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Popina (Попина)

(POH-pee-nah)

Click on slideshow photos for description

Brief Details:

Name: Popina Monument Park ('Mausoleum to the Fallen Insurgents'; "The Sniper")

Location: Štulac, Serbia (along road to Popina)

Year completed: 1981 (3 years to build)

Designer: Bogdan Bogdanović (profile page)

Coordinates: N43°37'48.9", E20°57'29.6" (click for map)

Dimensions: 3 monoliths between ~9m and ~20m, set in 12ha park

Materials usedGabbro stone blocks

Condition: Good, newly renovated

 

History:

This monument, situated on the road to Popina just southwest of Karljevo, was built to memorialize and celebrate this location as the spot where the very first full frontal confrontation between Partisans and occupying German Wehrmacht forces began.

 

World War II

In late September of 1941, Tito's Partisan resistance army managed to liberate and rally the local support of a significant area of western Serbia which was formerly under the control of German occupational forces. This newly liberated land, which was named the 'Republic of Užice', is often considered the first European territory liberated from Axis control. The city of Užice became the new capital of this 'freed' territory, with Tito quickly moving his Partisan command and headquarters to here from Belgrade. Serbia's German commander Franz Böhme was extremely unsettled by the insurrection and uprisings in western Serbia, which significantly affected the ability of his troops to move freely and safely through that region. In what was known as Operation Užice, Böhme sent several divisions of 80,000 soldiers to handle this situation, instructing them to be as brutal as possible in order to dissuade and prevent future uprisings (Photo 1). This operation is often considered to be the First Enemy Offensive of the seven offensives Axis command executed through WWII in their efforts to destroy the Tito's Partisan resistance.

Photo 1: Map of troop movements during Operation Užice, with 'freed territory' in orange.

On October 12th, 1941, as the large well-armed 717th German Infantry Division of over 1000 troops was traveling west up the West Morava River valley towards Užice, they encountered the much smaller Trstenički Partisan Unit (along with a few soldiers from the Kraljevačkog Detachment) numbering just 300 near Trstenik as they were patrolling the borders of the Republic of Užice. The next day, just before sunset on October 13th, they clashed for over four hours on a hillside just east of the village of Štulac on the slopes of Nebrak Hill, in the valley between Crnog Vrha and Goca mountains. What would come to be known as "Popinski Bitka" (The Battle of Popina) is considered by some to be the very first full frontal assault between German trops and Partisan rebels. The odds were extremely disproportionate towards the German fighters, with their larger army and better equipped soldiers. The German assault on Partisan rebels was intense, beginning with a pre-dawn raid, targeting their locations by the West Morava river with heavy artillery. By the end, the Germans had driven out the Partisans, with over 40 Partisan soldiers being killed in the process. By December of 1941, all of Tito's Partisan resistance had been driven out of the Užice region entirely, with the 'freed territory' firmly back under Axis control.

 

Spomenik Construction

In 1977, the local governments of Vrnjačka Banja and Trstenik put forth funds (which were supplemented with donations from across Yugoslavia) for a construction project to create a memorial to honor the primary site of the Battle of Popina on Nebrak Hill. The instigating factor behind creating this monument for these municipalities was to stimulate the tourist economy by creating an attraction that would bring in visitors from across Serbia. In this pursuit, they even went as far as petitioning famed architect and designer Bogdan Bogdanović, a designer famously recognized for creating the internationally acclaimed WWII monuments at Jasenovec and Mostar. At the time Bogdanović was approached with this proposal he was already in retirement, however, after being offered full creative control of the final product and final decisions in all planning matters, he decided to take on the commission.

Photo 2: An early sketch of the Popina memorial complex

Photo 3: The Popina memorial under construction, 1980

Bogdanović implemented his designer for the memorial complex (Photo 2), which was to be situated on the site of the former location of the battle trenches, over the course of three years (Photo 3). The project was largely financed through public donations and community fundraising efforts. It was officially opened to the public on October 12th 1981, a date chosen to commemorate 40 years since the Battle of Popina. The complex consisted  of four elements: a commemoration block along with three monoliths made of gabbro stone blocks spread out over roughly 80m in length, with two of the monoliths being cylindrical (~9m tall) and the center being triangle shaped (~20m tall). Through the three monoliths, there are massive cylindrical openings which align, creating a gun-barrel-like effect, with the portal through the center triangle sculpture being 6m in diameter. It is because of this 'tunnel effect' that the monument gets its popular nickname 'The Sniper'. Bogdanović was horrified in his later years upon hearing this nickname for his sculpture, as he felt that one of his creations being likened to a weapon of war was sordid and ghastly. In addition to this monument, original plans intended to create an entire tourist complex here, with a motel, sports facilities and an elaborate cascading fountain. However, the costs for this monument complex got wildly out of control of what these municipalities were able to handle, so, as a result the memorial in its entirety was never fully realized by Bogdanović. It is unclear to what degree this monument was ever a widely viable or regularly visited cultural or tourist attraction, even in the days of Yugoslavia when such monuments were joyously celebrated.

 

Present-Day

While this site fell into a state of considerable neglect during the 1990s and 2000s, since the mid 2010s, local efforts have been underway to restore and revitalize the Popina memorial complex. Visitorship to the site in the past has been extremely low, however, with the addition of new road signage and promotional material, touristic interest in the monument has been on the rise. Furthermore, commemorative events have begun to take place at the site once again. In December of 2016, the Serbian Ministry of Labor, Employment and Social Policy granted several million dinars for the conservation and restoration of the Popina spomenik complex. As a result of this grant, intense rehabilitation efforts were undertaken in early 2017, which resulted in the removal of all graffiti from the monument and the improvement of memorial's trails, access and infrastructure. In late 2017, additional construction took place at Popina expanding the memorial's stone-paved walking trails and interpretive signage (Photo 4). Plans for further development for the site include enhanced decorative lighting, the construction of a Cultural Center and the full completion of elements originally intended for the site which Bogdanović was never able himself to complete.

Photo 4: Construction at the Popina memorial site, 2017

As international interest towards the monument heritage of the former Yugoslavia has been growing over the last ten years (especially on the internet), the monument at Popina has been a work whose form many have become interested in. Even outside the internet, many international artists, photographers and multi-media creators have used the form of the Popina monument as a basis or as inspiration for their work. Furthermore, the 2018 Serbian war film titled "The Load", directed by Ognjen Glavonić, used monument at Popina as a filming location, with scenes at this site visible in the film's online trailer.

 

Plaques, Engravings and Graffiti:

Of the four elements present, one is a square-ish gabbro stone block. On it, there is a lengthy engraving (Slides 1 & 2) made in the highly stylized Cyrillic script common on many of  Bogdanović's monuments. The engraving reads, translated from Serbian to English, as:

"On the 13th of October, 1941, protectors of the Republic of Užice's borders, namely soldiers from the Vrnjačka and Trstenik Liberation Units, led a fierce battle against a German military unit that was five times larger than themselves. Popina is a symbol of the Liberation and Revolutionary battle of this region under leadership and command of the Yugoslavia's Communist Party."

Slideshow

In addition, on the furtherest north cylindrical monolith of the memorial complex, there is another set of engraving (Slide 3), which is identical on both the front and back sides of the monolith. There are two intersting aspects to this inscription. Firstly, it is actually the inscription on the right panel which is the readable/legible wording... the inscription on the left panel is simply a mirrored image of that on the right panel. Second, the phrase itself does not literally translate into English effectively or understandably, as word for word, it would simply translate into English as "If need be, repeat me". It is more a figurative phrasing which could have multiple poetic interpretations, one of which has been related to be as being:

"When you have to fight for your freedom, you must do it repeatedly."

Which, after reading this interpretation, helps one understand the symbolism behind mirroring the inscribed text on both sides of the stone panel. Friedrich Achleitner, in his book 'A Flower for the Dead', relates that this engraved quote was the result Bogdanović initiating a competition among local school children to write a short verse to encompass the atmosphere of the site. Achleitner notes the 'metaphorical' characteristics of the inscription, suggesting that it imbues the site with a 'striking temporal dimension'. However, another potential way to understand this playful inscription could perhaps be hinted at one of Bogdanović's conceptual sketches for this site. In Photo 5 we see an early drawing of elements of the Popina complex with above it written the word 'anagram' (which is the same in English as it is in Serbian). Maybe scrambled and jumbled within the letters of this word-play inscription is yet even deeper meaning. Such a thing would not be surprising, given Bogdanović's penchant for 'duality of meaning' and hidden symbolism.

Meanwhile, at the main entrance and parking area for the Popina spomenik complex, there is an interpretive sign for passers by and auto-tourists (Slide 4). It appears to be a more recent addition, as it very much does not appear to be original to the site. The sign reads, when translated from Serbian to English, as:

Photo 5: An early sketch of the Popina site by Bogdanović

Popina Memorial Park

"At this point on October 13th, 1941 took place one of the first frontal battles between Anti-Fascist forces in Serbia and the German occupiers. In memory of these events, the Memorial Park "Popina" was erected (1978-1981), created by Bogdan Bogdanovic."

Finally, in Slide 5 you see a square engraved block at the start of the path at the bottom of the hill which takes you up to the monument complex. This inscription, which is also written in Bogdanović's highly stylized Cyrillic script, reads, when translated from Serbian to English, as:

"Popina Monument Park"

As for graffiti, there has up until recent times been a good deal of it across most of the elements in this memorial park. Yet, in recent restoration efforts at the park starting in 2017, the vast majority of the graffiti has been cleaned and removed from all of the parks structures and elements. During my latest visit to the site in 2018, I found no graffiti or vandalism anywhere.

 

Symbolism:

When peering through the tunnel view of the monument here at Popina, all the observer is left with is to stare into a nondescript section of the forested hills on the other side of the West Morava river. As to what symbolic meaning we are supposed to draw from this view created by Bogdanović is not immediately clear. Whether it is meant to mark or highlight a specific location or whether it speaks to some deeper metaphysical symbolism for nature, peace or unity, or the distant unknown, we can only guess, as Bogdanović rarely openly revealed how his monuments were supposed to be interpreted or what they specifically represented. Writer Vladimir Vuković suggests that the tunnel can be understood as a sort of 'portal' or 'passageway' which allows the viewer to gaze into another realm (perhaps the afterlife), where one can contemplate mortality along with the processes of personal continuity, renewal and duality, all of which are common themes explored by Bogdanović in his monuments. The idea of a 'tunnel' has been a common device used through the ages to illustrate the passage and journey into the afterlife (Photo 6). Also notable is that the tall middle triangle shaped stone element of the complex could be understood as a 'prism'. Just as a prism changes light which passes through it, shifting it and disassembling it, perhaps Bogdanović's tunnel is symbolically changing or morphing the souls of those who perished here to another form or transporting them to another plane of existence.

Photo 6: The 1515 painting 'Ascent of the Blessed' by Bosch

It is also important to point out that the tunnel or 'portal' nature of this monument is only fully revealed and appreciated when each of the three elements of the monument are all properly aligned, which is accomplished by standing on custom-made viewing mound which Bogdanović has provided at the south end of the site. As such, this series of precisely aligned solid stone structures is highly reminiscent of neolithic celestial alignment devices and ancient calendar structures, such as those at Stonehenge in Salisbury, UK or the Goseck circle in Germany. Furthermore, the fact that there are three elements here making up this 'portal' may be significant, as the number three is often considered to be a sacred heavenly number representing the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost), as well as the three Theological Virtues (faith, hope and charity).

Photo 7: A photo of Newgrange mound tomb, County Meath, Ireland

However, more than any of these others, the Popina monument tunnel alignment is perhaps most similar to the most famous passageway tomb, the neolithic mound tomb of Newgrange in Ireland (Photo 7). At Newgrange tomb there is a long dark passageway under the mound which allows light to penetrate through a small opening briefly during the Winter Solstice. It was with this celestial connection that possibly was thought by its creators to act as a conduit to the afterlife for those buried within it. It is known that Newgrange would most certainly have been an inspiration for Bogdanović, as he wrote about the site extensively in his 1966 book 'Urbanistic mythologemes' [available for free download in our Digital Library], and the tomb certainly would have been within the realm of popular discourse of the era, as it was being excavated during the time when Bogdanović was designing creating his most notable monuments (1960s & 70s). In addition, other of Bogdanović's works make overt reference to neolithic Irish mound tombs, such as his memorial structures at Vlasotince and Jasenovac.

Meanwhile, it is interesting to note that when standing within the sculptural elements (especially at certain locations), a strange and eerie echo effect occurs when shouting down through the tunnel. It is not clear if manifestation also has a symbolic nature or if it was an unforeseen effect not intended or anticipated by Bogdanović. Another unique attribute of this monument and its design is that it is completely devoid of any elaborate ornamentation or engravings, characteristics which can normally be seen on nearly all of the other spomenik complexes created by Bogdanović. Some sources express that this absence of ornament on the Popina spomenik is a result of Bogdanović finally conceding to the sculptural trends in modern art at the time which de-emphasized ornamentation and favored minimalist and streamlined forms.

 

Status and Condition:

The actual condition of the physical monument here is actually very good. The stone blocks have held up remarkably well, with there being little discoloration or deterioration. Being that the most expensive materials were used in this construction, it having held up so well over the years is not surprising, even despite its neglect. However, while it is clear that a bare amount mowing and maintenance is done by city officials to the complex, for the most part, the area is overgrown and very unkempt. In addition, there is no real established entrance or access area for the monument complex; you really just have to know where it is and make you way up there via dirt paths and grassy fields. While in the past there was no signage or directional markers leading you to the site, recent efforts in the last few years have increased the amount of road signage and interpretive plaques in and around the site. Furthermore, there have been a few instances of graffiti and vandalism done to most of the elements (to varying degrees) within the complex, as can be seen in the photos of the spomenik in the slideshow at the top of this page. However, news reports from the summer of 2016 indicate that the graffiti seen in these photos has since been cleaned off and removed.

While some recent pictures on the internet have indicated that flowers and wreaths have been left in the past by locals in the community, I myself did not see any sign of them during my visit -- for that matter, I did not see any other visitors here at all nor any signs that visitors to this complex were a regular occurrence. However, a ceremony at the Popina memorial was held in 2011 for the 70th anniversary, attended by local politicians and NOB veteran organizations (Photo 8). Since then, efforts have been made by the local municipalities to make these ceremonies regular annual occurrences.

Photo 8: A 2011 commemorative event at the Popina memorial

In late 2016, experts from the Institute for Protection of Monuments in Kraljevo began making extensive plans for a total restoration of the Popina spomenik complex to commemorate 75 years since the Battle of Popina. Then, in December of 2016, the Serbian Ministry of Labor, Employment and Social Policy granted several million dinars to the agency to undertake the conservation and restoration of the Popina spomenik complex. Restoration work began in early 2017, which has already made massive strides in the removal of all graffiti from the monument and the improvement of memorial's trails, access and infrastructure. Further rehabilitation of the site is planned for 2017 and 2018 which will potentially lead to the creation of a Cultural Center at the site, as well as a completion of elements within the park which Bogdanović originally intended but was never able to fully complete himself due to constraints. The hope is such developments at the Popina memorial will turn it into a significant local tourist attraction.

 

Directions:

This monument can be found just off Hwy 5/E-761, roughly 1km past the town center of Štulac, or about 53km east of Kruševac. If you are heading from Kruševac, once you pass by the village of Trstenik, in about 1km, you'll see a Knez Petrol station on your left. Once you've passed it, after about 300m you'll see a paved parking turn-off area on the left side of the road (Photo 9). Parking can be made there. The exact coordinates for parking are N43°37'58.0", E20°57'33.9" (click for map). From here, you'll see a stone-paved trail on the south of the parking area heading up the hill. You can follow that path up to the monument.

Photo 9: A view of the pull-off parking area

A map to the location of the spomenik at Popina, Serbia.

Click to open in Google Maps in new window

 

Comments:

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