Dear Old Bureaucrats

Branka Prpa et al., eds., To Live in Belgrade 1-6: Documents of Belgrade City Administration (Belgrade: Historical Archives of Belgrade, 2003-2008).

The heading of this text might have been just as well How I read the 3,000 pages that weren’t written to be read at all or Manual for urbanization of small oriental towns or The things they did not teach us in history classes or… let’s try that way:

How I read the 3,000 pages that weren’t written to be read at all

Unlike other publications presented here previously, this one happened by chance – or at least unplanned. Somebody telephoned me and said that the Historical Archives of Belgrade posted an information on their Facebook page, that said something like: “We hereby invite this gentleman to contact us, for he will, as the one-thousandth liker of our page, receive a gift.” Maybe it did not say liker, but something more decent; never mind. In communication with the kind officials of the Historical Archives, I have learned that they actually do wish to give me one of the books they published. From the list of available publications, I have recognized and selected, rather nasty, the books that I am writing about now. Books, since – unlike other offered items, this was a set of six hard-cover thick books. Still, until I picked up two full bags from the porter, I did not quite believe they would give me all six of them.

So I became the lucky winner. And I actually won selected documents from the archives of Belgrade City Administration, from the period 1837 to 1940. This collection of documents represents a radical example of the popular approach to history not as a listing of dates of great battles, but as the history of everyday life. Recently, several outstanding researches dealing with everyday life in Belgrade have been published – to mention only the books Cobblestone and Asphalt by Dubravka Stojanović [1] and Bazaars and Boulevards by Nataša Mišković [2] – but the stuff that I got was something else – the original material.

Documents were edited and prepared in a brutally modest way, just like contemporary bureaucrats mass-produce them today using MS Word. But it is exactly their rough appearance, with archive numbers and formal sections without real meaning, that makes these books romantic. One can imagine big-moustached clerks writing these documents – beginning with ornamented handwriting, that turns by the end into an illegible line bending between spilled ink dots. The contents of these documents, just like their appearance, varies from precise lists and grotesque apologetic pleads to higher instances, to quickly or lazily scribbled reports on how there was nothing to report. Scribes, policemen, pleaders, strict administrators, engineers- dreamers and worried doctors managed to fill the rigid form of the official correspondence with all the liveliness of Belgrade as it was then, its problems, smells, changes.

I have read the complete contents of all six volumes from beginning to the end without skipping pages (like a madman reads the phone book, as Bogdan Tirnanić would say). I went through the pages hastily, with a suspicious-looking smile, like a high-school boy looking at porn – enchanted with the stuff he sees and impatient to learn something even more interesting on next pages.

Manual for urbanization of small oriental towns

Among the documents included in this selection, besides notes on happy or morbid trivial situations, there is a substantial amount of data on people and events that essentially influenced the development of Belgrade and the transformation of its parts, streets and the way of life into something we can recognize. Those are the most valuable and for us the most interesting parts.

Changes can be tracked on multiple levels through time – from language changes, with gradual replacement of Turkish words with new ones, that we know or at least understand, to notes on actual realizations of these new ideas, represented by new words (tramway, public lighting, pavement, photography and telegraph slowly take the place of once so important terms, like seymen, gümrük or haraç).

One can learn a lot from these texts about the ways of dealing with various problems that the citizens and city administration faced during the construction and maintenance of infrastructure systems, tracing and paving of streets, reconstruction of whole quarters, establishing communal order. While we find some of described situations funny, it is astonishing to understand how in fact not much has changed. Therefore, notes on experiences of policemen and engineers from the beginning of the XIX century can be useful as directions for prevention or overcoming of contemporary challenges in planning and managing of public spaces.

The things they did not teach us in history classes

Books like these draw our attention to the fact that they taught us a lot in school, but we actually did not learn anything, at least not anything that really means something, or can be implemented. A hundred years old documents of city administration sometimes contain actual useful data, but they tell us much more about the spirit of that time and the spirit of the city, as well as about the values that some Belgradians of the past tried to reach or protect, and hoped that we shall protect, too.

[1] Dubravka Stojanović, Cobblestone and Asphalt: Urbanization and Europeanization of Belgrade1890-1914 (in Serbian: Kaldrma i asfalt: Urbanizacija i evropeizacija Beograda 1890-1914.) (Belgrade: Society for social history, 2009).

[2] Nataša Mišković, Bazaars and Boulevards: The World of Life in 19th Century Belgrade (in Serbian: Bazari i bulevari: Svet života u Beogradu 19. veka (Belgrade: Belgrade City Museum, 2009).

Text: Goran Petrović.
Illustrations from CAB archives.


Archives, Beograd, Book, Heritage, History, Urbanization

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