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Goodbye Eastern Europe: Finding the remains of a lost world

As traditional ideas of eastern Europe fade from view, it's important to recognise the richness and diversity of the region

Goodbye Eastern Europe: An Intimate History of a Divided Land by Jacob Mikanowski is out now (Oneworld, £20)

I’ve been preoccupied with eastern Europe since childhood. I grew up between Poland and the United States. My parents arrived in America, separately, on tourist visas at the start of the 1980s. They stayed because of a political earthquake – the imposition of martial law by Poland’s communist leadership in December 1981. I was born nine months later.

My parents didn’t know much English when they arrived in America. Polish was their first language. Some of my earliest memories are of summers spent with my grandparents in Warsaw during the waning days of state socialism. I remember empty stores and Sunday streets with as many horse-drawn carriages as cars. A few years later, in 1993, I spent a year in Poland and attended a Polish school.

By then, the sleepy, dusty Warsaw of the 1980s had been replaced with an era of capitalist frenzy. Workers marched in the streets as their factories shuttered. Hyperinflation made the currency lose its value by the week. People lined up for the opening of the first McDonald’s like it was a concert by The Rolling Stones.

It was a chaotic time, but I liked the chaos. History felt closer to the surface in Poland. At my grandparents’ houses the table talk reached back across the years of Stalinism to what life was like before the war, in my grandfather’s shtetl in Lithuania and in the old Warsaw slums. The watershed of inherited oral memory stretched back even further, to the times of Czar Nicholas II and Emperor Franz Joseph I. Even the homes I was living in bore the imprint of the past. The outside of my grandfather’s apartment building was still riddled with bullet holes from World War II. Nothing could be more different than suburban Pennsylvania, where nothing predated 1975.

Those early years spent in Poland left me with a life-long fascination with the country and the surrounding region. I went on to study Eastern European history in college and in graduate school. But as the years passed, I sensed that fewer and fewer people seemed to share my interest. In academia, attention shifted to regions of greater geopolitical peril like the Middle East and China. In popular culture, eastern Europe increasingly become the butt of jokes and the subject of demeaning stereotypes. A student in one my friends’ classes even asked the professor if it was true that “eastern Europe is a grey place, where people hardly ever smiled”. The days of paying close attention to literature and art from what used to be called the “other Europe” – still common in the mid-1990s – seemed to be well and truly over.

Inside the region, people were fleeing the label as well. As time went by, various countries tried to shifted the official nomenclature, identifying themselves variously as parts of central Europe, the Nordic zone, the eastern Adriatic or eastern Balkans – anything but ‘eastern Europe’. A change was also happening on another level, on the ground. The sense of distinctiveness which used to pervade eastern Europe started to fade, a process which accelerated as the European Union began to expand east, starting in 2004.

I wrote Goodbye Eastern Europe in part to recapture this vanishing that was not only different from western Europe, but also different from what people imagine eastern Europe to be. The defining feature of this eastern Europe is diversity – diversity of language, culture and faith. Going back over a thousand years, eastern Europe has been home to the continent’s greatest concentration of ethnic and religious variety.

It was a place where pagan tradition mingled with Islam, Judaism and every variety of Christianity, and where you could hear four languages and enter three different houses of worship within the space of a village stroll. In writing Goodbye Eastern Europe, I went on a quest to discover what remained of this lost world. I visited 17 countries, spending time in Bosnian Sufi lodges, Serbian synagogues and Latvian holy groves.

I also dove into the archives and libraries, looking for the ingredients which shaped eastern Europe as a whole – the trauma of two world wars, the double traumas of fascism and communism, and the long, slow decline of state socialism. I was especially on the lookout for stories of overlooked individuals. I wanted to tell the history of the region not via the great and powerful, but through the lens of the people who lived it.

Throughout out it all, I kept my own family’s story at the forefront of my mind. Across the generations, they embraced a range of identities, political orientations, Jewish and Catholic, nationalist and communist. Some were victims of the century’s greatest crimes, others collaborated or stood beside as spectators. Like so many other families, they endured great suffering, without losing their sense of humour. In microcosm, their story, at once typical and extraordinary, combining immense tragedy with an acute awareness of fate’s absurdity, is that of the region as a whole.

Jacob Mikanowski is an author and journalist

Goodbye Eastern Europe cover

Goodbye Eastern Europe: An Intimate History of a Divided Land by Jacob Mikanowski is out now (Oneworld, £20). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App

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