(Self)Identification and Archival Research: Thoughts from My Research Stay

by Katarina Beširević

In July 2023 I got the opportunity to conduct research at the Open Society Archives (OSA) in Budapest as part of the HIDDEN COST action. The five days spent on my “short-term scientific mission” helped me familiarize myself with the archival fonds that are kept in the OSA. I managed to look through a vast number of documents in the records of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Research Institute and Open Media Research Institute in search for an answer to a broad question: How do Yugoslav emigrants in the US identify themselves? Given that this research stay was simply the beginning for me in exploring this subject, I have a feeling that this mission might have mostly raised the number of questions on my mind, rather than help me find an answer to the above-mentioned question.

Looking into the subject of (the history of) identity, as a “rookie” oral historian, I believe that as much as identity documentations matter in search for answers and understandings of citizenship, nationality and migration, self-identification is also a crucial part of thinking through all the stated notions. Before going into the question of self-identification, I wanted to explore the documents available in various archives, one of which is the OSA. While searching for names and testimonies of people who have emigrated to the US from Yugoslavia since the 1970’s, I mostly found myself reading newspaper clippings and articles, as well as RFE/RL reports of Yugoslav media coverages on a few Yugoslav immigrants to the US who were visiting Yugoslavia and during their stays had experienced various difficulties, which included imprisonment and accusations of espionage.

In one of these cases from 1986, when a US citizen was arrested in Belgrade for, as the report states, “no apparent reason” it is noted that this person was of Albanian descent and he had “never formally renounced his Yugoslav citizenship”, although he had been an American citizen at that time for over a decade. According to the RFE/RL report and its sources, the Yugoslav authorities treated him as a Yugoslav citizen, therefore he was “subject to Yugoslav law”, given that he had not renounced his citizenship. The US State Department official who was the main source of the RFE/RL researcher, stated that “arrests in Yugoslavia of U.S. citizens who were born in that country is a ‘recurring problem’ because the Belgrade government considers them Yugoslav citizens.” Without any doubt, based on this document, it can be concluded that this person faced severe consequences partly because of his identity. This is a solid base for my further research and for the answer to the question that interests me – how would this person identify himself? And maybe even, did the imprisonment change the way he felt about his (national) identity? Also, what were the turning points in his life that defined his identity? In this particular case, the matters of one’s identity and citizenship are quite entangled, given that on the one side (if we are looking solely at this document) we have the information that this person is of Albanian descent, while also being a US and Yugoslav citizen, which conveniently opens the floor to the discussion about the three concepts that are at the essence of this COST action – citizenship, nationality and migration. All the mentioned layers of this person’s identity are a fact, but the nuances that are needed for understanding these complexities can usually only be found in personal testimonies, memoirs, diaries, personal letters, or oral history interviews.

By presenting shortly one of the cases I have encountered during my research, I wanted to demonstrate the struggles that Yugoslav emigrants to the US might have faced regarding their identification. Although I have started this text with a reflection to the importance of self-identification as such, this research stay, as stated, is merely the beginning of my investigation. Further down the line, I wish to get deeper into the question of self-identification, which I believe can offer a new and different angle not just to this project, but also to the questions of citizenship, nationality and migration.

Finally, I believe that it is only appropriate to mention where I have gotten the inspiration for dealing with this topic from this particular angle. Reading a memoire Love me more than anything in the world written by Mira Furlan, a Yugoslav actress, for a somewhat different research of mine, one encounters a great deal of confusion when it comes to her identity as an émigré to the US. Furlan writes: “Losing your so-called identity is the worse part of the émigré experience. That’s also the most liberating part of it. Because, if I am nothing, I can become anything. If I am no one, I can become anyone.” This heartfelt personal testimony on what it feels like to be an emigrant is what inspired me to look into personal stories and experiences for my research; and why I believe that documents, such as the one presented here can be wholly comprehended only with a testimony from the person in question. The personal stories and experiences can help us better understand and the get a complete picture of the matters of citizenship, nationality and migration – which will hopefully be my next contribution to this blog, so stay tuned…

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