I was completely enthralled by Jacob Mikanowski’s interview on the podcast Conversations With Tyler, which I recommended some months back. So, of course, I bought his book! Goodbye, Eastern Europe: An Intimate History of a Divided Land is an expansive look at Eastern Europe from a person who has spent most of his adult life living in and exploring this unusual, and often neglected region.
At its root, what makes Eastern Europe fascinating is its diversity. It represents the furthest inroads of Islam into Europe, with many vestiges of this conquest remaining still today (e.g. Bosnia Herzegovina). It is the crossover point between Orthodox Christianity, Catholicism and Islam, with Jews scattered throughout. Its range of cultures and languages are dramatic when compared to Western Europe, which homogenized its populations much earlier. The result was that the powerhouses of Europe were all in the West, or Russia in the east, after the 18th century, leaving the smaller regions of Eastern Europe caught in the middle as a casualty of the movement of Empires. Mikanowski does an incredible job helping the reader understand all of this diversity, where it comes from, what has survived to the present – and lamenting what has been more recently lost.
Mikanowski structures the book along two axes. One is from past to present, beginning over a thousand years ago, and ending with the fall of the USSR. The second is to divide the book into themes: faiths (pagans and Christians, Jews, Muslims and Heretics); Empires; and the Twentieth Century, though of course religion circles back in each of the latter two sections. While Mikanowski uses the two tools of timeline and theme to provide order, the breadth of his canvas means that the subject matter moves around a lot, limiting his attempt to provide a linear narrative or too much order. Perhaps this reflects the reality of Eastern Europe altogether – a mix of elements living side by side, functionally if not always happily.
If you like history and culture, and want to learn more about this fascinating region, Goodby, Eastern Europe is a great starting point.
Just Because I Liked It:
- This episode of Honestly was one of the best I’ve heard in a long time. It was a conversation, and then debate, between Yascha Mounk, a professor at Johns Hopkins, and Christoper Rufo, a journalist, about the origins of DEI and the progressive movement, or what they call the ‘illiberal orthodoxy,’ and what to do about it. How they differently describe the intellectual history was fascinating, as well as how they differ around what to do about it.
- Though I suspect none of this is news to anyone in our community, it’s worth listening to Sam Harris’ monologue about the myths of the war in Gaza.