A hot, sweaty afternoon in a seething metropole would make anyone think sitting next to a criminal would be the last of the possible choices. It could make anyone nervous and sweat even more. But this lady, once recorded as a daughter of a traitor, smiles at you in a friendly way and laughs happily while making jokes about her criminal life which she finally has to give up. Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia will be legally rehabilitated by the end of July after 73 years of being an official enemy of the state, since she was eleven years old.
Here she is, a charming member of the Serbian and Yugoslavian royal family, drinking, elegantly, a glass of freshly squeezed lemonade on the crowded terrace of the hotel Moscow in the center of Belgrade. It was 25 years ago when she spent several months in this famous hotel and began to search for a translator and publisher for a book about her father, Prince Paul of Yugoslavia, the Prince Regent from 1934 to 1941. It was written by her second husband Neil Balfour in 1980.
Princess Elizabeth, or Jelisaveta as she is called in Serbia, has spent a long time trying to clear her father’s name. In 1941 in the midst of the second world war, Prince Paul Karadjordjevic, very pro British, was forced out of power by a coup d’etat on March 27, 1941, and sent into exile. The Regent was stigmatised as a Nazi-sympathizer and a traitor after the country joined the Axis powers and for allowing his prime minister to sign the protocol of the Tripartite Pact. He had wanted to protect the country from war and destruction but the British decided Yugoslavia must attack Germany immediately and financed the coup d’etat. Yugoslavia was handed over to 17 year old King Peter II who soon had to flee after the Nazis occupied the internally shaken country.
We in Finland know this part of war history very well. We also know that our country turned to Germany partly because we didn´t get the eagerly needed support from Britain. Something similar to what happened in Jugoslavia. But what would we think if our Marshal Mannerheim had been sent to exile during the most dangerous situation in the middle of the war? Or afterwards we would permit the denigration of our president Risto Ryti who actually bore the guilt and responsibility for Finland being allied with Germany?
Princess Elizabeth has tried to get the history books rewritten, school books which during Tito’s communist regime made his father unilaterally a traitor. One should always be suspicious of strong one-eyed judgements and look at history in a wide perspective but communism didn´t support that kind of history research. Western democracies didn´t make it better although there were suspicions about who actually was behind the uprising in Yugoslavia. Until recently, there was no access to any other version.
– The book about my father was translated into Serbian but I also had another edition printed in Canada where I added all the secret papers from the Foreign Office in England which I obtained in 1989. Those papers finally show how the British organized the coup in 1941, to whom they payed and how much. It´s all in the appendix of the book re-published in Canada but only in English. My father never could believe that his beloved England had betrayed him. So, Serbs who read the first version did not know what was behind the uprising in 1941 though this information is no longer a secret, Elizabeth Karadjordjevic says. She was only four years old when the family went into exile. There were years in Kenya, South-Africa, Switzerland and France. While trying to get a catch of her life through the media and gossip columns, one is left with an image of a person of adventure and a lover of excitements – with all the nuances of sorrow and joy, disappointments and success. She has three children, has been three times married, lived in several places around the world, decribed as an eye-catcher and man-eater. But one can also find out a side of her fighting for human rights or dealing with business. She even was a candidate in the Serbian presidential election, in 2004.
Her family tree grows branches extending to Charles, Prince of Wales, Queen Sophia of Spain, the Duke of Kent, King Michael of Romania, King Constantine of Greece and Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. There is a connection to Finland as well: Aurora Stjernvall (married to Karamzin) was an ancestor of hers.
She first came back to Serbia in 1987 while still persona non grata, in the shadow of her father’s disgrace. In 2000 she got back her passport and nationality and soon after she decided to settle in Belgrade finding it interesting to come back to the country where she was born. Just a few weeks ago, the state returned the proprty of her mother, Princess Olga of Greece and Denmark, confiscated by the communists in 1946. Still, she says she feels homeless. She lost her childhood here – by not being here. Sometimes she still feels like a foreigner although she is definitely loved by the people of Serbia and has certainly found her way to their hearts in a way which resembles Princess Diana.
– I like talking to people, meeting people. But as I am an outsider I can also say what´s wrong with the country. The government has just done some reforms but there is not enough professionalism. They keep pretending that they will chase the criminals and get rid of gangsters but it´s really difficult because they are all involved. The mess we are in now is the result of the way how communists ruled the country. We have some arrogant people with low self image who try to say that we are the most wonderful race in the world. That´s the most stupid thing for any country to believe.
– The last war was also completely useless. The leaders only tried to chop up the country as they wanted. I like Swiss system because I don´t know the name of any minister there. The names don´t matter when someone is working for the best of the country. I think the goverment in Finland is similar, they also work for the country –am I right? I hate the American system and demagoguery also, always proclaiming a new president as it was some new god from another planet, Elizabeth explains.
Art is often used as an instrument for nationalistic means. We find some fascinating resamblances between Finnish and Serbian paintings from the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. The works of Axeli Gallen-Kallela and Paja Jovanovic or Uros Predic have same flow of ideas with themes from the folk poetry and mythology of the country, although their artistic styles are not the same. Still, it is interesting for me as a Finn to notice how strong emotions Gallen-Kallela´s paintings arise in me. Jovanovic’ or Predic´ art does not touch anything like Gallen-Kallela does.
On the left Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865-1931): Mother of Lemminkäinen 1897
Beneath Uroš Predić (1857–1953): Kosovo Maiden 1919
[Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
– Nationalism in art can sometimes be a strong genuine feeling but I in me antinationalism is much stronger. I can´t think that I am in any way better than others because I am a Serb or an orthodox. I have friends of different religions all over the world, I want to deal with people on an equal basis. We are not the same but we are equal and that´s how I want to live, Princess Elizabeth emphasizes.
His father was a devoted lover of arts and his wide collection of international art was the base of The Prince Paul Museum established in Belgrade in 1930´s just before the war. The collection is nowadays part of National Museum in Serbia and it includes names like Van Gogh, Matisse, Bonnard, Utrillo, Derain, Pissarro, Mondrian… Also Princess Elizabeth studied arts in Paris.
– I used to visit museums with my father, because he was a great expert and he taught me how to appreciate museums by only looking at the few things. But those things for which I gave my time had to be of the best quality. He taught me to go and look some good furniture, beautiful silver, nice porcelain – then leave and where ever you go your eyes are trained to pick the best. This goes with many things in life, for people, for food, for buildings. I think he trained me to always look for the best and most beautiful which I think is a very good way to educate people. You can spend hours in a museum looking 50 paintings from the same artist but why do that? You only get dizzy.
But how do you then define quality? There is no hesitation in Elizabeth Karadjordjevic´ answer.
– Whatever resonates with you. It´s just like when you go to the opera and someone sings really beautifully. You get the shivers. You know it´s not good if it leaves you unimpressed, uninterested and unaffected – it´s boring. On the other hand quality also means that you have to look for the best in yourself. You have to look inside every day and see what´s good and what can be better, how you can make a day special. I think it is the basic way of looking at life.
Thinking of art and famous artists, how can man make right estimations?
– I understand your meaning. You don´t know if you really like something or are you told to like. There is the influence of media. Like the case with Mona Lisa. Do people really like the painting or are they only fascinated by the stories that go on with it? I think that sometimes it´s even better to find an anonymous artist that you really like and admire. If you feel happy watching, that´s more important.
But Princess Elizabeth also has her favourites among the famous ones.
– I love Piero di Francesco and Fra Angelico. And I love the landscape by Hubert Robert; the English painter William Turner is also wonderful, very romantic. And Edward Lear who was best known for his poetry. There are so many I like: Bosch, Bruegel, el Greco. But I am not a lover of Picasso. I think there was too much publicity around him and he took advantage of people. I love Safet Zec, from Sarajevo who was forced into exile by the last war.
There is a strong tradition of naive art in Serbia. Although this art trend is maybe not on the top of Princess´ favourites she thinks it´s charming and witty. One of the four children´s books she has written has been illustrated by a Slovak naive artist living in Kovacica, Serbia. Our conversation has taken a turn towards some interesting art situations. In the past she worked in some art galleries like Wildenstein in New York and Thomas Gibson in London. What if Princess Elizabeth should make a public art collection or museum as her father did and what would it look like?
– I do admire and like to see art but I don´t have the obligation to own everything I like. That´s maybe because when I was a child everything was taken away from me and my family. Even more – I think it is stupid to keep missing things which are in the past. I have the same kind of an attitude with people. I can´t own people, I can´t own my children, I have to let them live their own life. And when it comes to art – I love paintings which I can admire in a museum but instead of owning them, I would be quite happy to live in an empty room with only the most lively of arts –music.
Text: Tuula Lukić