Goodbye, Eastern Europe!




EASTERN EUROPE IS DISAPPEARING. Not the physical place, but the idea. Whatever held the region together in the mind’s eye — a shared experience of occupation and exclusion, the permanent-seeming weight of economic backwardness, treasured memories of defeat — is gone, or at least not as present as it had been. Go to Prague, Warsaw, Budapest, Bratislava, Wrocław, Debrecen, Timișoara, or Tallinn. Walk the streets. Visit the malls and cellphone kiosks. How would you know that you aren’t in Bremen, Charleroi, Newcastle, or Fargo? The stores are all the same. Marks & Spencer, H&M, C&A. The people dress alike. They watch the same things, drive the same cars. Where are the half-wooden Trabants and miniature Fiats of yesteryear?

With its distinctiveness succumbing to the homogenizing forces of globalization and prosperity, Eastern Europe is in the process of being forgotten. As a field of academic study, it is in crisis. Grants have withered. Faculty positions have all but disappeared. The ACLS has withdrawn its funding. Cinema imports — barring the occasional Ida or Romanian breakthrough — have all but stopped. Literary translations, despite the heroic work of imprints like Twisted Spoon Press and the New York Review of Books Classics series, have likewise slowed to a trickle.

Gone are the days of Penguin’s Writers from the Other Europe series or Susan Sontag exhorting us to read Danilo Kiš while we still had time. Since then, Eastern Europe has been reduced to a backdrop for other people’s fantasies. I know a distinguished scholar of the region, a historian who teaches a regular course on Eastern European history, who told me that every year he has to answer questions from his students about whether people actually love and laugh in this “gray place.” It’s always a bit humiliating to read an English-language book with an Eastern European character. You never know if they’re going to be a world-weary janitor (a Pole), a captivating fraud (a Hungarian), a post-Communist gangster (a Serb), or a source of erotic awakening for a literary-minded man (a Czech for Americans, any of the above for residents of Ireland and the United Kingdom).

But then again, perhaps Eastern Europe never existed in the first place. Maybe it was only a figment of the Cold War imagination. If the fall of the Iron Curtain removed the geopolitical rationale for studying the region, it also removed the main thing binding it together. After all, what does Albania have in common with Estonia, or Belarus with Slovenia? Besides being fragments of long-vanished empires, they share almost nothing in terms of culture, economy, or creed. Eastern Europe is now a periphery like any other — a bit provincial, a bit slow, but mostly calm, almost sedate. Even a war in Ukraine hasn’t been enough to shatter the West’s indifference.

Still, you can find Eastern Europe — a piece of it anyway — if you drive long enough and far enough. It might be down county route 896 from Ustrzyki Dolne, as it makes its way south along the Polish-Ukrainian border through the lost homeland of the Uniate Lemks. Or maybe on the drive east from Nyíregyháza, in villages lost in the stifling heat of the puszta, the Great Hungarian plain. Or in Maramureş, beside the wooded Carpathians, in the heart of Romania’s hay country. Or perhaps you have to drive all the way south to Erind, to the foot of the Lunxhërisë massif, “a long piece of moon embedded in the wild and lovely body of Albania,” a country, according to the Polish writer Andrzej Stasiuk, that functions as the “unconscious of the [European] continent,” a “dark well into which those who believe that everything has been settled once and for all should peer.”

This isn’t the road I want to go down. I want to talk about Eastern Europe beyond stereotypes. I want to talk about it as a place of unexpected cosmopolitanism, a constellation of microregions whose individual parochialism and self-involvement add up to something bigger than the sum of their parts. I want to argue that Eastern Europe, its literature and its history, is essential for getting a grasp on the 20th century, the nightmare which we are still waking up from. I want to talk about it in terms of diversity, modernity, and competing avant-gardes. And yet here I am a page deep, wagon wheels stuck in a mire of nostalgia and Ruritanian cliché.

The truth is that Eastern Europe belongs less to the geography recorded in road atlases than to psychogeography. It isn’t really a place, but a state of mind. Many times, I’ve fallen into pockets of Eastern Europe far west of the Oder–Trieste line. It’s happened to me below highway overpasses, in line at the DMV, and in the waiting rooms of neglected bus stations. I’ve always thought that Proustian moments were a completely false construct, a literary conceit, but I’ll be damned if I haven’t been caught by the smell of tired dirt covering a bathroom in the basement of one of Berkeley’s physics labs and, in an instant, been transported to the stairwell of my grandmother’s Warsaw apartment building, with its mixture of stale urine and tired dirt and old mop water, unsweetened by soap.

Eastern Europe doesn’t just hide at the end of rural lanes like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. It appears and disappears like Doctor Who’s telephone booth. The best way to enter it is through its literature. Where to begin? I could give a list of favorites — Witold Gombrowicz, Jaroslav Hašek, Bruno Schulz, Bohumil Hrabal, Danilo Kiš, Ismail Kadaré, Herta Müller, Ágota Kristóf, László Krasznahorkai, Czesław Miłosz, Zbigniew Herbert — but I worry that this would just inundate the reader with unfamiliar (and hard-to-pronounce) names. It would be better to look for essential elements instead. But that’s made difficult by Eastern Europe’s linguistic and geographic diversity.

There’s an undeniable element of treasure-hunting to loving Eastern European literature — of finding the next, more obscure, ever-smaller corner of world literature. First come the Poles, Czechs, and Hungarians, then the Romanians, Yugoslavs (of all types), Albanians, and Balts. At the end of this process stands the literature of the Curonians. The Curonians are a now-vanished Baltic people who once lived on the coasts of Latvia and Lithuania. Their secular literature consists of a single rhyming couplet. It was discovered in the 1970s, in the margins of a medieval manuscript kept in a Swiss library, by an American philosophy graduate student. It appears to have been written by a disgruntled theology student sometime in the 14th century. It reads: “To your health sir! It’s a bad friend / who wants a drink, but doesn’t want to pay.” Though it quite clearly addresses someone who mooched a beer from the author at the college pub, the couplet has inspired volumes of commentary.

So much for Curonian literature. But oddness and obscurity are part of the appeal of the Eastern Europeans as a whole. There’s something thrilling about being freed from totalizing narratives and frustrated attempts to describe “the way we live now” (that moronic phrase). Maybe it’s out of a perverse love for the underdog, but I can’t imagine why someone would want to read the great American novel when they could read a scabrous work of Hungarian pornography instead. Here, for instance, is the syllabus for a Hungarian literature course taught at University College London, in its entirety:

This course aims to introduce students to a range of themes in Hungarian literature since the First World War, including dystopic fantasies, small-town absurdities, genitalist misogyny, misanthropic narcissism, ideology as sexual orientation, onanistic palimpsests, antisemitism for the pseudo-Dutch, and the monomaniacal jealousy of Dutch sea captains who have French wives. Close textual analysis of ten core works in Hungarian will be complemented by consideration of the broader historical and cultural context.

This list raises so many questions. First of all, how are any of these themes? And what is an onanistic palimpsest? But most of all, at least for me, it’s incredibly tantalizing. If Hungarian literature were a bank vault, this syllabus makes me want to put together an expert crew to break into it. And that’s before we even broach the biographies of some of its authors — like Géza Csáth, a psychiatrist who wrote his memoirs at a sanatorium while descending into morphine-induced psychosis and whose violent stories presaged the murder-suicide in which he met his end; or the playwright Ödön von Horváth, who embraced a prototypically Eastern European confusion of identities, describing himself as “a very typical mix of old Austria-Hungary: at once Magyar, Croatian, German and Czech,” whose “country is Hungary [and] mother tongue is German,” and who spent the 1930s morbidly convinced that he was going to perish in the inevitable Nazi war, only to be crushed by a falling tree branch while strolling the Champs-Élysées.

Just the text, say the French — but honestly, how do you read an Eastern European author without paying attention to his or her life? Whether it’s exile, incarceration, illness, murder, or insanity, hard luck is part of the draw. I once found a Polish anthology of work by what the cover called “Accursed Poets.” I flipped through it blithely, somewhat bored by the repeated stories of alcoholism, homelessness, suicide, and neglect. But then I realized that the collection ran to four volumes and found myself standing on the edge of a metaphysical abyss.

But still, the question remains — does anything really hold Eastern European literature together, beyond its obscurity, oddness, and ill luck? I think so; I even think that it has some real world-historical import. Here’s a sketch of a theory, albeit one so broad and stereotyping that the exceptions must necessarily outnumber the examples.

The Western European novel, as it developed in the 19th century, dramatized the pressure between psychic drives and the strictures of bourgeois mores. Its characters move along a magic square defined by the four poles of ambition, desire, propriety, and adultery. The American novel, by contrast, has generally depicted men and women confronted by a space of freedom and a scale of opportunity that overwhelm the smallness of their identity. It is built around escapes, expatriations, emancipations, and transformations of identity.

Eastern European fiction, by and large, has been about the capriciousness of fate, the inescapability of history, and the general absurdity of life. It has been shaped by a history of sudden reversals, thwarted ambitions, and unhappy surprises. In fact, the Eastern European legacy of domination, repression, and unexpected terror is so deep, and has affected its authors so profoundly, that it has bled into their very idea of consciousness and sense of narrative form.

“[T]he most striking feature in Central European literature is its awareness of history.” So wrote Czesław Miłosz, trying to define the essence of what he called “Our Europe.” In the novels of Central Europe [1], as opposed to those of the West, he continued, “time is intense, spasmodic, full of surprises, indeed practically an active participant in the story. This is because time is associated with a danger that threatens the existence of a national community to which the writer belongs.” This means that to understand Eastern European fiction, you have to understand Eastern European history. [2]

That can be a hard thing to do. There are too many countries, too many peoples, too many contradictory narratives and multisyllabic, polymorphously accented names. I should know. I’ve been teaching and studying the history of that “gray place” for years. In all that time, I’ve come to no conclusions and achieved no moment of synthesis. All I have to show for my time is a file full of stories — stories that are real but, to me at least, read like fiction, or fables. Or jokes. Together, these stories add up to my private short course in Eastern Europe. In place of a detailed chronology, they convey some of its mood, and maybe a bit of its meaning: a cubist history for a fractured place. I offer these fragments — these facets of a history — in four lessons, with a coda.

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First Lesson — A Zone of Mixed Populations

The first thing to know about Eastern Europe is that it contains a remarkable concentration of human diversity. It is one of the few places in the world where so many different languages, religions, and ethnicities have overlapped. Often, these differences corresponded to distinctions of class and profession, so that in Eastern Poland, Polish Catholic landowners ruled over Orthodox Ukrainian and Belarusian peasants who would visit Jewish and Yiddish-speaking villages to sell their produce and buy their wares. In Transylvania, the corresponding roles were taken by Catholic Magyars, Orthodox and Uniate Romanians, and Lutheran and Calvinist Germans, while in Ottoman Macedonia, with its dizzying mixture of Turkic and Slavic-speaking Muslims, Albanians, Bulgarians, Greeks, Aromâni, Vlachs, Gypsies, and Sephardic Jews, the social structure is too complex to anatomize.

Bukovina, a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains, which has since then bounced between Romania and Ukraine, is another such multiply plural place. Here is Gregor von Rezzori, the scion of Sicilian aristocrats who settled in Austria in the 18th century, describing in The Snows of Yesteryear (1989) the linguistic circumstances of his youth:

Our mother neither spoke nor understood any of the local languages. Although German had been the official idiom in the Bukovina during the Austrian era, that language became increasingly mangled and incomprehensible, both to us and to the variegated nationals, the deeper one penetrated into the Bukovina. Cassandra, on the other hand, who spoke no language correctly, expressed herself in snatches of Romanian, Ruthenian, Polish and Hungarian, as well as Turkish and Yiddish, assisted by a grotesque, grimacing mimicry and a primitive, graphic body language that made everyone laugh and that everyone understood.

The other thing to remember about Eastern Europe is that it was, in most things, a latecomer. Compared to its neighbors to the south and west, it was slow to receive Christianity, slow to organize into states, and slow to embrace industrialization.

Not surprisingly, the places that felt the most Eastern European — even to other Eastern Europeans — were the most diverse and the most backward in the region. To the cosmopolitan officers of the Austro-Hungarian army, Galicia was one such place:

Galicia, it was purported, contained the highest number of muddy and dusty roads, flies, and lice, as well as the greatest incidence of venereal disease, drunken peasants, and cunning Jews. The Polish landowners would have nothing to do with the Habsburg officers, nor would their daughters. Galicia was a place to get drunk and to stay drunk; to spend the night in shabby cafés, gambling and whoring; to long for civilization; and to make pilgrimages to the railroad station to watch the passing through of the Lemberg–Cracow–Vienna express. (Istvan Deak, Beyond Nationalism: A Social and Political History of the Habsburg Officer Corps, 1848–1918, 1990)

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Second Lesson — Empire and Masquerade

What could organize such a simultaneously heterogeneous and retrograde space? Only Empire. Three empires — Habsburg, Russian, and Ottoman — dominated Eastern Europe before World War I. Each employed a different form of subjugation to keep a grip on their realms. Sometimes, those techniques verged on the mystical.

Chaos

The science of the Habsburg Empire was harmony. How could it be anything else? This nation, writes R. J. W. Evans, was not a “state” but a “mildly centripetal agglutination of bewilderingly heterogeneous elements.” Its emperors ruled over too many nationalities, too many fractious nobles and rebellious provinces for the place to be united as anything other than an idea.

As a result, its leading intellectuals labored to find some system to fit the whole unwieldy thing together. While in the West savants discovered the laws of gravity and the workings of calculus, in the empire they outdid themselves in finding occult correspondences between the imperial dynasty and the sun, the magnet, the fount of harmony, the prime mover. Its mathematicians worked on squaring the circle — so much that it became known as the Austrian problem. Its physicists worked on creating perpetual motion machines. Its scholars tried to construct an organum — at once the king of instruments and the mathematical key to the universe. Its physicians sought that universal medicine, panacea for all diseases, the philosopher’s stone.

The emperors were especially taken with this last pursuit. They hired alchemists from across Europe to teach them their secrets, first at Prague and then in Vienna. One of them proved that the philosopher’s stone is a sacrament, the third person in a trinity composed of mercury the Father and sulfur the Son. Another argued that contemplating the stone was worth even more than the treasure it could produce. But the emperors bestowed the most favor on those who could make them some actual gold.

Johann Konrad von Richthausen was one such favorite. He showed the emperor a grain of red powder, then used it to turn three pounds of mercury into two and a half pounds of gold. The emperor was delighted. He had a medal struck from the gold and gave Johann a knighthood and a new name. He would now be called the Freiherr von Chaos, or, Baron Chaos. The emperor then put Chaos in charge of the mint.

Meanwhile, the empire’s intellectuals continued their labors. Johann Friedrich von Rain puzzled out the Apocalypse of Hermes and the Seven Seals of the Philosopher. Hieronymus Hirnhaim, abbot of Strahov, wrote boldly in favor of ignorance, arguing that learning is evil, conducive only to vanity; no real knowledge is possible and scholars never agree. Francesco Lana-Terzi imagined airships. Johann Joachim Becher devised a plan for dredging useful minerals from the Danube mud. And Athanasius Kircher, the greatest of them all, plumbed the true source of earthquakes and the Christian secrets locked in Egyptian hieroglyphs. Egypt was founded by Ham, alias Osiris, son of Noah. The world was an organ played by the creator. Every problem caused by black magic could be solved with the white.

The two empires, Russian and Austro-Hungarian, that dominated Eastern Europe north of the Balkans left different impressions on the memory of the peoples they ruled. Of the two, Austria-Hungary was felt to be by far the more benign. A haphazard construction, held together by little more than dynastic loyalty and a touch of baroque magic, the realm of the Habsburgs had an essentially comic nature. Its chief sins lay less in violence than in needless complication, an endless and pointless elaboration of court ritual and bureaucratic protocol. In this opéra bouffe country, appearances mattered a great deal and absurdities bred like rabbits.

Men in the Black Moustaches

The pride of the Austro-Hungarian army was the uniforms of its officers — a sheer, stark white that, when properly maintained through assiduous brushing, gave off a delicate, light-blue shimmer.

The uniforms were very beautiful, and very costly. Officers routinely went deep into debt to afford them. To pay off the debts they ate only bread and went without firewood in winter. Serving in the emperor’s army was a matter of honor, not of greed. The uniforms had to be kept spotless; the slightest wear or spot brought with it a reprimand and the need to buy a new one, at crippling expense.

One day in the 1850s, one of the emperor’s generals ordered every officer in his army to sport a black moustache. For blonder officers, this transformation could only be achieved with copious amounts of black shoe polish.

The officers assembled with their troops on the parade ground. As they stood at attention with their soldiers waiting for inspection, it began to rain. The black shoe polish ran down from their moustaches onto the white uniforms.

The uniforms were ruined, and so were the officers.

In contrast to Austria-Hungary, the ruling principle of the Russian Empire was not elaboration but force. The tsars ruled without impediments. Their instruments were orthodoxy and the knout — an odd combination, which allowed violence and miracles to go hand in hand.

Ataman

The Cossacks of the Zaporizhian Sich were the fiercest soldiers in the empress’s army. But they were also the most prone to quarrels and rebellion. Now there was peace with the Turks and the empress decided the Cossacks were more trouble than they were worth. She sent her lover to arrest their chief. The chief was already an old man at that time. He was sent from the south to a monastery on an island in the White Sea. Locked in an underground cell with a single tiny window for air, he was expected to die. But like a plant or an insect hibernating underground, he lived on and on. Twenty-five years passed before he was released. When he was set free he resembled a beast more than a man. His beard was long and unkempt, his clothes had turned into rotten rags, and his fingernails had grown into immense claws. He was stone-blind and, like Nebuchadnezzar, had lost the power of speech.

Free, he stayed in the monastery for two more years as a monk. He died at the age of 113. Today he is recognized as a saint.

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Third Lesson — Groping for Modernity

In much of Eastern Europe, rule by empire made a certain kind of sense. After all, empires manage diversity through inequality, while nation-states try to bring about equality by imposing homogeneity — and homogeneity, in Eastern Europe, takes a great deal of force to impose.

World War I brought about the end of empire in Eastern Europe, and with it, an onrush of modernity. But this modernity was in many ways ersatz and second-rate. It felt like the end of certainty — ushering in all the ills of capitalism and mass politics with few of the gains. In the new reality, people groped for a way to make sense of their world. Ideologies arrived like rumors from distant lands. Sometimes, they were taken up by people who didn’t really know what they meant.

Idea

In his own mind, Zoltán Böszörmény was a giant among giants. He was a poet — a “great Hungarian poet with a prophetic mission” — and a politician. He had listened to the cries of Hungarian mothers and to the call of the sweetest mother of all — Mother Hungary. He was a tribune, willing “to have hundreds of thousands executed without batting an eyelash,” but also — “ready ‘to caress.’” In 1931 he met Hitler in Germany and was instantly converted to fascism. He preached anti-Semitism, land reform, and justice for the poor. His comrades were “gardener[s of] the Hungarian race” and “Death Reapers of the Jewish swine.” Their symbol was a pair of crossed scythes — a swastika for a humbler place.

Böszörmény lost elections — badly. He was mocked in the press. But he never lost faith. And there were some who heard his message. In the arid plains of the east the peasants were still under the heel of the lords. Landless and poor, they flocked to political causes to escape their misery. They sought salvation in religious ecstasies and sectarianism. Their day of rebellion was to be May 1, 1936, when three million of them would march on the sinful capital and raze it to the ground.

When the day came, a few thousand followers met in a peasant town amid the desolate plain. They were easily dispersed. Seven hundred were put on trial. Two in a hundred owned a house or land. They wore torn trousers, short overcoats, or old sheepskin vests. None of them wore a shirt. They said they were willing to die for the “Idea” but, when pressed, couldn’t explain what that “Idea” was.

In the interwar years, a sense of apocalypse was in the air. Marxism, fascism, and nationalism spread like new religions. But some clung to the old faiths as well.

Crucifixion

Eliasz Klimowicz, who came to be known as the Prophet Elijah, was an illiterate woodsman from the forests on the border of Poland and Belarus. It was a bandit who set him on his religious path. The bandit robbed and beat the villagers of Grzybów County. He threatened murder. The Russian tsar’s gendarmes couldn’t do anything about it. So Eliasz went into town to consult the nearest miracle-working priest. While he was away, another villager shot the bandit. But Eliasz received the credit. 

Soon he was building a church out in the country. No one knew where he had gotten the money. Some said he had summoned the church to rise out of the ground on its own. Others, that he was the prophet Elijah come back from heaven. And so his fame grew. Crowds gathered in Wierszalin, Eliasz’s backwoods Jerusalem, to hear him preach. Women stood under his eaves, kissed his footprints, drank his bathwater. New apostles surrounded him: Bielski, Kobryński, Jan Bogosław, too many to recall …

Then came the summer of 1936. Harvest time. A procession of peasants was making its way over winding tracks between sandy hills covered in juniper and mullein. The head of the procession carried a cross. Another held a whip. A third — a crown of thorns. They’ve come to crucify their prophet, because the last crucifixion was too long ago. The world had grown sinful and lax in the intervening years, and the devil dwelt on earth as if he was at home.

But Eliasz had no interest in being crucified. He hid from his followers, crouching in a root cellar while they searched for him in the woods. After three days he emerged, as if from the dead. By then the others had lost interest in hastening on salvation …

When the Soviets came, Eliasz was denounced by one of his own apostles. The Russians laughed at him, calling him the “Polish God.” He is said to have been stalwart under questioning. He was sentenced to five years in a camp outside Irkutsk in Siberia. He died some years later, in a nursing home east of Krasnoyarsk, near Mariinsk, in a converted monastery. Eliasz’s followers sent him packages throughout. After he died, they still gathered every year on top of the holy hill of Grabarka, which would have been his Golgotha, to sing elegies for their lost Paradise.

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Fourth Lesson — The Taste of Blood

Now comes the age of tyrants and massacres. In the interwar years, the cabaret world of Austro-Hungarian politics vanished. The homegrown movements that came in its wake, whether fascist, communist, or nationalist, were rarely democratic and often murderous. But their violence was at least contained by limited ambition. The imperialisms of Eastern European countries rarely extended more than a hundred miles past their borders. They were further tempered by a universal lack of competence and a widespread gift for self-sabotage.

This was not true of the regimes that followed. In World War II, Eastern Europe was reshaped by two movements that sought to reshape the whole world, and very nearly succeeded. In the clash between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe became what the historian Timothy Snyder calls the Bloodlands — a utopia of murder.

The universe of Nazi crimes is too vast for narrative. The Holocaust is a world unto itself. Its immensity overwhelms Eastern Europe. Stalin, though an outsider, seems to mirror, darkly, the region’s sensibility. Maybe it’s because his actions, and those of his devotees, often had a touch of black humor to them. Hitler is wholly other. But in stories, there’s something familiar and, hence, all the more disturbingly absurd about Stalin, his mustache, and his wicked laugh …

Asylum

Konstantin Päts was the president of Estonia. Estonia is a small nation on the shores of the Baltic Sea. It gained its independence after the First World War. It was too small to remain independent for long. When the Second World War began, Stalin and Hitler carved up Eastern Europe between them. Stalin received Estonia.

First, he sent his emissary, Molotov, to tell Päts that the Soviets needed to put army bases in his country. Then they turned him into a puppet and made him pass 200 decrees. Finally, they arrested him. First they sent Päts to Ufa, in the Orenburg steppe. Then he was kept in jail. Finally, he was placed in a psychiatric hospital. Päts said this was wrong. He wasn’t insane. He should be sent abroad. After all, he was the president of Estonia.

They told him: “You are insane. You are insane because you say you’re the president of Estonia. After all, if you were the president of Estonia, you wouldn’t be in an insane asylum.”

Sarcophagus

In 1949, on the occasion of his 70th birthday, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia decided to honor Stalin by building a monument to him in Prague. It was going to be the largest statue of Stalin in the world. A contest was held to choose who would have the honor of designing it. Every sculptor in Czechoslovakia was required to take part. Most deliberately sabotaged their chances by portraying the great leader in unsuitable poses, smiling, spreading his arms like a beatific Jesus. Otakar Švec, the son of a pastry chef who specialized in making elaborate sugar ornaments for cakes, took the extra precaution of getting drunk on two bottles of vodka. Unfortunately for him, he won anyway. 

In the monument, Stalin stands at the head of the people. Behind him are a worker, an agronomist, a female partisan, and a Russian soldier. For four years, the highest dignitaries in the Party visited Švec in his studio to offer their advice on Švec’s design. Every time they came, they tried to make Stalin taller, and the followers shorter. Construction began, the granite was being carved, and still the critiques kept coming. Švec’s wife couldn’t stand the pressure and committed suicide.

At last, the monument was done. The night before the unveiling, Švec took a ride to inspect his sculpture. The cab driver told him he wanted to show him something: “There, on the Soviet side. The lady partisan is holding onto the Russian soldier’s fly. Whoever designed that is going to be shot for sure.” Švec killed himself the same night. 

Stalin dies. Khrushchev gives his secret speech. Seven more years pass. Finally, Stalin has to be destroyed. But, the dignitaries warn, this must be done with dignity. The honor of the Soviet Union must not be harmed. No explosives in Stalin’s head. No shots fired on the grounds. The demolition expert they bring in to do the job is the best in the country. For two weeks before the date he can’t sleep. When it comes time to pull the trigger, he steadies his nerves by drinking six shots of slivovitz. After the explosion, he collapses in tears. An ambulance takes him to a psychiatric hospital. 

Even in death, Stalin has a way of making people crazy.

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Coda

Finally, a story from my own family, because, if I’m being honest, whenever I read fiction or history about Eastern Europe, I’m always looking for something about myself, where I’m from. This is how my mother told it to me, on the day I got engaged:

Tea Kettle

Aunt Jadwiga and Uncle Turnowski tried to get married three times. The first time was in Minsk, in 1940. With difficulty they got together the money for the fee. On the way to the civil status bureau they met a friend of theirs, panting from running after them. He needed to borrow money right away; tea kettles had just shown up in the stores. They gave him their marriage license fee. It had to be done. A marriage could always be postponed, but you never knew when the next time you could buy a tea kettle would be.

The second time they tried to get married was in Tajikistan, two years later. This time they had money, and they already lived together, in a small town where everyone knew everybody else. When they went to the civil status bureau, the Soviet bureaucrat in charge expressed surprise that they weren’t already married, since they were living together. He said that the order was wrong — they should have gotten married first and then started living together — and so denied them a marriage license. 

The third time was in Warsaw after the war. Uncle Turnowski had his two witnesses (one of them was the same Icek who had needed the tea kettle), and they arrived at the scheduled time at the ministry. Only Jadwiga was missing. She couldn’t get the day off at the publishing house where she worked. But this time — finally, after six years — they pulled it off. The official in charge agreed to sign the marriage license without a bride.

This isn’t the most tragic story I could have chosen. It doesn’t include any of the executions, exiles, and deportations that marked the lives of nearly every member of that generation. For the purposes of brevity I omit, as well, what happened when Jadwiga and her husband returned to Poland, their new house in Silesia, the Meissen porcelain left in place by its German owners when they evacuated, the tall, black, polished leather boots they found in the closet that belonged to the SS officer who had lived there before they arrived.

What I loved about my great-aunt’s stories was her sardonic sense of humor, her wryness in the face of disaster. For me, these stories capture her whole generation. Those gigantic lives! How to measure them? In tea kettles and missed appointments. Why study Eastern Europe? For some of us, it’s a way of finding our roots. But I think there’s something more to it. We’re used to thinking of ourselves as the protagonists in our own stories. The stories of Eastern Europe offer another way of looking at the world. They are a reminder that we are not always the masters of our own fate. Sometimes history acts without our cooperation, and the only way to meet it is with resignation or a laugh.

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[1] Why Central Europe, and not Eastern? Some of it is geography: Prague is, after all, west of Vienna. But more of it comes down to politics. Miłosz was writing in part to defend the uniqueness of his part of Europe against the West on one side and Russia on the other. For him and for Milan Kundera and others, it was important to be close to the center of Europe. The name Eastern Europe felt dangerously close to lumping them in with their Soviet overlords. Now that the Soviet Union is gone, and the region shifts to being defined by memory instead of politics, the distinction feels less significant.

[2] But perhaps the distinction between Central and Eastern Europe is not so insignificant after all. Central Europe is a claim to belonging. Eastern Europe is an act of exclusion. Eastern Europe is always an imaginary place, and it usually belongs to someone else. According to the protagonist of Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude, “Eastern Europe doesn’t start outside the gates of Prague, it starts at the last Empire-style railroad station somewhere in Galicia, at the outer limits of the Greek tympanum.” By contrast, “Prague’s involvement with the Greek spirit goes deeper than the facades of its buildings, it goes straight into the heads of the populace, because classical gymnasia and humanistic universities have stuffed millions of Czech heads full of Greece and Rome.”

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Jacob Mikanowski is a writer based in Berkeley, California. More of his work can be found here.



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