Dissecting the Serb collective

My guess is it was about 1980 and a Crkvena Slava somewhere. In the hall a kolo was well into the multi-headed serpent phase, simultaneously invading every corner. Ladies of the Kolo Srpskih Sestara meandered through the masses to serve coffee to pensioners whilst others sold raffle tickets to people who argued about the change and then insisted that they kept it anyway. Small children took shortcuts through the middle of the kola, whilst older children, still in their national costumes after the folklore performance, danced next to parents and grandparents.

There was a tangible sense of belonging, which, like the kolo, wove together the different generations. Just as the accordionist ran out of key changes and was winding the procession down to gasps of relief and applause a voice boomed out “Živeli Karađorđevići!” and the hall responded “Živeli!” and took to its feet.

The distinctive Princ Tomislav struggled with his coat checking that the car keys were in it whilst acknowledging the salute. Priests shuffled towards the door hoping to shake his hand. After a few belated calls of “Živeli!” and the Prince’s departure, the accordionist selected a waltz and the hall settled to the 3/4.

Looking around that hall you would have struggled to find anybody with anything but a positive outlook on the future of the Serb collective. In the context of the lives we then lived there always seemed to be a Serb focus to our existence. The focus may not have been brilliantly sharp and was at times fragmented but the underlying direction was always towards an unspoken brotherhood.

Could we have possibly foreseen that a mere thirty years later that same collective, that same treasure of heritage, heart and history would be facing virtual extinction?

Today our churches have much smaller congregations and our priests seem more distant from the British-born generations. Events are more modestly attended and perhaps some of the older organisations have yet to carve out their roles in the 21st century. Newer organisations struggle to attract membership and fail to span bridges between those of Serbian and British-born backgrounds. It is difficult to see that a community worthy of the definition of the word will still exist in another thirty years.

Where did it all go wrong? In consideration of this question we should first establish what it was that made 1980 the pinnacle for British Serbs.

The tap root of the community was the political immigration of the 1940s. By the 50s and 60s those predominantly male immigrants had been joined by wives and children. They had largely established themselves economically and the children were producing their own children. A confidence grew through the community into the 1970s as the hard working and talented prospered and their children achieved through education. By the late 70s the balance within the community between the original émigrés and newer generations produced the perfect blend of successful integration and a healthy Serb identity.

The pillars of that halcyon period were the Church, the Četnik Organisation, the Royal Family and the Kolo Srpskih Sestara. How did these bastions become undermined?

Faith was central to Serb identity and played the key role. But the Church did not evolve with the people and became a “tradition” rather than a “belief”. Maybe we expected too much of it, or perhaps we were right to expect a priest to be able to convey his message in a language that we could understand?

Like the Church, the Četnik Organisation seems to have struggled to generate interest from one generation to another. It is still second only to the Church in membership and the most widely spread and respected of our community organisations but has yet to tune in to the modern era and turn the corner.

The Serbian Royal Family, once ever present at our events, is now sorely missed. The return of Prince Aleksandar and Princ Tomislav to Serbia may have been the fulfilment of a political ambition but we in this country lost our focal point when they went. Although we still have royals in the UK they are seldom accessible to the people as they once were and whilst they never provided direction or leadership they did provide us with a rallying point and an “inbuilt” feel good factor.

Perhaps the inclusion of the Kolo Srpskih Sestara in this list is surprising, but they were, and still largely are, the backbone of the community. They are always in the background and do not seem to have developed their role much beyond making sandwiches and coffee, but where would we be without them? Younger generations are not well represented in their ranks and they struggle to keep going, but they are still ever present.

So where do we go from here? In the last issue of Britić we introduced the concept of a “Serb Assembly”, a parliament for all UK Serbs that affords representation for all existing organisations and invites non affiliated individuals to have a voice. The idea has been well received in principle and needs to be developed to the point when it can be pitched to the country. To do this effectively we need to know where we stand today as a community, who we are, where we are and what we think.

To this end this issue of Britić contains a survey: “The Great Britić Census”. This is the most ambitious attempt to date to gauge Serb opinion on a variety of issues and take a snapshot of where we are in 2010. We therefore hope that as many people as possible will complete the survey and return it to us and we shall look forward to publishing the results to you.

For a copy of the survey, please contact us