Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Q&A with Jacob Mikanowski


Photo by Cheryl Juetten



Jacob Mikanowski is the author of the new book Goodbye, Eastern Europe: An Intimate History of a Divided Land. A freelance journalist, he is based in Portland, Oregon.


Q: What inspired you to write Goodbye, Eastern Europe, and how was the book’s title chosen?


A: My biggest inspiration for writing the book came from almost 40 years of traveling to, and living in, Eastern Europe.


Visiting the region in the 1980s, in the last years of Communist rule, you immediately felt that you had crossed into another civilization. The air smelled strange, stores were empty, and money and time both meant something different than they did in the West. Although that sense of distinctiveness lessened over time, it persisted for many years.


However, around 2010, soon after the last major expansion of the European Union, I started to feel this sense of difference was rapidly ebbing away.


My other main inspiration for writing Goodbye, Eastern Europe came from years of teaching European history at the University of California, Berkeley.


I found that when it came to Western Europe, students had a clear sense of individual countries and cultures, but when it came to the Eastern half of the continent – and especially the many smaller countries caught between Germany and Russia – they largely drew a blank.


I wanted to write a book that would fill in some of that empty space, something that would serve as an accessible introduction to the history of the region, and a testimony to all the cultural richness and diversity that it harbored in the past.


The book pays tribute to a series of vanished worlds: the polyglot, multi-religious world of my ancestors, the Communist-governed world of my parents, and disappearing  “other Europe” of my own childhood. Hence the title – Goodbye, Eastern Europe.

Q: You write that “wherever they come from, people don’t identify as Eastern Europeans. The phrase is an outsider’s convenience, a catch-all used to conceal a nest of stereotypes.” Can you say more about that, and about what you see as the most common perceptions and misconceptions about the region?


A: I think these attitudes are summarized well by a quote from a friend’s student, who called Eastern Europe “a gray place, where no one ever laughs.”


There is an unfortunate perception that the whole region is pretty drab – economically disadvantaged, architecturally unexciting, socially distant, and with a tragic history to boot. People have trouble imagining Eastern Europe as a place of comedy, beauty, or cultural richness – which is a shame, because it is all of those things.


While its history was often tragic, Eastern Europe also gave birth to some of the world’s funniest books and most beautiful music. For centuries, it also harbored a truly unique diversity of languages and faiths, a society based on co-existence unlike anything in the West in the same era.


Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: My research for the book consisted mostly of travel and reading. Over the course of five years, I traveled to 17 Eastern European countries, visiting most several times.


I also read a few hundred books - a lot of history, but also a great deal of literature. I tried to get acquainted with the great novelists and poets of each of the region’s nationalities. I then visited the settings of their works, to see what they were writing about with my own eyes.


I supplemented this with some genealogical research – on my own family and others – and some trips to archives and museums.


I couldn’t begin to list all the surprising things I learned in the course of this research; I tried to include as many of the best stories as I could in the book itself.


But I would say that travel produced the biggest discoveries, from minority groups I had never heard of, like the Armenians of Romania or the Karaite Jews of Lithuania, to the sheer natural beauty of places I hadn’t been before, such as gorgeous Lake Ohrid in North Macedonia, and the majestic Albanian Alps.


Q: Given the war in Ukraine and other developments affecting the region, what do you see looking ahead?


A: I see a split future for Eastern Europe going forward. Those countries which are now in the E.U. will continue to grow and develop at an accelerated rate.


However, those outside it face much more difficult circumstances. Economic progress will be much slower in parts of the region enmeshed in either a frozen or active conflict.


These include countries such as Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, which are still struggling with the aftermath of the Yugoslav Wars, and countries like Belarus and Moldova, which live in Russia’s shadow, whether their people want to or not.


Finally, there is Ukraine engaged in a war for survival, which I fear may last a very long time, and hamper that country’s progress even if it does not spell its demise.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I recently finished a doctoral dissertation about the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz and his book The Captive Mind, which described the way writers and intellectuals in Stalinist Poland reconciled themselves to working with the regime.


I’m also beginning to sketch out a new book project which I’m very excited about, but have to keep quiet about for the time being.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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