I’ve been to Serbia before, but only for a few brief visits. I must admit that I knew about the distinctive local flavor of this Balkan country and the idiosyncrasy of its people mostly from the movies of Emir Kusturica, the world renown Serbian filmmaker. His imaginative work is often based on organically intertwined manifestations of human nature, such as birth and death, happiness and sadness, faith and superstition, mercy and cruelty. Kusturica’s movies truthfully capture the broadness of the Serbian soul. Perhaps, that is what makes us Russians so close to the Serbs?
I went on this weeklong trip to Serbia in search of that broadness of soul. It would be difficult to express all my impressions of this “frontier” country, so I will provide only a brief summary of my “pilgrimage”. It seems to me that the word “frontier” when used to describe Serbia indicates not only its geographic location but also the inner status of the country. I believe that this “frontier” position of Serbia accounts for the perhaps inconspicuous but undoubtedly poignant tragedy of its fate.
Between a rock and a hard place
After a significant part of the Balkan peninsula was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1459, Serbia lost its sovereignty for several centuries. The Serbian people were surrounded by Muslim and Western Christian civilizations that were foreign to them. How did they manage to survive and preserve their identity? I think it would be fair to assume that Orthodoxy played a pivotal role in this. It served as a leaven that helped form the Serbian character through trials and tribulations, while the country was caught between a rock and a hard place. Perhaps that is why St. Sabbas is so respected in Serbia. In the late sixteenthy century, the Turks burned his relics on Mount Vračar in an attempt to wipe out the memory of him from people’s minds. The relics were burned, but people’s memory of the saint only grew stronger. Throughout the centuries, like an unquenchable fire it shone upon the unbearable life of the oppressed Serbian people. Unseen by the world, many tears have been shed before the saint’s icons and many prayers and cries for help were raised to him. It wasn’t in vain. Despite oppression and humiliation, the Serbs maintained their steadfast sprit, their cheerful disposition and reverently optimistic attitude to life.
Visiting the church of St. Sabbas of Serbia was the first point of destination on my itinerary. It was the starting point for my immersion into “sacred” Serbia.
But at first, my guide Radula, a very educated and pleasant person, took me to the Gardoš tower in the Zemun municipality of Belgrade. The tower is located on a hill, and an excellent view of the Danube and Sava Rivers opens from there. These two rivers served as borders between the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. Sitting on the patio of the café, we drank Turkish coffee, “domaća kafa” in Serbian, which means home-made coffee, and pondered over the fate of Serbia and how a long time ago, through some geopolitical misfortune this country was turned willy-nilly into an arena for various external forces fighting for domination of the Balkans. It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining brightly in the clear autumn sky, and we wanted to believe that this misfortune will finally come to an end.
Bombs were falling upon Serbia at Easter. NATO’s operation was called the Merciful Angel.
The Church of St. Sabbas of Serbia was built on Mount Vračar at the location where Ottoman Turks burned the saint’s relics. It is one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world, comparable in size to the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Interior decor is still in progress. The work is being done slowly but meticulously, using high-quality construction materials, so that the building would stand “for ages”, as my guide says. Looking at the brilliant frescos in the completed side altar of the church dedicated to Martyrs Hermylus and Stratonicus, one can imagine how the main altar would look. The church has a copy of the icon of the Mother of God called the “Blessed Heaven”, which was presented by the Russian Orthodox Church in the year that Kosovo, the cradle of Serbian Orthodoxy, was painfully separated from Serbia. There is an inscription on the icon saying, “Holy Mother of God, save the Serbian Land”. Standing in front of the icon, Radula and I remembered how bombs and missiles were falling upon Serbia during the Easter days of 1999. NATO’s operation was called the Merciful Angel…
It was a peaceful Saturday. A group of gypsies stood on the church porch, holding trumpets, accordions and drums and waiting patiently for the newlyweds to come out of the church. Finally, surrounded by many friends and relatives, they came out. Just like in Kusturica’s movies, the music began to play. It was the same music that they play at weddings or funerals.
Through Divine Providence, Russia’s tragedy turned out to be beneficial for Serbia.
We headed toward the Russian Church of the Holy Trinity. In 1999, it was seriously damaged by the missile strike directed at the nearby Belgrade television center but was quickly restored. It is small and brightly lit. The relics of Baron Wrangel, one of the leaders of the White movement, rest in this church. On the wall by the exit, there is a memorial plaque with the names of Russian volunteers who died fighting for Serbia.
We took a long stroll through the city, looking at various sights, and Radula told me about Russian architects, engineers and scientists who made an invaluable contribution to the development of Serbia when it regained its independence after World War I. Before the war, a dominant part of the Serbian people did not have access to education, and after the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was formed, there was an acute shortage of national specialists. At that time, a civil war was raging in Russia, and a flow of Russian emigres rushed to Serbia. There were many outstanding representatives of Russian culture, science, and clergy among them. Indeed, through Divine Providence, Russia’s tragedy turned out to be beneficial for Serbia. In the evening, sitting in a cozy restaurant, we raised our glasses to our brotherly nations.
Feeling at home in Serbian “Austria”
Hopovo Monastery, the next stop on our itinerary, was one of such monasteries. The morning service had just finished, and the smell of frankincense still filled the church. Silently, we walked in the empty patio covered with multicolored fall flowers. Walking out of the monastery gates, we came across a middle-aged woman. Her wrinkled face was brightly lit by the sunshine. She smiled and greeted us, “Blessed be this beautiful day!” The birds were singing, the yellow leaves were rustling, and a ginger kitten was wandering around in the grass along the monastery walls. We drank water from the sacred spring at the bottom of the hill and got back to our car to continue our journey. Next stop was Srijemski Karlovci.
Seeing the people in the streets and hearing familiar language, I somehow felt at home.
This small, typically European town is famous not only for its baroque architecture, but also for its momentous historical events, many of which are related to Russia. In 1921, the First Council of Churches Outside of Russia was held here. Baron Wrangel lived in Srijemski Karlovci from 1922-1927. Not far from the monument to this Russian military commander, there is another monument to “the patriot of Russia and Serbia” count Sava Vladislavich-Raguzinsky, who served in the court of the Russian Emperor Peter I.
Finally, we reached Novi Sad, the capital of Vojvodina. After visiting the Petrovaradin Fortress, a fortress built to protect the House of Habsburgs from the Turks, we had dinner in a small national restaurant on the bank of the Danube and enjoyed their smoked carp. Then we walked around the city. It felt as if we were not in the Balkans but somewhere in Salzburg or Linz, which was understandable as Austria was so close. Seeing the people in the streets and hearing the familiar language, I somehow felt at home.
The Blue Angel
We spent a lot of time in front of a wonderful fresco depicting an angel in blue clothes
Next day, I was getting ready to travel to Mileševa Monastery in southern Serbia. It was quite far away. I had a new guide—a very nice and knowledgeable woman. Her name was Milka. As we got further from Belgrade, the scenery became more and more picturesque. Not too high, yet still very impressive mountains with rocky ridges, meadows with grazing cows and sheep, and meandering rivers in the gorges.
Milka suggested that we stop in a town called Arilje, a home to the Church of St. Achileus that has the famous Blue Angel fresco. Arilje is the raspberry capital of Serbia. Raspberry bushes are planted everywhere, both in the plain and on the hill slopes. They look like vineyards. In the courtyard of the church on the hill, we met Father Milan, a pleasant, agile and energetic person. He lives in a nearby village of Prilipac. He came here with a group of artists for their annual plein-air sessions. I’ll tell you about him later. He immediately invited us to the table and served us coffee with šljivovica. “Father Milan, are there any elders in Serbia?” I asked. “Yes, but there are only few of them,” he answered. Unfortunately, our program didn’t include visits to the monasteries where the elders lived, but I noted Fr. Milan’s words. We spent a lot of time, standing in front of the wonderful fresco depicting an angel in blue clothes. When we were saying our goodbyes, Fr. Milan said the traditional “Angel be with you on your way!” Yes, I thought, smiling, the angel in blue clothes! Then we drove the serpentine roads to see the other angel, the angel in white clothes.
The White Angel
We drove up to Mileševa Monastery in the evening, when the sun was already setting. After checking in a simple but cozy hotel by the monastery, we went to the evening service. The spacious church was empty, except for a priest, five or six nuns in the choir gallery, and us. The monastery is famous for its unique frescos. Their spiritual austerity and gentle earthly beauty were mesmerising. I stood in front of the White Angel, a fresco that is considered to be one of the greatest masterpieces of Orthodox art. It was the Angel who rolled back the stone from the Lord’s sepulchre and sat upon it with his raiment white as snow (Matt., 28:3). Before going to bed, I walked along by the monastery walls. The moon shone its silver light on the surrounding hills as the Mileševa River softly flowed.
In the morning, after attending the Divine Liturgy, we went to Studenica Monastery. The scenery was still beautiful. On the way to the monastery, we stopped in the canyon of the Uvac River to have a look at the griffon vultures. One of the birds flew right over our heads as if welcoming us with its wide wings.
For a pilgrim, Ovčar-Kablar Gorge is like Mount Athos in Greece.
As a rule, Serbian monasteries are located in the most beautiful places, and Studenica is not an exception. It is one of the largest and richest monasteries in Serbia. Its two wonderful ancient churches are built with white marble. I must admit that there are not too many visitors in the monasteries and not too many monks either, but people are still coming there in small groups, and these monasteries remain centers of the country’s spiritual life. When we were in Studenica, a group of Serbian military officers came to the monastery in the evening. It was very touching to see these 30-40 well-built uniformed men quietly move around the church, trying not to make noise, standing for a long time in front of icons and making the sign of the cross. Later, sitting at a large table in the dining room, they listened attentively and respectfully to the rector who was still as young and stately as they were.
The program for the next day included visits to three more monasteries that just like the two previous ones were UNESCO world heritage sites. “Milka, can we change our itinerary? Fr. Milan said that there were elders. It would be great to get their blessing!” So we called Fr. Milan. He picked up the phone right away and told us that he would be happy to come with us. We agreed to meet near a town called Ovčar Banja. On the way there, we managed to visit the red-bricked Žiča Monastery. The world-renown St. Nicholas (Velimirovic) of Serbia used to live and work in this monastery.
Ovčar-Kablar Gorge is one of the most beautiful places in Serbia. For a pilgrim, it is like Mount Athos in Greece. There are ten closely located monasteries here, so one can move from one to another on foot, just like on Mount Athos.
But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness
Accompanied by Fr. Milan, we drove uphill to the Monastery of the Transfiguration. The road was fairly worn-out. A middle-aged monk met us at the gate. “We’re here to see Father Benjamin, is he here? I have a guest from Russia with me,” said Fr. Milan. “He’s here,” the monk answered, “Come on in, please.” He led us to the dining hall, made us sit at the table and offered us coffee. About ten minutes later, Archimandrite Benjamin, one of the most well-known spiritual fathers in Serbia walked into the room. He was more than eighty years old. Despite his age and health problems, his eyes were incredibly clear and focused. “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you,” (Matt., 6:33) he said to us right away, without any introductions. “Whether we’re healthy or sick, let us thank God for everything!” These words were meant specifically for us, so we can abide by them in our lives. Then he spoke of the global spiritual crisis that affected Serbia and other countries, adding that people’s souls were still striving to be with God. Later, with his trembling, aged hand, he wrote down our names and the names of our close relatives into his commemoration book. After receiving the elder’s blessing, we went to the church, which looked very modest compared to what we had seen so far. In general, the monastery was very modest and even poor. It is mainly supported by donations from the laity. As a parting gift, I received a large wax candle made in the monastery.
Fr. Milan’s gallery
Fr. Milan is a parish priest. His small snow-white church is located on a hill in the center of the village. It is surrounded by vegetation. There are flower beds in the yard. Next to the church, there is a tiled-roof house. On the lower floor there’s an art gallery, while the top floor, under the roof, has rooms for the artists. Fr. Milan invites them every year, when he organizes the fall plein-air sessions. Fr. Milan’s love for art is obvious in every detail of his life—in the house covered with ivy, in the furniture that he collected and meticulously restored or even made himself, with the help of his son, a woodcarving enthusiast. Chickens and a couple of goats walk around the garden behind the house. After a cup of domaća kafa and a couple of shots of šljivovica drunk to our health and to Russia, Fr. Milan invited us to a dinner at his friend’s restaurant. There was no way we could refuse such an offer! The restaurant was located in a picturesque place across from Potpećka cave. We were served fresh trout raised in the artificial ponds in the garden behind the restaurant. Fr. Milan’s friend who owns the restaurant is a biker, a real one, with a beard, a leather jacket and a beanie. When they sat next to each other at the table, both wearing black, it was quite difficult to say who was a priest and who was a biker.
Back to Belgrad
Afterwards, we drove to the resort town of Aranđelovac, so that I could rest after the long and fascinating journey. The town is famous for its mineral water springs. Translated from Serbian, the name of the town means “the town of the Archangel.” We spent a day in this rather sleepy town surrounded by green parks and gardens.
On the next day, on the way to Belgrade we decided to visit the monument to the Soviet veterans on Mount Avala. It was built on the location where a plane with a delegation of Soviet military leaders crashed in 1964. They were on the way to the Serbian capital to participate in the celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the city’s liberation from the Nazi invaders. Coincidentally, we were returning to Belgrade on Liberation Day. It was noon, and the wreath laying ceremony was over, but people kept coming to the monument. They were mostly middle-aged men, some wearing uniforms decorated with medals. One of them produced a flask with šljivovica and, silently, each of us took turns taking a sip in memory of the fallen heroes. Later in the evening, there was a military parade in Belgrade. The minister of defence of the Russian Federation was present there, and Strizhi, an aerobatic demonstration team of the Russian Air Force flew across the Serbian skies.
In the evening, there was a farewell dinner in Reka restaurant, famous for its live music and cozy ambience. The restaurant was full of people of various ages: men in dress shirts and elegant suits, women in fashionable dresses and high heels. Serbian and English-language hits were played. I noticed a man who looked about eighty. Despite his age, he was dancing non-stop around the dance floor. After a while, when he probably got tired, he gallantly bid goodbye to the patrons and proudly left the hall. The patrons were quite excited now, and the band launched into cheerful yet sad Serbian gypsy music. Everybody at the restaurant started dancing.
Next day, I got to the Belgrade airport named after the great Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla. Unfortunately, I had no time to visit the Nikola Tesla Museum, so I will have to do it next time. Waiting to board my plane, I remembered the words of Radula, my first guide, that he said half-jokingly, “I have three idols: Tesla, Kusturica and Putin.” I smiled inwardly.