In 2010, Prpa returned to the Institute for Modern History.
Prpa’s research covers the history of the twentieth century, the intellectual history of Serbia, and the history of ideas pertaining to the Yugoslav states.
After the downfall of Slobodan Milošević, Zoran Djindjić, the democratic prime minister of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, asked Prpa to lead the Historical Archives of Belgrade. In an interview with COURAGE, she recalls her hesitation. Until then, she had only conducted research and had never led a public institution. Djindjić insisted by arguing that a democratic state should renew its institutions, and that intellectuals should take action. Prpa eventually agreed, becoming head of the Historical Archives of Belgrade in 2002. At the time, the archives had a very basic digital infrastructure, Prpa remembers, in part from the many years of sanctions during the war, and she also mentions the brainwashing during the Milošević regime. At the suggestion of the UK National Archives, Prpa reformed the Historical Archives of Belgrade, making financial reports and administrative issues available to the public on the institution’s website as well as creating digital catalogues and collecting user statistics. Transparency in administrative matters, particularly financial, used to be unpopular in post-socialist public institutions. However, despite some reluctance, Prpa persisted. When it came to content, Prpa strives to “return culture to history. You know, culture is somehow dodged by historians. Since I have been a historian of a different kind from the beginning, I identified with the social concept of history, or better: total history. So, culture was extremely important to me,” she explained during the interview with COURAGE. Prpa initiated the process of preserving documents with, starting with the Belgrade administration fond from 1837-41. Thus, a publication in six volumes about everyday life in Belgrade was created.
From Prpa’s own experience researching intellectuals, she knew the difficulties of accessing the private collections of renowned people, especially after a regime change. Prpa stated that “I thought that soon, many people who played extremely important roles in the history of the second half of the twentieth century, and who have marked the social, political, and cultural life of Belgrade, Serbia, and Yugoslavia, will be gone. We won’t have any direct or authentic documents from them -- only indirect documentation of their activities -- to understand why their ideas marked the end of the twentieth century.” So Prpa started an initiative, asking her contemporaries to donate their private collections to the Archive. Intellectuals included the sociologist Nebojša Popov and the historian Ivan Žuric, as well as outstanding artists like the ballet dancer Jelena Šantic (who would become one of the most important anti-war activists in the 1990s), a group of symbolists, and Jovan Ćirilov, who significantly impacted the Yugoslav avant-garde theatre scene. Prpa not only archived material, she also helped create publications, exhibitions and public events based on them. With the estate of the world-renowned ballet dancer Milorad Mišković for example, the Archives produced both a retrospective exhibition and a book. According to Prpa's assessment, the Historical Archives of Belgrade became “one of the most important cultural places in Belgrade. […] So, the Archives were not only a place where researchers would come, but also were cultural life took place in Belgrade.” Prpa's conflict with authorities started when, as the rehabilitation of Serbian nationalists from World War II were launched, the revision of World War II history became politically mainstream. Prpa countered the revisions, aware that she was entering a political battle over history. When Serbian politicians, backed by historians, attempted to portray Serbian nationalists (called Chetniks) during World War II as freedom fighters, their collaboration with the Nazis was downplayed. According to Prpa, “The Historical Archives of Belgrade are one of the rare archival institutions in Europe to have the complete documentation of the Gestapo […] as well as the complete documentation of the Banjica concentration camp with 24.000 inmates.“ Banjica was a large Nazi-established concentration camp in occupied Serbia, and was operated between 1941 and 1944. Under the administration of the Gestapo and collaborating Serbian police, political adversaries, particularly from the national liberation movement (communists), as well as Jews and Roma, were incarcerated and murdered. Prpa recalls: “so I decided to edit all the documents in eight volumes, and then I left. […] That is the least we can do for the victims. The youngest child was no more than a few months old, and the oldest person killed was almost 100 years old. That was part of my work in establishing the first chronology of the modern Serbian state between 1804 and 2004.” Until that point, Prpa financed her projects using public funding. But funding for the edition of documents about Banjica concentration camp was rejected by Belgrade authorities. Prpa eventually published the eight volumes through a private donation from her husband. In 2017, an exhibition was created, inspired by the publication.
In an interview with COURAGE, Prpa explains that “Yugoslavia was quickly turning, already by the fifties, towards cultural pluralism--despite its one-party political system. […] So, you can say that until the 1980s, not only Serbia, but Yugoslavia, too, was pretty much open when it came to culture.” However, Prpa also notes ambiguities: “There was also repression, Popov’s books were forbidden, for instance, and some were imprisoned. But none of it had heavy consequences. […] People with big names in the cultural sphere headed important cultural institutions. It was not very important to be member of the party. I was never a member of the League of Communists. I refused, and nothing happened to me. Nevertheless, it was a question of choice. […] They might have tried to intimidate you, but it was possible to say 'I won’t [join]’.
”When asked how she understands the term “cultural opposition”, Prpa maintains: “The entire European culture evolved from self-critique. If anything characterizes the cultural sphere, then it is its never-ending criticism. Without that, you would essentially not have culture. Dialogue is its key feature, within itself and with the world. That’s why it is the most creative domain of human society. […] When you say „opposition”, you must ask, in relation to what?! In relation to everything, and anybody, and in relation to itself. That is essentially the core of the idea of progress.”Prpa describes the relationship between culture and politics as follows: “Politics, even the most democratic in the world, do not appreciate this kind of cultural dialectics. Because politics as social sphere essentially essentially functions due to stereotypes. These stereotypes are actually the reason why culture is eroding. So alone the methodology of these two differing social domains are in conflict. Politics are stereotypes, gosh!”.
With reference to the COURAGE research on culture in socialism, Prpa asks “Does democracy require courage too? The Black Wave was forbidden as much in French film as in Yugoslavian film. And France was democratic, and Yugoslavia was the communist state, right? So why does the democratic state forbid the Black Wave? It just disappeared -- is that right, or not? Let’s compare this! Why is culture so irritating to political systems? And what are the borders of freedom for culture in a democracy? Here also, the space is limited. It’s not a space of freedom. It’s a space of limits. And now, when individuals transgres those limits, they find themselves alone under the blue sky, and that’s it.”
Prpa explains that funding for a project like COURAGE also relies on stereotypes fostered by politics. Even so, Prpa holds that “the problem of culture is that it is universal. It is not local. It is not national. It is universal. And it strives towards metaphysics.” She wonders whether the COURAGE project isn't also following a stereotype “based on the Cold War system, by showing how culture in Eastern Europe was killed, destroyed […] and so on. And how in Western democracies everything blossomed, everything was fantastic: a space of freedom, and so on and so forth. Except Martin Luther King is dead, in the world's most democratic state.”Prpa also warns against using the term “dissident” in the Yugoslav context. First of all, she explains, dissidents in Yugoslavia were leftists. And second, the consequences of being a dissident were different. Thus, comparing such critical stances towards the regime between eastern Europe and Yugoslavia is not appropriate, she says, because it makes quite a difference „whether you lose your life because you are a poet, or that all that happens to you is that your book is banned“.
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