Yugoslavia at the foot of the Iron Curtain

After Europe freed itself from the Nazi scourge in 1945, tensions grew between the Soviet Union (leading the communist countries) and the West (the United States and their European allies – capitalist countries). Europe was divided into Eastern (Soviet) and Western (American) blocs. In the words of British politician Winston Churchill, an ‘iron curtain’ had descended across Europe.

Yugoslavia at the foot of the Iron Curtain

The new Yugoslavia that had emerged after 1945 was a very loyal Soviet ally, but in 1948 a rift developed between Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Thereafter Yugoslavia increasingly moved away from the practice of rigid communism and began to cooperate with the countries of the Western bloc and the United States. Thanks to this, many products of capitalism, including those from Hollywood’s dream factory, became available to Yugoslav citizens. The Iron Curtain was rather ‘permeable’ here, as opposed to the situation in the Eastern bloc countries. Those who held a Yugoslav passport could travel to both the ‘East’ and ‘West’ with no fear of being detained anywhere.

from 1960 to 1990

Even though the influence of the West had been present before, during the 1960s it spread to the entire population, to whom life seemed much easier. Consumerism penetrated very steadily and legally. Unfortunately, the economic boom did not last long, for already at the end of the 1970s and the early 1980s the consequences of economic stagnation and crisis at the global level were being felt. Yugoslavia endured this in its own way, through austerity and stabilization programmes and frequent shortages of even the most basic products such as coffee, cooking oil, citrus fruit, bananas, detergents, fuel… and days spent “in the dark” when electricity was rationed.

The economic crisis

The economic crisis, generally prompted by poorly organized company management, was also a domestic political crisis that was reflected in mutual recriminations among the constituent Yugoslav republics over who was contributing more to the common treasury and who always had to receive payments. Failed investments, the informal economy, working off the books, the black market, devaluation of the Yugoslav dinar and reselling hard currency, and smuggling imported goods became rather common phenomena in socialist Yugoslavia’s waning years before its collapse into bloody conflict at the beginning of the 1990s.


A quite common practice was to take very small children to a studio to be photographed. There were several photography studios in Rijeka where children were taken for their ‘birthday’ pictures next to a cardboard cake: Foto Revija, Foto Žorž Belveder, and Foto Milan in Sušak. If you’re lacking a photograph from your childhood, you can make up for it now by using your cell phone. And don’t forget to smile for the camera!


The future of socialist Yugoslavia belonged to the new generations, who were simultaneously the new society’s creators and drivers. Children had to be the ones to show their parents, teachers and society as a whole how to be honest, earnest, trustworthy, progressive, determined and industrious (words that started with letters which, when properly listed in the original Croatian, spelt a meaningful acronym: Pošten, Iskren, Odan, Napredan, Istrajan, Radin, i.e., ‘pioneer’). From the standpoint of the official ideology, the childhood of Yugoslav children evoked the image of a self-confident and happy child.

The Pioneer organization in Yugoslavia was modeled after the Soviet Pioneers. The children’s uniforms of these organizations were distinctive: the Pioneers wore scarves and caps. In Yugoslavia the scarf was red and the cap was initially white but then later blue became the standard. Induction into the Pioneers was (implicitly) mandatory for all first-grade primary school pupils on or around Republic Day (29 November).

Picture books, comics and books

Starting in February 1951 the Belgrade newsmagazine NIN began running Disney’s comics featuring Donald Duck and his friends every week. Then in 1952, the magazine Politikin Zabavnik was re-launched, and in it Disney’s characters appeared with other comics heroes. As of 1971, Politikin Zabavnik was published in Latin script and also in the Slovenian language. In 1957, the company Dečje novine Gornji Milanovac was established, and it became the largest comics publisher in socialist Yugoslavia.

In Croatia, Vjesnikov zabavnik was launched in 1952, but it did not last long. It was soon replaced by Plavi vjesnik, which ran from 1954 to 1973. Its pages featured Disney characters, Prince Valiant, Brick Bradford, Robin Hood, Flash Gordon, Tarzan and many other comics heroes, including those by British and Italian creators.

Regardless of the sometimes explicitly anti-communist content of comics featuring popular heroes such as Superman, Captain America, the Hulk, Thor, Spider-man and Batman, they and others from the broad spectrum of characters published by Marvel and DC Comics were not censored in Yugoslavia. Through comics, children discovered the world of the American “Wild West.” To be sure, the most popular of the latter were comics by the finest Italian comics creators, who brought into our lives the adventures of Zagor, Commandant Mark, the young Captain Miki, Tex Willer and Blek Stena.

The first Disney picture book in socialist Yugoslavia, featuring Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, was published in Zagreb in 1952 (Pionirske zastave). This great and world-renowned creator (and also a well-known anti-communist who participated in trials against his Hollywood colleagues accused of communist sympathies in the United States) expressed satisfaction over the establishment of close ties with “our friends in Yugoslavia,” and in 1955 he received Yugoslavia’s Kekec Award. In 1967, the comics magazine Mikijev almanah was launched, followed in 1974 by Mikijev zabavnik.


The German magazine Bravo played a major role in the formation of popular culture among teenagers in the 1980s. The walls of almost every teenager’s room were adorned with the posters that came with the magazine. Even though most of them did not understand a word of German, they looked at the photographs of globally popular singers and movie stars and longed for the products shown in the advertisements.


By 1973, every other household had a television set, which brought major changes to family life. The television programme listings dictated a family’s living rhythms. The two key time slots were: 7:15 p.m., when cartoons were aired, and then 7:30 p.m., when the main evening news began. Between them came EPP (‘economic propaganda programming’). Those who lived along the Adriatic coast on the frontline of the ‘war’ between Yugoslav and Italian airwaves were lucky enough to watch many Italian public and private television stations. There was not even a warning system about content unsuited for children younger than 12, 15 or 18. They watched films that were certainly not for children, and their protagonists became children’s ‘alter-egos’ in everyday play that did not make much of a distinction between reality and fantasy.

The Zagreb School of Animation

The first animated film-makers in Croatia after World War II gathered around the weekly satirical magazine Kerempuh. The weekly’s editor-in-chief, Fadil Hadžić, seeing the great enthusiasm for animation among his cartoonists, decided to invest the magazine’s sales revenues into the production of animated films. The first to experiment with this form was Walter Neugebauer, with his brother Norbert writing the script. And so the first animated film, The Big Rally, appeared in 1951. It partially used camera-work to create the impression that the illustrated figures are moving. They had yet to learn and refine the art of complete animation. They did so by always going back and carefully watching Disney cartoons, until they somehow got a hold of Preston Blair’s book Animation. From this textbook on Disney animation, they learned the rules of creating the illusion of movement in the animated world.

The first Croatian animated feature in colour, Crvenkapica (Little Red Riding Hood) by Nikola Kostelac and Aleksandar Marks, shot in 1954, was made under the Disney influence. Viktor Rybak was responsible for the laboratory processing of the film.

The Zagreb School of Animation

The first generation of animators from the Zagreb school of animation were: Dušan Vukotić, Nikola Kostelac, Vartoslav Mimica and Vladimir Kristl, who were then joined by: Borivoj ‘Bordo’ Dovniković, Boris Kolar, Ivo Vrbanić, Zlatko Bourek, Zlatko Grgić, Zvonimir Lončarić, Vladimir Jutriša, Aleksandar Marks, Branko Ratinović, Pavao Štalter, Dragutin Vunak, Nedjeljko Dragić, Ante Zaninović, Zdenko Gašparović, Milan Blažeković and later Joško Marušić and Krešimir Zimonić.

Professor Balthazar

The cartoon that marked the childhood of many generations is Baltazar (or Professor Balthazar, as he’s known internationally). A total of 59 episodes were made in the period from 1967 to 1978. There are no villains or ‘bad guys’ in this cartoon. There are only problems that the wise Professor Balthazar always knows how to solve in a unique way and make the residents of Balthazar City happy. The cartoon received many awards and was popular throughout Europe (regardless of the Iron Curtain). Its primary creator was Zlatko Grgić, but about twenty people worked on the features. Pavao Štalter came up with the name.

Surogat (Ersatz or The Substitute), an animated feature by Dušan Vukotić produced by Zagreb Film in 1961, won the Oscar (US Academy Award) in 1962, thus becoming the first animated feature not produced in the United States to win this honour. Even though Zagreb Film had nominated animated features produced by the Zagreb school of animation for this prestigious award in preceding years, nobody expected that a non-American production could actually take the award home. It was almost like a good joke. Vukotić therefore did not attend the awards ceremony, and it can rightfully be said that the award had caught him off guard. To date, this is the only Oscar conferred to any Croatian film production.

“Biserka’s vinyl heroes”

In 1946 a crafts cooperative began manufacturing children’s toys and leatherware at the address Ilica 118 in Zagreb. The women who were the majority of its employees made dolls out of burlap and straw. Over time the cooperative grew into the “Enterprise for the Production of Children’s Toys and Haberdashery” and it began to produce toys made of vinyl (PVC). Olga Volčanšek worked in the factory as a ‘doll painter’. Her daughter Biserka visited her at work almost every day. Since the company needed an actual name, the women working there suggested that it be ‘Biserka’. And so it came to be.


What raised the Biserka factory above others was the license to make toys of Disney’s characters, which was secured through its agency for south-eastern Europe in Athens in 1962. The toys were hand-painted, so tiny variations were always visible. “Biserka’s vinyl heroes” delighted children throughout socialist Yugoslavia. Children who lived behind the Iron Curtain (USSR, Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia) were to some extent deprived of American cartoon characters. But Biserka’s toys were also exported to these countries, as well as Italy and France.

Biserka awaited the collapse of Yugoslavia without a renewed license to manufacture American cartoon characters, which was normally handled in a routine manner through the Yugoslav Chamber of Commerce in Belgrade. The factory was privatized and its assets were sold, while competition from cheap toys from China also flooded the Croatian market, thus putting an end to a lovely story from the childhood of the many generations who grew up between 1960 and 1990.

Teddy bear

That plush toy, a product of the Steiff family’s cottage manufacturing in Germany at the end of the 19th century, was initially only sold locally. It did not become more widely recognized until it caught the notice of an entrepreneurial American. The plush toy bear, or teddy bear, began to be produced on a mass scale in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century and very quickly gained popularity because of its name, which was tied to an anecdote about the US president at the time, Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt. While on a hunting expedition, he allegedly spared the life of a bear that had been set up for him to shoot. The toy assumed the appearance of a bear cub to underscore how cute and adorable it is, and thus serve as a reminder of President Teddy’s noble heart. Yugoslav children played with teddy bears of various sizes. Many were produced in the crafts workshop of Ružica Vavra in Zagreb. Besides teddy bears, which had movable arms, legs and heads, Ružica also made other plush-toy characters, and each had its own name.

Jugovinil, Jugoplastika, 25. Maj

The plastic toys and children’s favourites were produced in the already mentioned Jugovinil from Kaštel Sućurac, whose toy production plant was transferred to Split’s Jugoplastika after 1958. Here the toys were generally assembled according to “homemade recipes.” Only Bambi was made according to Disney’s template. The situation was the same in the 25. Maj factory in Raša, where dolls and other plastic toys were made since 1968, albeit in cooperation with Italian partners. The factory went bankrupt in 1985.

Grandfather Frost

“Children’s consumerism” was most apparent in December during Advent, when gifts from St. Nicholas were expected. As far as children were concerned, St. Nicholas was officially replaced by Grandfather Frost. However, those whose families retained religious customs were additionally fortunate, as on the Feast of St. Nicholas (6 December) they could find a not necessarily modest gift in their shoes and then on 31 December, during the New Year’s Eve celebrations, they could expect another package from Grandfather Frost (organized by the Our Children Association and through the trade union organizations in the companies in which their parents worked). Smaller children received packages during celebrations in community halls, and school children up to a certain age received them in school.

Playing on the streets

Over the length and breadth of Yugoslavia, “from Vardar [in Macedonia] to Triglav [in Slovenia]” (to quote the Yugoslav patriotic song), children played in the streets, in wooded groves and meadows. They were mostly inspired by the battles between the (Yugoslav) Partisans and the (Nazi) Germans, as well as cowboys and Indians or cops and robbers under the influence of comics and Hollywood films.