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Serbian tennis superstar Novak Djoković | © Yann Caradec/Flickr
Serbian tennis superstar Novak Djoković | © Yann Caradec/Flickr

The Most Influential Serbian People You Should Know

Picture of John William Bills
Updated: 29 November 2017

Serbian history is full of individuals who overcame difficult beginnings to become international megastars, hugely important scientists and really, really weird artists. The Balkan nation has a proud history of creativity both in the artistic and scientific sense, and as such the Serbian tentacles stretch far and wide.

Is there a Serbian Hall of Fame? Not exactly, although it is difficult to argue with many of those celebrated in Jagodina’s entertaining wax museum. Most readers can be forgiven for not having intimate knowledge of legends like Milorad Rajčević, but you really need to get up to speed with these guys and gals. 

Nikola Tesla

You don’t earn the nickname ‘The Electric Jesus’ without reason, let alone the moniker of ‘The Man Who Invented the 20th Century’. Serb scientist Nikola Tesla was the dictionary definition of ‘ahead of his time’, a shining light in a sea of tradition and conservative science. Tesla is credited with being the brains behind Alternating Current (AC), radio, wireless technology, remote control, the neon lamp and a whole lot more. The Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade is an essential visit.

Novak Djoković

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal might get all the plaudits, but for five straight years Novak Djoković stood alone on top of the tennis mountain. Nole is the only male player in the modern age to hold all four Grand Slam tournaments at once, and his 2016 total of 16,950 ranking points is the highest in the history of the tour. His powers have waned over the last 18 months, but any discussion about the best tennis player of the modern age must include the man from Belgrade.

Duško Popov

You may not be familiar with the name ‘Duško Popov’, but we’d wager that you are familiar with 007 himself, James Bond. Popov was a double agent in World War II and a genuine international playboy, whose antics in a casino led to Ian Fleming creating the Bond character. 007 was taken from many real individuals, but none influenced the character as much as the man known as ‘Tricycle’.

Emir Kusturica

Born in Sarajevo, Emir Kusturica is one of the most influential filmmakers of the modern age. The brains behind Underground, Life is a Miracle and many more, Kusturica’s films are a chaotic blend of Balkan tradition and darker than dark comedy. His movies manage to straddle the line between absurd and affecting, filled with preposterous characters that are just fallible enough to exist.

Milunka Savić

Disney’s Mulan is a piece of fiction, but the life of Milunka Savić was everything but. Likely the most decorated female in the history of war, Savić entered the Serbian Army in 1913 in place of her brother, but her gender was not revealed until she was wounded in battle years later. Savić went on to take part in three wars (including World War I), before being demobilised in 1919.

Mihajlo Pupin

Born in the village of Idvor in the north of Serbia, Mihajlo Pupin emigrated to the United States in 1874. He had just five cents in his pocket, which he immediately spent on an extremely disappointing piece of pie, before going on to build himself a career as an inventor and physicist. Pupin is best known for his contributions to communication, and he was also a founding member of NASA.

Mihajlo Pupin

Mihajlo Pupin | © Wikimedia Commons

Milutin Milanković

In the early part of the 20th century, Milutin Milanković was an ambitious mathematician and scientist looking for a problem to solve, one of cosmic proportions. After a famous night involving four bottles of wine, Milanković set about trying to give reason to the changing climate of the planet. His theories shone new light on the history and future of climate change, along with founding planetary climatology.

Marina Abramović

Art is full of controversial figures, but Marina Abramović may well find herself as the cherry on that particularly unusual cake. Born in Belgrade, Abramović is known for her immensely confrontational performances and exhibitions, putting her audience in the most uncomfortable positions. Some believe she is the worst example of gimmickry in art, but the old adage of ‘no press is bad press’ almost certainly rings true.

Marina Abramović in 'The Artist is Present'| © Untercorojo/flickr

Marina Abramović in ‘The Artist is Present’ | © Untercorojo/flickr

Philip Zepter

With a net worth of some $5 billion, Philip Zepter is thought to be the richest Serbian on the planet. Born Milan Janković, Zepter got his business start selling pots and pans, eventually growing his Zepter International company into a major global conglomerate. Zepter now lives in Monte Carlo, because of course he does.