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Avala (Авала)

Brief Details:

Name: Soviet War Veterans Monument (Spomenik sovjetskim ratnim veteranima/Споменик совјетским ратним ветеранима)

Location: Near Pinosava village on Mt. Avala, just south of Belgrade, Serbia

Year completed: 1965

Designer: Jovan Kratohvil (profile page)

Coordinates: N44°41'19.7", E20°30'50.6" (click for map)

Dimensions: ~5m tall sculpture

Materials used: Bronze

Condition: Very good, well maintained

(AHVA-lah)

Click on slideshow photos for description

History:

This spomenik on Mount Avala, south of Belgrade, commemorates the tragic 1964 crash of a plane full of Soviet WWII heroes into the side of the mountain.

The Incident

On the morning of 19th of October, 1964, a group of 22 Soviet dignitaries and veterans were flying in an Ilyushin-18 from Moscow to Belgrade to take part in the 20th anniversary commemoration ceremony for the Liberation of Belgrade, which was planned to occur the next day. This was a significant ceremony for these Soviet veterans to attend as it was marking the 20th anniversary of the Red Army's assistance in the WWII liberation of Belgrade. The most notable figures in the group were Marshal Sergey Biryuzov and General Vladimir Zhdanov, two respected elders of the Red Army who aided in the expulsion of Germans from the Yugoslav region during WWII. The plane was expected in at 11:30am at the Belgrade Batajnica Military Air Base, with a festive welcome party awaiting the Soviet dignitaries at the airport in Belgrade, complete with music and an excited crowd. However, at 11:34, the plane disappeared from radar as it was preparing for its landing in Belgrade. It was then seen to mysteriously veer off course, at which point it crashed against the side of nearby Mount Avala (Photo 1). There were no survivors, with 33 dying in the crash in total. At the time, there were several theories about what caused the crash, with one theory suggesting problems with USSR/Yugoslav unit conversions, while others say faulty instrument were to blame, and yet others still say it was due to the fog... but to this day, it is not definitively known why the plane crashed into the mountain, however, foul play is not suspected. In response to the crash, Yugoslavia recognized two days of nation-wide mourning. Interestingly, the famous Avala Tower was under construction on top of the mountain during the time of the plane crash.

Photo 1: The site of the plane crash on Avala Mountain, 1964.

Spomenik Construction

Plans to create a memorial to these Soviet veteran plane crash victims was initiated by the city of Belgrade almost immediately after the disaster. After a design competition, a selection committee chose the proposal put forward by native Belgrade academic sculptor Jovan Kratohvil. Interestingly, in addition to being a sculptor, Kratohvil was also an accomplished Olympic athlete, having represented Yugoslavia in the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki competing in sports shooting. The location chosen for this project was just a few meters from the exact spot on Mt. Avala where the Soviet plane crashed in October of 1964. The monument complex was opened to the public during a ceremony on the subsequent October 19th, 1965, in order to commemorate the 1 year anniversary of the plane crash.

The monument he created consisted of a 5m tall bronze monolith resting on a marble pedestal overlooking the Serbian countryside. It is situated on a side-slope right below the main road up Avala, and is accessed via a pair of grand stone staircases. This monument, along with the completion of Avala Tower that same year, greatly added to the centerpiece attraction on Mount Avala, which was the Monument to the Unknown Hero. This monument was a site that received significant visitation and patronage during the Yugoslav-era. It even hosted a visitation by President Josip Tito in March of 1970.

Photo 2: Avala Tower in the 1970s (top) and its ruins after the 1999 bombing (bottom)

Yugoslav Wars

Through the 1960s until the early 1990s, the Soviet War Veterans Monument was an extremely popular and active tourist area, along with the rest of the attractions on Mt. Avala. However, in early 1999 the continued conflicts of the Kosovo War brought violence to the mountain. At the time, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) (which at that time only consisted of modern day Serbia and Montenegro) had a significant troop presence in Kosovo, who NATO accused of persecuting and ethnically cleansing local ethnic-Albanian populations. To move troops out of Kosovo, NATO undertook a bombing campaign starting in March of 1999. During this bombing campaign, over 36,000 bombs and missiles were dropped on targets all across the FRY. One of these targets which was completely destroyed was the 204m tall Avala Tower, just a few hundred meters away from the Soviet War Veterans Monument, being brought to the ground on April 23rd, 1999 (Photo 2). The destruction of the tower was a significant and dramatic loss for people across Belgrade and the whole of the FRY, as it was widely seen as one of the enduring symbols of the country. In addition, the Monument to the Unknown Hero suffered shell impacts and still bears damage from the bombings to this day, however, the spomenik to the Soviet crash victims remained mostly unharmed.

Present-Day

After the Kosovo War, the memorial complexes and facilities around Mt. Avala were rehabilitated and repaired. An exact duplicate of the original Avala Tower was rebuilt and opened to the public in April of 2010, which marked exactly 11 years since the tower's destruction. Today, the monuments and attractions around Mt. Avala bring in many thousands of visitors each year to see them, as it is considered by some to be one of the most sacred and patriotic locations in all of modern Serbia. The Soviet crash victims spomenik is kept in very good shape and is well maintained, with many commemorative and ceremonial events being held here to honor the memory of the Red Army veterans who died here.

Plaques, Engravings and Graffiti:

At the Soviet crash memorial at Avala there is one central inscribed element. While descending the steps down to the monument site, there is an engraved slab of white marble at the base of the stairs (Slides 1 & 2). The inscription reads as, when translated from Serbian to English:

"This is the place of a plane crash on the morning of Oct. 19th, 1964, where Soviet heroes, our war friends and comrades, died.

In Oct. of 1944, they were fighting for the freedom of Belgrade. In Oct. of 1964, they entered into the city's legend and became the symbol of war-time brotherhood and camaraderie."

Slideshow

Below this, the names of those killed in the plane crash are listed off. This is the only engraving or inscription that is present. Meanwhile, no graffiti exists at this site, nor does it appear that this site has any problems with graffiti. The monument is extremely well maintained and has excellently manicured landscaping.

Symbolism:

From my research, I was not able to find any specific writings or analysis of this bronze sculpture on Mount Avala, created by sculptor Jovan Kratohvil, as far as whether it contains any specific symbolism or representational significance in its form or shape which might relate to the plane crash which it is intended to commemorate. From my evaluation when looking upon this sculpture I notice that the long fins which make up the sculpture have a striking resemblance to airplane wings (oriented vertically). This could very well be an allusion to the plane crash. In addition, understanding these forms as 'wings' then leads one to notice that the wings are punctured by various shapes (circles, squares, triangles, etc). These punctures in the wings could be a direct reference also to the plane's journey being compromised mid-flight by mysterious forces.

Status and Condition:

The condition of this monument is excellent. It is in excellent shape and is very well maintained and preserved. It has very good directional and promotional signage leading visitors to the spomenik complex, while surrounding cities and municipalities list it as a local attraction and tourist destination. The monuments, memorials and facilities on Mount Avala attract tens of thousands of visitors a year, so this spomenik is very well visited. Meanwhile, the site receives many commemorative offerings left by visitors in the form of honorific candles, flowers and wreaths. The whole complex here on Avala is very well protected and preserved, both regionally and nationally, by legislation, so, it is seems assured that this site will remain intact into the future.

Photo 3: A 2015 ceremony at the Avala Soviet Veterans Monument

Many annual commemorative ceremonies are held at this site every year to recognize and remember the airline tragedy (Photo 3), but also to acknowledge and recognize the role that the Red Army itself played in aiding in the liberation of Belgrade and their success in helping the Partisans to drive out German forces from the Balkans during WWII. Ceremonies usually consist of wreath/flower laying and speeches being made by notable officials and dignitaries. Dates where such events occur are as follows (this list is not exhaustive):

-February 23rd: Red Army Day

-October 20th: Belgrade Liberation Day

Additional Sites in the Avala Area:

This section explores additional Yugoslav-era historical, cultural and memorial sites of in and around the Avala Mountain area that might be of significance to those interested in the monumental and architectural heritage of Yugoslavia. Here we will look at the Tomb of the Unknown Hero, the Avala Tower, as well as Avala Hotel.

Tomb of the Unknown Hero: 

Atop the highest point on Mt. Avala is a monument called 'Tomb of the Unknown Hero' (Slides 1 & 2). Opened in 1938 and built by famous Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrović & engineer Stevan Živanović, this memorial was commissioned by King Alexander of Yugoslavia as a means to honor victims of the Balkan Wars and WWI. The site of the monument was previously home to the medieval fortress of Žrnov (Slide 3), but it was torn down in order to build the monument. Modeled after the tomb of the ancient Persian king Cyrus the Great, the monument is made of black Jablanica granite and is roughly 14.5m tall. Inside of the tomb is a large flat gravestone, within which are the remains of the 'unknown soldier', similar to other unknown soldier tombs around the world. The two entrances of the tomb contain a total of eight caryatid sculptures of women who represent the various peoples from throughout the Yugoslav region (Slide 4).

Tomb of the Unknown Hero - Slideshow

When the monument was first built, it was mainly only accessible to wealthy individuals who had a car which could drive to the top of the mountain. However, with the rise of vehicle ownership in post-WWII Yugoslavia, public visitation to Avala skyrocketed (most notably to visit this tomb). During the NATO bombings of this region in 1999, Mt. Avala was hit numerous times, during which the tomb was damaged. Some evidence of these shell blasts can still be seen on parts of the stairs leading up to the tomb. Today, the monument is one of the most significant tourist attractions in Serbia. It was designated as a Cultural Site of Exceptional Importance by the government in 1987. Historical images from the 1950s of the monument can be seen in Slides 5 & 6. Its exact coordinates are N44°41'20.6", E20°30'57.5".

Avala Tower: 

Also in the Avala Mountain summit area is the Avala Tower complex (Slide 1). Unveiled in 1965, the tower was designed by Serbian architects Uglješa Bogunović and Slobodan Janjić, along with engineering intervention by Milan Krstić. It reached a height of 204m tall. This tower was designed to operate as a radio/TV transmitter, while also containing a public observation deck (Slide 2). The concrete tower was unique in its design, standing upright upon a tripod base (one of the few towers in the world with such a design) (Slides 3 & 4). Some sources assert that the tripod base was meant to be a symbolic cultural reference to the traditional three-legged small Serbian chair which is known as the "tronožac". This unique design and contemporary styling led to many considering the tower to be a modern marvel. Its height is so great that some sources assert that on a clear day, one can see over 100km across the landscape from the tower's observation deck.

Avala Tower - Slideshow

The creation of the tower acted as a poignant symbol for Yugoslavian technical achievement and capability, while also acting as a landmark for the Yugoslav capital of Belgrade, from which the tower could easily be seen. However, as the tower relayed TV and radio transmissions, it was seen as a strategic target upon the onset of the NATO bombings of Yugoslavia in 1999. On April 29th, 1999, towards the end of NATOs bombing campagain of the region, two of NATOs GBU-27 Paveway III laser-guided bunker buster bombs hit one of the tower's legs, bringing the structure to the ground (Slide 5). In 2006, a reconstruction effort began to recreate the tower exactly how it once was. This reconstruction was completed in 2010. In the late 2010s, the tower was fitted with an array of lights which could fully illuminate the tower in various color schemes, imbuing it with impressive night-time visual effects even from great distances (Slide 6). The tower continues to be among one of the most popular tourist attractions in Serbia and still exists as a significant landmark for the country. The official website for Avala Tower can be found at THIS link, while its exact coordinates are N44°41'46.0", E20°30'51.9".

And Additional Sites of Interest: 

  • Hotel "Avala": Also situated in the summit tourist zone of Mount Avala is the stately resort complex named Hotel "Avala", which was built in 1928 by Russian/Serbian architect Viktor Lukomsky at the request of King Alexander (Photo 4). Built in a neo-Rennaisance style with hints of Serbian architectural influence, the hotel is palace-like in appearance and is a fascinating hybrid of design aesthetics, architectural styles and inter-cultural influences. On the north side of the hotel on either side  of the approach staircase are two large sphinx sculptures created by Russian sculptor Aleksandr Zagrodnyuk. The hotel remains in good condition and still reguarly hosts hotel guests and patrons. Its official website can be found at THIS link, while its exact coordinates are N44°41'28.0", E20°30'48.9".

  • Monument to the Fallen Fighters of Pinosava: At the west entrance to Avala Mountain off of Road 149 is a stone memorial marker honoring local fighters from the village of Pinosava who fell during WWII. Unveiled in 1949, it is of a modest design, roughly 5m tall, and contains a black engraved stone panel inscribed with the names of fallen fighters. A photo of the monument can be seen at THIS link, while its exact coordinates are N44°41'44.0", E20°30'07.2".

Photo 4: A historical image of Hotel 'Avala' in the 1930s.

 

Photo 5: A historical image of the houses for the Hydrotechnical Institute 'Jaroslav Černi' at Avala, Serbia

  • Housing for the Hydrotechnical Institute 'Jaroslav Černi': Near the base of Avala Mountain is a modest complex of stone-built homes which were built in 1954 to be used as official housing for the scientists of the Hydrotechnical Institute 'Jaroslav Černi'. These curious surrealistic abodes are the creation of famous Belgrade architect Bogdan Bogdanović. Among his earliest works, Bogdanović created these rough stone dwellings, in part, as a response to the wave of modernist architecture that was dominating the newly built landscape of that period. With the modern style dominated by mass-production, uniformity and concrete, Bogdanović still felt drawn to traditional styles and craftsman approaches to construction. These select homes are adorned with unique details, hand-crafted touches of wit & whimsy, as well as the budding architectural markers that would only later evolve to dominate Bogdanović's characteristic style and approach to monument building. The exact coordinates for this complex are N44°42'07.8", E20°30'06.7". For more info, contact the Hydrotechnical Institute HERE.

Directions:

From the direction of Vrčin on a A1 Motorway, take Hwy 347 to Hwy 149 towards Avala Mountain (there will be signs). As you approach the village of Pinosava, you will see signs for the entrace to Avala Mountain complex on the right (see Google StreetView here). Follow the road up the mountain and after about 2-3km, you will see a pull off on either side of the road where you can park (see Google StreetView here), from where you can see the spomenik right off the road. Exact coordinates for parking are N44°41'20.3", E20°30'51.7".

Please, BE AWARE that Avala is one of the most patriotic and culturally important historic and memorial sites in all of Serbia. Regardless of where you are from or your political feelings of the events which occurred here, be respectful and conscientious.

A map to the location of the monument at the spomenik complex at Avala, Serbia.

Click to open in Google Maps in new window

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