The Pioneer Railroad lacks disturbing visibility of other Nonuments. Both conceived and concluded in Yugoslavia almost seven decades ago (1948-1954), it comes across as a closed folder. It was a replica of Pioneer railroads in the Soviet Union, which aimed to educate youth on railroad technology and socialistic values. There were Pioneer railroads functioning in Belgrade and Zagreb when Mladinska organizacija (The Youth organization) initiated the project in Ljubljana. The plan made for Maribor’s pioneer railroad was never realized.
1948 marks the year of the Tito-Stalin Split and initiation of Yugoslavia’s “third way” – neither alliance with Eastern nor with Western block. Yugoslavia’s expulsion from Cominform occurs simultaneously with the organization and execution of the Pioneer Railroad in Ljubljana. It is an interesting misbalance, since the Pioneer Railroad was an educational model imported from the Soviet Union, to promote progress and present railroad technology to youth. From the very beginning, the Ljubljana’s railroad project holds internal tension – it was a model of practising socialism, copied from a country with which Yugoslavia has just broken ties.
Anyhow, the most fascinating was a collective engagement in the project – it took only three months to construct three station buildings and a 4 km long railway while repairing a locomotive and teaching 10 to 15-year-old pioneers how to self-manage the entire railway system. Few newspaper texts from the time mostly reported on the Youth brigadiers enthusiastic effort to finish the work before the set deadline. On the opposite, not a single text problematized the children’s premature engagement with potentially dangerous tasks. The archive photographs captured the work from the construction site and the crowded opening ceremony but there were no reportages on what happened after as if there was no interest in everyday voyages .
The railroad was demounted in 1954 as readily as it was mounted in 1948 due to a significant decrease in passengers. The official reason for the disassembly was insufficient financing for maintenance of the Pioneer Railroad, while the further investment – the connection with Polhov Gradec or development of the sports and cultural program along the road – was estimated too costly. The project was labelled as useless and it was abandoned – in today’s terminology – due to its lack of self-sustainability. “Self – sustainability” mantra is not just a measure of progress today, it was a decisive factor in 1953/1954 politics too.
Today, the route that connected Ljubljana’s districts Koseze, Rožna dolina and Podutik, is hardly recognizable – the former station “Jelenov žleb” still stands, but has been transformed into a private residence, while the other two station buildings (“TV-15” and “Trnovski gozd”) have been destroyed. Had it not been for the four unpretentious memorial plaques along the route, only a careful observer would have seen the mound in the forest as a peculiarity worthy of detailed analysis. It may be due to the successful transformation of railroad embankment to the Ljubljana’s recreational culture – bicycle road runs over the former railroad.
The assimilation that took place may persuade the passersby that there is nothing left to be repaired or rethought on this particular place. It may also suggest that the short-lived Pioneer Railroad, together with the volunteer effort that was put in its construction were better off forgotten. Alarming collective oblivion and frequent vandalization of quite unnoticeable memorial plaques redraw the confrontation territory. What is more, the Institute for the Protection of Cultural Heritage of Slovenia keeps no record of the railroad. But why is such memory-loss worth mentioning if the project has already been neutralized and abandoned within the system that produced it?
When I suggested that the Pioneer Railroad is a Nonument to a collective act, the reply was “repressed individualism”. A Nonument on a materialized utopia was rejected with “failed project”, a Nonument to enthusiastic construction of the future with “enforced labour”. Again, a Nonument to cheerful childhood memories (of extant pioneers’ specie) was denied with “silly nostalgia”. The conversation about the Pioneer Railroad was inevitably a commentary on Yugoslavia, which was consequently an opinion given on either “good” or “evil” socialism. This is a false dilemma.
Now, if we assume that the project was not only infrastructural framework for ideological exercise from an early age, we may understand its less apparent aims or side effects. One sentence from interviews left a lasting impact: “We travelled for the sake of travelling.” What does it mean? It may have something to do with the cinematographic effect of the moving landscape and the modern subject. The view changes if we are on the train; one point perspective space becomes blurred space with no central reference point. Even though the traveller sits still, they are passing a promenade of moving images. And even if the train could be a tool of centralized ideology, it has an opposite effect – the position inside the train and focuses on the moving exterior made our socialist subject a futuristic subject, the one who is and loves to be in continuous movement, without a centralized reference system. Within an hour’s journey and for a ticket that cost like one loaf of bread, everyone became the subject of modernist progress. Back then, the train ride was a tangible sign of modernization, visible progress that was promised in exchange for volunteer work.
It may be clearer now why the opening ceremony attracted 20 000 people. In a 4 km narrow gauge railway, one red locomotive, six blue wagons and three station buildings, all planned and built in three months, was a tangible physical record of ideals that, without visible evidence of modernization, may sound like an alarmingly empty promise. If modernization was the final product of a dedicated collective hard-work, what was there to be opposed, in a country devastated after the WWII?
From the perspective of a precarious worker and an architect in front of shrinking territories of public space, I find solidarity, common building and companionship, as well as the ability to resist and to overcome the unbearable WWII (and its consequences) with unstoppable vitality, quite relevant today. However, the rejection I have received when mentioning the Pioneer Railroad, almost made me embarrassed to ask why socialist practices are so readily regarded as totalitarian but capitalistic are not?
Researcher Danica Sretenović
* Youth Organisation, City People’s Council, Department for regulation of Ljubljana and Railway Workers’ Organisation
1948City Railroad Infrastructure
1954 Closed down
2018 Non-existing, Bicycle Lane (part)
1948 Council for traffic and Connections
1954 City of Ljubljana, Railways Directorate
2018 City of Ljubljana
Form of government
1948 Socialist Federative Republic
1954 Socialistic Federative Republic
2018 Parliamentary Republic
Spatial Planning Agency
Type of heritage and protection
Interview with Andraž
Interview with Ana
Interview with Darja
Interview with Alojzija
Interview with P.
Interview with Alojzija