Though the history of the Balkans is full of colorful and important figures, a few standouts remain relevant and present in the collective consciousness today. In order to carry on an intelligent conversation with a Serb, you may want to familiarize yourself with a few of these or else risk sounding ignorant. Though volumes have been written about these significant people, I’ll contribute only a small blurb as a jumping off point; you can take it from there. A little homework on these famous individuals will go a long way when conversing with locals.
Nikola Tesla – Scientist, Inventor
Unfortunately, this eccentric genius sometimes is forgotten and seen as the underdog in comparison to his colleague, Thomas Edison. Tesla’s brilliant contributions to science are incredibly noteworthy and include the alternating current, wireless technology, hydroelectric power plants and even the radio among various other advancements in the field. Recently, the Serbs gave a respectful nod to this important figure by renaming their airport the “Belgrade Nikola Tesla” Airport. Belgrade also maintains an excellent Tesla museum complete with interactive electrical experiments, a guided tour in various languages, and a videography of his life.
Vuk Stefanović Karadžić – Linguist
Vuk Stefanovic Karadzic is known as the father of the Serbian Lanuage. His main claim to fame is the standardization of the the Cyrillic Alphabet which is still used today. He also published the 1st Serbian dictionary and is credited with documenting hundreds of folk songs and stories that were previously perserved by oral tradition only.
Josip Broz Tito – Revolutionary, Statesman, Dictator
Also known as Marshal Tito or just plain Tito, this former Yugoslavian Communist Dictator was a supreme figure in Yugoslavians lives and held political power from 1943 until his death in 1980. He was a revolutionary, practicing a type of Marxism/Stalinism with emphasis on unifying the ethnic groups within the former Yugoslavia. He was known for his open borders in the country of Yugoslavia and for maintaining relatively friendly relations with the US, Western Europe, and a few 3rd world countries. He achieved worldwide popularity or notoriety depending on your perspective. This excerpt is from New York Times article commenting on his death. “Tito sought to improve life. Unlike others who rose to power on the communist wave after World War II, Tito did not long demand that his people suffer for a distant vision of a better life. After an initial Soviet-influenced bleak period, Tito moved toward radical improvement of life in the country. Yugoslavia gradually became a bright spot amid the general grayness of Eastern Europe.”
Ivo Andric – Poet, Writer
The name “Ivo Andric” came up several times during my recent month long stay in Belgrade, and each time I was told, “Andric was the only Serb to ever receive the Nobel Prize, you know”. Yes, I do know! Andric was an influential poet and novelist, his most well known book being “The Bridge On the Drina”, a book of historical fiction explaining the complexities of war in the region over a period of several hundred years. This seems to be one of those books that every Serb must read in school, and I’m currently struggling through it myself. Not at all a light read, this novel is incredibly intricate and sheds light on a region that has experienced generation upon generation of suffering.
Novak Djokovic – Tennis Champion
Novak Djokovic has emerged recently as one of the top contenders on the tennis scene and is now accepted as the #2 competitor in the world. He boasts 2 grand slam titles and was a bronze medalist at the 2008 Olympic Games along with holding various other titles and championships. Lately he seems to be gaining momentum and his winning streak is a source of national pride for Serbs. Not only is he a stellar athlete, but he also has been named by a French organization as a “Champion for Peace” and seems to really believe in promoting a new positive image of his homeland.
Momo Kapor – Painter, Novelist
Momo Kapor is a very well known Serbian novelist. Though he was a painter by trade, he went on to write dozens of short stories, essays, and novels. His fame allowed his books to be translated into many different languages. One that is quite easy to get a hold of is his delightful collection of essays entitled, “The Guide to the Serbian Mentality”, which illuminates Serbian lifestyle, traditions, culture, food, and society.
If you know only what you read here, you’ll still be ahead of many tourists visiting Serbia. Even a basic knowledge of these famous figures will serve to open the conversational door to even more interesting facts, stories, and tidbits about Serbia and the former Yugoslavia during conversation. Use this brief guide as a starting point in discovering the rich tapestry of Slavic artists, writers, politicians, heroes, and visionaries.