I agree with the idea of your magazine – to present the contemporary female world in all its complexity. To show where we are in education, employment, what price we paid in the war. Especially where we are in this suggested public promotion of women and their roles.
To interview someone who you share beliefs with is very comfortable. You ask questions anticipating what they’re going to say, you just sit and nod. It’s even more comfortable if, like me, you’re not a professional journalist. Being more of a leftist, a lot of what Latinka Perovic has to say is not something I agree with, politically. We met in her apartment and she served us coffee and tea. On her doorstep, Katarina asked me if I was nervous- I shook my head. Rather, I was worried about a very specific thing- How do I approach a subject matter neutrally when I am definitely not neutral?
On the other hand, the Serbian left wing hasn’t been easy on this woman. I look through her bookcase, before we start, and think about if criticizing Latinka Perovic became the go-to way for many to cleanse themselves from “liberalism” and join the “new left”. I remind myself that this is not what I’m here for: “Milica” is a new women’s magazine, and our most famous female historian is someone whose story would make a great opening.
Katarina and I start recording on both our phones, and Latinka smiles. She seems curious. She never saw us before, doesn’t know what to expect. I start with a pre-prepared question. In the distance, every fifteen seconds or so, I can hear the sound of Katarina taking a photo. It soothes me, somehow.
While you were active in politics, you were often called the most powerful woman in Serbia. That might be a good place to start: how do you see that power? Can any woman in society really ever be powerful?
They said I was a powerful woman, but they still say that even though I’m just a historian now, aging, thinking about the past and the present and what people even consider to be power. In the past, while I was in politics, they probably thought the mere fact you had a high-ranking position- I was Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist League of Serbia- meant you had power.
However, I never had the power to judge someone, to influence someone’s destiny. I influenced, of course, social life and the maturing of consciousness to the fact that Yugoslav society had to change, that it was at the end of an era…maybe people consider that to be power.
They say knowledge is power, or that power is to publicly stand with the society you live in and a world in which this society can exist. For me, this wasn’t a matter of power as much as my dedication to certain issues, my attempt to speak my mind even when it leaves a sour taste in my mouth- the breakup of Yugoslavia, the wars, what caused them. What separates me from many people is I think our society is primarily responsible for these things. Of course, there isn’t a single culprit, but war has a hierarchy, a chronology, a beginning and an end, and we need to take all of this into account.
I’m very open when it comes to such things, and I try not to judge based on personal impressions.
Is it actually possible to take up such an objective position? Are our positions not always at least partially infused with personal impressions?
I think a huge problem here is that nobody talks about such big things- I advocate for such a dialogue, which means I allow my views to be criticized, and I allow myself to criticize others. What I do not allow is a reconstruction of history, I trust facts, and I don’t allow for public speech to be ad hominem- which means turning the conversation around and discrediting someones views through discrediting their personality. I never participate in such things, I make a difference between critical opinion and “word on the street” that’s used to create tension, to discredit people and values. So people think you have power but you don’t force your ideas down anyone’s throat, you speak based on your knowledge and insight, your life experience, and if people decide to take it in, then you might have influence… But it’s far from indoctrination, it’s my attempt to create a culture of dialogue and play my part in it.
There’s an ongoing discussion about your latest book (Dominant and Unwelcome Elite). You yourself tend to cause both very positive and very negative reactions to what you do or say. How easy is it to distinguish the critical, reasoned reactions from “word on the street”, when they’re negative?
The controversial reactions to my book were inevitable since our society is split in half. I have a very well defined position in this division, I believe in the historical process, I study the past and compare it’s various stages.
So of course people’s reactions were in line with this bigger division: if you’re oriented towards the developing of a modern country and society, or if you prefer a patriarchal, archaic concept; if you want an open, international culture or a closed-off, xenophobic one.
I accept this, of course, it has an effect on peoples attitudes.
So of course people from both these sides have an opinion about your work. I take everything with a grain of salt. I know both compliments and complains are conditioned, that they are often personal, I try to get to the core of what they’re questioning or encouraging.
I think the 19th century was a key period for the development of Serbian people and the state, and also key for the development of these divisions that occurred after gaining state independence.
You say the criticism you receive is due to the divisions in society that never really ceased, due to your position in these divisions?
Let it be clear – I have always been a liberal. And I wasn’t the only one. What people don’t seem to understand is that liberalism was part of the communist movement, which has to be viewed as complex – instead of a singular totalitarian movement. For one, it was full of different stages.
I dealt with the 20th century as well, the very creation of Yugoslavia, the first and second Yugoslavia. You need to take a good look at both – both were dictatorships, both went through wars in which genocides and serious crimes occurred. This is a huge burden for for the future of these societies. This is why and where these things come from, this is subject of my work.
You say communism isn’t one-sided, that it needn’t have been stalinist nor dictatorial. Both here and in the rest of the world, liberalism and communism are now considered opposites. How do you then justify, even historically, your position of liberalism being a part of communism?
There’s a difference, and people tend to forget, between communism in Western Europe and in Russia. The liberal left in the west had more radical anticapitalist ideas. In Russia this wasn’t the case. They wanted Western European socialism, and they fought for it through a revolutionary minority that got in power and then executed social revolution. So those are some differences.
Yugoslavian communism had a civil elite that had liberal aspirations. They went against the fascism of the 1930s, they adapted elements of justice and equality. Their role in the communist movement didn’t stop with winning over and distributing political power. That was one period. Then comes the period of social development, democratization, personal liberation. This is where our theoretical thought is very dogmatic. Eastern European societies are essentially peasant societies. Socialism that happened in Russia happened the way it was planned, there were no aberrations, no significant deviations. Then the liberal idea became notorious. Serbia also has a very slim liberal tradition, very slim…..It has a populist tradition, its a populist society, and that’s how it developed.
Still, there are contemporary left wing positions that say liberalism is a cause of many problems in Serbia?
You know, people tell me…I digress, I’m sorry, but they say- oh you (liberals) won…but we’ve never actually won! The people never wanted this, not in Serbia, not in Slovenia, Croatia… Tito, who won, he claimed he spoke from a position of truth, and that we liberals were just a minority of those who were against change, progress and so on.
These are all very complicated analyses, and somehow everyone seems to think they can talk about it objectively….this is what our democracy is like: everyone has a right to their own opinion. Well okay, sure, but there’s a hierarchy to opinions too. They have professional and evaluative characteristics and not all are the same. Even people from the Academy come and say: democracy is important, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. What a disaster! I’m sorry, but not every opinion is relevant. That’s populism, too.
Do you think that one of the reasons liberalism was so unpopular is its internal ambiguity: on the one hand we have liberalism in a political sense, the values of the French revolution, people’s rights and liberties, and on the other, in economic terms- liberal economy, the free market?
This is a key question you asked, and I’m glad you did. You know, these freedoms are comprehensive. The problem of our intelligence and of some people who consider themselves liberal is exactly that- you want a state economy, which means a community of production and distribution, but then includes the the state in the form of distributors. And then you want freedom, which boils down to what? To you picking and choosing who’s going to be in power. If you ask me, I’ll always say that our society is not a plural society. It is perhaps more plural than it looks, but in fact you have the power of one party, whoever is in power. These parties do not differ from one another. As someone who thinks he is enlightened, you are then faced with a situation in which you have no idea who to vote for here. Maybe one option is better than the other, but then they tell you the same things someone in their position is supposed to tell you. The question is: how will they lead the country? How will they regulate economic relations? These are the key things, you cannot create a cooperative economic life , and then have a developed parliament, court, executive and legislative power… It’s not possible.
How did you handle leaving politics? Did you take it as a defeat or do you feel your ideas have resurrected with the collapse of socialism?
It was both commonplace and dramatic since many people left politics at that time and, what’s much worse, they also left an active role in economy and culture…While you’re in politics you try and do what you can, of course, not alone, but with people. There are limits that society does not let you cross.
After I left, I was forever marked in a way, but that’s what you agreed to when you entered. You’re politically marked, but if you believe you’re doomed from the beginning then you are.
I started working on my doctorate immediately. I told myself it was just for me, just to satisfy my need, my interest, and if it ever turns out useful- great….if it doesn’t, well, then it’s just for myself. I dedicated myself to science completely. If I have a passion, it’s a passion for doing research.
I want to say one more thing about this period: there was a glorification of sorts of our participation in World War II, perhaps coming from a simplified vision of the sides that existed in that war, ignoring what should have been done after, and what could be avoided. Then came a period of criticism towards historiography, a debate about is relation to other sciences, philosophy…Through these discussions emerged an important generation of historians. It could have been different, but there was no moving away from the object. Today there is nothing to debate.
What enabled such an environment, because this is a period that you characterized as dictatorial? Compared to now, when we have a supposedly free society, and such an environment doesn’t exist anymore?
The historical romanticism of the 19th century, the mythical interpretation of history as opposed to a scientific one, preserved in socialist Yugoslavia and never really went away. Modernization started, we opened up to the world, some great debates began in world historiography, and this all influenced Yugoslavia. So I can’t say we were completely closed off from the world.
Then came the crisis of the 80’s, which was more than just a crisis, and we returned to this romantic history. We began to question the state, our status as people, our sacrificial…
How did people react to this? From experts to “ordinary people”?
We need to ask why so many young people leave this country today, and when this started. Even before the wars in the 90’s, we had the critical mass for change- these were educated people, and they showed their protest by leaving. It was, of course, a fleeting for ones life, but also a search for perspective.
This affected female population as well: before the war we had great success in the education of women, with roles they had in science, education, culture, even politics. There were more women in parliament, in social and political organizations. The war brought this to a halt, of course, war affects women very much. Then the transition left women out of production, without a role in the economy, reduced them to their households. In some regions, especially Bosnia, they were made victims of heinous crimes, raped…
I agree with the idea of your magazine – to present the contemporary female world in all its complexity. To show where we are in education, employment, what price we paid in the war. Especially where we are in this suggested public promotion of women and their roles. As starlets, a type of good made for consumption…This all affects culture, family life…the culture of living in general. I think the achievements of the previous period were quite positive: women in war always had an enormous role in emancipatory projects. This later changed with various women’s associations. Somehow, women retreated to these more narrow, exclusively “female” questions…
Since the end of the war and up until the alleged “self-extinction” of the Women’s Antifascist Front, a woman was seen as a comprehensive being, with multiple perspectives, and the “women’s” issues were not just female, they were social issues. Women’s emancipation was a social issue. Do you think that contemporary identity politics, that treats emancipation as a female affair, actually separates women from society even further?
The Women’s Antifascist Front was a female organization, but it dealt with general issues, the struggle against fascism, the rebuilding of the country. Later, women took part in political and social life, but unfortunately the organization itself increasingly reduced to more narrow, exclusively women’s issues. The organization that succeeded the WAF, the one I came to very young, it aimed to return to a more social character. They had both men and women in leading roles. I was accepted in with some resistance, which is understandable. But we worked very well together, I was eager to learn, to listen and make suggestions based on my own sensibilities. In those four years we never had any major disagreements, but I felt even then that this was the case with only the highest ranking female members, that there was a large group of women who demanded to go back to the way things were in the Women’s Front- educational workshops in all fields, from cultural, political, to the more practical. Such programs should exit evens today, in societies like ours.
Do you think that feminist organizations – this word was avoided in Yugoslavia but retrospectively they can definitely be called such- do you think that, over time, they got further away from their basis, that feminism lost women, and women lost feminism?
I think it’s not completely a matter of separation as maybe a feeling of superiority- these organizations neglected a huge number of illiterate women, those in poor living conditions…. This contradiction is especially seen in rural areas. The position of women is always a factor in assessing the degree of modernization. To go back to the history of the 20th century and compare it to today’s conditions is very important. There are many organizations focused on war and peace, for example, they never ceased to exist. A lot of nongovernmental organizations absorb women, a lot of women are concerned with questions like war crimes, like the Women in black. There are still good examples, I’m saying. But the media shows a relevant picture of society, and they participate in disqualifying women, one half of humanity.
So would you say that, although NGOs are very important, there’s a structural inability, that unless women’s issues are not treated as social and systematic issues, the work of NGOs will be condemned to just treating the symptoms? That they’re just “patching up” instead of treating the illness at hand?
Nongovernment organizations are sometimes not very broad, not many women are engaged. For example, I hear people laugh about the Association of Breastfeeding Women. But this women have the need to organize, don’t they? I think you’re right, that we need a combination of social activities that lead to legislation in parliament and then leads to actual change. NGOs are sometimes ex cathedra and don’t work with the vast majority of women, nor can they cover everything, like the issues of wrongfully fired or exploited women… A magazine like yours that would take on some of these issues would definitely have an important role.
What are the main causes for the poor position of women in Serbia today? Do you think that part of the heritage of the Yugoslav system of equality between women and men is now rapidly collapsing? What’s causing it?
There’s no doubt that the period after World War II led to such an improvement in communist countries, regarding the position on women, in such a short period of time and in such intensity that will not be repeated anytime soon. I’m not saying it won’t happen ever agin, but definitely not soon. There’s multiple causes for this. The war in the 90’s played an important role. Women were left exposed to misfortune, violence, loss – of both property and family. Many of them don’t want to remember this period and have new lives now, but underneath there are still consequences of this very deep trauma. Then, what happened later with the economy.
They were the first to get fired, they were victims of the transition, losing jobs and the rights that came with them. The whole world disappeared suddenly.
On the other hand, I can’t say that they were immune to nationalism. They participated in the destruction that came and should not be treated as just victims. Certain women, like Mira Markovic – now that was power! Women participated in both positive and negative trends.
The 90’s are behind us. What did democracy bring to women?
Then came this illusion of rapid change, and it was really just that – an illusion. It turned out this new society valued women solely for looks and sexual traits. I remember I was invited to a TV show once, we got questions, and I took a lot of time to prepare the answers seriously. Then they gave us just 60 seconds for a response – which would have been fine if they’d told us in advance, but they didn’t. I watched the girls who interviewed us. She was completely devoted to her appearance, and even worse- we all noticed this – she was in such a rush to ask these questions as soon as possible, not to go over these 60 seconds…it was completely pointless. All these things are degrading, all these doll-like women- I don’t think there’s anything wrong with caring about your looks, to a certain extent- but to purposefully play this role, it’s degrading.
Do you think this is their individual choice? Are they able to reject such logic, if they want to keep their jobs, given that they work for market-oriented media?
It can’t be one-sided. The goal is to be liked by the audience, but I think that this world of media and propaganda is extremely important for the status of women. It affects schools, families, political parties. This is not something that came from the West. There, women are very present in society. it’s another world, that values work and education. Two years ago there were talks of secondary education becoming mandatory, here. Women are very important for this modernization of society.
You mentioned the West. How do you comment on women’s marches, such as the one organized against Trump’s administration? There’s been an obvious vulgarization of media in America, and it comes from both sides, from both Trump and his opponents?
Such populism started a long time ago, they go as far as Sarah Palin’s movements. But what makes them different than us? Something like Trump can happen to America, but then you have resistance. It might not have been expected, but that’s what happened- there are protests every single day, hundreds of thousands of people participate, it’s very clear that his actions are not in line with the values the people of America have.
The media often call you the “mother of Second Serbia”. Do you think that we’re now facing the appearance of a “Second West”, a “Second Europe”, but in the opposite sense? The refugee crisis brought the emerging of a nationalist, protective, right-wing Europe, the kind many believed would never be? Yet we have Marine Le Pen, we have a growing populist right party in Germany, we have Brexit? Is this new Europe a reaction to the failure of a multicultural, liberal one?
Those are just some reactions. I’m not that pessimistic, when it comes to the European right wing. I think the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the Cold War and what happened after too challenging and to complicated for Europe. Maybe they thought everything would be okay when communism failed. I think Europe is searching for itself. It’s expansion was a huge change, not to mention the wars, the refugees, the complicated migrations. These people that need to be taken cared of, that need to adapt, to integrate. It’s not easy for the german citizen, if he thinks this can be solved with left or right-wing extremism. On the other hand, Europe had demographic problems before, and dealt with them.
You’ve pointed out you’re a liberal.This has always entailed a certain universalist tendency. Do you think there’s an universal solution for the position of women?
What’s universal about it is that they make up half of the population. This one half of humanity cannot succumb to a subordinate position, for their own sake and for the sake of humanity. However, things have changed since the end of the nineteenth century, with voting rights , employment rights, reducing the difference in pay … I think that the situation is improving, even in the case of women of color and how much they’re represented in both political and civil organizations. So, there is a positive trend.
Do you think that universal solutions for women, such as quota policy, that do not bother with cultural specificities and characteristics of each country, do they neglect…?
I think they do. In some aspects, universality is important. But so are specifics, and we sometimes ignore them. In Yugoslavia, Slovenian people cared the most about it, they still do. On the other hand, I think it’s interesting to take a look at a woman from Kosovo, or Albania. I think it’d be interesting to see some research comparing them to Serbian women, I don’t dare say what it would tell us, but I have a thought. I think Albanian women have evolved greatly, through education, and we know very little about it. Even though their environment is very patriarchal, the progress i incredible. Participating is social life is a step away from the patriarchy. It’s also worth noting, while I worked in the Conference, only one woman, Albanian, was married to a Serbian man. Even then! The changes that happened then were appropriate to the environment – literacy courses, education… It’s different today, with compulsory schooling things have been going faster.
Fifty years ago, for the first issue of Bazar magazine, you said: “A woman is often approached as incomplete. But she is both a worker, an expert, and interested in fashion, interior design, cosmetics… family, child care…”. We’d like to ask you the same question what kind of women’s magazine do we need?
A person should do what they can. I really do think education is crucial. And social engagement- like you said, a fight for basic rights, a fight against discrimination. I think the upbringing of a female child is also very important, it’s important they understands from the beginning that they are human beings with equal opportunity. It’s crucial to change this idea that a woman is somehow radically different, predetermined for a subordinate role… I can tell you that I have never in my life, not in science, not in politics, felt like I was held back by my gender.
Did you ever feel like it benefits you?
I must admit I’ve never been asked this.
Maybe it did….Maybe there was a time when someone thought- We’ll send her, young, from a woman’s organization…Although it’s questionable if that would be beneficial at all. I never felt it, and I have to say it would have bothered me if I knew I got somewhere just for being a woman.
Try to be equal.