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  • Richard Byrne

Some Time in Belgrade: Dušan Veličković

1. My friend Dušan Veličković passed away last week.

His death hit me hard. We had a deep professional relationship in the 1990s and 2000s, when he founded Alexandria – a magazine and a publishing house that was a beacon of free expression and civil society in Serbia in the darkness of the final years of the Milošević regime.

Dušan Veličković, 2002
Dušan Veličković, 2002

Our friendship continued even after Alexandria had run its course. Dušan turned his sights to Italy, where his richly expressive meditations on history, politics, literature and family found a more attentive audience. I plunged headlong into theatre and journalism in the U.S. and elsewhere.

I was about to email Dušan as 2022 came to a close. I had a specific question about a project I am working on. I knew he would have the answer. But I put off sending that message for the usual – and, in retrospect, useless – reasons.

Yes, I should have emailed him a few weeks ago. But aside from that, few regrets. We worked together again two years ago on a project. A very successful collaboration for The Wilson Quarterly. It was our chance to reconnect. I knew that Dušan was the only writer for the essay I had in mind. I treasured that chance to work with my friend again.

After I heard the terrible news last week, I dug into some boxes I have kept in storage to piece together some impressions of my journey with Dušan.

I wanted to write something now, while it is still fresh in my mind. It is no accident that my personal recollections link up with some larger elements of cultural history that should not be lost. That is how Dušan saw the world – and his practice in writing about it.

Alexandria postcard, late 1990s.
Alexandria postcard, late 1990s.

2. When I returned to St. Louis from Prague and Baltimore in 1993 to work once again at The Riverfront Times, I was already thinking about working in the Balkans.

I had journeyed to Croatia during the war. And the U.S. government was encouraging Bosnian refugees to move to St. Louis, where I met many of them. I also started taking language lessons.

When journalism exchange programs brought international visitors to St. Louis in that era, they often invited me to meet with them. These foreign reporters and editors were as interested in knowing where to have a drink or see some live music as they were in U.S. journalism practices. It was my practice to guide them to the right places.

I met Dušan when he visited St. Louis on one of these junkets. I still have the Institute of International Education info sheet identifying him both as Editor-in-Chief of NIN and Secretary General of the Serbian PEN Center. He was definitely someone I wanted to get to know better. And we hit it off in our brief time together.

We stayed in touch after his visit. I even wrote a couple articles for NIN on rock and roll.

Then, in February 1997, Slobodan Milošević moved to take back NIN and end the magazine's independence. I still have the Serbia Now! article from March 3, 1997 noting that Dušan had been fired and replaced by Milivoje Glišić.

The staff of NIN went on strike. But it didn’t matter. Dušan’s time at NIN was over.

Issues of Alexandria 1998-2002
Issues of Alexandria 1998-2002

3. The next time I heard from Dušan was almost a year after the NIN incident. He sent an email.

Subject: New journal

In this email, Dušan laid out his vision for what became Alexandria. He was launching it in a month: “If I had to be very serious I would say that the magazine will try to encourage open and creative exchange of most important ideas not burdened with ideology and nationalism.”

He added that he had already struck syndication agreements with the Washington Post and Foreign Policy magazine.

“I would very much like you to be on the list of regular contributors to 'Alexandria' or some sort of editor from abroad,” Dušan wrote. And he included my first assignment: Review Seymour Hersh’s The Dark Side of Camelot. Deadline? Two weeks.

I was flabbergasted. And, of course, I was in.

When the first issue of Alexandria appeared two months later, my review of the Hersh book was in it.

Dušan Veličković with his son, Vukša, 2002
Dušan Veličković with his son, Vukša, 2002

4. To say that becoming involved in Alexandria changed my life is an understatement. I knew that my time in St. Louis was coming to an end. My work with Alexandria allowed me to imagine a future doing something else. Perhaps even reporting on the Balkans.

My recollection is that Dušan started calling me “Legenda” around this time. Not for any skills I brought to the project, but rather because one of my pieces provoked a rare letter to the editor. Dušan was “KOM,” after reviewers compared his essays to those of Kundera, Orwell and Montaigne.

Having spent considerable time in what was once Czechoslovakia right after the Velvet Revolution, I understood the significant hurdles Dušan faced as he founded Alexandria in the Serbia of that moment. The philosophical challenges were perhaps more daunting than the practical obstacles.

We discussed his work before Tito’s death on a number of occasions. Dušan had forged his career in that Yugoslavia, interviewing notable writers, and becoming intimately involved in the world of literary politics. I still have a copy of his 1992 book, Slike Sumnje, in which he collected interviews with Susan Sontag, Max Frisch, and Allen Ginsberg, among many prominent figures.

That was a different world. Operating a literary and politics magazine in a more nakedly aggressive and damaged soft totalitarian state perplexed and frustrated Dušan.

His own generation grew up in a time of extraordinary political complexity and opportunity. There was freedom to write and think in Tito’s Yugoslavia if one could navigate its very particular and very treacherous political currents.

As Dušan wrote in 2020 in The Wilson Quarterly: "Yes, Yugoslavia was a dictatorship, and a one-party police state. But it was also a joyful land, full of peculiar paradoxes and unexpected freedoms."

My own background was much different. Unless you are born wealthy, being a writer or artist in the United States means you are always on the hustle. It is an existential state. The price of admission in relentless capitalism. It’s rarely worth complaining about much because that’s just the way it is. Get over it and get on with it.

In late 1990s Serbia, the world in which Dušan had built his career was gone. Navigating treacherous political currents now guaranteed you nothing. Alexandria existed only because Dušan learned to be perpetually on the hustle.

He expressed his misgivings and unhappiness about this state of affairs to me on a regular basis. Because I understood, I wanted to help. So I ended up being involved in all sorts of things aside from writing for Alexandria. At one point, I established the domain name for the magazine in the U.S. so it would be paid for and also harder to shut down.

It was joyful work. The magazine kept coming out. Books were published by Alexandria Press. Hannah Arendt. John Rawls. Young Serbian authors.

Dušan didn’t like being on the hustle. But it was paying off. Alexandria kept on appearing, despite the odds.

4. My desire to visit Belgrade was intense. As I dug through my boxes over the past few days, I found paperwork from numerous fruitless attempts to obtain a visa before 2001.

I made my most determined attempt to go to Serbia in 1999. It was exactly the wrong time. The storm clouds over Kosovo were thickening. NATO military action against Serbia was a growing possibility

I had received a Pew Fellowship in International Journalism in late 1998. My project was on state media in Serbia. I took intensive language lessons and set up possible interviews. (One person in Serbian media suggested that I interview Aleksander Vučić!)

Dušan kindly offered to sponsor my fellowship in Serbia. But as my flight approached, the embassy would not grant me a visa. They never said: “No.” But they never said “Yes.”

John Schidlovsky, the director of the Pew Fellowship program, had been a correspondent in China. He urged me to be patient. Chinese officials often played this sort of game with visas before granting them.

With less than a week to go, however, we agreed that I needed to change my destination. So I spent a few days running pell-mell through Washington, DC, gathering up names of sources and useful information for a new project in Bosnia. (And, nope, I never did get a visa.)

By the time I got to Sarajevo, NATO’s war on Serbia was only a week away.

Dušan was as disappointed as I was that I could not get to Belgrade. But, in retrospect, it was a good thing for both of us.

I certainly would have been rounded up by the police with other Western correspondents in the country at the beginning of the war and dumped on the border with Hungary.

And who knows what static (or worse) would have clung to Dušan and his family because of my presence? It was a very uncertain and dangerous time.

It did work out in the end. My project in Sarajevo was a success – and a valuable lesson in personal resilience.

And Dušan? His diary of those days became one of his best works. Amor Mundi: True Stories – Days of bombardment and martial law in Belgrade was translated into multiple languages.

Alexandria postcard, 2000

6. One of Dušan’s greatest acts of friendship toward me happened in 2000.

My work with Alexandria and my Pew Fellowship had set me on a new professional course. But it was a slow process to make it happen. And my personal life in that moment was absolute tumult – bad living, bad habits, bad choices. Many bad choices.

I traveled to Sarajevo in the summer of 2000 as part of a tangled misprision that seems in retrospect to be a perfect Viennese modernist mash up: the plot of an Arthur Schnitzler drama delivered in the unsparing critical register of Robert Musil.

It was humiliating experience. So I fled Sarajevo and went to Dubrovnik. The town was beautiful. The weather was blisteringly hot. It was white there. So white. It seemed to me like I had arrived at the end of the world. And I felt utterly alone.

So I went to an internet café – yes, those were the days of the internet café – and emailed Dušan. Since I couldn’t get into Belgrade, perhaps he would be willing to meet me in Budapest? (Serbs could travel freely to Hungary in that era.)

I thought the chances were nil. But he replied quickly that he would meet me there. I packed quickly and hopped aboard a bus to Zagreb an hour later, followed immediately by a train to Budapest. I slept off the frantic journey in an oppressive airless room near Hősök tere.

Dušan’s act of solidarity saved me. Seeing him was an immense relief. His counsel was warm and wise.

I remember walking along the Danube with Dušan and Jasmina Tešanović (who had traveled with him to Budapest, bless her). I asked whether Serbia’s politics were beyond repair.

Dušan told me about Vojislav Koštunica’s candidacy in the upcoming election – and his belief that Koštunica might indeed have forged a coalition to beat Milošević at the ballot box.

Slobodan Ilić, Sergio Roic, Dušan Veličković, and the author, 2002
Slobodan Ilić, Sergio Roic, Dušan Veličković, and the author, 2002

7. Of course, Koštunica did win. But only after the memorable events of October 5, 2000 in the center of Belgrade.

One personal boon from Slobodan Milošević’s political demise was that I was able to travel to Belgrade at last. On one of those occasions, I arrived on a German Marshall fellowship to write about politics and popular music. So I did do a journalism project in Belgrade after all.

Few cities on earth are as alive as Belgrade. It pulses with tremendous energy. Even when it’s a bad place, there are good times.

Dušan always put me up on my journeys to Belgrade in this era. There were literary readings and beers and lots of time spent on the patio or in the courtyard of the places he would rent. (While Dušan was noted for his love of the sea and the coast, he also loved a good patio.)

Though we had worked together for a few years, these visits were a chance to get to know Dušan better. I would arrive in Belgrade in a fizzy American desire to “get things done.” But Dušan’s pace of working was different. Nothing happened too early in the morning. There was always time for lunch at the Kalenić café near the market. Things never really got rolling until 3 or 4 p.m.

Eventually, I understood that this was a sort of stratagem for Dušan. A management of time that left room only for the most important things. His own mode of being in the world.

There was ample room for family. Room for big thoughts. Room for fun. But it was also Dušan’s way of minimizing useless activity and futile gestures. There was a sort of Zen to it that impressed me and frustrated me simultaneously.

The "diplomatic handshake," 2001
The "diplomatic handshake," 2001

8. Dušan Veličković did not make history. But he was always in the thick of it. His proximity to history made him a keen observer and commentator. Yet he never considered mere reportage to be enough. He was always striving to find the connections in history. Cross the bridges between then and now.

His 2006 film – Djindjić - Serbia and Democracy (made with Christoph Sodemann) – is one of the best accounts of assassinated Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjić’s heroic and tragic career. Its fluency and poignancy comes about in large part because Dušan knew Djindjić well. Audiences benefited not only from Dušan’s intimate view of the man, but also the objective stance that only one who was outside Djindjić’s government could offer.

Dušan was also tangled up in one of the most terrifying and vicious events of the days of martial law and bombing that he described so brilliantly in Amor mundi: The state murder of prominent independent Serbian journalist Slavko Ćuruvija in April 1999.

Ćuruvija’s chance meeting with Dušan at a downtown café was his last encounter before he was murdered. State documents later revealed that Dušan had been followed back to his home in Belgrade’s Vračar neighborhood by agents as the murder was committed.

In a 2021 interview with Cenzolovka, Dušan discussed how one aspect of his meeting – giving Ćuruvija an Alexandria business card – was used by one of the suspects indicted for the murder as an alibi. The suspect claimed that Ćuruvija was being followed because there was going to be a “handover” of information. Dušan’s offering a business card was the supposed “handover.”

The interview reminded me of some of Dušan’s idiosyncratic practices in running Alexandria. He was oddly insistent that there were things that must be done to make a situation “official.” There is a photo of us shaking hands – like diplomats – on my first visit. He asked to do this to formally record our already long-standing collaboration. (And don’t get me started on his desire to sell New York Review of Books-style cases in which subscribers could keep their copies of Alexandria.)

Dušan told Tamara Spaic in the Cenzlovka interview that he never liked business cards (“pointless and unnecessary”), and that these particular cards had been foisted upon him by Vreme founder Dragoljub Žarković.

Reading the interview jogged my memory. Sure enough, one of the things I found in a storage box was an Alexandria business card that was made for me in that same batch of cards.

I pulled out the card and held it in my hand for the first time in twenty years or so. Grief and gratitude washed over me again.

9. A tribute written by NIN journalist Milan Milošević last week zeroed in one particular quality in Dušan’s professional life: his profound capacity to keep a measured distance between himself and hurlyburly of the journalistic enterprise.

Milošević' reached back to an old interview for a beautifully simple phrase: Dušan was “sam na svetu,” or “alone in the world.”

Yet as I reflect on my own friendship with Dušan, I recall our comradeship and our striving to communicate. We shared a faith in the possibilities of connection across generations and cultures.

Perhaps we are alone in the world, but I journeyed together with Dušan for a time. I am a better person for having traveled a part of my life’s path with him.

Dušan’s son Vukša told me that when he saw his father in the room where he passed away last week, his face had come to rest in a state of contemplation. Eyes half open, as if puzzling something out.

Vukša said he wanted to know what his father was thinking.

I also want to know what Dušan was thinking. I always did. It was always something interesting.

That is the feeling I am left with now. Deep gratitude for what I learned from Dušan. And profound sadness that I cannot ask him what he’s thinking right now.

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