By Jacob Mikanowski

Oneworld Publications. 375 pages. £22. ISBN 978-0-86154-259-8

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Almost fifty or so years ago I was in Toronto and, talking to a Canadian lady, I happened to mention that I’d been in East Berlin. “Oh”, she said, “And was it dreary and did anyone smile?”. I was reminded of this when Jacob Mikanowski recounts how an academic friend of his was asked by a student if it was true that “Eastern Europe was ‘a gray place, where no-one ever laughed’ “.

Mikanowski says that, with impressions like those seemingly firmly set in the minds of people in the West, it’s little wonder that “Even before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland all declared themselves part of Central Europe”. And he goes on to illustrate how other countries (Romania, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Albania and all those formerly lumped under Yugoslavia) in what we once thought of as part of the Eastern Bloc have made a point of finding new ways to place themselves elsewhere. It’s understandable. People did smile and laugh behind the Iron Curtain, but had to be careful who they smiled and laughed with and what they smiled and laughed at. The Czech writer Milan Kundera’s novel, The Joke, told the story of how what was meant as a harmless prank turned into a tale of investigation, imprisonment, and repression.

According to Mikanowski, “There is something distinctive about Eastern Europe, something that sets it apart from Western Europe on one side and the rest of Europe on the other. That essential defining characteristic is diversity – diversity of language, of ethnicity, and above all, of faith….It was as a religious borderland that Eastern Europe first gained definition as a place different from the rest of Europe. Paganism lasted longer here than it did anywhere else on the continent, and it left a deep imprint on folklore and popular beliefs”. He talks about “ritual animal sacrifice” which, he says, “is practised all over the Balkans, by people from every social class”, and he tells how, when his cousin’s father-in-law, an anthropologist, recently suffered some eye trouble : “his university colleagues in Sofia sacrificed a rooster to help him heal”.

But Mikanowski does more than provide anecdotes to illustrate how Sofia might differ from Salford when it comes to what university staff get up to if one of their colleagues is ill. He looks in some detail at how Eastern Europe developed over the centuries as regions shifted and shaped new ones. In the eighteenth century the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth covered a vast area of land in what  later became “most of present-day Poland, Lithuania, Latvia,  and Belarus, and the western half of Ukraine”. As well as the native populations of those areas there were “numerous settlements of Jews, Tatars, Armenians, and Germans”.

Although ostensibly powerful It seems to have been a somewhat chaotic country where it was difficult to collect taxes and raise an army. Mikanowski quotes an Ottoman statesman who passed through and said it “was a republic in which every region and every city had a different administration, and they neither paid attention to one another, nor obeyed the kings”. Needless to say, it couldn’t really survive on that basis, and in due course it fell apart due to its internal divisions: “Between 1772 and 1795, the Commonwealth’s neighbours, Russia, Prussia, and the Hapsburg empire carved the country up between themselves over the course of three so-called ‘partitions’. After the third partition, in 1795, nothing whatsoever was left of independent Poland-Lithuania”. Who now, other than perhaps a few historians, knows that there ever was a Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth?

I’ve mentioned its one-time existence because it does illustrate how the moving map of Eastern Europe brought countries into existence and expanded empires. With them came a mixture of races and religions. It’s easy to forget that Jews were scattered across the region. Following their expulsion from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492 many of them, known as Sephardic Jews, found refuge In Muslim countries. Later, when the Ottoman Empire collapsed at the end of the First World War there were large numbers of Muslims living in the Balkans alongside the Christian Serbs who had a history of struggling to free themselves from the Ottoman yoke. Old enmities die hard, as we witnessed when Yugoslavia broke up following the collapse of Communism in 1989.  The dreadful massacres of thousands of Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995 by Bosnian Serbs shocked numerous people at the time, but I’d like to know how many now remember what happened.

Mikanowski is fascinating on what might be called the “alternative religions” in Eastern Europe and how minor sects and their practices flourished : “Where Christianity, Judaism, and Islam met, none of the three faiths could easily enforce uniformity of belief”. He refers to the Bulgarian Alevis who “can trace their beliefs back to messianic preachers of the fifteenth century who taught that there was little difference between Christianity and Islam and that all property should be held in common”. Reading about them I was reminded of Norman Cohn’s wonderful The Pursuit of the Millenium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, which is about such groups in Western Europe but touches on Eastern Europe when Cohn talks about the Hussites in Bohemia, as does Mikanowski.

On the subject of the Czech lands, Mikanowski describes Prague around 1600 as “the centre of the occult world. What London was to aspiring playwrights and what Rome was to churchmen, Prague was to every chemist, conjurer, and aspiring wizard on the continent”. And about the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf the Second, perhaps best remembered now for the fantastic portrait of him painted by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, he says: “Ranging from tricksters to geniuses, the figures who met in Rudolf’s Prague made a mockery of our modern-day divisions between science, humanism and magic”.  Then adds: “This eccentric fellowship also included a number of outright frauds, men who travelled Europe pretending to have a recipe for making gold or building a perpetual motion machine”. It was probably inevitable that Rudolf’s brothers, unlike him not seekers after arcane knowledge, and deeming him of unsound mind, overthrew him; “Unfortunately, while they were sound of mind, they were also religious zealots who helped set off the Thirty Years War, the most destructive conflict in European history until the Second World War three centuries later”.   

Having looked at the oddballs who were present in Prague I’m tempted to follow-up with what Mikanowski says about Warsaw. He quotes the historian Pawel Maciejko as saying it hosted an “informal pan-European guild of itinerant charlatans”. According to Mikanowski “They were present in every royal court in Europe, cadging cheques, swapping mistresses, and cheating at cards. They presented themselves as exotic princelings, ageless wonders, or initiates of some mystic sect……But only one ever claimed to be the messiah”. Jacob Frank “is remembered as one of the greatest heretics and blasphemers in Jewish history”.

Frank’s story, as Mikanowski tells it, involved various deceptions which eventually led him to leadership of a “Christian congregation made up entirely of renegade Jews”. And, adapting to changing circumstances, at some stage he “committed himself entirely to his new identity as a mock-Middle Eastern wizard king”, living it up in style but eventually becoming little more than a “tourist attraction, embodying exotic ‘Jewish’ or ‘Oriental’ wisdom for people who knew nothing about either Jews or the Orient”. I’ve abbreviated the account of Frank’s activities which were often far more bizarre than I’ve been able to indicate. He managed to persuade a lot of people, both high and low, into believing that he had something valuable to offer.

The nineteenth century doesn’t seem to have had the same numbers of con-men, mystics, and magicians who set out to mislead gullible people in one way or another. What it did have were national heroes who led the struggle to break away from the larger states that ruled over them, whether it was the Russian Empire, the Hapsburgs, or the Ottomans. Among them were bards who spoke for national aspirations. In Poland it was the flamboyant Adam Mickiewicz, for the Czechs it was Karel Mácha, and the Slovenes had France Prešeren. Mikanowski points out that the latter pair were small-town lawyers, “devoted to beer drinking and extra-marital sex and struggled with stunted careers….their longish hair was the only sign of an incipient bohemianism”. He does say that Romania’s Mihais Eminescu  looked the part of a non-conformist. Shabbily dressed, stocky, hairy, coffee-swilling, and chain-smoking…..and intensely manic-depressive he died, unnoticed and unmourned, after years of terrible suffering in an insane asylum”. But in time his “neglect became a part of his legend”.

It was the outcome of the First World War that caused the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, and the creation of independent countries like Hungary and Czechoslovakia. And it was the defeat of Germany and its allies in the Second World War that brought them, along with Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, and the Baltic states, into the Russian orbit. But in the period between the two wars there was a great deal going on in places like Prague, Belgrade, Bucharest and Budapest in terms of avant-garde artistic activity.

Some years ago I saw an exhibition at the British Library with the title Breaking the Rules; The Printed Face of the European Avant-Garde 1900-1937 which highlighted the magazines, books, posters, and ephemera produced by Surrealists, Futurists, and Cubists. Mikanowski alludes to “an extraordinary fluency in the absurd that prevails in Eastern Europe”, and in an aside mentions the Dadaists in Zurich “half of whom were Romanian Jews”. He had me turning to my book shelves for Tom Sandqvist’s splendid Dada East: The Romanians of Cabaret Voltaire which looks at the activities of Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janco, and their companions.

After 1945 the Iron Curtain descended on Eastern Europe: “By 1950, all of Eastern Europe belonged to a single integrated social, political, and economic system”. But the Soviet Union “did not immediately impose its will on Eastern Europe. Instead it acted through its proxies: local communist parties…..starting in 1945 these parties expanded their memberships, competed in elections, and formed coalition governments with other (usually pro-Soviet) parties”. They made sure that they “held authority over the all-important interior ministry and secret police…..With these two levers of power they could terrorise their political opponents and rig elections in their own favour”. I recall conversations I had with an old Czech friend who had seen how the communists came to power in his country in 1948. He had welcomed the Russians as liberators in 1945, but looked on them as invaders in 1968.

I don’t want to slide into an anti-communist tirade but a few things from Mikanowski’s account of life behind the Iron Curtain come to mind. In Romania all typewriters had to be registered with the authorities. Czechoslovakia introduced a “liquidation committee” to “judge the worthiness of all the literature in the country and found much of it wanting, often for aesthetic reasons rather than ideological”. There might be interesting questions to be asked about what constituted communist aesthetics. On a practical level, Poland was “a world of envelopes that wouldn’t stick, pens that didn’t write, and matches that wouldn’t burn”. I read Tadeusz Konwicki’s novel, Minor Apocalypse, in which a man has been nominated to set himself on fire as a protest outside Party headquarters. He wanders around Warsaw carrying a can of carefully hoarded petrol and desperate to find someone with a box of Western matches that will be sure to strike when needed. Wherever he goes he can see a large sign proclaiming “Actually existing socialism”.  It was funny, but behind the humour there was a bleak reality.

On a personal level, when I visited Prague in the early-1980s the beer was good and cheap but there were obvious shortages of other goods. The friend I was with was amused at my reaction to being there and slyly suggested I felt comfortable because, with its drabness and shortages, it reminded me of my home town in England in 1944. But I was conscious of the fact that the man selling newspapers in the street, and others doing similarly mundane jobs, might well have been academics and writers harassed out of their normal occupations by the authorities.

To be fair to Mikanowski he does emphasise that “For all its brutality, and for all the suffering it inflicted, Communist rule in Eastern Europe, beginning in the 1950s, brought about a genuine revolution in people’s lives”. He points to cities, ruined by the war, that were quickly rebuilt, and how “Modern conveniences, such as electricity, cinema, and the telephone, spread from the cities to the countryside. Housing, however modest, became available to nearly everyone who needed it”.

He isn’t an apologist for Communism. Far from it, and he outlines the harsh realities of the purges that swept through Eastern Europe in the early-1950s. People were executed or went to prison following mainly anti-semitic show trials where false charges of Trotskyism or Titoism were brought against them.  Read Artur London’s On Trial for a personal account of those days. Or Karel Kaplan’s Report on the Murder of the General Secretary about the trial and death of Rudolf Slansky. There are  accounts in both factual and fictional form about the destruction of cadres of dedicated communists under Communism. I would place the Yugoslav writer Danilo Kiš’s A Tomb for Boris Davidovich high on a list of them.

Mikanowski acknowledges that the collapse of communism was welcomed : “Eastern Europe was a gray place no longer……And yet despite all this happiness, joy  has not been a major part of the region’s political life. The story of the past decade in much of Eastern Europe has been one of increased polarisation and receding or embattled democracy. In several countries (Hungary, Belarus, Serbia), the state has effectively been captured by a single ruler or party. Other nations have seen the development of deep social fissures, either between ethnicities (Bosnia-Herzegovina), political orientations (Poland), or a combination of both (Ukraine)”.  Things are better in some ways, but seemingly getting worse in others.

Goodbye Eastern Europe is an informative book with so much packed into its pages that I’m aware I may not have fully done it justice in this review. It explores so many varying aspects of its broad subject that it’s possible to spend hours following some of the different leads it lays down. It often occurs to me that we know too little about the countries defined as having been in Eastern Europe. Jacob Mikanowski has provided an invaluable service by taking us on a tour of them.