19 June 2023
Marko Zekov Popović:
the mysterious major
from Montenegro and
his ashes in Dublin
I spent a day in Dublin last week, being interviewed by a Montenegrin television station about Prince Milo Petrović, the dashing and charming political exile from the Balkan state who lived in Dublin in the 1930s and 1940s, moved to Connemara in the 1960s, and who eventually died in Limerick and is buried in the churchyard at Saint Mary’s Cathedral.
This promises to be a fascinating documentary about the man, his Ruritanian claims and his exotic life in exile, including his interesting love life and affairs in England, the US and Ireland and his exotic claims to be a member of the royal court of Montenegro.
Much of the interview time on Friday morning was spent in the chapter house in Christ Church Cathedral. Later in the day, we did some more filming in the cathedral’s atmospheric crypt. But, Inevitably, we spent a lot of Friday afternoon filming in the south ambulatory, where a gilded casket with the cremated ashes of Major Marko Zekov Popović is placed on a high ledge.
The inscription on a brass plate below the casket describes Popović as the ‘Hereditary Royal Standard Bearer of Montenegro’ and notes that he died in London on 26 October 1934.
But, I was asked, why were his ashes brought to Dublin? Who placed them in the cathedral? I found myself even questioning the exotic claims made for Popović in the few, short words on this small plaque.
Most of the available evidence in English for the life of Prince Milo was provided himself in his conversations with his daughter, Milena Thompson. They provide the substantial but often unsubstantiated biographical details and claims in her self-published account of his life.
But there is little evidence in English for the life of Major Popović, and many of his biographical details have only come to light in recent years through research in Montenegro by Novak Adžić, a lawyer and historian, and Dr Šerbo Rastoder.
Major Marko Zekov Popović (1881-1934) from Njeguš, who claimed the title of Alajbarjaktar or ‘Hereditary Royal Standard Bearer of Montenegro,’ was one of the prominent exiled advocates of Montenegro’s independence and identity after World War I. After the incorporation of Montenegro into a new state that would become Yugoslavia, he lived in exile from 1919 until he died aged 53 in London on 26 October 1934. Arguments continue about whether he died of natural causes or was poisoned and murdered.
Marko Zekov Popović was born in Njeguši in the Cetinje region of Montenegro on 20 April 1881, and would later claim he had inherited the position of hereditary alaibarjaktar of Montenegro’s army from his father Zeko Mašanov Popović.
Montenegro was a tiny Balkan principality whose independence was recognised by the Great Powers at the Congress of Berlin in 1878, and the country was unilaterally proclaimed a kingdom in 1910.
When Montenegro declared war on the Ottoman Empire in 1912, Marko Zekov Popović went to the front as a lieutenant in the Montenegrin army and took part in the first Balkan War in 1912-1913, which delineated the borders between Montenegro and neighbouring Serbia and Albania.
After a short period of peace, the Kingdom of Montenegro entered World War I in 1914 on the sallied ide of the Central Powers in 1914, and Popović became an artillery captain. Montenegro was defeated by the Austro-Hungarian army in 1916, King Nicholas went into exile in France and the occupation continued until October 1918.
At the end of World War I following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Popović was blocked from returning to Montenegro and was detained on a ship. The Podgorica Assembly in November 1918 voted to depose the exiled King Nikola and for the unification of Serbia and Montenegro under the Karađorđević monarchy. Montenegro became part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later renamed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia).
At the beginning of January 1919, Montenegrin loyalists, led by the former minister and president of the Montenegrin National Assembly, Jovan S Plamenac, and commander Krsto Zrnov Popović, launched the ‘Christmas Uprising against’ incorporation with Serbia in the new kingdom.
The armed struggle lasted for several days. In the fighting around Cetinje, Captain Marko Zekov Popović took part in the fighting in Katun and was one of the organisers of the uprising in the Katunska Nahija area. Citing his oath of loyalty to King Nikola, he refused to surrender and went into political exile.
A boat took Popović, Prince Milo Petrović and other supporters of King Nikola of Montenegro from Kotor to a refugee camp in San Giovanni di Medua. After arriving in Italy, Popović and other exiles settled in Monte Cava, near Rome. Some reports said they were plotting an invasion of Montenegro with Italian support.
Popović was still in Italy when the Montenegrin court and government-in-exile in Paris promoted him to the rank of major in the Montenegrin army on 19 July, backdating his promotion to 3 January 1919 NS (21 December 1918 OS).
Popović and a 70-strong group of exiles in Italy signed a declaration in Gaeta on 20 April 1920, addressed to the exiled Prime Minister Jovan S Plamenac, then on a political mission in London, pledging to continue the fight for an independent Montenegro.
The exiled King Nikola died in exile in Antibes on 1 March 1921, and Popović was a member of the delegation of exiled Montenegrin troops at his burial at the Russian Orthodox Church in San Remo in Italy later that month.
King Nikola and the Kingdom of Montenegro are mentioned briefly by F Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, when Jay Gatsby reminisces on his heroic endeavours during World War I, for which the king confers on him the highest honour of the kingdom, the Orderi di Danilo.
But the exiled Montenegrin army in Italy was disbanded in 1921. After Mussolini’s fascists came to power, the Montenegrin refugees were told to leave Italy. Popović left with Prince Milo Petrović Njegoš in 1922, and they went from one exile to another, first staying in Mexico, then travelling to China, before finally moving to London, where they were living in 1925. They were accompanied by the journalist and publicist Jovan-Jovo Čubranović.
Meanwhile, the Committee for the Defence of Montenegro was formed in Dublin in 1924, and was active in representing the three friends in promoting Montenegrin independence, organising forums and lectures, and lobbying political circles and the press. They argued there was no international treaty by which Montenegro had ceased to exist as an independent state.
They formed the Montenegrin Party (federalists), and Čubranović spoke as a member of the Montenegro National Defence in Dublin in 1925, demanding the withdrawal of Serbian troops from Montenegro.
Another prominent exile, Milo Vujović, formed the Montenegro People’s Party of Peasants and Workers and published the newspaper Crnogorski Glasnik or Montenegro Herald in Detroit. In San Francisco, Nikola Petanović-Naiad founded the Alliance for a Free and Independent Montenegro and edited the monthly magazine The Montenegrin Mirror or Crnogorsko Ogledalo in 1927-1931. Petanović published articles by Marko Zekov Popović and wrote about him as one of the key exiled figures in the Montenegrin struggle. Other committees lobbied throughout Europe and North America
Eventually the exile groups turned on the late King Nikola, claiming he had ruined the freedom of Montenegro and its people, bringing them ‘to the brink of ruin’ and treacherously serving the interests of Belgrade.
Reports in the Montenegrin Mirror throughout 1931 regularly refer to the activities of Major Marko Zekov Popović and ‘his unwavering, consistent and courageous fight for the right, honour and freedom and independence of Montenegro.’
An anonymous feature in the Montenegrin Mirror in June 1931 says Popović ‘will one day become a legend and future writers among the southern Slavs will compete by telling about his life.’ It said that since the fall of the Montenegrin state, he and Prince Milo had ‘visited every important country in the world.’
Major Popović died in London on 26 October 1934. Some of his fellow exiles said he had been killed or poisoned. He was cremated, and his ashes in a small casket were brought to Dublin and placed on a shelf in the south ambulatory in Christ Church Cathedral. I noticed once again last week the curious coincidence that below the shelf with the urn and ashes of Popović, the niches are filled with Byzantine-style icons of archangels by the Revd Olive Donohoe, presented to the cathedral in 2019.
But the presence of his urn and ashes left me with more questions about Popović than answers while I was being interviewed last week.
Why was an Orthodox Montenegrin cremated after his death in the 1930s, at a time when cremation was not only frowned on but condemned by all Orthodox churches?
Why was Popović not buried in London with a funeral in an Orthodox church – Serbian, Greek or Russian – instead of being brought to Dublin?
Why did Prince Milo bring the ashes to Dublin and place them in an Anglican cathedral?
And why is Popović described as holding such a Ruritanian-style office? It is difficult to imagine that as Montenegro only ever had one king it could have had many hereditary office-holders.
Perhaps Prince Milo was creating facts on the ground – or on the cathedral shelf – assembling the appearance of a retinue of courtiers, with his own special, highly-decorated and lavishly-styled ‘wingman,’ adding to the romantic veneer of his presence among the circles in which he wanted to move in after moving from London to Dublin.
It is telling that the film The Prisoner of Zenda, which popularised the term ‘Ruritania’, was released in 1937, just as these ashes were being placed on this shelf in Christ Church Cathedral.
But more about Ruritania and Montenegro on another day.