views updated May 18 2018


LOCATION: central and western part of the Balkan Peninsula (Southeastern Europe) , Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Croatia, Kosovo
POPULATION: 12.5 million (est.); 6.7 million in Serbia
RELIGION: Serbian Orthodox (85%), Catholic (5.5%), Muslim (3.2%), Protestant (1.1%), Other (5.2%)
RELATED ARTICLES: Bosnians, Montenegrins, Croats, Kosovars


The Serbs are a South Slavic people primarily inhabiting Southeastern Europe (commonly referred to as the Balkans) and Central Europe. Present day Serbs are said to have descended from Slavic tribes who migrated to the Balkans from the area of present day Poland, called White Serbia. Their movement to the area began in the 6th century through raids, but by the beginning of the 7th, century they began to settle. The point at which the Serbs emerged as an ethnic group distinctive from other neighboring Slav tribes, such as Croats, is disputed. Although the area on which future Serbs settled in the Balkans was Christianized by Byzantine missionaries before their arrival, the Slavic ruling class was converted to Christianity in the late 9th century, at which point there was still no distinction between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. The rest of the population slowly converted from paganism to Christianity from that point on. Until the 11th century, Serbs were largely dominated by the Byzantines and neighboring Bulgarians. After the Great Schism in 1054, Serbs remained largely under Byzantine influence, resulting in the strengthening and consolidation of Orthodoxy among Serbs.

Serbia reached the height of its power during the Nemanjić dynasty, which ruled for 200 years and significantly expanded the Serbian state, achieving both political and religious independence from Byzantium. Stefan Nemanja, the founder of the Nemanjić dynasty, came to power in the mid-12th century in the area of present-day Montenegro. The Serbian Kingdom was established in 1217 and the Serbian Orthodox church became autocephalous in 1219. For the first time in history, the Serbs became a unified people. The Serbian state steadily declined from this point, and with the death of Stefan Uroš Dušan in 1355, it began to disintegrate.

By the late 14th century, Serb territory began to be invaded by the Ottoman Empire. Their first major defeat of the Serbs occurred in 1371 at the Maritsa River. In 1389 the Serbs were defeated in the Battle of Kosovo, which marked a turning point in the war, ensuring the eventual ultimate defeat of the Serbs. By 1459 Serbia was overrun by the Turks. Serbia was ruled by the Ottoman Empire for the next three centuries. During this period, thousands of Serbs were enslaved through the Ottoman practice of Devşirme, in which non-Muslim children were taken from their families and converted to Islam in order to later join the janissary corps—the Sultan's personal soldiers—in the Ottoman army. Under the Ottoman Empire, the Serbian Orthodox church was the only independently functioning Serbian institution. This contributed to the close relationship between the Serbian Orthodox religion and Serbian national identity that still exists today.

Serbian territory was also subsequently invaded by Hungarians, Venetians, and Habsburgs. It was not until the Serbian Revolution, which lasted from 1804 to 1815, that Serbs were able to establish an independent Serbian principality.

In 1914, Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb and member of the pan-Slavist secret society the Black Hand, assassinated Austrian Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia. Austria then declared war on Serbia, which marked the beginning of World War I. By the end of World War I, both the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires had collapsed, paving the way for the creation in 1918 of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. Its name was changed to Yugoslavia (literally "land of the Southern Slavs") in 1929.

Yugoslavia experienced great turbulence during World War II, for while some factions fought against Nazi occupation and division of Yugoslavia, interethnic violence raged throughout the duration of the war. In 1945, the partisans, lead by Josip Broz Tito, defeated the Nazis and the Croatian fascist separatists known as Ustaše, taking complete control of Yugoslavia and establishing a Communist government. Th roughout its Communist period, Yugoslavia remained independent from the influence of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact nations.

In 1991, the dissolution of Yugoslavia began when Slovenia, Croatia, and Macedonia declared independence. In 1992 Bosnia followed suit. Later that year, under the leadership of Slobodon Milošević, Serbia and Montenegro declared a new Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and began several military programs aimed at uniting the ethnic Serbs left on the territories of Yugoslavia's now independent neighbors. Serbs in Croatia formed the state of Republika Srpska Krajina. During "Operation Storm," the Croatian government expelled more than 250,000 of these Serbs, resulting in thousands of deaths. Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina formed the state of Republika Srpska, which still exists today as an official political entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Territorial disputes over sections along the Drina River still exist between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia.

As a result of the Milošević government's military campaigns, Yugoslavia was dismissed from the United Nations (UN), and violence continued until the ratification of the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995. Violence resumed in 1998, however, when Yugoslavia began a counterinsurgency campaign in the autonomous Serbian province of Kosovo against the ethnic Albanian majority. Western powers responded in 1999 with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO) bombing of Serbia. Serbian military and police forces withdrew from Kosovo in June 1999 and the UN, in conjunction with NATO forces, created a secure environment and established various self-governing institutions for the inhabitants of Kosovo. After the war, more than 200,000 Serbs left Kosovo. These and the other Serb refugees from Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina settled primarily in central Serbia and in the autonomous Serbian province of Vojvodina. In 2000 Milošević was replaced as president by Vojislav Kostunica, a democratic reformist representing the coalition known as the Democratic Opposition of Serbia. Milošević was arrested in 2001 and tried at an international criminal tribunal for crimes against humanity. He died in 2006 before his trial was completed.

In 2001 Yugoslavia rejoined the UN and, in 2003, its name was officially changed to Serbia and Montenegro. In 2006 Montenegro peacefully seceded from Serbia. In 2008 Kosovo declaredindependence from Serbia. As of mid-2008, Serbia, along with several other states, such as Russia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Romania, Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and more, had either officially refused to recognize Kosovo as an independent state or remained silent. Kosovo was officially recognized as independent by the United States and 45 other UN member states. Ethnic Serbs still inhabit areas along Kosovo's northern borders, although Serbs make up less than 5% of the population of Kosovo. Several thousand NATO peacekeepers, known as Kosovo Force (KFOR), continued to keep peace between the ethnic Albanian majority and the Serb minority within Kosovo as of 2008.


The majority of Serbs inhabit Serbia, which was settled by Serbs in the 7th century. Serbia is located in Southeastern Europe, on the southeastern section of the Balkan Peninsula. It is bordered by Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Croatia. It covers an area slightly smaller than South Carolina. Its terrain is extremely varied, with rich fertile plains in the north, limestone ranges and basins in the east, and ancient mountains and hills in the southeast. Its winters are cold, with heavy snowfall in some places, and its summers are hot, humid in some areas and dry towards the south.

In total, there are over 12.5 million Serbs in the world. The population of Serbia is approximately 8 million, of which ethnic Serbs comprise roughly 83%. The rest of the population of Serbia is made up of Hungarians, Romany, or Gypsies, Bosnians, Montenegrins, Albanians, Bulgarians, Germans, Russians, Ruthenians, Slovaks, Slovenes, Ukrainians, Croats, and Czechs. Roughly 1% of Serbia's population still identifies itself as "Yugoslav." Its two largest cities are Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, and Novi Sad, the capital of the Serbian autonomous province of Vojvodina. Although the historic core of the Serbian homeland was originally located further south, the domination of the Ottoman Empire in the south prompted mass movements of Serbs in the 17th and 18th centuries towards the more Christian north. These population movements are known as the Great Serbian Migrations. They resulted in the permanent relocation of the Serbian center in the north.

The majority of Serbs who live outside Serbia live in Montenegro and Republika Srpska in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Until the exodus of August 1995, caused by the Croatian government's "Operation Storm," a large number of Serbs also lived in Republika Srpska Krajina in Croatia. Smaller numbers of Serbs can be found in Macedonia, Slovenia, Romania, Hungary, Kosovo, and Italy. Many capital cities of the former Yugoslav Republics, such as Zagreb, Skopje, Ljubljana, Sarajevo, and Podgorica, contain large Serbian minorities.

Large Serbian Diaspora communities also exist outside of Southeastern Europe, although exact numbers cannot be determined since census takers use varying criteria to identify Serbs abroad. Some counts reflect numbers of individuals who either still possess Serbian citizenship or have emigrated from Serbia, while other counts include individuals of Serbian descent. The most notable Serbian Diaspora communities can be found in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Sweden, Brazil, Canada, the United States, and Australia. Many of the Serbs inhabiting regions in Central Europe today, such as Romania, and Hungary, and other former territories of the Habsburg Empire, are descendents of Serbs who migrated there to escape the Ottomans. Several thousand also immigrated to Russia and settled the areas now known as Nova Serbia and Slavo-Serbia.


The Serbian language is a member of the South Slavic group of languages. Like other Southern Slavic languages, Serbian received a number of formative characteristics from the Glagolithic alphabet and other standardizing initiatives developed by Byzantine missionaries Cyril and Methodius during their efforts to Christianize the Slavs. The oldest documents written in the Serbian language date from the 11th century. Largely due to the work of Vuk Stefanović Karadžić, the Serbian language was standardized in the 19th century based on its vernacular form. In addition to its other variants—Old Serbian and Russo-Serbian, a type of Church Slavonic—the Serbian language has three dialects that are distinguished by the pronunciation of the Old Slavonic sound "yat."

Serbian names derive primarily from the Christian tradition, but many also have meanings in the Serbian language. Names often reflect character traits, such as Miroljub from mir, peace, and ljubav, love. Many names are also nature-inspired and have origins in words for animals, flowers, and other natural phenomena. Most Serbian surnames contain the suffix –ić, which originally functioned to designate paternal lineage, much like "son" or "sen" in Nordic languages. The suffixes –ov and –in are also common and tend to correspond with certain regions. They derive from Slavic possessive case endings, thus also originally functioning to form patronymics. Combinations of these endings in one surname often occur as well.

Serbian is written using both the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets, and in spoken form, it is mutually intelligible to standard Croatian and Bosnian. Before the breakup of Yugoslavia, these languages were considered to be one, Serbo-Croatian. Since then, however, the differentiation of these languages has become a highly contentious issue, in part due to the historic role that language has played in the formation of identity for the peoples of the former Yugoslavia. In the 19th century, the Balkan intelligentsia argued that Serbs, Croats, Balkan Muslims, and Montenegrins were the same people since they spoke a very similar language to one another. Beginning in 1878 with the invasion of Bosnia-Herzegovina by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, this sense of unity through sameness of language was consolidated against the dominant languages of the occupying forces. The notion that a shared language indicated a shared ethnicity and identity eventually became one of the central pillars of the argument for the creation of a southern Slavic State, Yugoslavia. This notion still exists in the former Yugoslavia today. As a result, as groups have broken off from one another, they have made concerted efforts to differentiate themselves through systematic language reform efforts. Embracing existing linguistic differences, or creating new ones, has become a way for groups to distinguish themselves as nations separate from their fellow former Yugoslavs. The Croats made the greatest efforts to do so under Franjo Tuđman, the first president of Croatia after the breakup of Yugoslavia. Croats drew from pre-Yugoslav Croatian dictionaries to introduce new, distinctly Croat words for use by their population. As such, Serbian and Croatian are considered to be separate languages today, although some Croats are still learning a new, distinctive Croat vocabulary.


Much of Serbian folklore is rooted in pre-Christian, pagan belief and practice but was adapted into a Christian framework with the conversion of Slavs to Christianity. For example, the pagan belief in household gods was recast into the custom of slava, by which each family has its own saint that it celebrates and passes down from generation to generation. Similarly, the pagan notion of a cult of ancestors today takes the form of the custom of zadusnice, in which families hold feasts at the graves of their deceased, lighting candles for them and making offerings of food and drink. This practice now largely follows the Orthodox religious calendar and corresponds to larger Christian events, such as Easter, Christmas, and various saints' feast days. Many religious processions, such as lazarice, a procession of virgins and koledari, a masked procession at Christmas, originate from pagan rituals. Many of the rituals surrounding Serbian religious icons, such as special veneration, processions, and belief in their healing powers or animation, also originate from paganism.

Superstition and belief in magical powers still persists among some groups. Some still believe in the power of the evil eye—that an individual can be harmed by the envious look of another—and take various precautions to ward it off. Serbian folk beliefs about magical beings, such as witches, vampires, fairies and dragons, have been largely relegated to children's games and fairytales, but have left marks on Serbian culture in various ways. Dragons, for example, were believed to have protected people from evil and misfortune. Many of the heroes of Serbian folktales and poetry were said to have gotten their extraordinary powers from being part dragon. During the wars that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia, the trauma caused a resurgence of superstitious belief among some Serbs, who turned to modern-day commercial psychics for relief.

One of the most popular stories in the Serbian folk tradition is that of their defeat by the Ottomans at the Battle of Kosovo Polje (field) in 1389. Folk tales and poetry cast this event in Christian language, giving it a religious meaning for the Serbs, who it portrayed as martyrs. This event, and the stories surrounding it, proved to still resonate widely with Serbs over 600 years later when it was used by Slobodan Milošević and others after the breakup of Yugoslavia to mobilize Serbian nationalism with regard to events surrounding the then autonomous province of Kosovo.


The majority of Serbs are Serbian Orthodox. They were converted to Christianity from paganism beginning in the late 9th century, before Serbs had emerged as a distinct group from the southern Slavic tribes. Their conversion took place before the break between Orthodoxy and Catholicism in 1054, but because Serbs were largely aligned with the Byzantine Empire, they developed into an Orthodox people. The Serbian Orthodox Church became autocephalous in 1219. After the invasion of the Ottoman Empire in the 14th and 15th centuries, some southern Slavs converted to Islam.

Under communism, religion was largely repressed. Religion in Serbia today faces different problems. Because the Communist legislation on religion from Yugoslavia has been repealed but not been fully replaced, many religious communities face a great deal of institutional limitations. Attempts to adopt an Act on Religious Freedom failed because many critics opposed the fact that it named seven specific historical, traditional religious communities of Serbia, the most important being the Serbian Orthodox Church. Many believed that despite the law's intention to guarantee freedom of religion and separation of church and state, its recognition of the traditional religions of Serbia gave those religions special legal advantages over others. Although the law was never passed, for many reasons the Serbian Orthodox church nevertheless occupies a privileged position in Serbia.


National holidays in Serbia include New Year's Day (Nova Godina, January 1 and 2); Christmas (Božić, January 7, celebrated by the Orthodox, or Julian, calendar); Day of Saint Sava, the founder of the Serbian Orthodox church (Savidan, January 27), also commonly known today as the Day of Spirituality (Dan Duhovnosti); Day of Statehood (Dan Državnosti, February 15), to mark the First Serbian Uprising in 1804; May Day, or Labor Day (Dan Rada, May 1 and 2); Victory Day (Dan Pobede, May 9); and St. Vitus' Day (Vidovdan, June 28), which functions as a sort of memorial day, specifically in relation to the 1389 Battle of Kosovo Polje (field). Other national holidays include Good Friday (Veliki Petak), Holy Saturday (Velika Subota), Easter (Vaskrs), and Easter Monday (Veliki Ponedeljak), but their dates are tied to the Orthodox calendar and are determined by the movable Pascal Cycle each year. Other Christian religious feasts occurring on the holidays, such as Epiphany, Visitation, Palm Sunday, Ascension, and more, also play a large role in Serbian society.

Christmas in Serbia is surrounded by many traditions, most with Slavic pagan roots. Customarily, on the morning of Christmas Eve, the head of the house would cut down a young, dry oak tree, called a badnjak, and bring it to church for a blessing. Churches at this time of year will still cover their floors with hay on Christmas Eve in reference to the manger where Jesus Christ was born. Later, the blessed piece of oak would be stripped of its branches and burned as a sacrifice to God along with various grains in the hopes that the coming year would bring prosperity. Today, Serbs still receive small pieces of oak trees bundled with grains at church to be taken home and burned on Christmas Eve. Serb families prepare large meals of Lenten foods, avoiding certain animal products, on Christmas Eve. The traditional Christmas Eve meal includes beans, walnuts, and a special Christmas Eve cake. Christmas Day also has its own special feast, comprised usually of roasted pork, koljivo, a sweet wheat cake, and česnica, a special traditional bread with a coin hidden in it. The family member that finds the coin is thought to have a fortunate year ahead of them. Serbs traditionally exchange presents not on Christmas but on New Year's Day, although this is changing due to Western influences.

In addition to these general Christian feasts, Serbs also have their own particular religious celebrations, such as slava, the celebration of the patron saint of an individual family, zavetine/litije, a procession on the day of a particular community's saint, and zanatlijske slave, the celebration of the patron saint of a professional guild. There are approximately 150 patron saints in the slava tradition, the most popular of which include St. Dmitri, St. George, St. John, St. Michael, St. Nicholas, and more. Families celebrate the day before, navece , and the day after, okrilje or sutradan , the saint's feast day, as well as the feast day itself. Ritual objects involved in the celebration include icons of the saint, candles, and dried basil. Ritual dishes include Slavsko Zito , a sort of boiled wheat, and Slavski Kolac , a specially blessed bread. Family elders, friends, relatives, and neighbors are all invited to slava , and during the celebrations, guests sing folksongs and tell folktales.


Most Serbs observe major life events, such as birth, marriage, and death, according to the religious traditions of the Serbian Orthodox Church, although some of the traditions surrounding these events have their roots in pre-Christian practices. For example, many rituals are carried out during weddings,such as sprinkling the couple with grains, are meant to ensure the couple's fertility and prosperity.


Shaking hands and kissing cheeks (most commonly three kisses) are standard forms of greeting among Serbs, depending on closeness. Standard salutations include dobro jutro (good morning), dobar dan (good day), and dobro vece (good evening). Dovidjenja means "good bye," and daku noc means "good night." When leaving for a journey, travelers are told drecan put (lucky journey). In rural areas, some older residents still greet each other with pomaze Bog (God helps). The traditional response is Bog ti pomogao (may God help you).

As in many other languages, modes of expressing respect and courtesy are built into Serbian grammar. Serbian has a second, more formal case for the second person. For example, in addressing a close or familiar acquaintance, Serbs use the word ti for "you." When addressing someone unfamiliar, or to convey a more formal, respectful relationship, Serbs use the word vi for "you."

Serbs enjoy entertaining at home. It is customary for guests to bring to their hosts a gift, such as a bottle of wine or some sort of alcohol, coffee, or flowers. The gesture for wishing someone good luck (the equivalent of crossing one's fingers in the U.S.) is to squeeze the thumb between the index and third finger. Hitting the bent elbow of the left arm with the right hand is a very offensive gesture.


Since the mid 20th century, Serbs have steadily migrated from rural areas to industrial and cultural centers within the former Yugoslav Republics and today within Serbia. Wars have also contributed to the flux of migrants into cities. This has resulted in the general depopulation and aging of the Serbian countryside. Many Serbs, especially those that live in cities, keep small weekend and vacation houses in the country. Historically, lodging in Serbia varied greatly—ranging from stone to mud to wood—because of the country's extremely varied terrain and because of the varied historical experiences of different areas, but now, lodging is much more uniform and is made primarily of brick and concrete.

During the early 1980s, Serbs enjoyed a generally adequate standard of living and productive agricultural and mineral resources. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Serbia's economy began to worsen. This general trend was largely exacerbated by the economic sanctions imposed on Serbia by the West because of its actions during the breakup of Yugoslavia. Subsequently, a great deal of damage was done to Serbia's infrastructure during the 1999 NATO bombings. This, in addition to the problems Serbia has experienced in transitioning from a state-run, centrally planned economy has also set back modernization and the standard of living in Serbia significantly. The impact on daily life, levels of pay, and employment opportunities has been catastrophic. Educational, cultural, and scientific exchange with the rest of the world ceased for several years. As medical, educational and other professionals were either recruited into the military or fled from war, the quality of medical care, education, and other public goods suffered greatly.

Since 2000 living conditions in Serbia have begun to improve. Serbia is still struggling to modernize, as its growing telecommunications network still ranks below those of its neighbors. In 2006 it was estimated that only 1.4 million inhabitants of Serbia had internet connection, although this number too, is rapidly growing. Roughly 6.5% of Serbia's population lives below the poverty line. Life expectancy for Serbs averages 75 years. Healthcare has greatly improved in the past decade, and immunization and other forms of preventative medicine are common practices. Medication, however, still remains unaffordable for many families.


Serbian society is very family-oriented. The most common family unit in Serbia is the nuclear family, although extended family is also very important and remains in close relation. Historically, Serbs lived in a large extended family community called a Zadruga. The Serbian language reflects this importance, for it has a number of specific terms for various familial relationships. For example, the word used to denote an uncle who is a father's brother is Stric, whereas the word used to denote an uncle who is a mother's brother is Ujak.


Serbs wear modern Western-style clothing, including business attire for work, and jeans and T-shirts for casual wear. Until the end of the 19th century, clothes were largely homemade. On special occasions, or during festivals or holidays, some Serbs still wear traditional dress. For women, this includes embroidered wool knee socks, gathered, linen, embroidered skirts, aprons decorated with floral motifs, and shirts decorated with silver thread and other kinds of cording. In some areas, the female Serbian national dress consists of either a red or blue sleeveless, knee-length dress that was richly decorated and buttoned in the front. The traditional costume also includes a headdress of scarves and caps trimmed with cording and often decorated with metal coins or flowers. Women would also wear gold coin necklaces, earrings, and bracelets. For men, traditional Serbian dress includes leather shoes, upturned at the toes and decorated with leather strips that fasten the shoes to the legs, knitted, decorative socks, pants that stop and gather at the calf, a wide, woven, decorative sash around the waist, an embroidered white linen or silk shirt, and either a short, sleeveless vest or a long-sleeved jacket with ornate cording. The traditional Serbian men's costume also includes either a fur cap or a military cap from a later period, which became known as the Serbian national cap. Such costumes are usually very colorfully embroidered with thread and cord and adorned with silver and gold buttons and other ornaments. Traditionally, they were made of homespun cloth and sheepskin, but this is rarer today. Styles, colors, and accessories historically varied depending on region.


Typical Serbian cuisine has been greatly influenced by Turkish, Mediterranean, and Austro-Hungarian traditions. Serbs generally eat three meals a day—breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The traditional main meal of the day in Serbia is lunch, but more Serbs are increasingly making dinner their main meal rather than lunch. Traditionally, Serbian families produce various foods and beverages in their own homes. They distill alcoholic beverages, preserve jams, and pickle peppers, cucumbers, cabbage, and more. Some even make their own sausages. Serbian cuisine is rich in spices and herbs, such as pepper, paprika, coriander,cloves and more. Ćevapčići, seasoned, grilled meat, is the Serbian national dish, although Serbs also eat meat of all kinds, prepared a variety of ways. Podvarak, roasted meat with cabbage, is also a very popular dish. Fish is popular in communities near the Danube River. Serbian cuisine includes cheeses, such as Kajmak, boiled eggs, smoked or cured ham, soups, such as Backa—a four meat soup, potatoes, cabbage, and beans. Peppers or cabbage leaves are often stuffed with ground meat, rice, and various spices. These are called Sarma. Peppers can be filled with cheese and yogurt. Serbian salad usually consists of tomatoes, peppers, onions, oil and vinegar, and a soft white cheese. Pita is a Serbian dish that comes from Turkish influence. Pita dough is light, flaky and crispy and can be filled with both savory and sweet fillings. The most common kind of pita among Serbs is Gibanica, which consists of a cheese, cream, and egg filling.

Bread is one of the most pivotal elements of Serbian food culture and is tied to many traditions and rituals. Serbs welcome guests by offering them bread and salt. Some breads, such as Koljivo and Moussaka Česnica, are used in religious rituals on various Christian feasts. Because of bread's connection to ritual, in the past, Serbian households were wary of discarding old bread. Serbian bread is mostly made of wheat, both with and without yeast, but it is also sometimes made of barley and rye. Pogaca, for example, is a bread without yeast that is prepared for special occasions.

The Serbian national drink is Slivovitz , a plum brandy. It is also often served warm in colder months. Slivovitz is a type of Rakia , or distilled fruit brandy. Many other types of Rakia exist as well, such as pear and grape. Many Serbs distill their own Rakia . Domestic wines are also widely drunk, mainly from the famous wine region of Vrsac . Beer is also popular. Popular non-alcoholic beverages include homemade fruit juices, Boza , a corn-based drink, and Kvas , a fermented drink made from rye or black bread. Turkish coffee ( Turska Kafa or Crna Kafa ) is very popular and drunk very often. It is served when guests make visits and also at the end of large meals.


Serbia has a literacy rate of 96.4%. Since the breakup of Yugoslavia, Serbia's poor economic situation has decreased investments in culture and in education in general. When Yugoslavia began to dissolve in the early 1990s, 10% of its population had no education, 50% had either an incomplete or a full primary education, 32% had a secondary education, 4% had a college degree, and only 5% had a university diploma. Today, roughly 6% of the population have had no schooling, 16% have an incomplete primary education, only 24% have a full primary education, 41% a secondary education, 24.5% a college degree, and 6.5% a university diploma.

In recent years, with the resurgence of the Serbian Orthodox church, religious instruction in public schools has become a central issue in education. The push to have religious instruction in public schools began immediately after the fall of Milošević in 2000. The issue was highly debated due to the implications it had for larger church-state relations. Today, legislation makes religious instruction in public schools an alternative subject that is taught for one hour per week. Religious instruction is not compulsory, and students have the option to attend civic education classes instead. The Serbian government provides finances for religious instruction on the seven recognized religious communities of Serbia (Serbian Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Islam, Judaism, Slovak Lutheranism, Serbian Lutheranism, and Hungarian Reformed Protestantism), but other religious communities are allowed to organize and fund their own religious instruction in public schools if students request it. The content of religious instruction is decided by the Minister of Education and Sports, who works with members of the various religious communities.

While lack of investment in education harms Serbian society as a whole, children with special needs, as well as children of refugees, migrants, and returning nationals have suffered disproportionately. Economic constraints have increased the level of educational exclusion these groups experience. Many Serbs believe that future economic improvement, combined with the government's drive to meet standards for accession into the European Union, will improve this situation and education in general. In the meantime, however, Serbian higher education suffers as well. As the world trend continues to favor knowledge and innovation-based economies more strongly, there is a need in higher education to develop new, modern research areas and to provide more interdisciplinary and more topical programs, such as management and computer sciences, for students. The number of students interested in these areas has increased, however study programs cannot respond to these societal and market needs because they still reflect the traditional background of higher education staff. Higher education institutions are financed by the Serbian government and by private funds granted for various research projects. Both of these sources have been stifled by the economic situation of Serbia, and as a result, institutions of higher education cannot provide high enough salaries to attract qualified scholars of newly emerging research areas. Consequently, Serbian students of higher education can only choose from professions with increasingly slim employment prospects.


Orthodox Christianity has played a significant role in formation of the Serbian culture. Medieval Serbia was under the Byzantine sphere of influence, and when it emerged as a strong, independent kingdom under the Nemanjić dynasty, the Serbian Orthodox Church was its central institution. This cultural heritage can be most strongly seen in Serbia's rich medieval church architecture, icon painting, and manuscript illumination, which were directed largely by state patronage. Serbian churches boast domed ceilings, Byzantine-style frescoes, extensive sculptures, and numerous icons. Serbian church art benefited greatly from the Fourth Crusade on Constantinople in 1204, when many Byzantine artists sought refuge in Serbia and brought their artistic influence with them. Serbian epic poetry also flourished during the medieval period. Much of it was based on historic events, such as the battle of Kosovo in 1389. Although Orthodoxy has had the most extensive influence on Serbian culture, elements of Catholic and Ottoman culture are also perceptible, in some areas more than others. Th roughout the history of the Serbs, Catholic influence penetrated Serbian culture through Austrians and Venetians, primarily in Vojvodina and along the coast of the Former Yugoslavia. Once Serbia gained autonomy and eventually independence in the 19th century, there was an increase in Serbian cultural activity, which included a resurgence of Serbian epic poetry and songs.

Despite the resurgence of the Serbian Orthodox Church, the primary capsule of Serbia's cultural heritage, Serbian culture experienced a decline during the Milošević era, when traditional Serbian culture was recast and used to bolster Milošević's power. This phenomenon became most widespread in the form of widely popular "Turbo-Folk" music—pop music inspired by traditional Serbian folk songs (with Russian, Turkish and Greek influences) but set to a techno beat, most often by scantily dressed women. Just as Serbs in the 1980s embraced Belgrade Rock in their attempt to break from Communism and open to the West, Turbo-Folk functioned as the soundtrack for the aggressive nationalistic politics of the 1990s. Its lyrics both glorified traditional Serbian culture and promoted the glamorous lifestyle of the new Serbian elite, consisting of powerful politicians, businessmen, war-profiteers, and individuals involved in organized crime. This manipulation of traditional Serbian culture undermined the morality and civil order of Serbian society by spreading a problematic system of values, lifestyle, and emotional nationalism. Turbo-Folk's popularity spread throughout Serbia contemporaneously with crime, disorder, and fear, offering to Serbs the government's official façade of wealth, glamour, power, and attractiveness during a time of poverty, war, chaos, international isolation, and despair in Serbia. The occurrence and spread of Turbo-Folk was initiated by the changes in social conditions in Serbia as Yugoslavia dissolved. These social changes were precipitated by the long-lasting economic crisis, the wars in Croatia and Bosnia, the great numbers of war victims and refugees, Serbia's isolation from the world community, and later, the 1999 NATO bombings. To aid in the spreading of this new interpretation of Serbian culture, the government harnessed television programming. Television stations specializing in "folk" music and dance emerged in the early 1990s, bringing considerable changes to Serbia's cultural climate. These trends coincided with expansion of mass media in Serbia. It was in this period that television began exerting a growing influence on Serbian society. This spread of television and its use by the government combined with the economic hardships being experienced by rock and pop producers, and a shortage of material for television left an empty space for Turbo-Folk. Following the cultural isolation of the Milošević era, new musical styles, such as rap, have gained popularity in Serbia. Influences from the West are increasing. Serbian rappers and punk bands are now widespread. The Serbian city of Novi Sad hosts the annual Exit Festival of alternative music, which draws crowds from all over Europe. Turbo-Folk today is widely associated with the brutal nationalism of the 1990s, yet, it is still played in popular clubs and on radio and television.


Serbs were traditionally very heavily involved in agriculture. Like other Eastern European countries, Serbia became more industrialized during the Communist era, creating manufacturing jobs in the production of agricultural machinery, electrical and communication equipment, paper and pulp, and transportation equipment. Since the end of the Communist era, the Serbian economy has undergone a major shift in composition. Today, over 63% of Serbia's GDP comes from the service industry, as compared to industry at 24% and agriculture at 12%. The majority of Serbia's workforce, however, is still employed in the industry sector. Only 24% of Serbia's labor force works in services, and 30% works in agriculture. Serbs grow wheat, corn, sugar beets, sunflowers, and raspberries, and raise livestock such as cows and pigs. The unemployment rate in Serbia in 2007 was almost 19%. It has consistently increased since the dissolution of Yugoslavia for a number of reasons. Economic activity and capital investment decreased as a result of war and instability, and the skills of the labor force do not meet the needs of the new market economy. Serbia's education system has not been adapted to train workers to respond to these changes, and as a result, the majority of people who are unemployed are under the age of 30. Alternately, Serbia has compulsory military service for men ages 19 to 35. During wartime, conscription can begin at age 16. Conscription is set to be abolished in 2010.

As a result of the high unemployment rate, many Serbs choose to move abroad in search of better work opportunities. Serbia is also experiencing a phenomenon known as the "internal brain drain," whereby trained professionals remain in the country but chose not to utilize their skills in formal careers. This occurs because of very low wages, slow career promotion, poor research facilities, lack of project funding, and restricted communication with professionals in other countries. A social element is also involved, for in Serbia's transitioning society, businessmen and politicians who earn more money tend to be perceived as having a higher social standing than scientists or academics.


Soccer is one of the most popular sports in Serbia. It came to Serbia at the end of the 19th century via students who had studied in Switzerland. The first soccer clubs of Serbia, such as Soko (the Falcon), Srpski Mac (the Serbian Sword) were founded in the early 1900s. In 1991, a Serbian team won both the European and the World championships in soccer. In addition to team sports, Serbs also like wrestling, boxing, and judo. Serbs are also known throughout the world for being excellent tennis players. Some Serbian tennis players include Novak Djokovic, Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic, and more. Monica Seles is ethnically Hungarian but from the Serbian autonomous province of Vojvodina.


Television has become the main source of entertainment for Serbs, exercising enormous influence on Serbian family and social life. Serbs also often go to the cinema. More traditional forms of entertainment include folk festivals, which every town has each year over several days. Serbs also like to visit family and friends in their homes. Musical concerts are also a popular sort of entertainment. Younger Serbs often go to dance clubs.


Serbian folk music dates from the medieval period and has been strongly influenced by Serbian Orthodoxy. During the Ottoman period, Serbian Christian peasants developed a small, single-string instrument, called a Gusle, so that they could play religious music easily and undetected. Traditional Serbian folk music, as well and more modern forms like the Turbo-Folk mentioned previously, remains popular today, especially in rural areas.

Serbian culture also has a strong tradition of folk dance. The most common folk dance is a Kolo, in which dancers form a ring by holding on to each others hands, waists, arms, or shoulders. Such dances have various rhythms and steps. Depending on which direction dancers move in, the dance can take on different meaning. A reverse circle is made when the dance is being performed in memory of the dead, called a Mrtvacko Kolo. The Kolo is still danced at parties today. Several other folk dances, once ritualistic, still exist in various forms, but primarily for entertainment.

Serbs also have a strong tradition in various kinds of handi-crafts, such as pottery and other ceramics, rug weaving, jewelry making, metalwork, leatherwork, hand-knitting of clothing, embroidery, wood carving, and stonecutting. Traditional Serbian folk art decorates items used in everyday life, such as gravestones, ceilings and doors of homes, furniture, musical instruments, and other household objects.


The social problems that Serbs currently face are a reflection of Serbia's long-lasting economic crisis due to the Milošević administration's mismanagement of the economy, the civil wars endured at the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the great numbers of war victims, refugees, and internationally displaced persons, Serbia's economic and cultural isolation from the rest of the world during war, and the damage done to its infrastructure by the 1999 NATO bombings. All of these factors have led to the general impoverishment of the population and to widespread crime.

As Yugoslavia has continued to dissolve, Serbia has taken in more than half a million refugees, primarily from Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo. This has aggravated the ongoing problems of unemployment and lack of housing and has led in many cases to the destabilization of familial relationships. In search of relief from these conditions many Serb refugees have attempted to return to their homes in surrounding countries, but all ex-Yugoslav republics, especially those, such as Croatia and Bosnia, that were involved in war, went through similar processes of social disintegration and have fallen into similar impoverished and chaotic conditions. Despite government directed programs that are meant to aid in the process of returning, returnees often face many obstacles. Many of their homes have been destroyed or occupied by others, unemployment is high, and there is little infrastructure in the rural areas where most Serbs lived. Additionally, the majority of Serbs who attempt to return are older, and thus the youth and reproduction needed to regenerate these areas are largely absent. Moreover, ethnic tensions still linger and Serbs are largely discriminated against by titular nationalities.

Other Serbs have sought relief by emigrating to foreign countries, leading ultimately to what experts call a "brain drain," or the loss of intellectual and professional capital that society has developed over several years, through education, training and development of its young population. Because of a shortage of jobs in Serbia, the best Serbian professionals are moving mainly to Canada, the United States, and Australia. Previously, the outflow of Serbs with a university education was not very significant. Most Serbs who left went to Western Europe and were skilled workers, craftsmen, and technicians. This movement of population initially had a positive effect on the economy, for it decreased the rate of unemployment within Serbia and provided a steady inflow of remittances, or funds sent back by workers to their family members remaining in Serbia. As more educated Serbs leave, and as these movements become permanent rather than temporary, Serbian society as a whole is being negatively impacted.

This trend of emigration contributes to Serbia's extremely low population growth rate, which was actually registered to have been negative in 2001. The fertility rate in Serbia is 1.69 children per woman. The population of Serbia is growing older and the demographic and educational distributions will probably worsen as the small number of young university-educated individuals continues to leave. In the coming years, this will not only negatively impact Serbia's economy, but as work force and age distributions of the population change, Serbia's already weak social security system, infrastructure, educational system, and other systems will face even greater pressures and become more unsustainable. These trends comprise the greatest long-term social threat to Serbs.


Some of the main social and economic problems of the post-Communist transition of Serbia have had a disproportionately negative impact on female Serbs. During the Second World War and the Serbian fight for national liberation, Serb women experienced a sort of emancipation themselves. Th rough their involvement in the national effort of supporting Serb partisan fighters, women emerged from their closed, traditional, patriarchal families. After the war, it became more common for women to move to cities, get jobs in factories, and receive an education. During the Communist period, women were no longer limited to simply getting married, having children, and remaining in the domestic sphere. In retrospect, however, scholars believe that the advancements made in gender equality during this period have been exaggerated, much to the detriment of the feminist movement today. On a practical level, despite the rights and liberties attained under Communism, Serb women remained largely subordinate to men and segregated as a group in society. On a theoretical level, the declaration that women and men were made equal under the Communist system produced in Serbian society a false comfort that the problem of gender inequality was solved. This general belief continues to diffuse and undermine the feminist movement by making gender equality a non-issue for society, which is problematic today since women's rights have continued to erode in Serbia with the fall of the Communist system for a number of reasons.

With the dissolution of Yugoslavia, war has proven to be the single most detrimental force to the female gender. In war-torn Yugoslavia, interpersonal and familial relationships were destabilized, and domestic violence grew substantially. The effects of economic hardships of war on Serb women were two-fold. First, unemployment, economic instability, and impoverishment made conditions within families very tense, causing domestic abuse to be more prevalent and more readily accepted by society. Additionally, the bad economy did not afford women who were being abused the chance to escape their situations and become monetarily self-sufficient, forcing them to remain reliant on their existing domestic relationship for economic security. Domestic abuse spiked in wartime Yugoslavia for other practical reasons as well. In addition to the tense family conditions it created, war also increased the number of weapons available. This did not necessarily increase instances of domestic abuse, but accessibility of dangerous weapons made it more brutal and deadlier than usual. Finally, institutional help for women experiencing domestic abuse was generally absent during this time, since attention and resources were allocated to more immediately pressing dangers. All of these factors made women the unseen victims of the civil wars of Yugoslavia.

The refugee crisis in Serbia caused by the wars of the 1990s has also had an extremely negative impact on women. Serbia's refugees in general went largely unacknowledged by the rest of the world, and as such suffered from insufficient international aid and received fewer chances for asylum or emigration. Many of the refugee women are from broken homes; some were widowed during the war or were separated from their husbands by various other social pressures. Many of the refugee women either act as single mothers or as the sole provider for their families. Possessing no valid citizenship, protection of rights, or secure employment opportunities, many refugee women began practicing prostitution, for it became one of the only possibilities for earning money. Others also work in smuggling. Some women have been able to get jobs outside of the shadow economy, but since they still do not have citizenship, their rights are not guaranteed and they receive no welfare, no healthcare, and no pension plan. Because they have not been fully integrated into society, and because they are often single, refugee women also experience widespread sexual harassment.

Finally, the dissolution of Yugoslavia was accompanied by a strong surge in nationalism, and while such periods tend to effect ethnic minorities most greatly, recent nationalist efforts in Serbia have also translated into the restoration of traditional expectations about the role of women in society in general. This has resulted in gender discrimination against women both socially and civically. Increasing numbers of women choose to remain in the domestic sphere and not to venture into business or politics, and the gender gap in Serbia is becoming more visible. Regardless, the feminist movement among Serbs remains quite weak. The number of women's organizations in Serbia has grown since the beginning of the new democratic regime in 2000, but there are still very few. The concept of feminism is still generally rejected by mainstream Serbian society. Men tend to stereotype feminists and women's organizations, viewing them as enemies of the Serbian society and nation. Women largely distrust women's organizations and hesitate to become involved. Thus, while women's organizations are legal in Serbia, they still encounter both institutional and social hurdles.


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—by Sarah Dixon Klump


views updated May 29 2018


ETHNONYMS: Srbi, Srbin (singular, masculine), Srpkinja (singular, feminine)


Identification and Location. The majority of Serbs live in the state of Serbia, the larger of the two units of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) that was established in April 1992 after the breakup of the former Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY). Serbia is in southeastern Europe, in the central part of the Balkan Peninsula. Its territory includes two autonomous provincesthe Vojvodina in the north and Kosovo in the southoccupying an area of 34,116 square miles (88,383 square kilometers). In 2001 Kosovo was under a United Nations (UN)-supervised administration, and its future relationship to Serbia was uncertain. Serbia borders Hungary to the north; Romania and Bulgaria to the east; Macedonia and Montenegro, the other unit of the FRY, to the south; and the now independent states of Bosnia and Croatia to the west. The northern and northeastern part of Serbia is part of the alluvial Pannonian Plain and is predominantly level. The central and southern areas are approximately one-third rolling hills and two-thirds highlands, intersected by canyons and wide river valleys. Serbia's rivers flow to the Black, Adriatic, and Aegean seas. More than one-fifth of the Danube River's length is in Serbia.

Demography. In the 1991 census the total population of Serbia was 9,779,000. Ten years later it had grown to some 10 million inhabitants, or 94 percent of the total population of FRY. Most of Serbia's population resides in medium-size to small communities. In ethnic terms, Serbs account for about 63 percent of the country's population. Of the remaining population, 16 percent are Albanians who live principally in Kosovo, 5 percent are Montenegrins, 3 percent are Hungarians, mainly in Vojvodina, and 4 percent are people who call themselves Yugoslavs. The other 9 percent are Croats, Slovaks, Romanians, Roma, Macedonians, Ruthenians, Bulgarians, Turks, Ukrainians, and Slovenians. Overall the Vojvodina, once a part of the Habsburg Empire, has the most diversified population. The Serbs are still an absolute majority in that region, but in Kosovo they are a minority among an overwhelming Albanian majority that in the 1991 census constituted 82 percent of the population. After the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO) conflict with Serbia, large numbers of Serbs left Kosovo and many settlements, especially in rural areas, were abandoned.

The dissolution of the SFRY and the wars of succession in Croatia and Bosnia were accompanied by atrocities, including massacres and "ethnic cleansing" (killing and deportation). Those acts were committed principally but not exclusively by Serbian military forces against Croats and Bosnian Muslims. The Serbian populations in Croatia and Bosnia have also been affected. Many Serbs fled their homes in Croatia, Bosnia, and Herzegovina, preceding those who later became refugees from Kosovo. Thus, Serbia has had to cope with several waves of refugees. The number of Serbs in Croatia was reduced from 650,000 to 100,000 after the exodus in August 1995. According to Serbian statistics, over 700,000 refugees came to Serbia between May 1991 and December 1995. Over 80 percent were ethnic Serbs. Serbs still represent the overwhelming majority in the Republika Srpska, a semiautonomous unit within the newly constituted Bosnian state created as a result of the 1992-1995 civil war and the Dayton Peace Agreement (1995).

Linguistic Affiliation. The Serbian language is a Stokavian dialect of what has been known as the Serbo-Croatian language in the South Slavic group of languages, which is part of the larger Indo-European language family. Serbian has a modern standard literary version that exists in two basic variants: The Eastern, or Ekavian, variant is spoken in the northern, central, and eastern parts of Serbia, and the Western, or Jekavian, variant is used in the western Balkans, the Dinaric region. The main difference between the two dialects is in the pronunciation of an old Slavic vowel represented by the letter jat, pronounced as e in the Eastern variant and as ije in the Western one. Serbian and Croatian nineteenth-century language reformers chose the Stokavian dialect and the Jekavian subdialect as the basis for standardization. Croats and all other ethnic groups in the western parts of the former SFRY, except for Slovenes, speak the same language. That explains why during the "second" Yugoslavia the two subdialects were hyphenated into a common name: Serbo-Croatian or Croato-Serbian.

History and Cultural Relations

The Serbian kingdom, with an autonomous Orthodox Church, arose in the early thirteenth century under the Nemanja dynasty, modeled on a Byzantine prototype. By the fourteenth century Serbia had become a major power in the Balkans, but it then disintegrated into lands controlled by competing feudal nobles. The whole area subsequently became part of the expanding Ottoman Empire, which lasted until the mid-nineteenth century. Symbolically, the independent Serbian medieval state ended with the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. A mythologized version of that event came to represent the essence of Serbian identity, embodying both defeat and resurrection. The legend of Kosovo was instrumental in building the modern nation in the nineteenth century and was used most recently by Slobodan Milosevic to energize Serbian nationalism at the time of the breakup of the SFRY.

During the centuries of Ottoman occupation constant uprisings and insecurity motivated Serbian population movements. Most of those migrations were unplanned and involved regional kin groupings, but they had a strong effect on the current Balkan ethnic structure. A significant number of Serbian migrants settled within the Austro-Hungarian Military Frontier in Croatia. Those Serbs served as soldiers to shield the Hapsburg monarchy from the Ottomans. In addition to peasant-soldiers, Serbian society developed an educated and prosperous urban class. Two of the largest population movements from the Serbian medieval heartland to Hungary in the seventeenth century resulted in settlement on the Panonian Plain north of the Danube in today's Vojvodina and neighboring Hungary, creating another Serbian diaspora in the Habsburg lands. That area became a new Serbian cultural and religious center, largely replacing the one in Kosovo that had been mostly depopulated. That area also became the home of an expanding Albanian Moslem population.

The Serbs were on the victorious side in World War I and were unified with other South Slavic lands that were liberated from Austrian domination. This unification led to the emergence of Yugoslavia ("South Slavia"), a cultural and political idea that originated in the nineteenth century. However, the adoption of a centralized political system, dictatorship, and Serbian hegemony, coupled with a lack of economic development, doomed the first Yugoslavia and led to national animosities and the violent civil war that accompanied the German occupation during World War II. An important development was the role of the Croatian fascist government in organizing mass killings of Serbs in Croatia, which led to Serbian-led military groups killing Croatians in the 1990s.

The idea of integrating the South Slav peoples was preserved by the communist pan-Yugoslav partisan movement during the war. Under the slogan "brotherhood and unity," it was a foundation for Tito's communist Yugoslavia (1945-1992). However, the new regime never attempted to resolve ethnic animosities, including the consequences of the wartime atrocities. The ideologically motivated state manipulated national issues to its own political ends. After Tito's death in 1980 political rivalry and the struggle by political elites for survival in the rapidly deteriorating economic conditions of a changed post-cold war world led to the breakup of the second Yugoslavia. Social and economic problems were increasingly expressed as ethnic grievances.

In Kosovo, as opposed to the Vojvodina, where multiethnicity was the established way of life, ethnic rivalry between Serbs and Albanians led to occasional outbursts of violence. Each instance has added to the grievances, making every subsequent clash more serious and complex. The Serbian side claims that the period of violence that started in the early 1980s and has continued into the twenty-first century is the consequence of the injustice it had suffered from both the pro-Axis state of Albania to which Kosovo was annexed during World War II and Tito's postwar regime, which favored Albanians. Kosovo is regarded as the cradle of the medieval Serbian state.

This issue became politically significant as the Serbs increasingly perceived themselves as a victimized minority. The reemerging Serbian nationalism after the fall of socialist Yugoslavia led to the curtailing of the province's autonomous status and to unprecedented state oppression, terror, and atrocities committed against the Albanian population. Wellpublicized evidence of those atrocities led NATO to launch air strikes on Serbia in March 1999. That intervention initially exacerbated civilian massacres, especially by Serbian paramilitary forces. Some 850,000 Albanians became refugees seeking shelter in the neighboring states of Macedonia and Albania. After the Kumanovo peace agreement was signed in 1999, close to 200,000 Serbs fled the region to central Serbia as the Albanian refugees returned to their homes. Tensions remain despite the presence since June 1999 of NATO peacekeeping forces and a UN administration. Atrocities committed by the Serbian side were the grounds for indicting Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Serbia and Yugoslavia, for war crimes and crimes against the humanity by the Hague tribunal of the International Court.


Traditionally, there were two basic types of villages: dispersed and nucleated. In dispersed villages houses were far apart, with buildings, fields, and cultivated lands and meadows surrounding each one. Many were in what had been pioneering areas, previously forested lands. Nucleated villages had closely positioned houses along roads; some were associated with the Ottoman system of landholdings. The villages in the Vojvodina Panonian Plain region were developed according to regulations instituted by the Habsburg monarchs in the eighteenth century.

Towns in Serbia south of the Danube and Sava rivers were almost exclusively Turkish in character. In the Ottoman Empire towns or urban settlements were usually fortified but also had open parts with administrative, commercial, religious, cultural, and residential functions. The city plan consisted of an irregular pattern of narrow, winding cobblestone streets. Public and private areas were strictly separated, and residential quarters reflected segregation based on religious and ethnic affiliation.


Subsistence. Well into the twentieth century most rural households in Serbia were primarily self-sufficient, and so a diversified economy was characteristic, especially in the rolling hills and lowlands. Some herding often was combined with growing wheat and corn as well as cultivating fruit trees, gardening, and poultry raising. Livestock raising was predominant in the mountainous regions. These patterns continued into the second half of the twentieth century. By the middle of the eighteenth century new immigrants from the mountainous regions had settled in central Serbia in regions depopulated during the Ottoman and Austrian wars. Initially, acorn-fattened pigs pastured in the oak forest were marketed across the border in Austria, creating the first prosperous Serbian class, which was active in the early nineteenth-century revolts against the Turks. As immigration and population increase filled up previously forested areas and land became scarce, there was a shift from herding to the cultivation of arable land for human subsistence and animal feed as well as for the market. Corn became the most important crop. Most holdings were small, averaging about 15 acres (6 hectares), and fragmented because of extended household divisions. This situation was little altered till the end of World War II, when almost 80 percent of the population was agricultural, producing about 50 percent of the gross national product.

Commercial Activities. After the demise of communism in the late 1980s, privatization resulted in the reallocation of communal wealth within the ruling elite. The subsequent breakup of regional trade flows between newly independent states, a war economy, the UN's economic sanctions, hyperinflation, and mismanagement of the economy contributed to a catastrophic economic situation. NATO air raids during the 1999 conflict targeted important industrial facilities and infrastructure and added to the existing problems. In 1999, inflation was 42 percent and unemployment was 30 percent. Approximately 1,700,000 farmers hold about 82 percent of the arable land, contribute 20 percent to the gross domestic product (GDP), and produce enough food to allow a surplus for export. Some 30 percent of GDP is furnished by services.

Industrial Arts. Peasants had to be skilled in many trades so that they could maintain their estates and repair equipment. More complicated tasks were done by villagers who had specialized through apprenticeship in a specific craft. Villagers' other needs were provided for by migratory craftsmen and vendors in markets. Others, such as potters, woodcarvers, stonecutters, tailors, and sandal and candle makers, were based in small towns. After the Ottoman conquest the towns were in the hands of other ethnic groups, such as Turks, Greeks, and Jews. After the end of Ottoman rule Serbian artisans and merchants emerged as distinct social groups.

Trade. Open-air markets were first established and regulated toward the end of the nineteenth century. The first city green markets were places where Central European culture influenced Serbian cuisine. Farmers and vendors from the Vojvodina introduced vegetables and other foods used in Hungarian, Austrian, German, and Czech cooking. After World War II and the socialist restructuring of property, all large-scale commercial enterprises were controlled by the state. Private small-scale retail trade and services were permitted and supplemented the state system. The private sector expanded in the 1970s and especially in the second half of the 1980s. Much of the trade in luxury goods dates from that period.

During the years of severe economic crisis in the 1990s, what remained of the state-owned sector was unable to provide for consumers' basic needs. Private entrepreneurs were the only functional part of the economy. In addition to legal stores and shops, semilegal kiosks abounded on the streets of Belgrade and other towns, with inventories including foods, detergents, clothing, automobile parts, and illegally imported cigarettes. Goods were sold for foreign currency, but vendors never seemed to have problems, with demand always being higher than supply. Many vendors were professionals who had lost their jobs or were only nominally employed by state corporations.

Division of Labor. Ideally, the outside world, fields, markets, and cafés were traditional male places for business and socializing. The house and garden were the woman's domain. In rural areas men were the sole owners of the land, implements, and agricultural and livestock herding knowledge and were generally the providers of subsistence. Day-to-day food processing, making dairy products, baking bread, cooking meals, and hauling water were women's work, in addition to raising children. Women also processed textile fibers that were used to weave linen, cloth, decorative parts of their clothing, and household furnishings such as rugs, blankets, and towels. Women were the official mourners for the dead and communicators with them. They also were healers who used herbal remedies and magic.

Women were supposed to keep poultry for meat and eggs and grow vegetable gardens. They could sell those products at the market and keep the money as income. However, since the extended family household with sufficient male labor was an ideal that was not always achieved, women also had to take over men's chores when men were not available, particularly in times of war, when women and the elderly provided agricultural labor. That pattern continued in households in which the men were full-time factory workers. Those activities did not help women obtain decision-making and property rights, although the situation changed in post-World War II Yugoslavia.

Land Tenure. In the medieval period landholdings included property held by the king, feudal lords, and monasteries. Peasants were tied to the land with fixed obligations that included military service. After the Ottoman conquest lands were allocated to Moslem officials who collected taxes, keeping a portion for themselvesthe so-called tax farming. The status of farmers in the medieval Serbian state and under Ottoman rule was similar. There was also communal village property that included forests, pastures, and water rights. The return of church, monastery, and royal properties confiscated by the communists has not been completed.


Kin Groups and Descent. The kinship system is based on agnatic principles congruent with a patriarchal ideology that involves patrilineal descent and patrilocal residence. Although they do not function as formal corporate groups, agnatic lineages are significant in economic cooperation and marital exogamy. Village neighborhoods are often populated by the same lineage, with reciprocal patterns of aid and labor exchange. Each lineage had a patron saint's day marked by a household feast to which affinal kin were invited. These ties are significant in urban areas even after generations of urban residence.

Kinship Terminology. In general, terms of consanguineal kin are more descriptive than are those for affines. Thus, there are specific terms for up to the fourth ascending male generation. Until the middle of the twentieth century it was possible for many rural males to recall lineal and collateral male ancestors to a depth of six or more generations.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. In rural areas and until recently in urban areas as well, marriage and childbearing were important symbols of adult status. Age at marriage has remained in the early twenties for men and women in rural areas for more than a century. Recently, the prolongation of education and housing problems have delayed marriage. While one-child families have become almost the norm among urban middle-class families, rural values have encouraged multiple births if a male heir has not been produced. For most of the twentieth century abortion was an accepted means of birth control, often to the detriment of women's health. Divorce has become increasingly common. Warfare in the 1990s reinforced patriarchal values as heirs, carriers of the family name, and defenders of the honor of the family and the state.

Domestic Unit. The zadruga, or South Slav extended family, has been the ideal, although not always attained, prototype. Even in urban areas family units often included kin of the extended family. In the nineteenth centuries households of married brothers were common and were divided only when the children matured. There has never been a simple transition to nuclear family households. Households have become smaller, but linear extension of up to four generations has occurred as a result of increased longevity.

Inheritance. Traditional inheritance patterns reflected the dominant patriarchal ideology. These rules were of supreme importance because land was the key to survival. After World War II women were given equal rights, but they often were reluctant to exercise their options because of social pressure. Sisters would give up their rights to inherit paternal land and pass the land to their brothers. Educational attainment and a range of urban opportunities have diminished the economic importance of agricultural land.

Socialization. Mothers are loving caregivers, protective, understanding, and forgiving. Fathers traditionally played a more detached role and were strict disciplinarians with undisputed authority. Among the modernizing urban classes the socializing process has become more egalitarian over the last several decades. However, respect for elders within a hierarchy of age and gender is still highly valued.

Epic poetry was an important source of socialization in traditional rural culture. It was the repository of archetypal characters and positive and negative male and female role models. The Serbian Orthodox Church and later the state educational system played a role in supporting patriarchal values. With the building of a modern nation-state in the nineteenth century, educational institutions took over part of the role of socializing individuals into appropriate gender roles. The recent wars in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo have supported an official patriotism and reference to the past to glorify selected traditions supporting a patriotic effort to fight for Serbian ethnic space and the integration of Serbian-populated lands on the borders of the nation. The media became an important factor in socialization, especially official television with its depiction of appropriate heroic roles for youth in military recruitment videos for the war in Bosnia.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Village social organization was based on the kin-structured patriarchal household, with extension by ritual kinship in the form of godfatherhood and blood brother ties adding support to the structure. Territorial proximity, as in village neighborhoods, was also important. Those relationships were confirmed by obligations of reciprocity in ritual feasts, the cult of the dead in regard to shared ancestors, and cooperative work groups for agricultural tasks such as harvesting and house building. Village autonomy was significant in building viable community structures that were implemented through leading village elders who often drew their strength from their lineage ties moderated through the office of the village headman, who acted as a bridge between the village and the government.

Before the twentieth century village communities in central Serbia were rather homogeneous from a socioeconomic perspective, leading many foreigners to describe the land as a peasant state. The transition to capitalism and a growing role for the market economy stratified the villages to a degree, but there were not many people categorized as servants within households and relatively few households were landless. However, the differences were acutely felt. Arranged marriages were seen as a way to build family alliances.

In urban areas the most desired goal was the security of a job in the government bureaucracy, followed by a military career or a professional occupation as a doctor, lawyer, teacher, or engineer. The number of people in commerce also grew, increasing the significance of wealth in relation to middle-class status. The elite society consisted of the royal family and the circle around the court. At the opposite pole were the urban poor. In the period between the world wars the urban social structure remained stable. After World War II the social organization was completely restructured. The old elite class disappeared, as did elements of the commercial class. There were some executions, a significant amount of imprisonment, and flight abroad of class enemies who included prosperous and politically active peasants. The new society was also stratified; those who had been with the communist partisans from the beginning of the war constituted a favored group. While formally the three main categories were industrial and other workers, peasants, and the intelligentsia, actual power resided with the Communist Party, the police, and the army. At the top were the political elite, or nomenclatura, consisting of high-ranking Communist Party officials, some of whom served as directors of major economic enterprises. The other elite group was a cultural elite consisting of writers, artists, and university professors representing for the most part an alternative worldview and lifestyle that resulted for some in the loss of their jobs or imprisonment. The largest segment of this group consisted of middle-class professionals, some occupying administrative clerical positions.

The post-Tito era witnessed the implosion of the social system and its values, the destruction of the middle class, and the expropriation of state resources by the political elite. That period saw the emergence of a larger and more aggressive criminal class. The elite drew support from the previously passive portions of the population and those on the fringes of the social system, including the less educated, pensioners, and small-scale entrepreneurs.

Traditional forms of social organization were highly adaptable and continued to function in both rural and urban areas, making up for deficiencies in the communist and post-communist systems. Examples are patron-client relationships and nepotism based on extended kin ties. Nonkin ties in professional organizations, clubs, school alumni groups, and sports associations coexisted and overlapped with traditional linkages and provided societal coherence.

Political Organization. In the post-World War I period a constitutional monarchy was established that was formally based on democratic principles, but with great authority given to the king, whose dynasty had previously ruled only Serbia. From the beginning there were tensions from conflicting national interests among the Serbs and Croats, who constituted the two major political forces in the new state. The influential Serbian Radical Party had a broad base among the peasants and also had middle-class support. There was also strong support in Serbia for a centralized government. This was in direct opposition to the aims of groups such as the Croatian Peasant Party, which was in favor of regional autonomy. Declaring opposition political parties illegal and arresting their leaders were political practices of the centralized authority whenever it felt threatened. In 1929 the king abolished the constitutional regime, political parties, and the assembly and replaced them with a royal dictatorship until his assassination in 1934. Loss of civil liberties, repression, censorship, emigration of political leaders, and the formation of new alliances abroad resulted. Some political organizations developed ties with fascist movements.

After World War II the victorious Communist Party used terror, intimidation, and police pressure to abolish all political opposition. Voters were offered only the government list of candidates. That situation remained unchanged for almost half a century until 1990, when the Communist Party lost its monopoly on power. The party exercised control even though its membership accounted for only 10 percent of the population, concentrated mainly in the institutions that controlled vital state functions.

A multiparty system was reinstated in 1989, and elections were held in December 1990. A large number of newly established parties participated, some with ties to parties of the pre-Communist period or even to those of the previous century. The Socialist Party of Serbia was a transformed version of the Communist Party. The country's long era of autocratic, personal rule ended when Slobodan Milosevic and his Socialist Party lost the election in September 2000 and a moderate democratic coalition came into power.

Social Control. Mild forms of informal control and self-control such as respect for traditional values; monitoring of familial, kin, and neighbor groups; and fear of negative public opinion, gossip, and ostracism continue to exist in both rural and urban environments in addition to formal mechanisms. The legal system established with the formation of the modern state in the nineteenth century is based on civil law. Local, district, state, and federal courts with appointed or elected judges and prosecuting attorneys were the legal forums for settling disputes. During the Communist era the police, especially the secret branches, and the courts secured the political conformity of the population. Centralized political control has been developed as a way to suppress ethnic conflicts. The Hague tribunal has held trials of members of armed military groups who during the wars in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo committed criminal acts against civilians.

Conflict. Daily life was filled with disputes over property, inheritance, borders, and other offences that were dealt with at village assemblies and in courts. On the national level, the history of Serbia is filled with conflicts with external and internal adversaries. Internal conflicts included inter-ethnic clashes and intra-ethnic rivalry. Ideological polarization between liberal and conservative, traditional and modern, nationalistic and cosmopolitan, "pure" village and "contaminated" urban worldviews is the leitmotif of cultural dynamism in Serbia.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Serbs are almost exclusively Serbian Orthodox Christians. The church has been autonomous since 1219. Elderly women are the most regular churchgoers. Older women are in charge of family rituals that are connected to the pre-Christian belief in woman's ritual purity after menopause. Church attendance is highest on major holidays such as Christmas and Easter and on the family patron saint day, which links home-based rituals with formal religious practices.

During the last decade of the twentieth century interest in paranormal phenomenon flourished. In addition to indigenous traditional magic, soothsaying, prophesying, and healing, occult traditions from around the world were employed as a survival strategy amid the disorder of everyday life. At the same time the official propaganda used popular fortunetellers, psychics, and astrologers to transmit messages that confirmed the official interpretation of worldly events as an expression of divine will.

Religious Practitioners. The clergy and the administrative structure of the Serbian Orthodox Church are hierarchically organized. The patriarch is the head of the church.

Ceremonies. The folk calendar and the annual customs cycle were centered on agricultural activities and seasonal changes. The traditional Christmas celebration still contains elements that were a part of pre-Christian winter solstice celebration, while some Easter rites resemble those for the vernal equinox. The highly ritualized celebration of slava, which involves an elaborate feast, is a hybrid of pre-Christian beliefs, especially those connected with the cult of the dead, and Christian sainthood. In addition to traditional rites of passage such as birth, marriage, and death, important life cycle events such as birthdays, graduations, send-offs for those serving the obligatory term in the military, promotions, and retirement are celebrated.

During Socialist rule there was an attempt to replace the main religious holidays with secular celebrations. The New Year's celebration was the replacement for Christmas. New holidays important to the state ideology such as the Labor Day (1 May) and the Day of the Republic (29 November), commemorating the date when the second Yugoslavia was founded, were introduced. The public celebrated the state holidays but continued to observe the religious holidays in private. Thus, the New Year was celebrated with the Christmas tree and Grandpa Frost (Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus), both of which were imported into Serbian urban culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Orthodox Christmas (7 January) remained a traditional celebration. Christmas Eve retained elements pertaining to the cult of the dead and pagan solar rituals, expressed by the nature of the dinner food and the Yule log.

Arts. Traditional oral literature included decasyllabic epic poetry recited with the accompaniment of the gusle, a single-string instrument stroked with a bow, lyric poetry, fairy tales and other stories, proverbs, and riddles. Music was a popular form of expression composed within the pentatonic and eight-tone scale and employing many different rhythms. Folk dances are numerous and often feature the nonpartner kolo. Kolo dancing was an important event at village gatherings and provided an opportunity for courtship. Folk music remains popular in both rural and urban areas. Newly composed folk music has had a following since the 1970s. Neofolk music is based on authentic Serbian and Balkan folk music but also borrows styles and structures from other traditions and combines them with popular instrumentation and arrangements. The lyrics refer to the everyday situations of common people and their way of coping with love and life and sometimes express a nostalgic component such as happy, idealized memories of rural life. Neofolk celebrities have great influence on their audiences, and the neofolk media were used to disseminate "patriotic" and militant messages during the violent dismantling of the former Yugoslavia.

Medicine. There was increased trust in medical professionals and greater availability of modern health care after World War II. However, for several decades, when the government was trying to stimulate the "socialist sector" and abolish private ownership, accessibility to modern medical facilities was used as a discriminatory tactic. While state employees and their families had full health coverage, for those in the private sector, including individual small farmers (the majority of peasants) and small business owners, health benefits were almost unaffordable. Gradually, government policy changed and coverage became more inclusive.

The prevalence of Western medical care has not eliminated other approaches to healing. Folk medicine, with its use of touch, chants, magical action, and "magic potions," is still sought after. Herbal medicine and the healing potentials of substances such as bee pollen have wide popularity. Herbal medicine has been accepted by medical officials and often is administered as a supplemental therapy. In late 1970s and early 1980s Eastern medical traditions such as acupuncture, acupressure, aromatherapy, and macrobiotics became popular as alternative ways of healing. State-operated medical facilities experienced severe shortages of medical supplies and drugs in the 1990s. While their services were rapidly declining, private pharmacies and state-of-the-art clinics thrived. The cost of their exceptional services was beyond the means of most people.

Death and Afterlife. In accordance with the strong animistic component of traditional Serbian religion characterized by a dualisticmaterial and spiritualconception of the world, the cult of the dead in traditional religion is important and elaborate. Death is considered a part of life cycle that does not annihilate the existence of a person but only transforms it. The bond between the living and the dead members of the family and lineage are permanent, and reciprocity of good deeds is expected for the benefit of all. The living must be extremely careful not to offend or estrange the deceased in order to secure their help in earthly activities and prevent their revenge or transformation into the dreaded category of the "undead," "vampires," "werewolves," and other equally evil creatures. As the netherworld is imagined to be similar to the world of the living, the dead are believed to have the same needs there, and it is the duty of the family to provide for their needs, such as food, light, clothing, and money.

The core myth, the legend of Kosovo, is based on the Christianized version of dual existence: a burdensome earthly life and eternal bliss thereafter. True national heroes who were ready to perish for the freedom and faith of the homeland secured eternal existence in the celestial kingdom not only for themselves but also for the entire nation. Reverence for the fallen kept the channel of communication between the two worlds open and enabled the two realms to become one in times of need.

For the original article on Serbs, see Volume 4, Europe.


Halpern, Joel M. (1967). A Serbian Village, rev. ed., illustrat ed. New York: Harper & Row.

and Barbara Kerewsky Halpern (1986). A Serbian Village in Historical Perspective. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.

Hammel, Eugene A. (1968). Alternative Structures and Ritual Relations in the Balkans. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Prosic-Dvornic, M. (1990). "At the Crossroads of Europe and the Orient (The Change of Internal City Structure in the XIX Century Belgrade)," Ethnological Review 26: 65-82.

(1992). "Rurbanization of Belgrade after the Second World War" in: Die Volkskultur Sudosteuropas in der Mod erne. (Southeast European Folk Culture in the Modern Era), edited by Klaus Roth. Vol. 22: 75-102. Munich: Sudeteeuro pa-Jahrbuch.

Simic, Andrei (1973). The Peasant Urbanites. New York: Seminar Press.

Internet Sources

Statistics, Serbian Government Serbia-Info,



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Identification. Serbia is the larger of the two remaining Republics that constitute the Federated Republic of Yugoslavia as of 1992. Ethnically homogeneous within Serbia proper, the republic also contains two autonomous provinces. The autonomous province of Vojvodina in the north is mainly Serbian but also contains large minorities of Romanians and Hungarians. The province of Kosmet (Kosovo-Metohija) is located in southern Serbia and has a majority Albanian Muslim population in which Serbs are a minority. Substantial Serbian populations live in the neighboring republic of Montenegro and in the independent states of Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Location. Serbia is bounded on the north by Hungary, on the east by Romania and Bulgaria, on the south by Albania and Macedonia, and on the west by the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Croatia. Its location is approximately 42-45° N and 19°30-23° E. geographically, Serbia is two-thirds highlands and one-third rolling plains. Šumadija, the agricultural heartland of Serbia, lies west of the Morava River valley, just south of Belgrade. The climate of the plains is markedly continental consisting of dry, warm summers, long, humid autumns, and cold, dry winters. The growing season begins in mid-March and runs through November. Average annual precipitation is 76 centimeters. Temperatures vary from an average high of 23° C in July to 1.6° C in January, the coldest month. Within these patterns, however, considerable variations exist, with recorded highs well over 38° C and lows down to below -10° C.

Demography, The population of Yugoslavia in 1990 was estimated at 23,864,000. At this time some 8,591,000 Individuals (36 percent) were identified as ethnically Serbian, making them the largest ethnic group in the country.

Linguistic Affiliation. Serbs speak mainly the Ekavian Subdialect of the Štokavian Dialect of Serbo-Croatian, a South Slavic language from the Slavic Branch of Indo-European. Slovene, Macedonian (both spoken in other former Yugoslav republics), and Bulgarian are the closest related languages. The Serbs still prefer the use of the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet, which differentiates them from the Croats who use the Latin alphabet. In recent years this situation has changed somewhat with street signs, bus routes, etc. being written in both scripts, but Cyrillic remains the alphabet of choice for official documents and newspapers.

History and Cultural Relations

Early Serbian migration into the then largely unpopulated Balkan Peninsula dates to about a.d. 500-600. Moving south from the area adjacent to the Carpathian Mountains, these early settlers arrived with their flocks and herds. The first Serbian state dates to the middle of the ninth century. By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, however, internal warfare had facilitated Ottoman conquest of the region. For the Serbs, this conquest is still symbolically remembered today by the defeat at Kosovo Polje (Kosovo Plain) in 1389. Modern settlement of the region dates to the 1700s and the wane of Ottoman power in the area. Prior to this time, much of the population had fled Ottoman conquest and remained in the Dinaric Alps to the west. By 1830, after years of continuous rebellion including the First Revolt of 1804 and the Second Revolt in 1815, Turkey was forced to recognize Serbia as an autonomous principality. Serbia was later proclaimed an independent state in 1882, but it was not until 1918 that the first Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes was established. The modern socialist state of Yugoslavia emerged out of World War II and the concomitant civil struggle between Mihailovic's Chetniks and Tito's Partisans.

Modern former Yugoslavia was an ethnically diverse and complicated state. Recent economic hardships coupled with political tensions have resulted in the flaring up of historical ethnic tensions between Croats and Serbs and between Muslims and Serbs. With the Croatian moves toward Independence in 1990-1991, full-scale civil war between Croatia and the Serbian-dominated federal army erupted in the summer of 1991, after Croatia and Slovenia declared their Independence. Also threatening at the present time are the tensions in the Kosovo between Serbs and Albanians fueled by growing Serbian nationalism. Yugoslavia is formally nonaligned.


Traditionally, neighborhoods or hamlets within villages were composed of closely related kin belonging to the same vamilija (lineage). Today, however, the population of Serbia is predominantly urban: over the past decades a tremendous shift of population to urban centers has occurred. Only about one in every four Serbs now lives in the countryside. Peasant villages in the Šumadija tend to be dispersed in small clusters, with each house surrounded by its own orchards, fields, and outbuildings. Three other types of settlements are found also. Agglomerated villages, in which houses are crowded together along narrow, crooked streets, are found mainly in eastern and southern Serbia. The cross-road village, with its evenly spaced houses and well-planned appearance, can be seen near Belgrade and in the lower Morava Valley. Finally, the ciflik, walled and densely packed villages created by Turkish landlords during the period of Ottoman domination of the area, are found in southern Serbia near the Macedonian border.

Houses ideally are made of brick and stucco with tile roofs. Wood dwellings, which were common historically, are considered inferior. A pattern of paying as you go in building, rather than financing through mortgage, means that a new house sometimes takes years to build.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The pre-World War II economy was based primarily on subsistence agriculture with a concentration on wheat and maize. Oats and barley are grown as market crops. Raising of pigs, cattle, and sheep was also important. Postwar modernization and urbanization have resulted in decreased dependence on agriculture. Most rural households have a diversified economic base that includes at least some wage earning. Some Serbian males (Between 4 and 5 percent) work outside the country, predominantly in western European industry. The former Yugoslavia as a whole was noted for its labor policy of worker self-management.

A typical diet historically consisted primarily of bread and a variety of stews in a lard base. Fruits and vegetables were normally available on a seasonal basis. Lamb was Reserved for holidays and other festivities. Cheese is made and eaten, but milk is rarely drunk. (Kefir is more common.) An important change over the last few decades has been the switch to the use of sunflower oil in cooking.

Industrial Arts. Many people engage in part-time craft-work, particularly in the manufacture of wood and metal utensils, tools, and furniture.

Trade. In addition to Western-style stores and shopping centers, open-air markets (pijaca ) with an array of fresh meats and produce, as well as handicrafts, are common.

Division of Labor. An emerging social pattern is the socalled "feminization" of agriculture as households with male factory workers maintain a diversified resource base. Previously, labor tended to be divided into inside (female) and outside (male) activities. For example, baking, cheese making, weaving, cleaning, and washing were almost exclusively female jobs while chopping wood and most agricultural tasks were men's work. In urban areas, a similar pattern of women working outside the household also has emerged.

Land Tenure. Despite a Socialist government, the vast majority of land is held privately. Attempts in the late 1940s and early 1950s to socialize landholdings met with staunch peasant resistance and were eventually abandoned. Although a few large collectives remain, most peasants continue to work their own land. Current law limits private holdings to 10 hectares, but contiguous holdings by different family Members often allow joint working of larger parcels. Recently, the government has made some attempts to develop plans for reorganizing private holdings, which have become increasingly fragmented, into more productive integrated holdings. This attempt has been poorly received.


Kin Groups. The most important kinship group after the zadruga, or extended family household, is the vamilija (Lineage) . Tracing descent patrilineally from a common known ancestor, sharing a common last name, and having the same patron saint, a vamilija nonetheless lacks the corporate functions normally associated with true lineage structure. Lineages are exogamous, and the bonds created by marriages between them are socially important. In addition, the fictive kin relationships created by godfatherhood (kumstvo ) and blood brotherhood (pobratimstvo ) are important social ties.

Descent. Descent is strictly agnatic, and to die without male heirs is one of the worst personal tragedies that can befall a traditional Serbian peasant. Village society is built on the matrix of male kin relationships as expressed in lineage structures and the relationships between them. Knowledge of this matrix, and one's place in it, are important in knowing who you are and where you came from. It is common for rural men to be able to recall accurately several hundred living and deceased male relatives spanning eight, or even ten, generations.

Kinship Terminology. Serbian kinship terminology is complicated and does not fit readily into conventional categories. On the first ascending generation, however, terminology is bifurcate-collateral for males and lineal for females. In general, terms for consanguineal kin are more specific than for affines. For example, a cover term, sua or snaja, can be applied to all in-marrying females.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. In rural Serbia where marriage and childbearing have remained important symbols of adult status, the age at marriage has remained low. Both men and women typically marry in their early twenties and immediately start a family. Postmarital residence is almost exclusively patrilocal. Matrilocal residence is a possibility only in cases where no sons are present. Such in-marrying males are commonly referred to as a domazet. Traditionally, marriages were often arranged. In urban areas, where living space is less available, marriage may be delayed until later. Legal abortion is a principal means of birth control. Divorce has become increasingly common in the postwar era.

Domestic Unit. The zadruga, or South Slavic extendedfamily household, is the most prevalent rural domestic unit even to this day. Even in cities, domestic units often contain extended-family members. Historically, zadrugas consisted of married brothers, their wives, and children. Households of ten or more members were common. These extended-family households functioned as single units of production and provided a common defense. Normally, married brothers would remain together until after the death of their father, but as their own families matured, the household would be divided. Often this went so far as actually disassembling the dwelling and evenly dividing the building materials. Today these households are typically smaller and lineally, rather than laterally, extended. Nonetheless, most rural Serbs continue to live in extended-family households. There has not been the pattern of family nuclearization so often associated with modernization.

Inheritance. Historically, land inheritance was strictly through male lines of descent. Land was divided equally Between a man's sons when the household was divided. Men without male heirs would frequently seek to find an inmarrying son-in-law (a practice counter to the norm of Patrilocal residence). Post-World War II legal codes specify bilateral inheritance, although the laws are still frequently circumvented.

Socialization. Corporal punishment is a common means of discipline. Emphasis has traditionally been placed on Respect for adults and the aged and on conformity to household goals. It is not uncommon today, however, to hear people complaining that children no longer respect their parents and often ignore their wishes.

Sociopolitical Organization

Yugoslavia is a Socialist federated republic with separate heads of state and government. The Communist party as embodied in the National Front remained the principal political force in the country until the late 1980s. After Tito's death in 1980 and the establishment of a collective presidency to replace him, the head of the collective presidency had been rotated between members representing each republic and the two Serbian autonomous regions. By 1991, however, the Central government was in danger of disintegrating and the national Communist party, under its old framework, had been dissolved. Late in 1991, Croatia and Slovenia withdrew from the republic and declared their independence. War between the Serb-dominated national army and Croatians has left Serbia in control of some territory within Croatia. The Serbian republic's government remains headed by ex-Communists, as of early summer 1992.

Social Organization. The class structure of modern Serbia is occupational and simple. Some pure agriculturalists remain in rural areas, but most households combine agriculture with some wage earning. Landless working people also exist. Successful peasant agriculturalists may still be esteemed, but the urban upper commercial class now wields real political power.

Political Organization. Administrative divisions below the republic level have been reorganized several times since 1945. Village and other local councils are important to local affairs. Village council members are locally elected and responsible for the exercise of federal and republic government policies at the local level, as well as deciding policy on local affairs. Membership in the Communist party is not a prerequisite to being elected.

Social Control. Public opinion and tradition, coupled with a well-developed federal court system, are important to conflict resolution and the maintenance of conformity.

Conflict. Serbian history is fraught with warfare, both Internal and external. Centuries of war with the Turks is a Common theme in traditional oral epic poetry and is an important symbol of solidarity against the outside world. Serbia, and the former Yugoslavia as a whole, were decimated in both the First and Second World Wars.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Serbian Orthodoxy is the principal Religion of Serbia. However, holiday (rather than weekly) church attendance is the norm. Easter is the most important general religious holiday.

Religious Practitioners. In addition to the village priest and Western medical facilities, help may also be solicited from a vračara, typically an older woman.

Supernaturals. The saints are highly revered in Serbian Orthodoxy, and in Serbia each clan or lineage has its own patron saint from whom help may be solicited.

Ceremonies. The most important holiday in addition to the church calendar is the slava, or feast of the patron saint, held on the saint's day. Every family has a patron saint who is inherited through the male line. Formerly, these were lavish affairs often lasting three days.

Arts. Serbian culture is noted both for its traditional oral epic poetry, recited with an accompanying gusle (a singlehorsehair string instrument stroked with a bow), and its naive art painting movement.

Medicine. Modernization has meant increased access to Western medical facilities. Women now give birth in hospitals rather than at home. However, for some types of illnesses, help is still solicited from a vračar or vračara. Illness may be attributed to many causes, and self-diagnosis has been Important to the decision to seek help from a folk practitioner or Western-style physician.

Death and Afterlife. Peasant society readily accepts death as part of life, but in contrast to church theology its concept of the afterlife is more one of a continued life in heaven. Funerals are held the day after death. The dead continue to serve an important integrative function both in terms of Lineage recall and lineage solidarity. Large graveyard feasts traditionally are held one week, forty days, six months, and one year after the death.


Federal Statistical Office (1983). Statistički kalendar Jugoslavije (Statistical pocket book of Yugoslavia). Belgrade.

Halpern, Joel M. (1967). A Serbian Village. Rev. ed., illustrated. New York: Harper & Row.

Halpern, Joel M., and Barbara Kerewsky-Halpern (1972). A Serbian Village in Historical Perspective. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston. Rev. ed. 1986. Prospect Heights, Ill: Waveland Press.

Hammel, Eugene A. (1968). Alternative Social Structures and Ritual Relations in the Balkans. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Lodge, Olive (1941). Peasant Life in Jugoslavia. London: Seeley, Service & Co.

Simic, Andrei (1973). The Peasant Urbanites. New York: Seminar Press.



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Serbs are South Slavic people who predominantly live in Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Croatia. They are also a significant minority in the Republic of Macedonia and Slovenia.

Serbs constitute about 66 percent of the population of Serbia. The largest urban populations of Serbs in the former Yugoslavian region are in Belgrade and Novi Sad (in Serbia) and in Banja Luka (in Bosnia-Herzegovina). Serbs are also present as a sizable minority in all capitals of the former Yugoslavian republics. They make up 2 to 3 percent of the population of Zagreb, Skopje, Ljubljana, and Sarajevo. Another 1.6 million used to live in Bosnia and Herzegovina and 600,000 lived in Croatia prior to the Yugoslav wars, but they have now been largely expelled from the latter.

Serbian culture was largely influenced by the Byzantine Empire starting in the ninth century and throughout much of the Middle Ages. Another source of persistent influence is the Serbian Orthodox Church. However, prior to the Ottoman invasion in the fourteenth century Serbs were strongly influenced by the Catholic Church, especially in the coastal areas such as Montenegro and Croatia. Austrians and Hungarians have also been highly influential among Croatian Serbs, Serbs of Vojvodina, and Bosnian Serbs to a smaller extent. Serbian culture declined during the five-hundred-year rule of the Ottoman Empire. After Serbia became autonomous in 1817, there was a resurgence of Serbian culture that remains strong today in Central Serbia. The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which was formed following World War II and was in existence until the wars of the 1990s, was part of the Soviet Bloc of Communist countries, but in recent decades there has been a growing influence from the West as well as a resurgence in traditional culture.

Serbs have played a major role in world history. In 1914 Gavrilo Princip (1894-1918), a Bosnian Serb, assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand (1863-1914), heir to the imperial throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This act precipitated the crisis that would lead to World War I. In more distant history Djordje Petrovic Karadjordje (died 1817) led the 1804 rebellion against the Turks, who were then in power. Serbs have played a significant role in the development of the arts and sciences as well. Prominent Serbs include the scientists Nikola Tesla (a Croatian Serb; 1856-1943), Michael Pupin (18581935), Jovan Cvijic, and Milutin Milankovic; the famous composers Stevan Mokranjac and Stevan Hristic; literary authors Ivo Andrić (1892-1975) and Milos Crnjanski; and Vuk Stefanovic Karadzić (1787-1864), credited with reforming the Serbian language. Other famous members of the Serbian community are sports stars Vlade Divac, Peda Stojakovic, and Nemanja Vidic; and actor Karl Malden (Mladen Sekulovich). From the entertainment arena there are movie directors such as Dusan Makavejev, Peter Bogdanovich, and Emir Kusturica, and TV producer Paul Stojanovich.

SEE ALSO Croats; Ethnic Conflict; Ethnicity; Identity; Milosevic, Slobodan; Nationalism and Nationality; Ottoman Empire; World War I


Cirkovic, Sima M. 2004. The Serbs. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Radan, Peter, and Aleksandar Pavkovic. 1997. The Serbs and Their Leaders in the Twentieth Century. Brookfield, MA: Ashgate.

Dagmar Radin


views updated May 14 2018

Serbs Slavic people who settled in the Balkans in the 7th century, and who became Christians in the 9th century. They were distinguished from Croats and Slovenes by their use of the Cyrillic, not the Roman, alphabet. Most of them now live in Serbia but there are Serb minorities in Bosnia and Croatia.