We tend to attribute all sorts of flaws to our nation and state. And we are often perfectly right to do so. The past was no different – in the late 20th century, two great writers, Radoje Domanović and Vladislav Petković Dis, painted a very dark picture of our country – the former in Land of Tribulation (Stradija), and the latter in Our Days (Naši Dani). It was a country ruled by sycophants and ignoramuses, rife with "scum, debauchery, and vice," where "all the perfidious, wicked, and small-minded people hold the reins."
A few short years after these ominous literary works, Serbia rose above all the other countries – big and small – in World War I. What elevated it were its war victories, its humane treatment of the prisoners-of-war, and its vision of freedom. It managed to overcome the hardships that it wasn't ready for.
One of these hardships was a typhus epidemic. Serbia had no more than ten or so medical doctors with knowledge of bacteriology and infectiology, and only two were in the appropriate posts to fight the epidemic. According to the head of the UK medical mission, nowhere had the epidemic spread so rapidly, and nowhere was it stopped as fast as in Serbia.
Another instance of an utmost lack of preparedness was the retreat through Albania. Neither our government nor our army had devised a plan on what to do next once they found themselves in Kosovo. Turn around and take on a superior army? Embark into the unknown, over the icy wall of the Albanian Alps, and try to convince the allies to send ships? They opted for the latter.
Never in history has a country managed to transfer so many soldiers, an entire government, and many political, economic, and cultural institutions under such difficult circumstances. No one from the outside believed that it was possible for the army and all the institutions of the state to re-emerge so fast on Corfu – a testament of Serbia's importance as a member of the Triple Entente.
Is all that we "have left today but the dust on the paper, as a sole reminder of the giants"? Have we "poisoned all the wells of the future," as Dis wrote pessimistically in 1910? Some events provide reasons to be hopeful.
The worldwide success in the coronavirus vaccine rollout is one such event. This victory has been won in a poor country in which the health system struggles in its daily operation and the healthcare workers are squeezed between incessant criticisms, poor working conditions, and even worse paychecks. These people in white coats, perishing as if on a frontline, have stopped the monster of the disease, putting aside the concern about paychecks, working conditions, as well as fear.
Perhaps we are an oddball nation, a nation that gives its best when the going is roughest. That is the case even in less gloomy aspects of life. The late Aleksandar Tijanić had a theory according to which Serbia's basketball players are so good because they grew up playing on hard concrete.
We have all seen Đoković start by training at the bottom of an empty swimming pool, and go on to reach the top of the tennis world. It seems that the saying, "When the going is roughest, Serbs are the best," still holds true.