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The Truth about Serbs

Basic Facts about the Serbs

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The majority of Serbs live in Serbia and Montenegro. Large indigenous Serb populations live in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where they are a constitutive nation. Much smaller Serb autochthonous minorities also exist in the Republic of Croatia, Macedonia (Kumanovo, Skopje), Slovenia (Bela Krajina), Romania (Banat), Albania (Skadar) and Hungary (Szentendre, Pécs, Szeged). Many Serbs also live in the diaspora, notably in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Russia, Brazil, Canada, the US and Australia.

The largest urban populations of Serbs in the former Yugoslavia are to be found in Belgrade (over 1,500,000), Novi Sad (c. 300,000), Nis; (c. 250,000), Banja Luka (in Bosnia-Herzegovina, c. 220,000), Kragujevac (c. 175,000) and East Sarajevo (in Bosnia-Herzegovina, c. 130,000). Abroad, Vienna is said to be home to the largest Serb population followed by Chicago (and its surrounding area) with Toronto and Southern Ontario coming in third. Los Angeles is known to have a sizable Serbian community, but so does Istanbul and Paris.

In Europe, 6.5 million Serbs constitute about 66% of the population of Serbia. Another 1,5 million used to live in Bosnia and Herzegovina [3] and 600,000 in Croatia [4] prior to the war, with another 200 thousand in Montenegro following its independence. In the 1991 census Serbs consisted 36% of the overall population of former Yugoslavia; there were around 8.5 million Serbs [5] in the entire country.

The number of Serbs in the diaspora is unknown but is estimated to be between 1 and 2 million on one side, and up to 4 million according to Ministry for Diaspora Republic of Serbia. The maximum number of Serbs thus ranges anywhere from around 9.5 to 12 million, depending on the estimation used for the diaspora. Smaller numbers of Serbs live in New Zealand, and Serb(ian) communities in South America (Argentina, Bolivia Braziland Chile) are reported to grow and exist to this day.


Serbian culture refers to the culture of Serbia as well as the culture of Serbs in other parts of the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere in the world. The nearby Byzantine Empire had a strong influence in the Middle Ages while the Serbian Orthodox Church has had an enduring influence. However one must note that first Serbian kings were crowned by the Vatican, not Constantinople, and that prior to the Ottoman invasion Serbs have had a strong Catholic element within them, especially in the coastal areas (Montenegro, Croatia). Bokelji are what remains of once strong Catholic population of Serbia (Bar beeing their Catholic see). Austrians and Hungarians have highly influenced Serbs of Vojvodina, Croatian Serbs and Bosnian Serbs to smaller extent, while Republic of Venice influenced Serbs living on the coast (Bay of Kotor for example). Serbian culture fell into decline during five centuries of rule under the Ottoman Empire. Following autonomy in 1817 and latter formal independence, there was a resurgence of Serbian culture in today's Central Serbia in the nineteenth century. Prior to that Habsburg Vojvodina was the cultural bastion of the Serbian national identity. Socialist Realism was predominant in official art during the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia but recent decades have seen a growing influence from the West as well as traditional culture.

Famous Serbs

Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb, assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28 June 1914, precipitating the crisis between Austo-Hungary and Serbia that led to World War I.

Prominent individuals include the scientists Nikola Tesla (Croatia-born Serb), Mihajlo Pupin, Jovan Cvijic;, and Milutin Milankovic; the renowned mathematician Mihailo Petrovic; the famous composers Stevan Mokranjac and Stevan Hristic; the celebrated authors Borislav Pekic; and Milos Crnjanski; the famous sports stars Vlade Divac and Nemanja Vidic; actor Karl Malden (Mladen Sekulovich) and the actress Milla Jovovich; (half Serbian). The Serb ruler during the middle ages, Stephen Nemanja, and his son, Saint Sava, founded the monastery of Hilandar for the Serbian Orthodox Church, one of the greatest and oldest Orthodox Christian monuments in the world.


Most Serbs speak the Serbian language, a member of the South Slavic group of languages. While the Serbian identity is to some extent linguistic, apart from the Cyrillic alphabet which they use along with Latin alphabet, the language is very similar to the standard Croatian and Bosnian.

There are several variants of Serbian language. The older forms of Serbian are Old Serbian and Russo-Serbian, a version of the Church Slavonic language.

Some members of the Serbian diaspora do not speak the language (mostly in the US, Canada and UK) but are still considered Serbs by ethnic origin or descent.


Orthodox Christianity and the Serbian Orthodox Church have played a significant role in formation of Serbian identity. Conversion of south Slavs from paganism to Christianity took place before the Great Schism, the split between the Byzantine East and the Roman Catholic West. After the Schism, those who lived under the Orthodox sphere of influence became Orthodox and those who lived under the Catholic sphere of influence became Catholic. Later, with the arrival of the Ottoman Empire, many Slavs, especially in Bosnia converted to Islam. Some ethnologists consider that the distinct Serb, Croatian and Bosniak identities are drawn from religion rather than ethnicity.


The Serbian flag is a red-blue-white tricolour. It is often combined with one or both of the other Serb symbols.

Both the eagle and the cross, besides being the basis for various Serbian coats of arms through history, are bases for the symbols of various Serbian organisations, political parties, institutions and companies.

Serbian folk attire varies, mostly because of the very diverse geography and climate of the territory inhabited by the Serbs. Some parts of it are, however, common:


The Serbs are a highly family-oriented society. A peek into a Serbian dictionary and the richness of their terminology related to kinship speaks volumes.

Of all Slavs and Orthodox Christians, only Serbs have the custom of slava. The custom could also be found among some Russians and Albanians of Serbian origin although it has often been lost in the last century. Slava is celebration of a saint; unlike most customs that are common for the whole people, each family separately celebrates its own saint (of course, there is a lot of overlap) who is considered its protector. A slava is inherited from father to son and each household may only have one celebration which means that the occasion brings all of the family together.

Though a lot of old customs are now no longer practised, many of the customs that surround Serbian wedding still are.

The traditional Serbian dance is a circle dance called kolo. It is a collective dance, where a group of people (usually several dozen, at the very least three) hold each other by the hands or around the waist dancing, forming a circle (hence the name), semicircle or spiral. The same dance, with the same name, is also traditional among the Croats. Similar circle dances also exist in other cultures of the region.

Serbs have their own customs regarding Christmas. The Serbian Orthodox Church uses the Julian calendar, so Christmas currently falls on January 7 of the Gregorian calendar. Early in the morning of Christmas Eve, the head of the family would go to a forest in order to cut badnjak, a young oak, the oaktree would then be brought into the church to be blessed by the priest. Then the oaktree would be stripped of its branches with combined with wheat and other grain products would be burned in the fireplace. The burning of the badnjak is a ritual which is most certainly of pagan origin and it is considered a sacrifice to God (or the old pagan gods) so that the coming year may bring plenty of food, happiness, love, luck and riches. Nowadays, with most Serbs living in towns, most simply go to their church service to be given a small parcel of oak, wheat and other branches tied together to be taken home and set afire. The house floor and church is covered with hay, reminding worshippers of the stable in which Jesus was born.
Christmas Day itself is celebrated with a feast, necessarily featuring roasted piglet as the main meal. Another Christmas meal is a deliciously sweet cake made of wheat, called koljivo whose consumption is more for ritual than nourishment. One crosses oneself first, then takes a spoonful of the cake and savours it. But the most important Christmas meal is a special kind of bread. The bread contains a coin; during the lunch, the family breaks up the bread and the one who finds the coin is said to be assured of an especially happy year.
Christmas is not associated with presents like in the West, although it is the day of St Nicolas, the protector saint of children, to whom presents are given. However, most Serbian families give presents on New Year's Day. Santa Claus - Deda Mraz (literally meaning grandpa frost) and the Christmas tree (but rather associated with New Year's Day) are also used in Serbia as result of globalisation. Serbs also celebrate the Orthodox New Year (currently on January 14th of the Gregorian Calendar).

Religious Serbs also celebrate other religious holidays and even non-religious people often celebrate Easter (on the Orthodox date).


The tribal designation Serboi first appears in the 1st century in the works of the Tacitus (c. AD 50) and Pliny (AD 69-75), and also in the 2nd century in the Geography of Ptolemy (book 5, 9.21) to designate a tribe dwelling in Sarmatia, probably on the Lower Volga River.

The Slavs (including Serbs) came to the Balkans from a broad region in central and eastern Europe, which extended from the rivers Elbe in the west to the Dnieper in the east, and from a point which touched the Carpathian mountains in the south and the river Niemen in the north. Different tribes settled in different parts of the Balkan peninsula, subsequently developing their distinct identities after displacing the Romanized Vlach population which already was in the area. The Balkan Vlachs were descendants of Romanized Thracians and Dacians and over time these Vlachs mixed with Slavic tribes; thus present-day Slavic nations of the Balkans, including Bosnian Serbs, have both Slavic and Vlach ancestors.

The Serb settlement in the Balkans appears to have taken place between 610 and 640. Some of the old Ostrogoths had settled with the Serbs, & decided to join their clans. The first certain data on the state of the Serboi, Serbia, dates to the 9th century. The Serbs were Christianized in several waves between the 7th and 9th century, with the last wave taking place between 867 and 874.

During and after that period, Serbs struggled to gain independence from the Byzantine Empire. The first Serb states were Rascia or Raska and Zeta. Their rulers had varying degrees of autonomy, until virtual independence was achieved under Saint Sava, who became the first head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, and his brother Stefan Prvovencani of Serbia, who became the first Serb king. Serbia did not exist as a state of that name, but was rather the region inhabited by the Serbs; its kings and tsars were called the "King of the Serbs" or "Tsar of the Serbs", not "King of Serbia" or "Tsar of Serbia". The medieval Serbian state is nonetheless often (if anachronistically) referred to as "Serbia".

Serbia reached its golden age under the House of Nemanjic, with the Serbian state reaching its apogee of power in the reign of Tsar Stefan Uros Dusan. Serbia's power subsequently dwindled arising from interminable conflict among the nobility, rendering the country unable to resist the steady incursion of the Ottoman Empire into south-eastern Europe. The Battle of Kosovo in 1389 is commonly regarded in Serbian national mythology as the key event in the country's defeat by the Turks, although in fact, Ottoman rule was not fully imposed until some time later. After Serbia fell, Tvrtko Kotromanic;, the king of Bosnia used the title "King of Bosnia, the Serbs, the West-ends and the Primorje" from 1389 to 1390.

As Christians, the Serbs were regarded as a "protected people" under Ottoman law. Some of them converted to Islam in order to be client or governer in Ottoman Empire. Beginning from period of Mehmed II most of the grand viziers are chosen from Serbs.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the First Serbian Uprising succeeded in liberating at least some Serbs for a limited time. The Second Serbian Uprising was much more successful, resulting in Ottoman recognition of Serbia as autonomous principality within the Empire. Serbia acquired international recognition as an independent kingdom at the Congress of Berlin in 1878. However, many Serbs remained under foreign rule that of the Ottomans in the south, and of the Habsburgs in the north and west. The southern Serbs were liberated in the First Balkan War of 1912, while the question of the Habsburg Serbs' independence was the spark that lit World War I two years later. During the war, the Serbian army fought fiercely, eventually retreating through Albania to regroup in Greece, and launched a counter-offensive through Macedonia. Though they were eventually victorious, the war devastated Serbia and killed a huge proportion of its population by some estimates, over the half of the male Serbian population died in the conflict, influencing the region's demographics to this day.

After the war, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later called Yugoslavia) was created. Almost all Serbs finally lived in one state. The new state had its capital in Belgrade and was ruled by a Serbian king; it was, however, unstable and prone to ethnic tensions.

During the Second World War, the Axis Powers occupied Yugoslavia, dismembering the country. Serbia was occupied by the Germans, while in Bosnia and Croatia, Serbs were put under the rule of the Italians and the fascist Ustasa regime in the Independent State of Croatia. Under Ustasa rule in particular, Serbs and other non-Croats were subjected to systematic genocide, known as the Serbian genocide, when hundreds of thousands were killed. The Hungarian and Albanian fascists, who occupied northern and southern parts of the country, also performed persecutions and genocide against the Serb population from these regions. The royalist Chetniks fought against the invaders, until switching sides and cooperating with the Axis powers when they lost support from the Allies. The Chetniks also helped carry out atrocities against their own Serb population in the Kragujevac massacre, alongside the German Nazis and performed many massacres against Bosnian Muslims and Croats.

After the war, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was formed. As with pre-war Yugoslavia, the country's capital was at Belgrade. Serbia was the largest republic. There were also two established autonomous provinces within Serbia - Kosovo (with an Albanian majority) and Vojvodina (with a Serb majority and a large number of different minorities). Besides Serbia, the large Serb populations were concentrated in Bosnia and Herzegovina (where they were largest ethnic group until 1971) and Croatia.

Communist Yugoslavia collapsed in the early 1990s, with four of its six republics becoming independent states. This led to several bloody civil wars, as the large Serbian communities in Croatia and Bosnia attempted to remain within Yugoslavia, then consisting of only Serbia and Montenegro. Serbs in Croatia formed their state of Republika Srpska Krajina, but they were later military defeated by the Croatian army. Serbs in Bosnia and Herzegovina formed their state of Republika Srpska, currently one of the two political entities that form the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Another war broke out in Kosovo (see Kosovo War) after years of tensions between Serbs and Albanians. Up to 250,000 Serbs left Croatia during the "Operation Storm" in 1995, and 300,000 left until 1993, and another 200,000 left Kosovo after the Kosovo War, and settled mostly in Central Serbia and Vojvodina as refugees.

This article is taken from and is somewhat abridged and modified.