring to the long-serving Yugoslav leader. "He used to be the Soviet Union's best friend, but soon he was vilified and branded a fascist. Second, all Soviet people were desperate to get a Yugoslav set of furniture or a pair of Yugoslav boots. Of all products from Communist countries, the Yugoslav goods were the most coveted. Third, the Serbs are a nation with similar cultural and Orthodox Christian traditions." But what fostered the love for Serbia in the 1990s was media coverage, which is now widely described as biased: "You would turn on the TV and see every channel accusing the Serbs of all evil. You couldn't help but want to challenge that."

Irina Antanasijevic, a lecturer at the University of Pristina in Mitrovica and the University of Belgrade, has been living in the Balkans since 1986. She survived the bombings in the Kosovo capital of Pristina, where she taught Russian literature at the local university. "Russian media were giving either totally pathetic or a very somber picture of what was going on," she said.

Nikita Bondarev / for MT
Question Mark, a bistro in Belgrade featured in the books of Serbian author Milorad Pavic, is popular with Russian visitors.

Russians could relate to Serbia's woes in the 1990s because they shared a similar history. "Like the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia was a big multinational state, where relations between nationalities were quite tense," Bondarev said. "There was an assumption that what was happening there may have as well happened in our country. We've had a lucky escape."

In 1999, Bondarev was a student of Slavic history and joined hundreds of other young Russians who rallied outside the U.S. Embassy in Moscow while NATO planes were bombing Belgrade. But, he says, he never contemplated anything more than a peaceful protest. Bondarev describes the handful of Russians who want to go fight for Kosovo today as lunatics.

Isakina says those people don't really understand the situation. "It's a Disneyland for them," she said. "They all speak about helping their 'brothers,' but they know very little about those 'brothers.' It is easier to give instructions from here how to get things right over there."

Many Yugo_ru members say it is flattering to know that Russia's affection for Serbia is reciprocal. Vlad Petrovic, whose Serbian father lived in Russia for 60 years, said, "You go to this country knowing you will be loved just because you're from where you are." Attitudes, however, are not always so simple.

"For the Serbs, Russia is like an elder brother," said Irina Antanasijevic. "And like with an elder brother, they both love us and feel jealous, look up to us and compete with us. They call for our help thinking that the elder brother must do it."

Yugo_ru subscribers meet at Serbian restaurants in Moscow for an occasional meal, which typically draws between 20 and 30 people. But Yugo_ru moderators keep their eyes open for potential problems. "We used to throw really big parties at one Serbian restaurant in Moscow," Petrovic said. "Now we've become more cautious and selective after one occasion when we found ourselves with an unpaid bill for 120,000 rubles."

One of the strangest things about modern Russian Serbophiles is that they don't like to be categorized as people who only love Serbia -- possibly because this position has been abused by radicals. "I wouldn't call myself a Serbophile," Zamuruyev said. "I'm a person who knows and loves the Balkans."

"I guess Serbophilia now is a longing for the might of a superpower," he added. "Russia is not facing any serious threats, but many people here feel an urge for self-sacrifice. When Russians borrow somebody else's nationalism and become more Serbian than the Serbs, it looks weird, to say the least. I've known a few Russians who were members of the Serbian ultra-national organization Obraz."

Irina Antanasijevic, who has been living in the former Yugoslavia for the past 22 years, says some Russians often ask her what bus to take to get to "the front line" in Kosovo. "It is sick," she said. "I'm totally against those young boys taking up arms and going to Serbia."

Many Yugo_ru members are very serious about thier study of Serbia, and they say this makes them more aware of its shortcomings. Isakina says she used to espouse very pro-Serbian views before she heard the opinions from the other parties in the conflict. "My friends from Croatia and Bosnia would share their views on what happened in the war, and I started to compare everything I heard," she said. "Dealing with the Serbs, you've got to love them as they are and turn a blind eye to a lot of things."