And The Winner Of The ‘Design A Yugoslav’ Competition Is… – Skender Kulenović


That is something of a lie, as there wasn’t a ‘Design A Yugoslav’ competition. Well, there may have been, I’m just not entirely aware of it. You would probably find a whole host of competitions that start with such a descriptor, but none that have that as their whole. Still, let’s have a go.

As Bosnia-Herzegovina was something of a mini-Yugoslavia itself, the chances are we’re going to find our winner there. There needs to be a confusing mix of culture and ethnicity of course, so we’ll go with a Yugoslav born into a Bosnian Muslim family. Let’s send him off to Zagreb to study, before giving him a major role in the Partisan struggle of World War Two and a job in Belgrade following that struggle. With cultural roots laid down in Ottoman, Croatian and Serbian society, Skender Kulenović more than fits this bill. Heck, the name ‘Skender’ even covers the Albanian portion of the Yugo-pie.

Skender was born in the Bosnian town of Bosanski Petrovac in the year 1910, the same year in which the Boy Scouts of America was founded and slavery was finally made illegal in China (slavery is illegal in China?!). His family owned land, but made their way in life by renting out a hotel and running a grocery shop in the ethnically mixed town. Skender was the third of four sons, although one of those sons failed to make it past baby time. The family moved to the vastly underrated (from a touristic point of view at least) city of Travnik in 1921, and things slowly began to improve. Probably.

It was whilst attending school in Travnik that Skender began throwing together poetry, and his first sonnets were published the much lauded 1927/28 school almanac. The name of his collection? ‘Ocvale primule’, which translates as the delightfully dramatic ‘Withered Primroses’. If that isn’t a Taking Back Sunday song waiting to happen, I don’t know what is. Skender continued his education to the university level, choosing to head to Zagreb in order to study law. It was whilst surrounded by the catholic culture that our Skender was introduced to leftist ideas, and he soon followed his brother Muhamed in joining the Yugoslav Communist Party. He then gave up law in order to focus on journalism and literature, which sounds like it was probably a nightmare for the parents.


The major issue in Yugoslav politics in the 1930s was how monumentally fucked the country clearly was. The state was inherently pro-France and pro-Great Britain, and attempting to balance this with appeasing (as in really appeasing) its increasingly hostile and right-wing neighbours (Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany) was proving tough, and by ‘tough’ I mean impossible. Doing this whilst dealing with increasing Serbian/Croat hostilities within its own borders? Nah mate.

In 1939 Bosnia legally became Croatian territory, and in 1940 Skender was expelled from the Communist Party for refusing to sign a letter criticising the government and advocating autonomy for ol’ BiH. The war arrived in Yugoslavia in April 1941, and as a former member of the Commie Party Skender found himself arrested. He was released soon after, a fate that was not enjoyed by his brother Muhamed. He was arrested and shot as opposed to arrested and released.

November 1941 saw Skender back in the commie fold as a member of Tito’s Partisans, and after repelling a fascist onslaught in 1942 he penned his most famous poem, ‘Stojanka Majka Knežopoljka’ (Stojanka, mother from Knežopolje). This same year, his other brother Muzafer was shot. This concluded the murder of the Kulenović brothers.


The war ended, and Skender was rewarded for his not dying in the war with a position as the Drama Director of the National Theatre in Sarajevo. Here he fathered a baby by the name of Vuk, who would go on to become the Bosnian Steve Reich. 1947 saw him move to the glorious city of Belgrade, and Skender kept himself busy editing papers and journals, writing plays, essays and a whole lot more. It was one of these essays that got him in the shit however, as he lost his job as editor of Nova misao (New Thought) in 1954 after publishing an essay by the dissident Milovan Đilas. Skender’s self esteem was in the pits, and it wasn’t helped when his father died later in the year.

Skender continued to write however, continuing the proud tradition of Bosnian literature all the way up until his death from heart failure in 1978. Kulenović was an established part of a new generation of Bosnian writers, who took the refined multicultural folk love of the older generation and added avant-garde weirdness and irrational eroticism. Don’t try and visualise that.

So there’s our Yugoslav. Born in a Bosnian Muslim, educated in the Croatian Catholic tradition before growing old and dying in the Serbian capital. His politics were pan-Yugoslav, with equal amounts of Ottoman, Croatian and Serbian influence in his culture. He was Yugoslav as all hell.

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