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Local History in 19th-Century Serbia: Two Memoirs

By Dejan Ciric*

This article is based on two short memoirs. The writer of the first one is Fotije Stanojevic, a Serbian diplomat active during the first half of the 20th century. Stanojevic was born in 1874 in the eastern Znepole region, in the little village of Babe. Since 1950, however, this village has been known as Nedelkovo. It lies 10km from Tran, in northwestern Bulgaria.

Fotije Stanojevic was the youngest son of the well-known merchant, landowner, politician and rebel against the Turks, Arandjel Stanojevic. He attended primary and secondary school in Pirot, and subsequently the Faculty of Law in Belgrade. Afterwards, he studied political science and law in Paris and his long diplomatic career took him to places like Buckhurst, Budapest, Thessalonica and Moscow.

The author of the second memoir is Vladimir Stanojevic, Fotije`s nephew and the grandson of Arandjel Stanojevic. He was born in Breznik in 1886 and finished primary school in Pirot, and thereupon secondary school in Belgrade. In 1911 he graduated with a degree in medicine in Saint Petersburg, together with his sister Nadezda, one year younger than himself. Vladimir is now famous among Serbs as a general, historian and founder of the Museum of Serbian Medicine and the Association for Medical History.

The original manuscript of the first memoir has been preserved in the Historical Archive of Serbia, in a separate file together with many other documents under the title Spomenica Arandjela Sanojevica Transkog (Memorial of Arandjel Stanojevic Trnski), with the signature VARIA (V), 3657.  Serbian historians Borislava Lilic and Zoran Djordjevic have published most of the manuscript, accompanied by a useful commentary and suggestions.

The original manuscript of the second memoir is preserved today, together with several of Stanojevic`s book manuscripts, in the Archive of the Serbian Academy of Science and Arts, under the reference number 13339. This memoir has been used by two well-known Serbian historians of medicine. Gojko Nikolis employed it in a piece on the occasion of Stanojevic`s 90th birthday, while Slobodan Djordjevic referenced it in an obituary article; both articles appeared in the first Serbian medical journal, Srpski arhiv za celokupno lekarstvo (Serbian Archive for Complete Medicine).

However, despite these references, neither of the two memoirs has yet been used in historical investigations, though they contain much interesting data regarding the history of culture, society, daily life and the Balkan patriarchal family structure during the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.

Fotije Stanojevic’s Recollections of Daily Life and Revolution

The main subject of Fotije’s memoir is a family feast (slava) held in the year 1879. However, in writing this text he covered much more as well, and indeed almost every aspect of daily life in Pirot during the 1880s and 1890s. His memoir is some kind of ethnographic document and intimate story about urban culture in the central Balkan region at the end of the 19th century. At the same time, it is a personal account about family life and its relations and connections with the greater society. The memoir is very useful because such information cannot be found in other archive documents, though some of the specific claims can and should be verified. For example, Fotije claims that his family moved from Tran to Pirot in September 1878, though according to several archive documents, that actually happened in May 1879.

As mentioned, Fotije’s main subject is the family feast of 1879, which celebrated the Archangel Michael. Yet at the same time, he also described family life and atmosphere in Pirot more than 70 years later. When Fotije completed his memoir he was 81 and near the end of his life, and so it would seem quite natural for a man of his age to write about his familial background, going back several generations before him.

For example, Fotije’s text shows him to be very proud of his grandfather, an active participant in the Serbian Rebellions against Ottoman rule in the beginning of the 19th century. Accentuating this, he also stresses his grandfather’s close connection with a famous war leader and hero from that time, the hajduk Veljko Petrovic. His account is useful because local church registers of births and deaths usually have not survived, so his text is very often the one and only source for a precise reconstruction of the Stanojevic family tree, particularly during the first half of the 19th century.

In the memoir, Faotije also notes that his father Arandjel was not materialistic and stresses that he was very relaxed concerning money, though several contemporary documents depict a completely opposite situation. What is more, Arandjel apparently cooperated with state officials during the Turkish reign in order to collect larger taxes from the peasantry, for his own financial advantage.

During the same period this local luminary was a landlord to numerous peasants. A Serbian government representative, Mita Rakic, in his official account writes about the living conditions in the recently liberated regions, including Znepole, and claims that Arandjel Stanojevic did many illegal acts and misused the position he had in the county.

At the same time, however, during his years in Pirot Stanojevic apparently also permitted many poor people to live for free in other wings of his grand home, and he often gave considerable amounts of money to charity. His organizational role and contribution before and during the liberation war thus seem not in question.

The author of this memoir also provides useful information about the Stanojevic’s new family house in Pirot, and its renovation. This kind of information is important for improving our knowledge of the architectural appearance of town houses in the central Balkans during the 19th century. Fotije`s account is the only source for information on that famous building, since it was destroyed during the Serbian-Bulgarian War of 1885. There are few details to be found in the local archive today on this structure. Unfortunately, there aren’t photos either. According to Fotije`s memoir, his father’s was the most beautiful and the biggest family house on the main street in Pirot at that time.

Apart from the description of this building, Fotije writes about all of his family members, including servants, relatives and close friends who lived together. He also described their mutual relations and everyday duties and tasks in the household. Most interesting in this respect are two persons. The first is a girl named Stana who, according to Forije, was his adopted sister. However, an archive document called List of All Servants in Pirot states that she was actually the Stanojevic family servant, who came together with the family when they moved to Pirot from Tran in 1879. The second interesting person and household member described was Panta Milanovic, a gymnasium teacher and close friend of Fotije`s uncle, Rasa, who though unrelated to the family also lived in the house.

In his description of the slava feast, Fotije writes about guests, food, drink, music and of course about religious practice and customs. We learn about such details like the styles of different dress (European and local), various dances and songs, and the first Vienna waltz danced in Pirot- by Franc Sirucek, an itinerant Czech pharmacist and his wife.

Fotije also gives an interesting description of the first visit of the Serbian royal family to Pirot. His father, mother and a few eminent citizens were their official hosts, and Fotije himself played with the young Prince Alexander during the two-day visit. This memoir description is especially interesting, because excepting it there is only one short document concerning the royal visit. Thus many details captured in Fotije`s text are useful and even necessary, if we want to make a more complete picture of the event.

Fotije Stanojevic is especially expressive in the passages where he describes the national rebellion against the Turks in 1877-78; in this he makes what could almost be called a panegyric to his father, who played an important role (though not so big as he sought to communicate). For example, his father was invited by the Bulgarian leadership to be a member of the Constitutional Assembly in Veliko Tarnovo, and he was also a member of the Serbian Parliament. However, he was not the only organizer of the liberation activities.

In this section of the account Fotije does not forget his father’s best man, Captain Sima Sokolov, who was well known as a rebel and as one of the heroes during the battles for the liberation of the central Balkans. Fotije idealized his father, though his story about the rebellion is not really a source about the liberation movement, it is more about his attitude toward his father and that historical period. As a little boy, he had listened to the stories about his father’s role and revolutionary importance, stories that as an old man he tried to remember and record for posterity.

Vladimir Stanojevic: Lineage and Distinction

The second memoir was commissioned by the Department of Medical Science of the Serbian Academy and written by one of its advisors, Vladimir Stanojevic. Apart from the usual facts that comprise such texts, Vladimir excluded much information that was not of direct important or interest to the scientific institution.

In the text, Vladimir writes about his childhood and schooling, while at the same time providing data that certainly cannot otherwise be found in our archive in Pirot, because he was born in the Bulgarian town of Breznik, in February 1886- a short ceasefire period in the Serbian-Bulgarian War of that time. His mother went there to visit her parents, and came back to Pirot after a few weeks. Similarly to his uncle Fotije, Vladimir idealized Arandjel Stanojevic, recounting for example that he was sufficiently mighty as to be capable of saving people from hanging (stural od besiljku).

From this memoir we also learn of Vladimir’s partial Tzintzar (Aromanian) background. His mother was born in Breznik into a wealthy Tzitzar family, and he was proud of his mixed cultural and national heritage, being both Slavic and Roman. He even stresses this feature from the genetic point of view, since he was a researcher of such issues, and wrote several papers and a book about the connection between genetics and science and arts, called Tragedy of Genius and published in Belgrade in 1938.

In Vladimir’s memoir we also find an account of the personal intellectual development of a boy from a small Serbian provincial town (yet one imbued with a strong awareness of his famous and prominent ancestors), to the young doctor who graduated from the respected Russian Army Medical School. Vladimir’s main fields of interest were genetics, psychiatry, neurobiology, and the history of medicine. He also spent some time studying in Berlin, Munich and Vienna.

In the text, Vladimir also traces an outline of his life with several very picturesque details from his childhood. At the same time, he also provides some information about his army career, in a strict and truncated style, as is typical for military officers. Moreover, he was a passionate photographer and left many pictures as illustration of his curriculum vitae. These photographs can be found in the Museum of Serbian Medicine in Belgrade.

While we can’t verify the information given in the text concerning Vladimir’s early years, the facts from the time between graduation from the university and the culmination of his military career (as a general) are clarified in his personal dossier. For example, reading papers from the Military Archive, we can reconstruct Vladimir’s medical history, and learn precise data regarding the decorations, punishments and other important events he experienced during his distinguished career.

In the end, my research on the Stanojevic memoirs reaffirmed for me that memoirs can provide a useful complement to archival documents, though at the same time such recorded memories very often constitute additions to our knowledge base that are otherwise unavailable, and unable to be compared with other sources. Memoirs are simply monuments of personal impression. What can be sometimes most important in historical writings depends on the topic. It is the result of filtering layers of long experiences and circumstances that occurred at many different moments.

According to my conclusions, mistakes and imprecision usually are the consequence of the lengthy period of time separating the events and the later descriptions of them. There are many advantages of memoirs as sources for local history, though when possible archive papers can be used as a corrective element. In any case, I was not searching for precise facts in relation to specific historical events- rather, I just wanted to discover more about the daily life and connections within the patriarchal family structure of the central Balkans and urban society, from the testimony hidden in personal memories.


*Historian Dejan Ciric is a native of Pirot, Serbia, where he works on local archive research at the Pirot Museum.