In memoriam Olga Popovic-Obradovic
by Latinka Perovic
Tribute spoken at the funeral meeting held in Belgrade on 3 February 2007 for Olga Popovic-Obradovic (1954-2007), a historian who epitomized all that was best in Serbia’s brave, beleagured, democratic and humanist intellectual opposition over the past two decades, and who has died at a tragically early age after a long illness.
It is not right that I, so much the older, should have to bid farewell to Olga Popović-Obradović, and I find it hard do so here, out aloud.
The ties between Olga and myself were personal, familial and professional. For each of us, these ties were more parallel than intertwined: we strictly differentiated the private from the public sphere.
I do not believe there is anything Olga wrote that I have not read at least once. I published her papers and articles in journals and collections which I edited; I reviewed and presented her books; I was a member of the commission of the Faculty of Law in Belgrade before which she defended her doctoral thesis. At the same time, I greatly valued her opinion regarding my own work. This strong intellectual reciprocity makes me hesitant today: can I claim with confidence to know at least that professional side of Olga Popović-Obradović’s rich personality?
At all events, during the past days of this difficult week, as well as throughout Olga’s illness, I often sought refuge in precisely that side. But the feelings of love and respect that I have nurtured for decades for the Popović and Ajtić families, hence also for Olga - so inseparable from Ivan [her husband] - and for Bojana and Marija [her daughters], were far too strong. Where am I now to find sustenance for these farewell words with Olga before you all?
I recall Olga saying after the promotion of her book Parlamentarizam u Srbiji 1903-1914 [The Parliamentary System in Serbia 1903-1914]: ‘My book must be really good. You wouldn’t have said anything about it that you didn’t really mean.’ Both statements were true. That is why I should like to think I’m not wrong to believe that she would wish me, even at this moment, to speak about my considered opinion, rather than about what will always be my feelings for her. And my opinion is that Olga Popović-Obradović was exceptionally talented; that she has made her own lasting mark on historiography; and that she had a unique personality.
A talent, if it exists, does not long wait to manifest itself. This was true of Olga too. Professor Dragoslav Janković, whom as historians we both always admired, told me - quite unaware that Olga and I were personally acquainted - that one of his students had written a degree essay on the Macedonian question that had been met with incredulity at the Faculty of Law: how could such a young and beautiful woman have written such a sophisticated and mature work? They were even enquiring what her husband’s profession might be!
But all confusion - or perhaps envy - was definitively removed with Olga’s magisterial dissertation Stojan Protić i ustavno rešenje u Kraljevini SHS [Stojan Protić and the constitutional solution in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes]. It was the unanimous verdict of the faculty commission, as in academic circles, that Olga’s magisterial dissertation was at the level of a doctoral thesis. And then her actual doctoral thesis - Parlamentarizam u Srbiji 1903-1914 - opened a new direction in study of the ‘golden period’ of Serbian democracy, being accorded the highest distinction of cum laude.
Olga Popović-Obradović’s work was meticulous: not a single manuscript left her hands until she was fully happy with it. The copy dates of journals and collections were often held back awaiting her work, since their editors, ignoring deadlines, did not wish to be deprived of an author of such proven quality.
In addition to the above-mentioned works, and her co-authorship of Parlamentarizam u Crnoj Gori [The Parliamentary System in Montenegro], Olga’s works appeared also in the journals Arhiv zapravne nauke [Archive of Legal Science], Tokovi istorije [Historical Currents], Gordogan, Republika and Helsinška povelja [The Helsinki Charter], as well as in collections such as Srbija u modernizacijskim procesima 19. i 20 veka [Serbia in the Modernising Processes of the 19th and 20th Centuries], Liberalna misao u Srbiji [Liberal Thought in Serbia], and Prilozi istoriji liberalizma od kraja XIII do sredine XX veka [Contributions to the History of Liberalism from the late 13th to the mid 20th century]. These works form a consistent whole, and it would take little effort to realise Olga’s plan of having them published together as a single volume.
Olga Popović-Obradović made a distinction between non-binding discussion of the past and history as an exact science. But she did not make this distinction a priori into the aim of her research. Just the opposite. Her insight into numerous historical sources (some of which she was the first to use), her theoretical education and her broad culture led her to results that were to make a special impact on Serbian historiography. In a period of brutal instrumentalisation of historical science with long-term negative consequences, the works of Olga Popović-Obradović belong to a body of Serbian historical science that according to the German historian Wolfgang Höpken represents Europe here.
Olga Popović-Obradović was a person of great self-confidence. She knew the value of her work. Almost vain about her own achievements, she was strict with anyone entering her field of research. At the same time she felt bitter about being marginalised. But she did not give up, knowing that in agrarian and authoritarian societies it is the works of a marginalised minority that form the national culture.
Olga Popović-Obradović was an elitist, whatever that might mean. She did not hide her contempt for stupidity and vulgarity, and was repelled by spiritual and physical violence. There was something of a highlander’s strength and pride, bordering on arrogance, in this vulnerable, beautiful and intelligent woman,. As a result she provoked wariness and caution, but at the same time encouraged respect. The manner in which she bore her tragic fate, moreover, was worthy of admiration.