Events

Why the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia Collapsed the Way They Did: Reexamining Russian and Serbian Nationalism

May 14, 2003 // 12:00pm1:00pm

Staff-prepared summary of the East European Studies discussion with Veljko Vujacic, Associate Professor of Sociology, Oberlin College

The dissolution of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia began almost simultaneously and under similar circumstances, yet the outcomes of these two world events seem inexplicably diverse. While the anti-communist revolution lead to the relatively peaceful break-up of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia spiraled downwards into bloody nationalist battles in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Veljko Vujacic contends that in order to understand these different outcomes, one must focus on the nuanced meanings of patriotism and nationalism in the two countries. Quoting literature and recalling images of crucial historical events, Vujacic described the unique landscapes and distinctive political cultures of the USSR and Yugoslavia prior to their dissolution. His research zeroes in on the question of why Serbian nationalists rallied around Slobodan Milosevic in response to Yugoslavia’s imminent demise, while their Russian counterparts stood back and watched as the USSR fell in the early 1990s.

In his attempt to solve this puzzle, Vujacic pored through Russian and Serbian literature for cultural cues that affected the behavior of nationalist sympathizers. His findings reveal that Russian writers, such as Boris Pasternak (Dr. Zhivago) and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (The Gulag Archipelago), tended to portray the Russian state as the oppressor of the Russian people and thereby created a clear distinction between the Russian nation and the Russian state. Moreover, Vujacic points out that historical attempts to create a Russian nation state ultimately ended in failure. As a result, during the August 1991 coup it was seen as patriotic to oppose the hardliners, since their attempts to preserve the USSR contradicted the will of the Russian people, as revealed when Boris Yeltsin was elected.

In stark contrast to the Russian case, Vujacic characterizes Serbian nationalism as being strongly connected to Yugoslav statehood. The Serbian popular imagination perceives Serbian statehood as having been achieved through heroic sacrifice in the face of overwhelming odds, as described by Dobrica Cosic’s in Time of Death. Although the event most often used to mobilize nationalists is the fourteenth century battle for Kosovo, Vujacic outlined a succession of historical events that have been used by politicians to keep this memory alive. The effect has been that every generation of Serbs have had their own “Kosovo” battle, which made it easy for Milosevic to gain political support simply by expressing sympathy for the plight of Serbs in Kosovo, Croatia, and Bosnia. Thus, Serbs followed Milosevic into a horrific war in which soldiers hoped that their ‘heroic sacrifice’ would once again result in a strong nation state.

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Kristina N. Terzieva // Program Assistant
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant

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