by Dragan Nikolic
Twenty-two years ago the Marxist Centre in Podgorica, aided by a hysterical press, condemned as politically unacceptable the book The Ethnogenesis of the Montenegrins by Š piro Kulišić, a leading Serb ethnologist, on the grounds that it ‘reduced the Montenegrin nation to a genetic-ethnic issue’. The strident campaign banished both the ethnologist and his book. Communist party ideologues did not deny that Kulišić’s work had ‘destroyed the taboos of bourgeois science’; but they insisted that it threatened dangerously to escalate ideological confrontations along Serb-Montenegrin lines. For this reason they declared both the work and the ‘panegyrics of praise’ it had received as unacceptable to the party. The respected ethnologist, who had spent many decades immersed in the magic world of ethnology, must have been surprised that the time would come when his scientific contribution would be declared unwelcome.
This event at the Marxist Centre - ‘neither a promotion nor a trial’ - was attended also by personalities from the world of politics, science and arts who approved of the book, or felt embarrassed by this brash party interventionism, so that the occasion acquired the appearance of a normal and impartial ideological debate. It was nevertheless condemned as ‘political vandalism applied to science’. The Marxist Centre was mocking knowledge! But the Centre’s enduring contribution was that an authentic account of the affair was published in the journal Praksa (no.4/1981), as dramatic testimony to the ‘mental snares of Stalinism and nationalism’ (Bogdan Bogdanović) in which society was gradually becoming entangled.
What was it about the book that disturbed so many spirits? From this temporal distance, nothing controversial. Kulišić argued that ‘historical research increasingly points to the conclusion that, as is true of other South Slavs, the ethnic base of the Montenegrin nation was supplied by the initial Slav population that settled in the area’, which ‘then gradually assimilated what remained of the indigenous population’. It was, therefore, ‘increasingly clear that the Montenegrin nation is a distinct ethnos, different from the other South Slav nations, although, of course, resembling them in many ways.’ The fact that Kulišić’s starting-point was ‘an older Slav rather than an ethnic Serb population’, one common to all the South Slavs, was experienced as a calamity by those addicted to the ‘Siamese-twins’ version of Montenegrin origins, according to which the Montenegrin nation is ethnically Serb.
Kulišić showed that many Montenegrin place names belong to the stock of the ‘Dalmato-Roman language’, spoken by an ‘older layer of Romanized Illyrian population’ - which opened additional chinks in the cemented wall of the traditional interpretation. Thus the Montenegrin cult word pas (meaning a family branch) turns out to be Latin in origin, while the Serb linguist Pavle Ivšić interpreted the ‘Zeta accent’ as a residue of ‘Doclean bilingualism’. Kulišić rejected the notion of the Montenegrins being a ‘Siamese twin’ of (for some) the Serbs or (for others) the Croats. In his view Montenegrins were neither ‘Siamese’ nor ‘dual’, but rather a nation with its own separate ethnic foundation, as is the case also with the other South Slav nations. This was experienced as a mortal blow by those devoted to Erdeljanović and his ilk.*
Kulišić did not believe in the mass flight from Kosovo ‘into these mountains where we shall die and shed blood’, arguing that this must have involved only ‘local migrations’ by small groups of Montenegrins which did not alter the ethnic makeup of the population or the local speech forms. The immigrant would marry into a local family and assimilate into a new tribal community. This fuelled more controversy of the type: ‘How can a Montenegrin be assimilated by other Montenegrins?’ Kulišić added fuel to the fire by stressing that the old sources from Kotor mention neither Serbs nor Croats living in Montenegro, but only Vlachs whose name ‘being their ethnic name was regularly written with a capital letter’. Kulišić also wrote that the oldest Byzantine sources do not mention Serbs in Zeta either, referring instead to Docleans; and that even Erdeljanović had noted that the Albanians have traditionally called the inhabitants of Montenegro Skia, i.e. Slavs, not Serbs or Croats.
According to Kulišić, the ‘Montenegrin tribal association, including its customs and beliefs, was in many essential aspects different from the other established South Slav tribal formations and traditions. The Serbs and the Croats, for example, do not like the Montenegrins have in their traditions five brothers who gave rise to five tribes; on the other hand, the theme of five brothers is found in many legends that came from Burma via Siberia to western Europe! Kulišić’s efforts to show that the Montenegrins had evolved like all other nations was received with abhorrence by the followers of the gusle school of history, who denounced them as being ‘anti-Serb and of separatist intention’.
The ethnologist was accused not so much of telling lies, as of concentrating on ‘what divides us as opposed to what unites us’. One party ideologue condemned his work as a heavy blow against Montenegrin traditional identity, which for centuries had passed from father to son. This is why ‘this question, even though perhaps irreproachable from the scientific point of view, has inevitably acquired ideological-political connotations’. The task of the Communist party, therefore, was to ‘guide also the scientific approach to this question.’
After the class struggle had gone and the Great-Serb one had arrived through the front door, the book’s supposed menace was further magnified. Its opponents were irritated by its questioning of the myth of common origin [of Montenegrins and Serbs], by the association of Montenegrins with anything outside the tribe of St Sava, by the book’s title and the book’s design, by the reticence of the book’s reviewers, by the absence of historical positivism in Kulišić’s approach, by Kulišić’s lack of tact and concern for brotherly love. All in all, it was a suspect business verging on the edge of conspiracy.
Twenty-two years later, any reader of this book who lives in an open and non-rural society will be saddened by the fact that Kulišić wrote not a thousand but merely a hundred-odd pages to present his research. If he had written another nine hundred pages, he might not have delivered the final word on the origin of the Montenegrins, but it would have marked the beginning of the end of the ‘incubus of Serb-Montenegrin traditions’ which have for so long imprisoned Montenegro and alienated it from itself. Instead, this book was ‘stoned to death in the Montenegrin manner’ (Vellko Milatović). Ethnology, which had never even existed in Montenegro, was proclaimed undesirable and unnecessary. Montenegrin ethnologists who returned home after completing their studies at the University of Belgrade dared not to admit their profession for fear of losing their jobs.
The Montenegrin Communists believed that ‘stoning’ would help maintain the monopoly position of their ideological hybrid of ‘neither Great Serb nor separatist’. ‘Marxists’, ‘bourgeois positivist scientists’and the gusle crowd united in their contempt for a free and democratic society. They remained prisoners of an enclosed epic civilization that, defending its traditionalism and conservatism, seeks allies wherever it can find them - today even in the European Union!
*Jovan Erdeljanevic, ethnologist (1874-1944), doctorate Prague 1908, lecturer and later professor at the University of Belgrade. Member of SANU and other academic establishments. Published some 80 works dealing mostly with Montenegrin clans and clan life. Follower of ethnographer Jovan Cvijic, who in later life became a Great Serb ideologue. Erdeljanovic believed that Montenegrins were a Serb people who came to Montenegro from Kosovo and adjusted his research to fit this assumption.
This article has been translated from Monitor (Podgorica), 27 September 2002