Date and place of birth: 14 December 1947, Belgrade.

Family: I have one daughter, Katarina, from a previous marriage, and she is an actress who lives and works in Serbia. I also have a stepson and a stepdaughter from my current marriage with Slavko.

Education: I attended the music school and played the piano for 10 years while I was in elementary school, high school, and during my first year of university. I also have a degree in Acting from the University of Arts in Belgrade.

When I was young I… wanted to be an actress, even though my parents had hoped that this would be a short-lived ambition. Unfortunately for them, it was my passion and I pursued it my whole life.

Acting is… a spiritual discipline. Playing different characters has allowed me to get to know the people around me, and ultimately, this has led me to discover my own personality.

The theatre scene in Finland is… wonderful. The theatre performances that I’ve seen so far, which have been mostly classics, were very well done.

A Serbian theatre legend in our midst.

THE CAREER of Serbian actress Svetlana Bojković has spanned nearly 40 years in television, film, and most importantly, theatre. She is the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award Dobričin Prsten, and is regarded as one of the great ladies of the Serbian cultural scene. She currently calls Helsinki home, and is here not on an acting engagement, but in a somewhat different capacity – as the wife of the Serbian ambassador to Finland, Slavko Kruljević. It seemed appropriate, then, to take this opportunity to speak with her about life and culture in Serbia and Finland.

You and your husband got married in 2011, and since last year you’ve been living in Helsinki. Are you enjoying life in Finland so far?

Yes, especially because living here is as if you were in two different places in one year – there’s the long winter, the spring that goes by very quickly, and then the beautiful summer. Although I’ve needed some time to adjust to the idea of living in Helsinki, this is our second year here and nowadays the atmosphere of the city seems to me more intimate, beautiful, and pleasant, and I’m really enjoying my life here.

In addition, since I have not taken on any acting engagements, I now have enough time to read and visit museums and cultural events. We haven’t travelled around Finland yet, but we’re planning on visiting some of the smaller Finnish cities. This summer we won’t be hosting as many guests as last year, so we will have more freedom to discover the country.

How active is your cultural life in Helsinki?

When it comes to theatre, I’ve encountered a language barrier, so I can only watch the plays whose contents I am familiar with, which means the classics. Nevertheless, I’ve seen the fabulous performance of the play The Forest, last season at the Helsingin Kaupunginteatteri. I also saw two plays at the Svenska Teatern – last season I watched A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and this season I saw Chaplin, as well as a play in English called My Elevator Days by Bengt Ahlfors. It’s a wonderful monodrama and the lead role was performed by a Scottish actor, Alexander West, who won an award at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh.

I also went to see Eifman’s ballet Ana Karenina when it visited Helsinki, and I have visited many exhibitions around the city. We recently saw an Irish choir Anùna, which recorded some traditional Irish songs for Riverdance albums. The performance was organised by the Irish embassy and took place at the Temppeliaukio Church. We also saw an award-winning Polish pianist there, who played Chopin and was hosted by the Polish ambassador. It’s always a pleasure to go to the Temppeliaukio Church since the acoustics are remarkable.

This city is very rich in cultural activities, not just in classical music, but all other genres of music, like jazz. I recently went to see a wonderful jazz band called Višegrad. One could go to a cultural event every day in Helsinki, so my days are filled with various activities, from cultural events to nature walks.

As for my acting engagements, not long ago I performed a sold-out performance in Stockholm with two colleagues, and we eventually added two more dates due to high interest in the play. The name of the play is in Serbian, but it loosely translates to Girl Talk. In the fall, we will perform it in Gothenburg and Malmö.

The Finnish government offers a lot of financial support to the artistic and cultural sectors.

I believe that the budget for education and culture is 12 per cent of Finland’s GDP, which is a significant amount. My husband’s son is very happy with the education here. He is doing his Master’s degree in aerospace engineering at Aalto University, and really likes the way that university education is conducted. In fact, my husband and I recently hosted the aide of the Serbian Minister of Education who came here to study the organisation of the Finnish education system from primary to the post-secondary level. And she, like people from many other countries in the world, concluded that there is a good reason why Finland is considered to have one of the best education systems in the world.

Education in Serbia is quite different than in Finland, how do you see these differences?

Unfortunately, that’s true. Serbia has a problem with rampant poverty and the country is experiencing a financial crisis, but regardless of that, improving the education system should become a priority to our government. What is important to understand is that culture shouldn’t be thought of as an entity that is entirely separate from education, because those two spheres go together. We truly need to work on improving the collective spiritual being of our society, because if the cultural and educational sectors are strong, that will be reflected in the well-being of the economy. A strong cultural and educational background is essential to the healthy function of a society.

I spoke about how impressed I am with the education system in Finland, but it’s not just the education sector that works well – it is noticeable in all organisational aspects of this society, even the smaller ones. For instance, I am fascinated by the snow removal system here. The snow is collected daily, as soon as it starts to accumulate. The workers have snow machines that look to me like oversized toys, so the crews are well equipped and, as a result, do their jobs efficiently.

What are the causes that you support in Serbia? Are you an activist in a way?

I support all causes I believe in, especially when it comes to culture. On 22 June, I participated via Skype in a peaceful protest named “Stop the destruction of culture”. It took place at the Republic Square in Belgrade to protest the fact that the budget of the cultural sector has never been as low as it is this year. It is currently 0.62 per cent of Serbia’s GDP, and film projects haven’t received any funding, which means that all funding for film will have to come exclusively from external grants.

One thing that illustrates the extent of the problem is that the protest took place in front of the National Museum, which is located at the heart of Belgrade’s city centre. The museum has been closed for ten years now, due to lack of funding for reconstruction that is necessary in order to reopen it. These issues represent the long-term deterioration of Serbia’s cultural sector, and are not the fault of the current government, which assumed office ten months ago. Nevertheless, we must find a way to bring culture to the forefront again, and we could start by introducing tax breaks to businesses that sponsor cultural organisations.

Another issue is that all funds dedicated to culture go directly into the budget, and funds are then distributed at the discretion of the people in charge of the budget, which is very problematic. Still, I believe that something will be done about culture and education, and it is our job as cultural figures to give incentive and stay diligent.

I am by no means badmouthing our government – they assumed power during a troubled time, and are doing their best with what limited means they have. But I do believe that culture and education should be a priority and am not a proponent of the argument that you can’t build on an unstable foundation. Although there are sectors that require more funds and attention, there is surely a way to nurture culture as well.

What is the image of Serbia in Finland, especially now that the EU negotiations have commenced?

The Balkan region is quite far from Northern Europe physically and economically, and I’ve heard that Serbia had the image of the bad guy during the Yugoslavian war in the ‘90s. But it seems that people’s attitudes toward Serbia have started to change. Firstly, I was surprised that Helsingin Sanomat agreed to do an interview with me since I represent my country. It was an encouraging experience, and the feedback I received was very positive. For instance, a retired Finnish professor wrote to me about his admiration of Serbian authors, especially our Nobel Prize-winning writer, Ivo Andrić and his famed book The Bridge on the Drina.

I also recently read an article criticising the acquittal of Ante Gotovina, a retired Croatian lieutenant general, who was on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia for crimes against humanity during the war of Yugoslavia. That was the first time I had heard people acknowledge that Serbs were also victims of war crimes during that war, especially in the Krajina region of Croatia, where an exodus of Serbs took place during that time. This signifies a great change in the attitude of the international community towards Serbia – better late than never.

I am glad to hear that Serbia has entered the conversation in a positive light, and that you’re involved in promoting this positive image. What kinds of events will you be organising in Helsinki to showcase Serbian culture?

Yes, it is important for people to know that Serbia is a civilised place, and if we had the funds we would certainly bring some quality musicians and painters to showcase our cultural heritage. This project is in the early stages, but we’re working on an exhibition by Serbian designers whose work has received awards around the world. Some of these people don’t live in Serbia, but are quite successful outside of the country. We were unable to put it together this year, but we will probably organise it in 2014, since Slavko [Kruljević] and I will be here for three more years. We are very eager to make this happen because we want to see a cultural exchange between our two countries and showcase the best that Serbian designers have to offer.

Then there’s the Serbian Film Showcase, organised by the Serbian-Finnish society. Slavko and I will host a cocktail party at Katajanokka in mid-October, to celebrate the event. The Showcase will consist of several Serbian films, and each film will be preceded by a short documentary. The Film Showcase is an important event for us, apart from the Helsinki International Film Festival, where we’ve seen a few Serbian films in the past few years. In fact, I am part of the jury that decides which films to nominate, and every year we choose films that are representative of the current trends in Serbian cinematography.

I am also involved in expanding the Serbian book collection at the National Library of Finland with Irina Jukka, who works there. I have collected many novels and history books in Serbian that I will soon be donating to the library. The National Library of Finland has also received many consecutive issues of various Serbian magazines from the Serbian National Library. One interesting event that will soon happen is related to a book about the Hilandar monastery, which is a 12th Century Serbian orthodox monastery on Mount Athos in Greece. The book will be published soon, and the book release will be organised in two languages here in Helsinki.

Do you miss acting and Belgrade?

I visit Belgrade every three months, so I almost don’t have time to miss it. As for acting, I don’t miss it too much because I worked a lot during my acting career, and have missed out on many ordinary things in life. Nowadays I have time to do all of them, and I satisfy my thirst for art by being a consumer instead of an active participant.

Text: Tijana Stolic, photos Eva Blanco