On research in Serbia: An Interview with Dragana Zivkovic, Ph.D. Candidate

Thu, 02/22/24
Dragana Zivkovic

I am a 4th year Ph.D. student focusing on women and the spaces that they occupy, in both public and private spheres, in late 18th-early 19th century Balkans. My area of focus is directly linked to what drew me to history. I was born in the Balkans in the 90s during the Yugoslav wars, and when my family had to leave our home, it felt like we lost our family history. When we moved to the U.S., my parents, and especially my dad who loves history, used to tell me stories of their childhood, their families, and also of the complicated history of the Balkans. As a child I wanted to understand why we couldn’t go back to our village and our home, and studying history has helped put the pieces together. As I grew up, I wanted to understand both where I came from but also how events in the past shaped our present.

Once I obtain my Ph.D. I hope to be able to work in academia as either a professor or an advocate for the humanities, as well as for graduate students. Beyond university jobs, I have worked in archives and museums, so I can see myself in those careers as well.

What is your project about?

My overall project is about examining the spaces that women occupied. I seek to find women in spaces where they are not typically seen or rarely talked about. I am focusing on women’s work outside of the domestic sphere and, at the moment, I am looking at middle-to-upper class women who left behind personal records. I have read diaries and letters from women where they detail their daily lives, the people they interact with, where they are going, and what type of work they are doing. On a wider scale, my project aims to show how interconnected the Balkans were, and continue to be, with the rest of Europe. The Balkans were at the crossroads of two different worlds, and the sources I am looking at showcase that. By examining women in these spaces, this project will push geographical and imperial boundaries to show the movement of women across those spaces. I hope this project expands politically, economically, geographically, and culturally our understanding of early modern Europe and the role of the Balkans within that history.

How did you prepare for fieldwork?

Once I knew what timeframe I wanted to focus on, I had to find archives that had documents for that time period. I spent a lot of time researching archives and even reached out to a few of them that did not have an online catalogue. Some archives had digitized parts of their collections, so I was able to look through what they had and get a sense of what their sources were like. One thing that I was nervous about was the language used for the documents because the Balkans were under the control of the Ottomans, Austro-Hungarians, and Venetians at various times, so there were a lot of languages that I had to work with. During my time in grad school, I had taken courses on various languages including German and Church Slavic, so I felt somewhat comfortable with coming across source written in those languages. Once I found what archives I wanted to visit, I reached out to them and talked with them about my project. I was able to get my hands on a diary from Anka Obrenović, who was the niece of Prince Milos Obrenović, and began to read through it while I waited for my research trip. I tried to keep busy with the diary and other online resources I could find to help me narrow down the people I wanted to search for once I got to the archives.

What is it like to work in the archives in Serbia?

At the moment I am doing research at the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts in Belgrade which has a large collection of sources from my time period. Doing research at SANU is completely different than previous archives I have visited. SANU does not have an online catalogue, but their archivists are able to look up anything I am interested in, or I can look it up myself using their catalogue cabinet. Working at SANU has been really great because the archivists and staff made me feel very welcome, and they have helped me find sources that I did not know of. At the moment I am working through letters written by Milica Stojadinović-Srpkinja (who is known as the greatest female Serbian poet of the 19th century) to Vuk Stefanović Karadžić who was one of the most important reformers of the modern Serbian language. I have also gone through Milica’s letters to Vuk’s daughter, Wilhelmina "Mina" Karadžić-Vukomanović who was an Austrian-born Serbian painter and writer. Besides letters, I have worked with diaries and photographs which have been extremely helpful in visualizing the people and the period that I am researching. The Historical Archive of Belgrade has digitized a large part of their collection, so I have gone through a few of their church books to see if I can find any information on women such as their marital status, how many kids they had, and if they had any jobs outside of the home.

What surprised you about doing research?

Something that surprised me about doing research is how much time I spend thinking about it and, in turn, the places that I have visited as a result. For example, one day after I finished working at the archive I looked online to see if there were any surviving residences of the Obrenović family, who were the ruling dynasty at the time that Milica was writing her letters. I found that there was the palace of Princess Ljubica, and it was two streets away from the archive. I spent the rest of my day at the residence which has been turned into a museum, and I was able to walk through the entire place. Walking through the residence I was able to see Princess Ljubica’s public and private spaces where she entertained guests, but also where she spent her private time. This visit to the residence was both educational and fun. I don’t think I would have thought to go to the residence if I wasn’t thinking about my research project. Perhaps the thing that has most surprised me is how excited I am to go into the archive every day and see what I might find. I thought that that feeling of excitement would go away after a few days of working, but being able to read and see things that rarely anyone has seen continues to build excitement. While I have come across things that I may not include or that won’t fit in my dissertation, I’m still excited about the possibility of using those findings for something else.

What major challenges did you have to deal with?

One major challenge I had at the beginning was learning to read Serbian Cyrillic cursive. I know how to read Serbian Cyrillic and Serbian Latin, but I never learned Serbian Cyrillic cursive. All of the sources I had looked at prior to the letters were printed sources and when I came across the letters, I was able to make out a few letters but most of them were unrecognizable. I ended up teaching myself how to read Serbian Cyrillic cursive on the spot. I would have the document I was working with on one side and a picture of Serbian Cyrillic cursive alphabet on my laptop and I would go back and forth until I was able to recognize the letters without looking at my laptop. With this also came paleography. The first set of letters I was looking at were written nicely and it was easily legible, the other set of letters had really bad handwriting, and it took me a while to be able to figure out what letters and words were written.

Another challenge that I find myself dealing with is feeling like I need to constantly be researching. This doesn’t happen as often now that I am a bit into my research trip, but at the beginning I would come back from the archive and get on my laptop to continue doing research online. It still happens, but not as frequently and not in the same way as before. Sometimes it feels like I am not doing enough, mainly on days where I haven’t found as much as I wanted to in the archive, but it’s just part of the process, and I try to be good about not letting it consume my entire day.

What advice would you give to other graduate students before they start doing their research?

The most important piece of advice I would give other graduate students before they begin doing research is to contact the archives, museums, or libraries they are interested in. Establishing contact with the people that work there is so important. When I first reached out to SANU in February to ask about their archival materials, I received so much information from one of the archivists that I was able to use some of that information in my prospectus. I was told there were some published primary sources that I was able to get and start reading before I even went on research. When I visited SANU for the first time, that same archivist came to meet me and gave me even more things to look at, as well as other archives where I might find things.

Another thing is that, although you are there to do research, it is okay to take days off for yourself both during the week and on the weekends. I have my own schedule Monday through Friday when I’m in the archive, but I also sometimes leave earlier than normal if I feel like I just can’t work anymore. This is probably the only time we are able to travel abroad for our research as graduate students, and it is the best time to explore. Go to local museums, take day trips, find events, enjoy the city and the time you are there. If you can, visit the places your sources are referring to. Along with all that, don’t be afraid to try new things. Try the local cuisine, talk to the locals (and in my case a lot of senior citizens), walk the city, and don’t forget to be kind to yourself.

If you are just starting research, keep in mind that your topic, time period, or ideas can change. Be flexible with your research and your time. Do your best to find your archives, online resources, and anything else that you may need, but also know that there are people who can help you if you get stuck or don’t know where to start. You are never alone in this journey and there are always going to be people there who will help you along the way.

And finally: what is life like in Serbia for you?

I am really enjoying my time in Serbia. My apartment is outside of the city, and it takes me about 30 minutes to get to the archive each day. I go to the archive Monday through Friday, and take the weekends off to visit museums, spend time with my family that I have there, or just relax in my apartment. The archive closes to visitors at 2:30pm every day, so once I finish my workday, I have a cup of coffee at one of the cafes and then walk around. The archive is located at the center of Knez Mihailova street and there are so many places to visit and things to see. I enjoy visiting different bookstores, and the bakeries are a must when in the city. When the weather is nice, I like to go to Kalemegdan, which is a large park that surrounds the Belgrade Fortress and sit and watch the boats on the river. I am always finding new cafes to visit or new restaurants to try. I find things that excite me, like restaurants and bookstores, and try to visit one when I have some extra free time.