Interview with Vjeran Pavlaković

By Goran Stanić

Vjeran Pavlaković (VP) is a full professor at the Department of Cultural Studies, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Rijeka. He teaches courses on theoretical and comparative approaches in memory studies, cultural history of Southeast Europe, Latin America, and revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries. He received his doctorate in 2005 at the University of Washington on the topic of the social and political impact of the Spanish Civil War in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. In his scientific works and as a leader of research projects, Professor Pavlaković extensively thematized the political dimension of regional commemorative practices related to war episodes of the 20th century. Together with Davor Pauković and Nikolina Židek, he edited the book ‘Framing the Nation and Collective Identities. Political rituals and the culture of memory of the traumas of the 20th century in Croatia’, which deals with seven mythical places of the Croatian political past, published in Croatian in 2022 by Srednja Europa. Vjeran is also a member of REVENANT’s advisory board and a longstanding friend of the project. He was interviewed by Goran Stanić (GS) and the interview was originally published in Croatian at

GS: In the last few decades, on a global level, we have witnessed a great increase in interest in memory studies, which has also gained momentum in our region, since the political past creates our present, and it can be said that it dictates the rhythm of the future. Since you are a historian by profession who mainly deals with the political and cultural role of collective memories, I would like to start by asking you what is the connection on the one hand, and the gap on the other, between memory studies and historiography? In other words, how does memory studies complement historiography that pretends to be objective?

VP: When I returned to Croatia in 2006 to work on my first project related to memory studies, I encountered a lot of confusion and sometimes even resistance to what I was doing from local historians, since the discipline of history in the region tends to be conservative, especially twenty years ago. Historiography and the writing of history by professional scholars was focused on top-down political histories with an obsession of archival documents. The field of memory studies, however, opens up the path for looking at how history is constructed, interpreted, and remediated more broadly in society, and in my opinion allows for a more nuanced and critical analysis without being constrained by the disciplinary logic of using exclusively official archives. The cultural turn and the memory boom that transformed historiography in the West decades ago finally arrived in the former Yugoslavia, and I think that younger scholars, including those who have been educated abroad, have been producing a considerable body of work in recent years. This trend has enriched our understanding of the recent past, especially controversial eras such as World War 2, Yugoslav socialism, and the wars of the 1990s. Memory studies complement classical historical approaches, since access to archives are controlled by the state and are available only to certain historians, or contain documents that provide a limited picture of past events, as we have seen in Holocaust research. However, a focus exclusively on memory politics neglects some of the fundamental facts and chronologies that allow us to properly situate how the past is instrumentalized in the present. Both memory studies and historiography are subject to ideological interpretations, and therefore I fully support a dialogue between methodologies and an interdisciplinary approach in researching the turbulent 20th century. Both scholars and students need to get in the field in order to observe this interaction between official historical narratives and their dissemination in public space, whether through memory sites such as concentration camp memorial museums or pop cultural reinterpretations.

A guided visit with students to the Dachau Concentration Camp as part of a course titled Between History and Memory in Central Europe, Dachau, Germany, January 2023

GS: The Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov writes in his latest novel “Time Shelter” (2022) that happiness “is not the foundation stone on which you build your church and state. Luck does not enter history textbooks (there are battles, pogroms, betrayals and the bloody murder of an archduke), nor does it enter chronicles and annals”. How do you view this statement after years of research work on this very topic? Do collectives even remember happy historical epochs, that these epochs are not related to the “liberation” of their territories, which always means that someone’s misfortune is on the other side?

VP: I would agree there is an overemphasis on necropolitics and the dark, tragic episodes of history, particularly in the Balkans. Studying monuments and other memorial sites for nearly two decades, I have seen quite a few mass graves, concentration camps, and museums dedicated to various atrocities. One explanation is certainly the emotional power of these tragedies, which can be mobilized by political actors more easily than promises of a better but abstract future. I think socialist Yugoslavia had partially succeeded in selling a positive vision of the future, but we saw that this ultimately failed to convince the population to continue working for that possible outcome that might not ever be realized. Another explanation, regarding memories of happy epochs, is that countries such as those in Southeastern Europe have undergone multiple political changes in the past 100 years, and each new regime or ruler seeks to delegitimize what came before. Therefore, the commemorative culture focuses on the negative aspects of the past that the allegedly better present has resolved. There are always groups that challenge the present regime with a nostalgia for fallen empires or states, but I believe your question was related to official memory politics. The interwar Yugoslav state feared Habsburg nostalgia, and today there are both Yugonostalgics and those who use the symbols and rhetoric of the NDH (Independent State of Croatia) to criticize the contemporary neo-liberal and pro-EU policies in Croatia. I think the political elite would undermine themselves and their claims for improving the lives of their citizens if they celebrated a happy past that no longer exists, and moreover, helped destroy. Mythical glorious pasts, such as the medieval kingdoms celebrated in Croatia, Serbia, North Macedonia, and other countries are fine, since these are distant enough that there are plenty of other factors to blame for their collapse, usually neighboring peoples or foreign empires.

As a counter example to this focus on the negative past, we can analyze the memory politics of the USA, which celebrated its history and glorified the country’s often bloody path to world superpower. Defeats, mistakes, and the darker episodes of the past were generally ignored (victims of imperialist interventions), superficially acknowledged (Vietnam War), or instrumentalized (the Lost Cause myth of the Confederacy). This approach was criticized both domestically and abroad, and in recent decades we have widespread efforts at engaging with this darker side of the American legacy, including slavery, rights of Native Americans, the socio-economic consequences of capitalism, and a foreign policy based on military power. A recent example is the opening of the Freedom Monument Sculpture Park in Montgomery, part of the city’s „Legacy Sites“ that unflinchingly depict the tragic histories of enslaved and indigenous peoples in Alabama and the whole country. This kind of dealing with the past is not easy, and we can observe the deep ideological divisions and cultural wars in the USA at the moment, often times associated with how Americans should learn about history in textbooks, public space, and popular culture.

Monument to Serbian ruler Stefan Nemanja that was erected in front of the former Main Railway Station in 2021 in central Belgrade, November 2022

GS: To move from the theoretical framework to the concrete practices of our region, we can use the words of the French historian Ernest Renan, for whom, in a similar way, the memory of heroic deeds and suffering actually holds the nation together. Post-Yugoslav societies, without distinction, constantly confirm the correctness of the mentioned words. Of the recent events, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, that is, the entity of Republika Srpska, the controversial January 9 was marked again. In Sarajevo, there is a debate about whether the city needs another war memorial in the shape of a tank, in Croatia, a history textbook was recently withdrawn in the middle of the school year, while in Belgrade, the Draža Mihailović museum was opened. How different is dealing with the past in post-Yugoslav societies?

VP: As I mentioned previously, the dominant narrative in almost every Yugoslav successor state includes a nationalist view of the past, and identifies the 1990s as a breaking point with a communist system that had allegedly held each nation back from achieving their full potential. Therefore even countries such as Serbia or North Macedonia, which did not initiate independence movements, now consider the collapse of Yugoslavia as foundational moments for the post-communist present. Each country portrays itself as the biggest victim of communism, and has a collection of fallen victims and heroes from the 1990s who sacrificed themselves for the new nation-state. Although the legacy of communism is handled with varying degrees of negativity across the region, each country has rehabilitated anti-communist fighters from World War 2, most of whom had collaborated with Axis occupying powers at one point or another. Consequently, this has the effect of demonizing the Partisan movement and ultimately calling into question the antifascist foundations of these countries. The examples that you give show that these nationalist and militarist interpretations of the past are produced not only through monuments and sites of memory, but textbooks, popular culture, political speeches, institutions such as museums and archives, and commemorative practices. The common antifascist struggle from World War 2 has been replaced by inward-looking nationalist accounts that have turned collaborators into innocent victims of communist terror and the modernizing socialist Yugoslav project into an exclusively repressive system that subjugated national aspirations. This of course distorts the much more nuanced post-World War 2 past, obscures the reality that each nation had perpetrators during the conflicts of the 20th century, and limits post-Yugoslav societies to feel empathy for the victims of other ethno-national groups.

Monument to victims of fascist terror in Dobroselo, Croatia, that was vandalized with Ustaša symbols, May 2023

GS: In the recently published book Framing the Nation and Collective Identities (Srednja Europa, 2022; English edition by Routledge, 2019) various authors explore the political dimension of commemorating the suffering at the important killing grounds of the Second World War, i.e. Bleiburg, Jasenovac, Jazovka, Brezovica and Srbi, as well as the commemorations in Knin and Vukovar related to the last war. What are the specifics of the research methodologies in the collection and what are the results of some of the research, that is, to use the title of the book, in what ways do these places frame the nation and collective identities?

VP: The idea for the project (Framing the Nation and Collective Identities: Political Rituals and Cultural Memory of the Twentieth-Century Traumas in Croatia, funded by the Croatian Science Foundation) and book resulted from our observation that the Croatian political elite, which has similarities with other elites across the region, frames the 20th century past in a way that legitimizes their contemporary ideological positions but distorts the historical record. Leftist parties use World War 2 commemorations to reinforce their antifascist credentials and fundamental EU values, while right-wing parties focus their memory politics on the victims of communism to demonstrate their anticommunist stance, which is also justified by situating this discourse within the EU’s condemnation of communist crimes. Whereas the political parties in Croatia are quite divided over World War 2 (the commemorations of Bleiburg and Jasenovac are perhaps the most explicit examples), Homeland War commemorations reveal that there is more of a consensus regarding the official narrative of that conflict, which was ultimately a foundational event for the contemporary Croatian state. The research team was quite interdisciplinary, and our focus over four years was to attend seven key commemorations and record all of the commemorative speeches in order to create a linguistic corpus that is still available online ( We compared the various discourses and framing strategies by the “mnemonic actors” who attended these commemorations, and we were lucky that we could observe how these speeches changed as different politicians took power over the timespan of the project (2014-2018) that included both presidential and parliamentary elections. In addition to the speeches, we observed various protocols and political rituals at the commemorations, closely followed the media reporting on the events to see how the messages from the commemorations were transmitted to the wider public, and interviewed key mnemonic actors. For the edited volume we invited several other scholars to work with our database of materials and to bring their own methodologies in analyzing how the 20th century past was framed in the present. This detailed study confirmed many of our hypotheses that I had mentioned earlier about the nationalization of collective memory – the ideological positions of the various mnemonic actors and their political parties determined how the tragic events of the past century would be framed for justifying national policy in the present. The ongoing observation of commemorative practices in the region indicates that while EU membership has lessened the need for dramatic symbolic politics in Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina still tap into this powerful emotional reservoir to keep the current elite in power.

Day of Victory and Homeland Thanksgiving and the Day of Croatian Defenders, 5 August 2014, Knin, Croatia.

GS: You collaborated on various projects with civil society associations with the aim of presenting war history in a more nuanced way than the myths officially supported by political elites, to mention only the Memoryscapes of the Homeland War that you published for the Croatian branch of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights in 2022. In this regard, civil society associations participate in the processes of transitional justice by confronting the past, while taking a clear stance towards the crimes committed by members and representatives of the nation to which we nominally belong. What is the role of civil society in the region and does it achieve good results in this regard?

VP: The regional NGOs dealing with the past were crucial in bringing alternative narratives of the 20th century conflicts into the public sphere throughout the Yugoslav successor states. While there were always academics working to challenge the new, nationalist interpretations of the past, their impact was often limited to a few classrooms or circles of like-minded intellectuals. The organizations you mentioned enabled a much-broader audience to reflect on the dramatic events of the 1990s, or even the 1940s, through exhibitions, round-tables, protests, public interventions, policy papers, and a media presence that is unavailable to most traditional scholars. Civil society is important in challenging the top-down national narratives which seek to portray the nation-state in the best of lights, particularly considering the bloody conflicts throughout the 20th century. Since most of the new states that emerged from Yugoslavia’s collapse had uncertain borders, legacies of state violence, corruption, unfriendly neighbors, and general instability, it is not surprising that the state-building strategies were founded upon instilling loyalty into the population, demonizing past regimes, and Othering neighboring states as dangerous threats to territorial integrity. The difficult, and often perilous, work by regional NGOs (Documenta, Humanitarian Law Centre, Centre for Peace, non-violence and human rights Osijek, etc.) is definitely something that needs to be recognized and commended, since they functioned as a counterweight to the merciless historical revisionism of the past three decades.

GS: How do you view the fact that the Initiative for RECOM, a regional platform for establishing facts about war crimes, never came to life precisely because of the lack of political will?

RECOM, much like the controversial concept of reconciliation, was always a process rather than an end point, and even though it has not achieved its goals due to the lack of political will that you mention, the initiatives and activities organized by the members of the coalition certainly contributed to a more pluralistic understanding of the past. Moreover, it enabled scholars, activists, war veterans, politicians, religious community members, victims’ groups, journalists, and many others across the region to interact and share their experiences, which would have otherwise been impossible, since many of the political elites in these countries sought (and still seek) to create isolated, nationalist echo chambers. Dialogue, communication, empathy, and an understanding of the Other threatens the nationalist paradigms that keeps many of the elites in power.

A protest in front of the 2nd forum to establish RECOM in February 2007, Zagreb, Croatia.

GS: Monumental heritage is an important material for studying how societies and official state policies relate to their past. It is known, for example, that in Croatia alone, approximately half of the anti-fascist memorials were destroyed after independence. Globally, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, many monuments have been removed or vandalized in the US and Europe due to their direct racist or colonial connotations. If the story usually comes down to how collectives remember, do you think that the other side of the coin, namely collective forgetting, is perhaps not an equally important topic?

VP: Absolutely. When I speak about collective remembrance, I always bring up the concept of collective amnesia, as they often go hand in hand. A country’s calendar of national holidays is a good litmus test of seeing what historical moments political elites consider to be important, and what events are erased from the national consciousness. Monuments and other sites of memory are perhaps more visible examples of a nation’s memoryscape, especially during dramatic transitions such as in the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia or over the past thirty years in the post-Soviet space, which has undergone several waves of transformation as Russia has periodically sought to reestablish its former empire: the war in Georgia in 2008, the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the full-blown invasion of Ukraine in 2022 all spurred new phases of monument removal across formerly communist Europe. However, the destruction of monuments and the erasing of individuals from collective memory (Damnatio memoria) is nothing new; in fact it accompanies every significant political, social, and cultural transition. Sometimes societies democratically agree to remove symbols, images, or individuals from public space that are no longer considered appropriate, as was the case across the US after the events of Black Lives Matter, but more often than not it is a top-down decision or officially sanctioned destruction that ignores the will of the citizens. The construction of new memoryscapes, especially in the former Yugoslavia, is also carried out by the decisions of a few mnemonic actors rather than a broader community decision. In Croatia the erection of monuments is more regulated now than in the immediate post-war years when all kinds of memory sites were created regardless of accuracy, aesthetics, or appropriate symbols. In the past few years we can observe a rapid rise in mnemonic mural-making that fills public space with all kinds of images that are not subject to official approval or regulation.

A monument to fallen soldiers in the Homeland War erected on the site of a former Partisan monument that was partially destroyed (the damaged pedestal is visible in the background) (Trokut near Novska, Croatia, July 2021)

GS: In addition to the classic ways of marking the past through memorial architecture, monumental heritage or designation of public spaces, various other artistic and activist forms also serve the purpose of collective memory. You are known among your colleagues as a graffiti and mural hunter. What is their role in marking the past?

VP: I touched upon one of the reasons for the emergence of this new media, murals and street art, in the previous question, i.e. the increasing regulation of monument-making means that more resources (time, money, and paperwork) are needed for locally created memory sites. However, I think there are other reasons, both global and regional, that have sparked the mural boom, which is the subject of my contribution to the new Slovenian-Croatian project, MEMPOP: Mnemonic Aesthetics and Strategies in Popular Culture ( Firstly, street art as a worldwide phenomenon has been impacted by social media, since murals, graffiti, and other forms of interventions in public space can be easily shared via a variety of apps. Secondly, the regulation of official monuments in Croatia means that controversial symbols (such as the Ustaša slogan Za dom spremni or a Croatian chessboard coat of arms with a white field first) are more easily kept off of a statue or memorial space. Additionally, murals offer visuals (images of soldiers, scenes of combat, iconic buildings) that monuments, which are largely abstract in the Croatian Homeland War memoryscape, simply cannot portray. Finally, murals occupy a semi-legal zone because their creators do not always receive permission to paint them on buildings or other objects (such as the image of the convicted war criminal Mihajlo Hrastov on a bridge owned by Croatian Railways), yet the authorities rarely have the will to remove them. It was a logical shift from studying monuments (expensive state-funded memorial sites that are often ignored by the vast majority of citizens) to studying mnemonic murals (often a bottom-up group or community activity), since they offer dynamic artistic elements that are noticed by more people. We can also see that the sophistication of mnemonic murals and political graffiti has improved from the early scrawled “Vukovar” tags to the epic murals covering viaducts (Crikvenica), underpasses (Zagreb), or kilometers of city walls (Split).

Vukovar mural on the viaduct over Crikvenica, Croatia, May 2021
Vukovar mural in an underpass in Zagreb, Croatia, December 2021
Kilometer-long mural depicting scenes from the Battle of Vukovar in Split, Croatia, November 2021

GS: You grew up and spent most of your life in the USA, only after your doctorate did you move to Croatia as a returning scientist. Because of this, you have the privilege of being able to look at both contexts that define you in life and professionally from an external perspective, as a partial outsider. What are the similarities and differences between American, European or Balkan practices of memory cultures? Can they learn from each other or are certain commemorative paradigms uncritically imitated?

VP: I do think my experience of growing up in the USA has allowed me to approach the memory politics in the former Yugoslavia with a comparative perspective that is not always emphasized in Croatian or regional academia. Before the Trump presidency, I had often used the American example as a positive one of successfully dealing with the past, or at least creating an atmosphere that encouraged dialogue among academics, politicians, journalists, and artists about certain issues such as racism, socio-economic inequality, and American imperialism. However, American society polarized rapidly during the Trump administration, and many historical issues, such as the US Civil War and the monuments related to that conflict, once again became politicized and even radicalized. After the murder of George Floyd and the reinvigoration of the Black Lives Matter movement, monuments became targeted by protestors who demanded their removal. These calls were directed not only at Confederate monuments, but at an entire swath of historical markers whose purpose was reevaluated in the newly charged atmosphere. At one point this included Ivan Meštrović’s two statues of American Indians in Chicago (The Bowman and the Spearman), along with other romanticized depictions of indigenous peoples, controversial memorials to Christopher Columbus, and political figures who had made their careers through slavery or other exploitative means. This reinforces the idea that “dealing with the past” is not a static process, nor is it ever completed. Societies constantly need to encourage critical thinking and revisit the official narratives of the past, which includes how public space is configured. This of course excludes ideologically driven revisionism of the sort that tried to brutally erase the legacy of antifascism and internationalism across the former Yugoslavia. Ideally liberal democratic societies can decide on these issues through dialogue and community decision-making, but in reality political elites or other mnemonic actors are those who determine what the memoryscape looks like, especially in the Yugoslav successor states. I’ve had the chance to observe memory politics across Europe and in North America, and it is clear that monument-making and sites of memory are present everywhere, each within a specific political and cultural context. The challenge is to allow a plurality of collective memories to exist in public, while at the same time insisting on the promotion of shared values and the exclusion of harmful or deliberate falsifications from the memorial landscape.

“The Soil You See” installation by Wendy Red Star on the National Mall in Washington, DC, USA, commemorating the thumbprint “signatures” of indigenous leaders who often were unknowingly deprived of their lands as the United States expanded West, August 2023

GS: At the end of our conversation, I would like to recall the words of Bogdan Bogdanović, probably the most famous author of anti-fascist memorials in Yugoslavia, who once declared that he dreams of a world without monuments. To turn this idea on its head, I would ask you if there are practices of commemorating the past that are transformative and healing for the societies regardless of their internal heterogeneity, or such an idea is equally utopian as Bogdanović’s world without monuments?

VP: There have been many initiatives to move beyond monuments, whether through the counter-monument movement in Germany or performance art such as that promoted by Grupa Spomenik in Belgrade. While I don’t think that a monument is “history” and should never be altered, moved, or destroyed (as some defenders of Confederate monuments argue), I believe that we can learn a lot from them and they will continue to play a role in our public spaces. Sometimes a controversial monument can inspire discussion and draw attention to unresolved issues in a society, and there are moments when a monument needs to be relocated to a place where we can understand it within the proper context. Too often monuments and other memorial objects are destroyed without a conversation with the communities where they are located, or a memorial is erected at great cost with seemingly little purpose. In those cases I can see the desire for a world without monuments, but it is more a reflection upon society rather than the monuments themselves. Murals and political graffiti have increasingly greater appeal since they are created quickly, have considerable visibility, and can be easily removed once their purpose has changed (or another artist takes over that space). Like the walls of social media platforms, murals and the accompanying graffiti can interact and spark dialogue, which can at times be crude or inappropriate, but nevertheless reflects the opinions of the street. One recent event that I attended, the digital restoration of Vojin Bakić’s inspirational monument in Kamenska that was destroyed by Croatian troops in 1992, demonstrated that these kinds of commemorative events can bring communities together to reflect not only on past tragedies but the resilience needed to fight for a better future. Another example is the “Beyond Granite” event on the National Mall in Washington, DC, in the summer of 2023, when temporary artistic interventions enabled the public display of collective memories of marginalized groups in an otherwise exclusive memorial space. In other words, societies can take advantage of new technologies and media to move beyond the rigidity and inflexibility of traditional monument practices, and use the past, even if tragic, to work on building more inclusive and just political systems for all citizens.

Bouchout: A château shrouded in plants

By Adi Tufek

As I wander through the deserted Meise Botanic Garden on a freezing December morning, I read about the fictional king Amaryllo, who serves as a stylized guide for the youngest visitors of the former royal grounds. Situated just north of Brussels, I learn that it is now home to more than 20,000 plant species. The booklets, available at the non-fictional-Keizerin-Charlotte entrance, also inform guests that the 92-hectares estate is a place with deep roots.

While the quippy metaphor from the guide was aimed at the plants in the garden, it is the history of one particular building of the estate—Bouchout Castle—that prompts my early visit. According to the plaque positioned next to a model of the castle, the structure dates to the 12th century. It was possessed and renovated by several noble families over the years and came into its definite neo-Gothic form in the early 19th century. The Belgian royal family acquired the domain in 1879, transferring it to the Belgian State in 1938, which finally transformed it into a botanical garden. Although the castle underwent significant structural renovations in the 1980s, the presence of scaffolds and ladders indicates that ongoing works are still in progress.

Bouchout Castle, surrounded on three sides by a 17th-century artificial pond.

I also learn that the toponym Bouchout is likely to be etymologically related to boek, the Flemish word for the beech tree. Somewhere amidst my reflections on the multilingual landscapes of modern-day Belgium, rootedness, and uprooting, I recall Aleida Asmann’s  iteration of a botanic comparison made by Sir Thomas Browne, a 17th-century English polymath:  

There is no antidote against the Opium of time, which temporally considereth all things; Our Fathers finde their graves in our short memories, and sadly tell us how we may be buried in our Survivors. Grave-stones tell the truth scarce fourty years: Generations passe while some trees stand, and old families las not three Oaks.

Assmann refers to his gloomy vision in order to emphasize the indispensable function of oblivion in cultural memory. However, I enter the castle with a different motivation: to explore what is remembered. Between 1879 and 1927, the building was home to Charlotte of Belgium (1840-1927), a Belgian princess, Archduchess of Austria and Empress of the Second Mexican Empire (1864-1867)—the focus of my academic interest. After returning from the other side of the Atlantic and unsuccessfully seeking help for her husband, Maximilian of Habsburg, from Napoleon III in France and Pope Pio IX in the Vatican, Charlotte was sent to Miramare in Italy and subsequently brought back to Belgium by her brother. Carlota, as she is known in the Spanish-speaking world, spent the years after her husband’s execution in Mexico at three locations in Belgium: the Palace of Laeken, which is still the official residence of the Kings of the Belgians; the Pavilion of Tervuren, which burned down in 1879; and Bouchout Castle, where she resided for nearly five decades. Maximilian’s widow, tormented by psychological problems and the failure of the imperial project orchestrated by Mexican conservatives, Napoleon III, her husband and herself, would spend her days embroidering, drawing, and playing the piano.

Some of the Empress’ personal belongings on display in the Blue Salon.

The castle’s ground floor is almost entirely dedicated to the history of the Botanical Garden. Visitors can peruse the biographies of notable Belgian explorers and botanists, echoes of colonial aspirations and exotic discoveries. It is only on the left side, in the Blue Salon hidden behind a massive wooden door, that more about Charlotte is presented. Maximilian’s drawn portrait, some of Charlotte’s belongings and several informative panels are all that remains of castle’s royal resident. As I gaze out through the large windows at the austere pond, backdropped by the deciduous forest behind it, accompanied by the quacking of ducks that use the ancient castle grounds, I imagine the frame that must have surrounded Charlotte during her hours in the Blue Salon, supposedly her favourite room in Bouchout. Mounted on the ceiling, the coats of arms of the eight families that once owned the place overlooked the princess whose life is habitually summarised as tragic.

Charlotte passed away in January 1927 at the age of 86, having outlived her husband Maximilian and her husband’s brother Franz Joseph I (Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary), as well as his wife Empress Elizabeth, commonly known as Sisi. She also outlasted her brother Leopold II of Belgium, Napoleon III (the last French monarch), Pope Pius IX, and Benito Juárez and Porfirio Díaz, who ruled Mexico after the downfall of the Second Mexican Empire. The woman secluded at the royal estate on the outskirts of Brussels was, thus, one of the last major actors of the ephemeral 19th-century Mexican enterprise. A constant witness of turbulent political history stashed away in a castle by a pond. Her body was buried at the Royal Crypt of the Belgian ruling family beneath the Church of Our Lady of Laeken, located only a few kilometres from the castle.

An enormous butterfly model resting on the Donjon Tower, considered to be the oldest preserved part of the castle.

During Charlotte’s stay, as geopolitical rearrangements were reshaping established power hierarchies, Bouchout Castle served as a spatio-temporal asylum for the living memory of the last imperial project executed in Mexico, an island providing shelter to the long 19th century that was coming to its end. The castle’s hauntological extraterritoriality is reflected in a widely retold episode from WWI: when German officers, on their way to occupy Belgium, noticed the Austro-Hungarian flag on the castle’s roof and learned of its resident, orders were given to leave the place untouched. Nowadays, no national flag flies over Bouchout Castle. There is only a giant Kafkaesque butterfly resting on one of its towers, a displaced materialization of concomitant imperial, colonial, entomological and botanic histories.      

On my way back, I pass by the art exhibition inspired by the Green Man motif, set along the tree-lined avenue connecting the castle with the entrance to the Botanic Garden. The pairs of masks representing the duality of winter and spring, created by a series of local artists, follow me as I advance toward the exit. In the Epilogue to his recent book, The Last Emperor of Mexico , Edward Shawcross described Charlotte’s funeral procession and the villagers who lined the road near the castle to bid farewell to their deceased noble neighbour. Shawcross’ words conjure townsfolk into the empty eyes of the masks for a brief moment, a flash of memory I could not possibly have. Empty masks for a funeral procession lost to time.

Artwork by Marina Roggeman, featured as part of the exhibition Face to Face set in the Botanical Garden.

Before departing, I inspect the gift shop. There, I discover cards adorned with organic patterns, typical postcards featuring the castle, botanic illustrations, and gardening tools, even plants, but no trace of the former royal resident of Bouchout Castle. In contrast to the commercialization of Sisi’s memory in Vienna, there appears to be no commodification of Charlotte’s presence on the estate-turned-botanic garden. With a couple of souvenirs in my pockets, as I am nearly leaving the premises, a solitary sculpture of a middle-aged woman catches my attention. Resting on a bench among the plants, it would be an appropriate visualization of the ‘’eternal present, without beginning or end—the living memory of a whole century frozen in time,’’  as Fernando del Paso described Carlota in News from the Empire, a 1987 novel that marked a turning point in the representation of the Empress in Mexican culture. When I approach the figure, I notice it is not Charlotte, but I read the name of the work nonetheless. Fertility, reads the plaque. Ironically, it is the question of Charlotte’s capacity to deliver an heir to the newly established throne that has operated as one of the central figures of memory concerning the Belgian princess.

The Plant Palace is just a few minutes’ walk from the castle. Its tropical rainforest section showcases various Mexican plant species, among others.


  • Aleida Assmann, Shadows of Trauma: memory and the politics of postwar identity (Ney York: Fordham University Press, 2015).
  • Edward Shawcross: The Last Emperor of Mexico (New York: Basic Books, 2021).
  • Fernando del Paso: News from the Empire (Champaign/London: Dalkey Archive Press, 2009, 375).

Cres Retreat as a Way of Slowing Down Unstoppable Time

A group of academic's sitting in a room in the Moise Palace and discussing.

By Magdalena Meašić and Matea Magdić

Two academic events happened in and around the University of Rijeka and Cres’s Moise Palace in the first part of 2023 that, although not directly connected, foreshadowed and entangled each other in the most enriching way. The first event happened on the 13th of April 2023 when Filozofski fakultet in Rijeka hosted a small symposium organized by the COST Action Slow Memory, and our team was invited to participate in the gathering. Apart from the event being a wonderful way of meeting new colleagues and engaging in exciting discussions, what stuck with us the most, and presumably with some of our colleagues as well, is the philosophy behind Slow Memory itself. As stated on their website,

Through transnational and interdisciplinary discussions, we will address urgency, emergency, crisis and acceleration by drawing together the ‘multi-sited’, ‘eventless’ and slow-moving phenomena that can best be studied by ‘slowing down’ our research methods, to afford capacity building, knowledge generation and impact activities.

Even though the subject of the research is of undeniable importance, the sentiment about “slowing down our research methods” or our research in general, at first, seemed even more provocative than the research topic itself. Although we were prepared to reconsider our working tempo and contemplate introducing “slowness” into our schedules, we didn’t have an opportunity to put the new philosophy into practice until our work retreat at the Moise Palace on the island Cres, which took place from 8th to 10th of May 2023. Thus, the thinking about slowness during the first event in Rijeka came into play in action in the second on Cres.

A photo of the town of Cres taken by one of the participants of the event

It was hard to conceal our astonishment while stepping into the stunning edifice of the Renaissance-palace-turned-conference-center and exploring all its hidden corners, and even more so when realizing that we had it all to ourselves. The idyllic atmosphere of a hidden Mediterranean haven contributed to the slowly growing sense of tranquility. Jeremy’s well-organized schedule for the three days ahead of us turned out to be particularly fruitful. In addition to reading the papers of our colleagues and actively engaging with them before our trip, the extended time window for discussions proved to be especially helpful. After setting the tone to the retreat, but also to the entire project, with his prestation titled “In the time of post-empire”, Jeremy gave the floor to us to present our papers we’ve been working on for the last few months.

Our group is fairly small, which translated well into each of us having about an hour to present and receive feedback from our peers. This practice proved particularly useful for doctoral scholars Goran, Magdalena, Matea, and Adi. We were all keenly interested in Adi’s presentation in particular since he joined our group last and presented a proposal for his future doctoral research.

Adi’s research paper was centered around Maximilian I of Mexico and his wife, Charlotte of Belgium. He was then in the process of applying for his PhD program and has outlined his research questions. We are happy to report that by the time of the publication of this blog, Adi’s application was successful and he has started his PhD at Universidad Complutense de Madrid. Back on Cres, he already presented how his doctoral thesis aims to recognize the role of literary texts, movies, and popular culture in creating collective memory. Additionally, he intends to explore how imperial legacies operate in Mexican culture today. Maximilian I and Charlotte of Belgium are perfect examples to study this phenomenon due to their Habsburg roots and imperial background. Adi also emphasized the paradoxical but often engaging ways in which their example illustrates the interplay between colonialism and imperialism.

However, the main part of Adi’s paper was the suggestion of close reading of novels, dramas, telenovelas, and different texts of popular culture that feature representations of Maximilian and Charlotte. One interesting observation was that Charlotte received more attention than Maximilian in popular culture, which may be due to the rich typology of women characters in literature.

The group raised a question about the relationship between literary texts and reality, and how we can examine it. Specifically, we wondered what role history, nonfictional events, and literature, movies, and other mediums play in constructing collective memory. Matea’s presentation raised similar questions as Adi’s since they are both literary scholars and both of their work will focus primarily on literature. Adi’s case studies will focus on Mexican literature and popular culture, while Matea will be examining Croatian literature.

Matea (University of Zagreb) presented the first chapter of her doctoral thesis that discusses an old Croatian epic called “Vazetje Sigeta grada” written by Barne Karnarutić. In this chapter, she aims to find out why has the epic work received negative reviews. Additionally, she examines how the epic manages to convey historical events in a more memorable and understandable way. During her presentation and the subsequent discussion with her colleagues, the focus was on the blurred and fairly fluid distinction between arts, such as literature, and historical knowledge, which is a contemporary phenomenon. This distinction was not present in earlier stages of literature. Matea is grappling with the challenge of developing a system that can seamlessly handle the literary text as both a fictional (nonreal) reality while also considering the effects of historical knowledge on both the literary text and the nonfictional world. Both of these elements work together in creating collective memory, as Matea aims to demonstrate. Considering the shared methodological and theoretical framing of Matea’s and Adi’s research, they concluded the discussions on Cres were just the beginning of their future collaboration within the project

Goran, who had enrolled in his PhD program at KU Leuven just a few months earlier, took the opportunity to brief the entire team on the outline and basic structure of his research. Under the preliminary title “Intercultural Theology, Identity, and Memory: The Formation of Bosnian Catholicism between Two Empires,” Goran’s doctoral research aims to investigate the relationship between memory and theology in the historical context of late 19th and early 20th century Bosnia and Herzegovina, particularly during the transition from Ottoman rule to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It employs a comparative case study approach, focusing on two influential figures of the time: Franciscan friar Ivan Franjo Jukić and Archbishop Josip Stadler. Goran’s study examines how these two contrasting figures, with Jukić as an imperial rebel and Stadler as a loyalist to the Habsburgs, shaped the complex Bosnian Catholic culture through their representations in intellectual, cultural, and religious works. This research not only enhances our understanding of how religious identities transformed into cultural resources during the nation-building period but also contributes to discussions in intercultural theology regarding the cultural evolution of local contextual theologies in the Balkans.

Magdalena, already deeply immersed in her PhD research on gender representation in Soviet opera in Heidelberg, prepared a paper on the Soviet and Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin’s opera “Not Love Alone” (Ne tol’ko lyubov’, 1961). She subsequently presented this paper at the 17th International Scientific Conference, “Music Science Today: The Permanent and the Changeable,” organized by Daugavpils University just a few days after our retreat in Cres. In her paper, Magdalena argues that Shchedrin’s opera holds unique historical and cultural significance in the context of Soviet opera history. Despite being created during the Thaw period, the opera faced early dismissal due to uncertain political and cultural attitudes toward new artistic works and their portrayal of Soviet society. The opera itself encapsulates a tension between old and new cultural narratives, evident in both its text and music. Specifically, Magdalena’s paper aimed to explore how Shchedrin’s opera reflects both Stalinist and Thaw-era themes, motifs, and tropes in its depiction of post-war Soviet collective farms and their intrigues.

The group hard at work in Moise Palace

As for the postdoctoral scholars in our group, Lili, Kevin and Ivan, they had a much clearer vision of what their work is going to look like. For instance, Kevin presented the second chapter of his book in which he explores the ways language and place have been intertwined throughout history. By investigating how language has changed over time in a particular geographic location, we gain a deeper understanding of the cultural and social influences that have shaped our world.

Kevin has a keen interest in Sarajevo, a city in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The title of his paper and presentation was “Bridges” which highlights the main focus of the presented chapter. The bridge that is central to his historic and linguistic research is now called “Latin Bridge”, though its name has changed over the centuries. In his paper, Kevin examines the plaque that commemorates the sponsorship of Hadži Abdulah Briga, who renovated the bridge at the end of the 18th century. The most compelling and significant part of Kevin’s paper was his linguistic and literary analysis and interpretation of the plaque, which he translated into Latin script and English language.

Kevin’s paper illustrates how conventions operate and their function in honoring and remembering individuals. Additionally, Kevin establishes that the authors of these commemorative plaques possess considerable poetic and artistic abilities, as they manage to adhere to the literary conventions while also creating something distinctive.

Our project, REVENANT, focuses on investigating different aspects of imperial relics. These aspects can be divided into three groups: places, persons, and things (this is the distinction the project research leader, Jeremy F. Walton, proposes in his work). Kevin’s paper examined one aspect of the imperial revenant, places, while Ivan presented his paper on Nikola Tesla as a semiotic ghost, fulfilling the second major part of our project, namely, persons.

In his paper, Ivan explores the fascinating relationship between Tesla and the editor of the magazine in which Tesla’s autobiography was published, Hugo Gernsback. Ivan’s research delves into the incorporation of different philosophical premises with the study of memory and collectivity, while also conducting a significant historical investigation. Ivan’s primary concern is to find a way in which ones’ autobiography can be read and perceived differently by different collectives, each with different agendas. He argues that the various interpretations, readings, and receptions of Tesla’s autobiography are what have turned it into what he calls a semiotic ghost: “The ghost was bound by the autobiography, but it was sustained by the collectives reframing that autofiction.”(Flis 2023)

Lili’s talk delves into the idea of a sentient and alive landscape, as perceived by a community of Sufi Muslims and their closely associated volunteers, who tend to a sacred landscape in Bashkortostan, Russia’s Urals. Namely, Lili has spent the summers between 2018 and 2021 conducting fieldwork in Bashkortostan, where she visited numerous sacred sites but also participated at religious ceremonies herself. In her paper titled „A remembering and worshipping landscape: Sentient landscapes, oneness and Muslim pilgrimage in Russia’s Urals“ Lili presented us with a fresh perspective on human-nature relationships, drawing from Muslim ontologies, and delved into how Sufism’s “open heart” and “heart-knowledge” contribute to the perception of the landscape as imbued with life and unity.

All in all, the presented papers showed a level of motivation of all the participants – all the presenters and all the commentators were really well prepared and ready for a constructive discussion.

During our retreat on Cres, we not only delved deeper into our own and our colleagues’ topics and projects but also took the opportunity to get to know each other better. It was something we had been wanting to do for a while but never had time for. The retreat offered a much-needed break from our busy and overwhelming everyday work and research, allowing us to find joy in the small moments, work related and non-related talks and discussions.

Our group, which has grown larger, welcomed two guests from the University of Rijeka, Sarah Czerny and Vjeran Pavlaković. They not only provided valuable opinions and suggestions but also proved to be great company during our informal hangouts.  During the discussion, Vjeran stood out as one of the most present commentators and a very pleasant feedback giver. He has a knack for pointing out obscure facts that others may have missed.

Sarah presented her paper that focuses on scholarly values and behaviors in the Croatian educational and academic system. She examines the way research is conducted and disseminated to the relationships between faculty, students, and staff and the workings of institutions in Croatia. Her main hypothesis was that the steps one must take when dealing with an institution and its forms were carefully considered. Her approach had a highly anthropological perspective and her work garnered a lot of attention from our group. We were so intrigued by her paper that we even discussed it on our way back to Rijeka.

Group photo in front of the anti-facist “Spomenik palim borcima” monument in Cres

As time passes, nostalgia often creeps in. Nostalgia has always been a familiar presence in our research group. We frequently revolve around the idea of recalling things in certain ways. Now, we find ourselves as the subjects—or rather, the objects—of our old friend nostalgia. This sentiment isn’t very common among workers and researchers, especially those operating within the Croatian system. So, ironically, we are pleased to discover ourselves feeling nostalgic about the times spent with our colleagues. We now yearn for our discussions and the stimulating conclusions we reached, which were not always groundbreaking but almost always interesting.

Spectral Themes: An Introduction

By Jeremy F. Walton

An inaugural screed intended to frame a blog is a fitting space in which to exercise the prerogative of levity. Academic blogs such as ours are defined to a large degree by what they are not: peer-reviewed research articles steeped in disciplinary habits of citation and exposition, often at the expense of investigations of lateral affinities or arguments that perforate professional and conceptual boundaries. Laterality and perforation are two keywords and beacons for our meditations here at Spectral Themes; they are not alone.

We also take inspiration from the etymology of the term “blog” itself. Consider the original portmanteau: weblog. The provocative contrast between the two halves of this Internet 1.0 coinage is rarely appreciated. A web is a multicentered, diaphanous entity; its sophisticated synonyms include “rhizome” and “assemblage”. Heterogeneity and multiplicity are its calling cards. A log summons divergent associations. Whether understood as a record of occurrences or, less aptly in this context, as a unit of timber, the log is a sign of homogenization, of the submission of disparate qualities (a congeries of events; grain and hardness) to a single system of enumeration. Examined according to these metaphorical logics, a weblog is an oxymoron: both diverse and uniform, both multipolar and singular. This fits our purposes nicely.

There is a paradoxical aspect to a blog about specters, as well. Ghosts are central to our research group’s endeavors as a whole, as our acronymic name, REVENANT, suggests. We take inspiration from Derrida’s famous meditations on specters: “A ghost never dies, it remains always to come and to come-back.”[1] Eternal returns of the ghosts of empires—specifically, the Habsburg, Ottoman, and Romanov Empires—orient REVENANT’s inquiries, as well as the explorations of our blog. More specifically, we ponder post-imperial persons, post-imperial places, and post-imperial things—the tripartite heuristic for REVENANT’s research, and a theme that I take up at greater length here.

Post-imperial hauntings in Sarajevo’s Eugene of Savoy (Jajce) Barracks. Photo by Jeremy F. Walton.

Beyond these thematic generalities, it is worth tarrying a bit longer with the paradox of writing about specters and revenants. To write for an audience, whether of an academic blog or otherwise, is to render the objects of one’s inquiries and meditations public. How can this act of publicization, with the imperatives of coherence and legibility that define it, possibly capture a ghost? How can the uncanny and the untoward features of haunting persist across the gap between phenomenological and the discursive? Cleary, uncanniness is not merely neutered and neutralized by publicization: ghost stories and horror films tell us otherwise. Yet, if we genuinely aspire to “learn to live with ghosts,”[2] as Derrida proposes, such dilemmas cannot be easily jettisoned. The afterlives of empires, in both their web-like multiplicity and log-like uniformity, demand nothing less.

[1] Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. Peggy Kamuf, trans. (London and New York: Routledge, 1994),  p. 123.

[2] Ibid., p. xvii-xviii.

Imperial Revenants: Persons, Places, Things

by Jeremy F. Walton

“As soon as roses fade,
Breathing ambrosia,
Their souls are flying, 
Lightly to Eylsium.

There, where tired waves
Are bearing oblivion,
Their fragrant shades
Bloom over Lethe.”

--Alexander Pushkin, “To the Fountain of the Palace of Bakhchisarai” [1]

March 20th, 2014, is a date intimately entwined with Alexander Pushkin in my memory. That morning, as I was preparing to board a flight from Istanbul to Zagreb, an unsettling ghost of empire haunted the departures board at Atatürk Airport. Nestled between upcoming flights to Bucharest and Tehran, Toulouse and Lisbon, a scheduled Atlas Jet service to Simferopol, Crimea’s second largest city, simply read “cancelled.”  The previous month, Vladimir Putin had ordered the invasion of Crimea in a sinister, irredentist effort to wrest it back from Ukraine and, concomitantly, to redraw the post-Soviet map. Russia’s formal annexation of Crimea had occurred only two days early, on 18 March, and travel to and from the peninsula was accordingly upended.

The departures board at Atatürk Airport, 20 March 2014.

Simferopol is a mere thirty kilometers from the Bakhchysarai, the eponymous Crimean town famous for the palace of the Crimean Khanate that so inspired Pushkin. When Pushkin penned his verses in the early 1820s, Crimea was a relatively new acquisition on the part of the Romanovs, part of the spoils of Catherine the Great’s victories over the Ottomans in the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774, though it was not officially annexed until 1783. The late winter of 2014 was witness to an uncanny repetition of an era of 18th Century imperial rivalry and expansionism—a revenant that has only become bloodier since February of 2022.

I cannot claim to have recalled Pushkin’s poem on that March morning—I did not know it at the time. Once “To the Fountain of the Palace of Bakhchisarai” found its way to me, however, its verses became inseparable from both the specific neo-imperial politics of Russia on the northern Black Sea coast and from the longer, stranger durée of post-imperial formations that saturate political, cultural, and socioeconomic life throughout central Asia, the Middle East, southeast Europe, and beyond. The legacies and memories that form the bedrock for such post-imperial formations are the inspiration for our research group, REVENANT—Revivals of Empire: Nostalgia, Amnesia, Tribulation (ERC Consolidator Grant # 101002908).

“To the Fountain of the Palace of Bakhchisarai” neatly encapsulates the conceptual and methodological commitments of REVENANT. A threefold heuristic of post-imperial persons, post-imperial places, and post-imperial things grounds the collaborative, interdisciplinary, and multiregional research to which REVENANT aspires. “To the Fountain of the Palace of Bakhchisarai” includes examples of each of these guiding rubrics. Alexander Pushkin is an iconic post-imperial figure, one of the dominant embodiments of collective memory of the Romanovs. Bakhchysarai Palace and its surroundings are profoundly post-imperial places—they are the principal architectural legacy of the Crimean Khanate, a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire, as well as ambivalent sites of Russian-Romanov and Soviet memory. Finally, the fountain of Pushkin’s rhapsody exemplifies how specific things harness, embody, and lend texture to the political and cultural abstractions of empire.

The fountain at Bakhchysarai. A bust of Pushkin is visible on the left.

REVENANT’s geographic ambitions are expansive and, accordingly, vulnerable to the politics of neo-imperialism in the present. Initially, the research group aspired to encompass the legacies and memories of the Habsburg, Ottoman, and Romanov Empires in nine distinct national contexts: Austria, Bosnia Hercegovina, Croatia, Georgia, Greece, Romania, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine. A tripartite logic guided this selection of nation-states and cities within them. Austria, Russia, and Turkey represent the dominant nation-state heirs to the Habsburg, Romanov, and Ottoman Empires; Bosnia-Hercegovina, Romania, and Ukraine, as well as Georgia, each evince inter-imperial legacies as national sites of two or more of the former empires; finally, a triad of port cities in Croatia, Georgia and Greece—Rijeka, Batumi, and Thessaloniki—constitute a distinctive post-imperial urban constellation. As a result of hiccoughs resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, the project officially began somewhat later than expected, on  April 1st, 2022. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February 2022 unambiguously, and viciously, illustrated that the politics of imperial pasts and the politics of the neo-imperial present are inseparable. Imperial revenants are unruly. Even before beginning REVENANT, I was compelled to reconsider its scope.

REVENANT’s reorientation has been welcome, not least because the initial stipulation of field sites was excessively schematic. Even as Russia and Ukraine have become inhospitable research contexts, partially for reasons that our research aims to illuminate, other exilic and post-imperial sites have entered our purview. In the Balkans, abiding by contemporary nation-state borders makes little sense in the context of REVENANT—sites in other southeast European nation-states, including Italy, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia, also beckon. Simultaneously, collective memories of the Romanovs and their inter-imperial relationships continue to inspire us, even as the methods available to our research rely on archives and field sites outside of the primary inheritor states of the empire. The post-imperial persons that specific members of REVENANT pursue in their research include 19th Century Bosnian Franciscan intellectuals, a 16th Century Habsburg military hero, Habsburg Archduke and Mexican Emperor Maximilian and his wife Charlotte, and one of the most famous inventors of the fin de siècle, Nikola Tesla. REVENANT’s post-imperial places are myriad—among them are a sunken island in the Danube, an arctic archipelago, a fortress overlooking the Adriatic, and sites of memory for Bashkir Sufis, both shrines on the slopes of the Urals and war memorials in western Europe. Finally, REVENANT’s research constitutes a cabinet of curious post-imperial things, ranging from the scores and librettos of Soviet operas to gigantic memorial bells cast from cannonballs and Neo-Ottoman cuisine.

The triad of nostalgia, amnesia, and tribulation, which supplies the subtitle for REVENANT, underscores the ambivalent forms, inhabitations, and effects of post-imperial revenants. This triple thematic brings us back to Pushkin and Bakhchisarai. Post-imperial nostalgia, yearning for a faded rose, is endemic to former Habsburg, Ottoman, and Romanov lands. Yet post-imperial memories often “bloom over Lethe,” the river of forgetting—amnesia and forgetting are inextricably bound with nostalgia. And both nostalgia and amnesia are buffeted by “tired waves,” the tribulations of imperial legacies that remain resolutely present in uncanny, remarkable, and unappreciated ways. 

[1] Alexander Pushkin, The Bronze Horseman: Selected Poems of Alexander Pushkin, trans. D. M. Thomas (New York: Viking, 1982), p. 45.