The 90th annual Vuk’s Assembly in Tršić, the oldest and largest cultural event in Serbia, was crowned with an address delivered by His Holiness Serbian Patriarch kyr Porfirije.
His Holiness Serbian Patriarch kyr Porfirije and His Grace Bishop of Šabac kyr Jerotej were present at the central assembly event in Tršić, near Loznica – the hometown of the famous Serbian linguist, philologist, anthropologist, writer, translator, and academic Vuk Stefanović Karadžić, of whose work the memory has been preserved for nine decades through numerous exhibitions, theatrical performances, concerts, literary and film evenings, book promotions, and similar events. Also in attendance were the Deputy Prime Minister of the Republic of Serbia and Minister of Culture Ms. Maja Gojković, the wife of the President of the Republic of Serbia Ms. Tamara Vučić, the Cultural Advisor to the President Mr. Dejan Savić, Academician Svetislav Božić, and the Mayor of Loznica Mr. Vidoje Petrović, who also delivered a welcoming speech. Following the traditional performance of “Hymn to Vuk” by Stevan Mokranjac, the raising of the Assembly’s flag, and the Mayor of Loznica’s speech, His Holiness Serbian Patriarch kyr Porfirije delivered the Assembly’s address:
“When the first Vuk’s Assembly was held in 1933, its organizers could not have known that their idea would grow into, as it has been said, the oldest and largest cultural event in Serbia, which has been included in the National Register of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Serbia. Because of this, it is a special honor for me this year to, owing to your attentiveness and love, have the opportunity to address you with this Assembly speech. Reflecting on the possible topic of today’s address several weeks ago, I heard the bells of the Cathedral Church calling for vespers service. As I ascended the steps leading to the yard of the old Cathedral Church, the theme I had been seeking became clear before my eyes. At the very entrance to the Cathedral Church, in front of its main portal, lie the graves of two great sons of the Serbian people: Vuk Stefanović Karadžić and Dositej Obradović, whose remains were transferred and buried side by side in this prestigious place 126 years ago, where they rest to this day. In the historical fact that Vuk and Dositej were buried in the churchyard in front of the most important church of the Metropolitanate of Belgrade, there is a hidden, deeper meaning. What does it consist of? Based on the way their lives have been mostly written about and interpreted to this day, it could be concluded, and it has been concluded, that the lives of both of these giants unfolded in different, often turbulent, relationships with the Church. Why did this happen, how did these strained relationships manifest, what were their causes, and what, on the other hand, were the consequences? All these questions have been explained one-sidedly with rare restrained exceptions. If this way of looking at the lives and work of both Vuk and Dositej is completely true, wouldn’t it be strange that they were buried in this particular place out of all possible resting places in the Serbian capital? And isn’t the choice of this ecclesial and consecrated place a possible beginning, an introduction to a new and different interpretation of some aspects of the work and lives of these unquestionable giants of our people? With these thoughts in mind, I set out to compose this address.”
With good reason, it has been said that historical research never stops and that each generation can, and we should freely say should – on the basis of new data and facts, broader and deeper perspectives on certain phenomena and the general progress in knowledge and understanding of a specific era and personalities who lived in it – interpret them in a more complex manner and, as far as possible, closer to the truth. This will not always imply a different way, but somewhere and sometimes that difference cannot only be avoided, but it will precisely be a particularly valuable result of our engagement with the past. When a certain individual we are dealing with is more famous and popular, not to mention beloved, attempts at a more comprehensive understanding become more challenging and understandably riskier. Commonplaces in historiographical research, accepted conclusions, and familiarity with certain theoretical solutions form a specific barrier that new researchers hesitate to cross for various, not so unfamiliar and incomprehensible, reasons. A particularly significant question is the time in which a certain opinion prevailed and the personalities who established it — their educational, ideological, political, psychological, and general social context and framework. It always, with undisguised ambitions, challenges historical conclusions and seeks to guide them in a useful and desired direction for interpreters and their benefactors. Some might say that every interpretation is motivated and driven by a combination of causes and has a specific goal. This, in itself, is not bad. It becomes and is bad when these motives are ideological and utilitarian, and the goals do not rest in the effort to see the whole and bring it as close as possible to the truth, but to achieve some other, more or less hidden goal. Hoping that this interpretation of the lives and work of Vuk and Dositej is devoid of such ambitions, let us try to look at some episodes from their lives in a new way.
Let’s first look at how the life and work of the brilliant hieromonk who remained in his priestly and monastic rank until the end of his life – Dositej Obradović – are perceived and interpreted by a certain, unfortunately not insignificant portion of our contemporaries. We will illustrate this with an example from Dositej’s life and a general evaluation of his work. While writing about his studies, Dositej noted that he stopped wearing his cassock in Halle and switched to secular attire. He did not accurately specify the reasons that led him to do this. Later generations of interpreters have, in line with their own worldviews, desires, and ambitions, ascribed various reasons to it, considering Dositej’s actions as the beginning of a complete secularization of his life on one hand, and symbolically, the removal and exclusion of the cassock from the Serbian cultural and educational public space on the other, deeper perspective. What actually happened? Dositej Obradović arrived at the University of Halle in the autumn of 1782. By the way, he was not the first nor the only Serbian student at this renowned institution. The first Serbian student at Halle was monk Arsenije Teofanović from the Monastery of Grabovac, later bishop of Kostajnica, who began his studies at Halle in October 1745. Research into the Halle matriculation records showed that there were a total of fifteen Orthodox theologians at the Halle University from 1690 to 1800, and eleven of them were Serbs. All of them removed their cassocks at Halle, not due to a change in ideological or religious beliefs, but for a very concrete and, we can freely say, intimidating reason. The new environment in which Orthodox clergy students found themselves harbored a great deal of animosity towards Jews, whom they resembled in appearance – long beards, long hair, and dark clothing down to the ground. This often resulted in attacks on Jewish people on the streets, and aggressive anti-Semitism could have serious and tragic consequences. Therefore, all Orthodox, including Serbian, students were advised not to dress in a way that would make them targets of such attacks. Mita Kostić once proved this this claim with examples of Josif Putnik and Nikola Kišdobranski, to whom the staff of the local student dormitory pointed out this issue. Knowing these real reasons for removing the cassocks in Halle makes it easier for us to realistically assess Dositej’s actions without ideological bias and allows us to perceive and understand him differently, especially considering the fact that he was buried in clerical attire, as a monk.
Whole generations of interpreters of Dositej Obradović have striven to form an image of Obradović as an inspired and zealous promoter of education, tirelessly opposing conservative and dark social, or more precisely, church, layers, and direct opponents of enlightening the Serbian people. Hiding behind a simplistically interpreted maxim of Dositej, “Books, my brothers, books, not bells and chimes. They wage battles and win!” these interpreters either do not know, or do not want to know, or overlook, or intentionally omit the truth that Dositej was not the sole enlightener of his people during his time. Under the ringing of the very same bells and the chiming of chimes hanging of the censers and hierarchical vestments, a plethora of archpastors and pastors of the Serbian Church were spreading ideas about the importance of education and enlightenment with the same, often even greater, zeal as Dositej himself. The future of Serbian culture, ecclesiastical and social life, ultimately, what we are largely today, in the 18th century, was directed and shaped by Serbian educated monks. Depending on where they had been educated, as well as the intellectual interests and affinities they cultivated, determined the path they themselves would take, and subsequently, the generations of their successors. Two significant educational centers of that time, the Latinized Kyiv Spiritual Academy and the pietistic Protestant University of Halle, returned gifted Serbian individuals to their homeland with altered convictions and worldviews. Despite the differences they fostered in their theological approach, the role and place of the Church and religion in society, Serbian students who were educated “in foreign lands” in the 18th century shared an indisputable common denominator in their later activities, after the return to their motherland. This was a high valuation of enlightenment through the education of the people as the best way to promote the ideas and values that were essential for transforming and developing Serbian society. The school was the institution of pivotal significance for achieving such ideas and this entire program. The society, even the Church as its part, could be transformed and changed only through proper, planned and programmatic education of new generations as bearers of changes. Therefore, the majority of Serbs educated abroad either opened schools or taught in them. Major and most significant part of those schools was established with the blessing and under the auspices of the Serbian Church. The opening of the Belgrade Grand School in 1808 and the Seminary in 1810 by Dositej Obradović; the prefecture and professorship of Dionisije Novaković in Visarion’s Novi Sad Spiritual Collegedating back from 1743; the theology professorship of Jovan Rajić in the same school from 1764, and the geography and rhetoric in the Latin School in Sremski Karlovci from 1760 show us that all Serbian students, upon their return from studies abroad, brought the seeds of enlightenment, whether leaning towards secularism and rationalism or involving theological understanding of the same phenomenon.
It has been said many times that one of the biggest obstacles to Vuk’s language reform was the Serbian Orthodox Church, particularly its then most prominent leader, the Metropolitan of Karlovci Stefan Stratimirović. The Metropolitan was accused of lacking an ear for the necessary transformation of the Serbian language and meaningful changes in its alphabet. According to proponents of this view, the Church as such, and Stratimirović within it, are striving to halt the good progress and hinder qualitative changes and advancements in the Serbian language. Is it really so, and does the whole truth about Vuk’s time and his relationship with the Serbian Orthodox Church lie in such conclusions? Let’s go through this systematically. The purpose and significance of the people’s, or spoken language, if I may joke a bit, do not lie in the fact that people speak it, but in that people understand it. Simplicity of expression and comprehensibility of content enable the quality transmission of the meaning and significance that the language seeks to convey and preserve. As is well known to anyone even remotely well-intentioned, the Orthodox Church inherits the sacred tradition of the equal to the apostles Cyril and Methodius, transmitted and developed in our regions through the work of the Saints Clement, Naum, Angelarius, Gorazd, and Sava. She promotes the use of an understandable language and alphabet that corresponds to it as a means and way of spreading life according to the Gospel of Christ. The Church continued to cultivate and affirm these principles, despite greater or lesser, or longer or shorter setbacks brought about by historical adversities, both in the time preceding Vuk and during the period when his reform emerged and gained broad acceptance. Why this is overlooked or omitted is a question in itself that we will not delve into here, but we want to draw attention to it. Let’s illustrate this with a few examples.
One of the most significant figures in the Serbian Church and culture in the 18th century was Hieromonk Gavrilo Stefanović Venclović, who was educated and spiritually shaped, and thus inspired, by exceptional individuals from the clergy of the monastery brotherhood of the Monastery of Rača near Drina river, who found themselves in Szentendre after the Great Migration. Father Gavrilo learned from them and adopted not only a sense of the importance of an understandable language in the mission of the Church but also an awareness of the need to adapt the alphabet to this new linguistic dynamism. From his rich manuscript legacy, we can see that as early as 1732 — that is, about a hundred years before Vuk — Gavrilo largely used the vernacular when discussing complex doctrinal topics, such as the veneration of icons and iconoclasm, or when he translated the Holy Scriptures into a comprehensible language for his parishioners. Venclović, as we know or should know, did not stop there. He embarked on his own alphabetic reform, which, although it did not gain widespread acceptance, still represents a sign of the serious interest of the clergy of the Church in language issues and their proper resolution. Not only representatives of the lower clergy were engaged in this issue; as others like to emphasize, the episcopate held conservative positions. The best example of this is another Metropolitan of Karlovci Jovan Georgijević or Đorđević, who, as the Bishop of Vršac, sometime between 1761 and 1763, created the first reformed Serbian Cyrillic alphabet. My fellow countryman, the renowned Serbian librarian and historian of Serbian books, literature, and culture, Uncle Laza Čurčić, born in Titel, wrote famous lines about this. This reformed Cyrillic alphabet was used by the painter Nikola Nešković for the inscription of the founder’s word in the chapel of the most beautiful Diocesan residence in the Metropolitanate of Karlovci, which is located in Vršac. It was used for engraving the text on the Altar table of the Dormition Church in Vršac and for several other inscriptions in the churches of the Diocese of Vršac. Why did they not rush and insist, like Vuk did, on implementing the language reform during their lifetime and in the regions where they were? One should not overlook that all of them lived in a complex era in which, as in any similar epoch, great powers sought to redirect the destinies and development of smaller nations for the purpose of achieving their political interests, bringing them closer, changing them, utilizing them, and even abusing them. These objectives were achieved through various means, spanning from military force and economic conditioning to cultural and identity interventions and changes. Without understanding this context and taking these factors seriously into account when analyzing the work and actions of any individual, including Dositej and Vuk, it is impossible to approach a genuine understanding of the motives and goals of certain phenomena.
A key role in Vuk’s language reform was played by Jernej Kopitar. A more detailed exploration of Kopitar’s motives, not only in the case of Vuk Karadžić but also regarding Taras Shevchenko and his role in the development of the Ukrainian language, shows that they went beyond educational and philological motivations and ran deeper than philanthropic or personal friendships. Without a doubt, Kopitar was one of the leading promoters of Austrian imperial geopolitical interests in the field of the cultures of Slavic nations. On one hand, he aimed to make them linguistically “independent” them and consequently divide them, while on the other, he intended to religiously separate them from the larger religious entities by breaking their religious unity supported by a common language. This was primarily what Metropolitan Stratimirović had in mind when he opposed Vuk’s reforms. To all of them, including him, it was clear that language is a living entity that grows and develops, having specific forms and structures that can solidify over time, lose their life juices, and their ability to serve as a means of live communication. They understood that there were main currents and backwaters in language, and that its development and changes are not inherently bad. The Metropolitan was insistent on changes happening naturally, spontaneously and intelligently, within the continuum of linguistic development, rather than in a manner that seemed to him as a sort of revolutionary, purposeful discontinuity. This was especially relevant for changes that threatened to separate the Serbian people from one linguistic matrix and cultural identity while paving the way for the emergence of later phenomena where, to a greater or lesser extent, dialectal differences within a single language would transform into the foundational elements of new languages, which indeed occurred.
The Serbian language, the language of Vuk and Dositej, Saint Sava and King Milutin, Despot Stefan Lazarević and Đurađ Branković, Andrić and Crnjanski, the foundation and cradle, content and space, the temple and home of our national identity, today faces the onslaught of forces that seek to change and distort it, cut off its life-giving flow, and render it lifeless. It goes without saying, but it should be emphasized that this is not just about the language as an isolated, self-sufficient phenomenon. Changing the language aims at changing the people who speak it, think and write in it, sing and cry with it — those who are formed by it and who, in turn, shape others with the same language. This violent change may seem philological, but it is, in fact, an anthropological phenomenon. Violence against language that we witness and resist is merely an introduction to violence against humanity. If we agree to abolish freedom in the development and spontaneity of language, replacing it with imposed changes and rules, we have taken the first step in abolishing the freedom of every individual to be what they are and to develop in the direction they choose to go.
With amazement, we observe how the political commissars of the language revolution spread their new faith, their new language of apparent correctness and false equality, striving to either suppress or distort the living language of Vuk and Dositej, forcing it into the Procrustean beds of their ideological and political goals. We find hope in the fact that these efforts do not go unopposed, and voices rise all over our country in defense of language as one of the fundamental human rights. What does this right encompass, among other things? The right to use one’s own language, the right to preserve one’s language and pass it on to the next generation, the right to express, receive, send, and exchange information and ideas in one’s language. These rights, today as always before, are defended and will be defended by the Church, along with institutions of national importance, numerous faculties, and institutes.
To avoid going too far, let’s bring our discussion to a close. I began this assembly speech by noting that Vuk Stefanović Karadžić and Dositej Obradović rest opposite each other in front of the main portal of the Cathedral Church in Belgrade. Ill-intentioned interpreters, whether coming from the left or right side of the Serbian political and cultural perspective, can interpret this simple fact in such a way that they are actually outside the church, that there is no place for them in the church, and that, on the other hand, they do not need the church. Interpreters with different inspiration and interpretative potential see a completely different reality and message in it. They see Vuk and Hieromonk Dositej, two wise and good elders who, with their work as caring hands, point to the Church as the essential gathering place of the Serbian people, the source and guarantor of its identity and survival. They take countless generations of our compatriots by the hand, one by one, tirelessly leading them into it. I join this interpretation with this modest address.