If you want to start a peaceful revolution, the person to call is a Serb with a passion for Tolkien. Srdja Popovic is advising rebels in 40 countries. Emma Williams watches him at work and at home...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, May/June 2012

When he was a boy, in the 1970s, Srdja Popovic used to crawl through a hole in the wall of a half-built cathedral. “It was my playground,” he says. We are in downtown Belgrade, and Popovic is talking about his work, his city and, for now, the vast white building in front of us, the Cathedral of St Sava.

He was nine, a new recruit to the international army of “Lord of the Rings” fans. He made the north tower his own, naming it Barad-dûr after Sauron’s fortress in Mordor. He was old enough to know that Nazi bombing (in 1941) had halted the construction of the cathedral (begun in 1935), young enough not to be aware of any danger. For him and his friends, the surviving shell of walls and towers was a haven. “We used to swap shifts with amorous couples, we took the day shift and they appeared in the evening. We respected each other.” 

When politics allowed building to resume in 1985, Popovic’s playground grew into one of the world’s ten largest churches. It can take 10,000 worshippers, but is still unfinished. For the adult Popovic, it is less about Tolkien and more about Serbian history. The church, he tells me, stands on the site where the Ottomans burned the remains of St Sava in 1595. The saint, a 13th-century prince, was the founder of the self-governing Serbian Orthodox church and the author of Serbia’s first constitution. When the Serbs revolted against the Ottomans, his image appeared on the flags they carried into battle. Hence the conflagration of his remains: a pointed retaliation.

Popovic knows about symbols, revolts and rallies. Now aged 39, he was only 18 when he took his first steps as a revolutionary. He was a key member of Otpor (Resistance), the nonviolent, 70,000-strong youth group that helped topple Serbia’s dictator, Slobodan Milosevic, in October 2000. Three years later, he and another Otpor member, Slobodan Djinovic, founded an NGO, the Centre for Applied NonViolent Action and Strategies or, more palatably, Canvas.

Canvas trains pro-democracy activists in lessons derived from Otpor’s experience. And it has impact. Popovic is widely seen as one of the architects of the Arab spring: when the American journal Foreign Policy named its top hundred global thinkers in December 2011, it put “the Arab revolutionaries” at number one, and named Popovic as one of them. He is even, according to the director of the Peace Research Institute Oslo, in line for a Nobel peace prize nomination.

When a repressive regime wobbles, the hand of Canvas can often be seen at work. Ahead of the Arab spring, it trained activists from Tunisia, Lebanon and Egypt. The protests in Tahrir Square, Cairo, that brought down President Mubarak in February 2011 unfolded like something from the Canvas training manual. Among the leaders were members of the April 6 Youth Movement, who had travelled to Belgrade in 2009 to learn how to conduct peaceful demonstrations, and cope with violence from security forces without resorting to it themselves. Canvas also helped them with organisation, mobilisation, overcoming fear and passivity, and training other protesters to spread the techniques.

Popovic is quick to state that the Arab spring is indigenous. “It’s the result of the efforts and perseverance of the brave individuals in each movement. If Canvas’s movies, books and the Otpor symbol have helped, that makes us proud, but we don’t claim any credit. Canvas may have equipped activists from the Middle East and elsewhere with the tools to wage their struggle more efficiently, but it is their victory. It belongs to them.”

The movie he is referring to is Steve York’s documentary about the fall of Milosevic, “Bringing Down a Dictator”, first shown on PBS in 2002. The symbol is Otpor’s clenched fist, designed by Popovic’s best friend, Nenad Petrovic-Duda, and based on the hand of Saruman from “Lord of the Rings”. Canvas’s logo takes the fist a stage further, embedding it in the arrow triangle that is the international symbol of recycling.

When Popovic got married, last summer, Petrovic-Duda was best man. The wedding was a sweltering affair in a glade in a Belgrade park. His bride, Masha, a radio and television journalist, appeared through the trees dressed in white embroidered satin, as the elf queen Galadriel. The groom, by contrast, wore frayed jeans and white sneakers.