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‘Goodbye, Eastern Europe’ with Jacob Mikanowski
“This is a history of a place that doesn’t exist. There is no such thing as Eastern Europe anymore. No one comes from there.”
These are the opening lines of Goodbye, Eastern Europe, a new book by writer and historian Jacob Mikanowski that offers a sweeping history of a region that he argues is disappearing. Not in the literal sense, of course; the lands historically considered “Eastern Europe” are very much still there. But the term itself (much like “post-Soviet” and “former Soviet republics”) has fallen out of fashion. And the entangled diversity that was once the hallmark of Eastern European societies was swept away by the violence of the 20th century — so much so that Mikanowski considers it a “lost world.”
Recounting centuries of history in just a few hundred pages, Mikanowski’s book takes readers on a journey across the region stretching between present-day Germany and Russia, going as far north as the Baltic countries and as far south as the Balkans. And while the empires that once ruled there and the nation-states that succeeded them are part of the picture, Goodbye, Eastern Europe is far from your standard political history. Instead, Mikanowski weaves together years of research and travel experience with his own family’s past, opening a window into the complexities and absurdities of everyday life.
“A lot of histories of Eastern Europe [...] are very much like a battle between superpowers,” Mikanowski tells Eilish Hart, editor of Meduza’s weekly newsletter The Beet, on this week’s show. “I want to tell the story of what’s happening in between. Because to me, that’s the Eastern European experience — especially in the 20th century. Finding agency amid a world that’s constantly robbing you of it.”
Timestamps for this episode:
- (2:12) What — and where — is Eastern Europe? And in what sense is it disappearing?
- (4:37) Blending academic research with travel experience and family history
- (11:07) Why there’s more to Eastern European history than “Hitler versus Stalin”
- (13:56) Eastern Europe as a “lost world” of interwoven diversity
- (16:50) What’s missed when history is written from imperial capitals?
- (19:21) The politics of history in Eastern Europe today
Production by Ania Kovalenko. Sound editing and mixing by Eilish Hart.
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