Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, Religion

SERBIA: Russians Rediscovered as Old Friends

Vesna Peric Zimonjic

BELGRADE, Mar 24 2008 (IPS) - In the world of politics there is much talk now of the “traditional friendship between Russia and Serbia”, meaning Russia’s support to Serbia over the Kosovo crisis. But close ties go back much further – Serbia became home to thousands of Russians who fled communism 90 years ago.

At the time, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was sternly anti-communist, and had no ties with Russia following the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.

About 35,000 Russians arrived by boat or train. The two nations share the same Orthodox religion, and it was not hard for newcomers to learn the language, because Serbian and Russian share the same Slavic roots.

According to records at Russian House, the large mansion in downtown Belgrade built by Russian émigrés, most newcomers were educated middle class professionals who enriched Serbia’s life with modern medicine, fine architecture and technical skills the nation lacked.

The building was opened on April 9, 1933 under the name Emperor Nikolai II (the last Russian tsar), and celebrates its 75th anniversary through this year. After World War II the centre came to be called Soviet House; after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, it became Russian House.

“In the 1930s this establishment housed the Russian Library, the Russian High School, an association of Russian painters in Serbia and a small museum on the Russian tsarist army and Tsar Nikolai II,” Valentina Kutrina, deputy manager of Russian House told IPS. “Today, we are trying to inform Serbian society on modern Russia, its achievements, and interesting events taking place in our country.”

Many Serbs are not aware of contributions made by Russian émigrés.

It was Russian architect Nikolai Krasnov who designed the classic style buildings of the foreign ministry and of the national government in the 1930s. These buildings are spoken of as the pride of Belgrade. Across the street from them is the neo-classic style Army Headquarters, also designed by Krasnov.

Russian designers made stunning decorations at the Patriarchate of Serbian Orthodox Church and at the famous cellar of the White Palace, once the home of Karadjordjevic dynasty which ruled between the two world wars, from 1918 until 1941.

It was opened to the public in 2002, after descendants of the dynasty were allowed to return in 2000 after the fall of the regime of Slobodan Milosevic.

This year Serbs are being reminded of the Russian connection. A quarter of professors at Belgrade University in the 1930s were Russian. At the medical school and agriculture school at the university, half the lecturers at the time were from Russia.

“Russian émigrés also included experienced opera and ballet professionals, whose work laid the foundations for Belgrade opera and ballet between the two world wars,” says Andrei Gardenin (75), fencing champion in what used to be Yugoslavia.

But the Russian flavour did not last. After World War II, many Russians fled the communists who took over. Those who stayed found themselves in trouble in 1948 when former Yugoslav head of state Josip Broz Tito decided it was time to leave the orbit of the Soviet Union. Russians found themselves accused of being Soviet spies.

“Those were the days of two big waves of emigration, this time from Serbia,” Gardenin says. “No more than 500 ethnic Russians live in Belgrade now, as most of us have practically assimilated in the past decades through marriage with Serbs. Our children call themselves Serbs.”

Now it is mostly surnames that indicate Russian origins. Some of the more common Russian surnames in Serbia are Cernisevski, Kolesnikov, Krasnov, Kolubajev, Orlov, Stukalo, Uspenski or Ivanjicki, Visacki, Sekicki. A leading contemporary Serbian painter is Olja Ivanjicki, of Russian origin.

For many Belgradians, the only reminder of Russian émigrés in their country is the small Russian Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity, built in the central Tasmajdan Park in 1925.

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