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Yugoslavia: The Peasantry
Country Study > Chapter 2 > The Society and Its Environment > Social Groups > The Peasantry

THE PEASANTRY


Under the post-World War II communist regime, Yugoslavia experienced one of the quickest transformations from an agricultural to an industrial society that history has ever witnessed. The agricultural population shrank from 86.1 percent of the total population in 1921 to 67.1 percent in 1948 and to 16.7 percent in 1984. By comparison, it took the United States ninety years to drop from a 72 percent farm population in 1840 to 32 percent in 1930. Aside from government economic policies that intentionally deprived agriculture of resources after World War II, social factors also pushed peasants off the land. The lack of pension benefits for peasants, the absence of social benefits for their children, limited availability of state housing in rural areas, and isolation from the lively cultural and social life of the urban centers accelerated the process.

Despite their dramatic shift from agricultural to non-agricultural activities, Yugoslavs remained linked to the soil in many ways. The country's agricultural population still numbered 4.3 million in 1981; of that number, 2.2 to 2.9 million tilled small private plots, including about 1.5 million people who held regular jobs elsewhere. Even before the economic turmoil of the late 1980s, many city dwellers, especially retirees with inadequate pensions, supplemented their income and their diet by selling or consuming produce they grew or livestock they raised on small plots in nearby villages.

The average age of Yugoslavia's peasant population rose rapidly after World War II. Moreover, given the outward migration of young men, by the 1970s women accounted for 60 percent of the agricultural work force. In 35 percent of farm households, no children remained to operate the farm when the older generation retired. In 1990 the federal government proposed a law to provide pensions for individual peasant farmers and to give young people greater incentive not to abandon the land for city jobs.

The Soviet-style agricultural collectivization program began in Yugoslavia in 1949 and ended less than four years later. Abandonment of collectivization left the country's prewar patchwork of small private landholdings virtually intact. Peasants accounted for 95 percent of the agricultural work force and owned about 82 percent of Yugoslavia's arable land in 1989. The average peasant farm had eight or nine parcels of land totaling about 3.4 hectares. Constitutional amendments adopted in 1988 raised the ceiling on land ownership from 10 to 30 hectares in flatland areas and 60 hectares in hilly and mountainous regions.

Conditions on the average Yugoslav peasant farm have changed dramatically since 1945; significant differences remained, however, between peasant life in the more developed northwestern parts of the country and that in the less developed southeastern regions. In 1990 electricity was available virtually everywhere, and many peasant households had artificial lighting, refrigeration, freezers, radios, and televisions. Few peasants, however, had telephones. The number of tractors had risen, but fragmented land ownership made large-scale mechanized farming impossible in most areas. Mechanization of farm activities in more developed regions reduced the necessity for human toil, but the overall efficiency of Yugoslav farms lagged far behind that of farms in the West. On the average, one Yugoslav farmer produced enough agricultural goods for five people, whereas in Western industrial countries average production fed sixty-five people.

In part, the exodus from agricultural life in Yugoslavia was also driven by a desire to cast off ways of life that peasants themselves often considered obsolete. Older villagers, frequently painfully aware of their backwardness, wished to see their children and grandchildren find a life for themselves in what they called the "wide world." Yugoslavia's peasant villages, however, shed many traditions only very slowly. In 1990 older men and women still wore folk costumes in some parts of Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Kosovo. Peasant dances, handicrafts, and powerful locally distilled beverages remained part of everyday life. Priests baptized most newborns and buried most of the dead, but villagers in many areas still visited traditional folk healers and fortune tellers who read the future in coffee grounds. While all was amiable on the surface, behind the scenes family and neighborhood animosities persisted through the generations, and villagers squabbled bitterly over scarce resources and inheritances. Caf├ęs were filled with old men during the day and younger men at night. Alcoholism commonly afflicted both men and women, and alcohol-related road and farm accidents claimed an inordinate number of lives.

Transportation improvements after the war gave many peasants the opportunity to work away from the family farm and still retain close links with their homes. Uprooted peasants accounted for about half the Yugoslav guest workers in Western Europe. By 1970 some 1.5 million peasants, about 25 percent of the economically active rural population, held jobs outside agriculture, and about half Yugoslavia's rural population lived in households with at least one member who held an industrial job. Money sent home by guest workers abroad created a boom of new rural home building, even in some of the least accessible mountain areas. In eastern Serbia, this prosperity was expressed in the building of extravagant cemetery monuments, including graveside cottages.

Data as of December 1990




Last Updated: December 1990


Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Yugoslavia was first published in 1990. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on Factba.se.

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