Jacob Mikanowski is the author of one of Tyler’s favorite books this year called Goodbye, Eastern Europe: An Intimate History of a Divided Land. Tyler and Jacob sat down to discuss all things Eastern Europe, including the differences between Eastern and Western European humor, whether Poles are smiling more nowadays, why the best Polish folk art is from the south, the equilibrium for Kaliningrad and the Suwałki Gap, how Romania and Bulgaria will handle depopulation, whether Moldova has an independent future, the best city to party in, why there are so few Christian-Muslim issues in Albania, a nuanced take on Orbán and Hungarian politics, why food in Poland is so good now, why Stanisław Lem hasn’t gotten more attention in the West, how Eastern Europe has changed his view of humanity, his ideal two week itinerary in the region, what he’ll do next, and more.
Watch the full conversation
Recorded September 5th, 2023
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: Hello everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. I’m talking today with Jacob Mikanowski. He is the author of one of my favorite books this year: it is called Goodbye, Eastern Europe: An Intimate History of a Divided Land. He is also a well-known journalist (he’s published in the New York Times, Atlantic, Harper’s, and many other places), a historian who studied at UC Berkeley, and in general an all-around smart, curious person.
JACOB MIKANOWSKI: Thanks so much for having me on. It’s a real pleasure.
COWEN: If you had to generalize about the difference in senses of humor between Eastern Europe and Western Europe, how would you put it?
MIKANOWSKI: The Eastern Europeans have a real sense of humor; I don’t know what Western European humor is. But a sense of the tragic, a sense of the absurd, a sense of how those two go together. That’s a great question. Finding laughter in the worst situations; finding a way to laugh at really dark things. I think that’s a feature of German Jewish — who are Ashkenazi — humor, and I think it’s found everywhere across the region.
I know there’s a Romanian saying: “to laugh at your tears.” I think that sums it up. “Laugh at your sorrows.”
COWEN: What do you think of the stereotype that (a) Eastern Europeans don’t smile very much and (b) they sometimes think Americans are stupid for smiling so much? True? Untrue?
MIKANOWSKI: I grew up believing it completely.
COWEN: You grew up in Poland, right?
MIKANOWSKI: Well, no: I grew up in America in a Polish family, and then I’d go back and forth a few times. I grew up in a family that got — the parents had got stuck here inadvertently in 1981, when martial law was declared. They were in America for either six weeks or six months. They had different visas, and then they got trapped. They lived in a Polish cultural bubble. They didn’t know English when they came here, or very little.
I grew up in that culture, and yes, that’s absolutely — I don’t smile that much. My mom doesn’t. We often get asked if we’re very serious. Are we sad? Are we depressed? And I do find — or I did find — there are American habits that are a little odd. Like nervous laughter: that’s not really an Eastern European thing. To punctuate sentences with a laugh; to just introduce yourself, “I’m Bob from Ohio, hahaha.” Very strange.
So there is a little bit of a microcultural disconnect. I grew up believing that completely — and being told that by my parents, too.
COWEN: I was in Poland last year, and I had the sense — this surprised me — that Poles right now are smiling a fair amount: maybe more, say, than Germans would be doing.
Now, is that just 4 percent rate of growth for several decades? Or do you think my impression is incorrect, and people still are going around looking somewhat grumpy?
MIKANOWSKI: I think you’re right. I think it’s growth plus the hegemonic West expanding, which is not necessarily a bad thing. But a certain set of cultural mores has crumbled, especially in the big — like in Warsaw. I remember how shocked I was when I had really good customer service in a café in maybe 2006, ’07, with the extra American “Would you like anything more with that?” I’m like, “What are you saying? Why are you talking to me?”
The mores had started to shift. That old, confrontational, dour way of interacting had inflected, and now it’s really changed. Now there’s a new generation that seems much more Western, seems much more American. It’s visible in customer interactions, stores, fashion, and in how people even — facial expressions; eye contact’s a little more direct than it used to be, I think.
COWEN: I think of the Russian women I know: they would, say, be in their 50s largely. It’s surprising to me — or was originally — how many of them had their kids quite young. Maybe they were 20, 21. Might have even divorced shortly afterwards and then had kind of a second, real marriage.
That pattern seems to have shifted. There’s much more marrying in the late 20s, which is more of a US, higher-education, Western European rhythm to childbearing — having children, then, in the early 30s.
What caused that change, and why did they have kids so young to begin with?
MIKANOWSKI: That’s interesting. That’s actually very true of my aunt who stayed in — my mom came to America just to visit her aunt. My aunt stayed in Poland and had her first daughter at 21; had that first, short marriage and then a later marriage, another daughter. And that has changed. I think it’s a shift to those more Western, more career-oriented, home- and car-oriented, savings-oriented lifestyles.
It was a really different political economy in the ’70s and ’80s. You were not waiting to save up for an apartment; you were usually on a list that your parents put you on, and you were waiting to be granted the right to an apartment. You didn’t have a hope of a car. And jobs were — not exactly a crapshoot, but you were going to be assigned something.
You could actually start — if you went through college (even if you didn’t), you might be in a position to have a place to live and an income to support a family at 21, 22, and nothing much to save up for. No real way to save up, no real goal to save towards. And that’s completely shifted. People are trying to wait. And in a pretty unstable — in Poland, a volatile — economy, at least in the past 20 years. Growing, but with some tremors.
People have that more Western — of, like, “Save up for — ” Now you can buy a house. Apartments have become expensive. It’s a much more Western life track that people are on.
COWEN: You’ve studied Poland; you’ve lived there; you’re fluent in Polish. If you compare your understanding to, say, your highly educated American readers, what’s the key thing you feel you understand about Polish culture that maybe they don’t? Let’s say they’ve been to Poland once and they’ve read two or three books on it, but they’re not experts.
MIKANOWSKI: It’s an interesting question. I feel I come at Polish culture a little bit askance from the way most Poles come at Polish culture. I might say I feel like I have a different approach to Polish culture than Americans who come to Poland cold and from a lot of Poles who see Poland and have grown up in a Poland that’s largely monocultural, monoethnic, monoreligious. Ninety-nine percent Polish-speaking, 99 percent Catholic — around there. (A little bit of erosion, and now there’s a lot bigger Ukrainian minority than there used to be — but up till recently.) People project that back into the past, that that’s what Poland’s been always.
I come from a Polish Jewish family with Lithuanian roots: split Polish and Jewish, not just Jewish. Historically, Poland’s been much more mutable. It’s expanded and contracted. It’s included many people who we wouldn’t call Poles now but who were under Polish rule. It was multireligious. Jews were part of this state and entity for centuries. And it included other minorities. Belarusians were deeply tied up with this other part of Poland. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
In Poland, there’s a name for — there are two schools of thought on what Poland is and should be. They come from the two dynasties that ruled Poland, the first two dynasties: there’s Piast Poland and Jagiellonian Poland. Piast is that more narrow, one-culture, one-religion — that’s what’s been assigned to it. That’s the dominant view. The Jagiellonians are this bigger, “We’re a confederation of peoples. We’re a bigger country. We have a big-tent version of Polishness.” I come from that.
I think there’s more to it than most Americans know and also, in a way, than some Poles know.
COWEN: This polycultural background: How much do you feel it has strong, deep roots? Is it your view that “Well, now it’s mostly gone; it really will not come back”? Or the fact that what we now call Poland was so strongly polycultural, say, 100 years ago, 150 years ago — that this will, in some sense, reemerge, and it will reemerge because it had been part of the past for so long?
MIKANOWSKI: Really interesting, because it really was deeply rooted. Deep in the Middle Ages. Definitely in early modernity. And that old, supposedly mostly Polish Poland actually was hard to recover. It was the western part of Poland: it had tons of Germans (which people forget). It was also, in a different way, different balance, multiethnic.
The 20th century did so much to change Poland’s geography, Poland’s borders, Poland’s ethnic and religious makeup, that if you had asked me that 15 years ago, 10 years ago, I’d say no. Poland is what it is. Poland is the white eagle, the pope, the Catholic Church. It’s a pretty set thing.
It’s amazing how much I think the war in Ukraine has changed things. That we’re going towards — and the influx of Ukrainians, and actually Belarusians too. There are also Chechens in a smaller number; people from the former Soviet Union. Because of that war, the perceptions of difference have really shifted in Poland. From a very closed society, I think it’s opened up a little bit in a very meaningful way. It’s recovering some of that polyethnicity that it had lost. We’ll see how lasting that is, but I think it’s something that has really shifted the last few years.
COWEN: Is there a future of any kind for Germanic culture and influence in Poland? As you know, Wroclaw was once Breslau; a lot of the achievement in that city came from people with Germanic origins growing up speaking German. Is that somehow inevitable, given where Germany and Poland are? Or, again, that’s been wiped out: it’s just simply never coming back; Germany’s depopulating; bye-bye Germanic influence in Poland in any direct sense. What do you think?
MIKANOWSKI: I think the Germanic influence comes from Poles living and working in Germany, and especially Silesians. Silesia, that part of Poland that’s on that side: people there, a larger percentage of them have German or mixed-German roots. There’s an area in the south that had a larger number of Germans stay. (Most Germans left or were forced to leave.) There’s some influence. But the bigger thing is that [in] that border area, people really go to Germany and Switzerland, Austria to work. People from eastern Poland: the pattern has been to go to the UK and France and Belgium, or America. The influence, I think, comes from return migration and cross-border travel.
Germans aren’t going that much back to Poland. People with roots — and there are a lot of Germans with roots in both northern Poland and western Poland — they go: they see the old church, the old cemetery, the old house. A lot of that stuff is actually intact. There’s nostalgia tours. But they’re not moving back very much. I think it’s from — what contexts are, what influences are — are from labor migration.
COWEN: Why is the best Polish folk art from southern Poland?
MIKANOWSKI: It is — it is from southern Poland.
I’ll venture a guess. That’s hard for me to say for sure, but some of it is the mountains are a little different. The south of Poland is the only place that has real terrain. All the rest of it’s flat. The south has our Carpathian Mountains, has differences. And the culture there was different. There are Gorals, which just means “mountain people,” in the direct south — Zakopane. And, in the past, groups called the Boiks and Lemks or Lemkos — Orthodox groups. It was a more multicultural area. And it was Hapsburg. Under the Hapsburgs, it was kind of the most underdeveloped, the most rural, Ruritanian part of Poland.
Because Poland’s a nice natural experiment. It was split into three parts in 1795. One part went to Prussia and became economically prosperous but culturally uninteresting as the agricultural hinterland of an industrializing state. The Russian part became the industrializing center of a more economically backward state — became the Warsaw, which became the big factory hubs, centers. And then Galicia, the south, joined the Hapsburg Empire — that was in-between economically — but was left extremely underdeveloped, extremely poor up to independence, up to 1918.
I think that maybe incubated and kept some of that folklife intact. It was neither industrializing nor Westernizing the way the Prussian area was.
That’s speculation. It might just be that the paint’s better.
COWEN: Speaking of experiments: If you look at a map, you look at Kaliningrad (formerly Königsberg), you look at the Suwałki Gap — what’s the actual equilibrium there? Territory separated from the mother country, Alaska aside, it tends not to go very well, most of all in the history of Eastern Europe. What do you expect?
MIKANOWSKI: Do I expect Polish tanks storming Kant’s birthplace? Not really. I think, as much as those exclaves used to be — and still are (in Nagorno-Karabakh) — very precarious, being a nuclear power is an awfully big trump card. I can’t see any of the countries surrounding that oblast making a big move. I don’t think it’s even that big of a deal. In Poland you never talk or think about it. A little bit — but I think it’s hard for the Russians to stage anything major from there. But it’s also hard for any of the surroundings to do a lot against it.
I think it’s a curio. I don’t think it’s the Crimea of the Baltic. I think it’ll be an issue but not a huge issue.
COWEN: How many Eastern European borders have stayed the same for, say, even 50 or 60 years?
MIKANOWSKI: The Danube’s always been there. So the Danube’s a good one.
COWEN: Is Bulgaria-Romania — has that been a stable border?
MIKANOWSKI: Not completely. There’s a part that they swapped post–World War II. Romania used to cross down and have a little bit more of what’s now the Bulgarian coast. There’s a piece of southern Dobruja, I think, that they swapped. But as a whole, the river — it used to be the frontier of the Roman Empire for a long time. It’s still a solid Bulgarian-Romanian border, a real linguistic frontier. That’s a solid, longtime frontier.
Are there others? The Carpathians are one of the few natural boundaries. That Slovak-Polish border is pretty set for a long time.
COWEN: With so few stable borders — and the ones on the map, that looks the weirdest —
MIKANOWSKI: I’m searching, yup.
COWEN: — why not think that will be unstable too? So 80 years from now, I would be shocked if the status quo were still holding.
MIKANOWSKI: In Eastern Europe?
COWEN: Well, with Kaliningrad and the Suwałki Gap. I have no idea which way it will flip.
MIKANOWSKI: That’s true. It’s really Russian there, though.
Who would take it back? There aren’t any Polish people there; there are no Lithuanians. There’s a Lithuanian nostalgia for part of it. Part of it had Lithuanian culture that’s been almost wiped out.
Unless it goes independent —
COWEN: Well, Russia could grow as another possible equilibrium, right?
MIKANOWSKI: That’s possible. We could all be living under the —
COWEN: Maybe not a pleasant one, but it’s happened before.
MIKANOWSKI: It’s true. There are so many other points of flexion, of tension — in Moldova and Transnistria and Belarus and Ukraine. That’s where I would focus. Kaliningrad: it’s odd, but it’s like the Malta or Luxembourg. It could maybe exist for a long time. But I’m not sure.
COWEN: These days, why is the food in Poland so good?
MIKANOWSKI: I’m glad to hear you say that. I don’t always think that.
COWEN: It’s some of the best food in Europe. It’s fantastic.
MIKANOWSKI: It’s really good.
The best food I have in Poland — there’s some really good Vietnamese restaurants, because there’s a Vietnamese minority that goes back to the ’70s and ’80s. But Polish food is best when it’s made by babcias, by Polish grandmas. I go to milk bars, and it’s always the best meal. I was up in the Suwałki Gap two years ago, in Suwałki. Went to a milk bar, which is a communist relic. That meant that it was a daytime cafeteria where you’d get Polish standards but you couldn’t get any alcohol. Usually, in the bad days, they wouldn’t let you have even the utensils. The forks would have two tines so no one would steal them. But great food: very cheap, very good.
There are more levels to Polish gastronomy now. You can get really fancy food; you can get incredible artisanal pierogi. But just simple, well-made, country, home-style Polish food is fantastic. So is Ukrainian, though.
COWEN: Twentieth-century Polish poetry: I try reading it as a non–Polish speaker, and it doesn’t really make sense to me. It seems untranslatable. Is there a way a non–Polish speaker can access the glories of those works, or is it more or less lost to us, like Russian poetry might be?
MIKANOWSKI: No, actually, I think the reverse. I think there’s a split in the 20th century. (Maybe I’m biased; maybe I read them in both.) But I think that a lot of Polish poets —
There’s the troika of great postwar poets: Wisława Szymborska, Czesław Miłosz, Zbigniew Herbert. I think they work really well in translation. They don’t rely on the things that make Russian poetry so hard and older Polish poetry so hard, which is rhythm and meter and extremely untranslatable wordplay.
There’s a poet I love, Bolesław Leśmian, who’s from the early 20th century. He’s really barely been translated, extremely difficult even in Polish, doesn’t work at all in English. But I think especially Herbert is so spare in Polish as well. There’s so little — it’s such a poetry of ideas. I think it comes through really well. I think Szymborska is too.
COWEN: Where should a person start? What’s your advice?
I think Louis Alvarez edited the little — Czesław Miłosz translated (Miłosz, a modern poet). You could start with Hermes, pies i gwiazda. That’s Hermes, Dog and Star. I think “Apollo and Marsyas,” the poem, is maybe my favorite. You could just start with that poem specifically.
COWEN: Why isn’t Stanisław Lem more popular in the West today as a writer?
MIKANOWSKI: That’s interesting. I grew up on Stanisław Lem like some people grow up on the Grimms’ Fairy Tales. My dad’s a computer scientist. His father set up one of Poland’s first computers. The world of Polish science and science fiction: he used to read the Tales of Pirx the Pilot and the Ijon Tichy stories — the robots, the short, fun ones — like they were fairy tales. I grew up with them.
I think — actually I have trouble going back to those. I’d go back to Solaris, and I think Solaris is a real masterpiece and I think it’s had lasting influence. But there’s something pessimistic about them. They don’t have that thing that Asimov does, or even Dune, of world-building and forecasting the human future far in advance. They are like Kafka in space, and that’s absurd situations, strange turns of events — I think a pretty pessimistic view of progress. Maybe that makes them hard to digest. Also a kind of odd sense of humor with the short stories. Almost a childlike sense of humor that maybe makes them hard to take.
I think there’s been a little bit of a Lem revival, though. I know technologists, some people like them; futurologists like him. I like him.
COWEN: Some of the cybernetics tales, they seem weirdly close to the current state of LLMs. And I think I’ve seen this mentioned once, but it’s not generally known: the idea that you use them to talk to, that they’re weird, they might be somewhat mystical, they serve as therapists or oracles — that’s very much in Lem, quite early.
MIKANOWSKI: I think people should go back to them. I think — I was just thinking of Solaris, which I always thought about as this story about contacting a truly alien alien. Now it’s like, well, this is a little bit of what we’re doing with virtual reality and AI. It’s like, what would happen if you could actually talk to your dreams, if you could revive people? You could have the mimicry of consciousness, the appearance of consciousness, without anything behind it — without a consciousness.
There’s something seductive about it, and there’s something monstrous about it. I think he was there way ahead of anyone else, and people should be going back to them. Maybe they will.
COWEN: We think about Eastern Europe more generally: We’re trying to figure out where various lines fall, where the Roman Empire stretched to or not. How much significance do you think that has for the current day? Or has that just been obliterated as a factor?
MIKANOWSKI: I’ve actually gone to a lot of provincial museums on the old Limes, on the old frontier. You can go and see — I like going to the last Roman fort. You can go to Budapest and see the frontier of the frontier. You can go in Slovakia and see the last Roman camp.
I don’t think it matters in a major way. I think the traces come later. It’s where the imprint of Byzantium is still around. The imprint of the East Roman Empire and its extensions, and the extensions of its church: that really matters. The world of Orthodoxy versus the world of Catholicism. Those lines — there was such an obliteration of the Roman Empire and its legacy, at least in Eastern Europe, between the 5th century and the 10th century — those old lines got obscured and new ones got put in in the 900s and the 1000s.
COWEN: The fact that so much of Croatia is Catholic rather than Orthodox: Should that make us more optimistic about economic growth for Croatia? Or it’s just not going to matter?
MIKANOWSKI: More optimistic than —
COWEN: More optimistic. So Slovenia has done extremely well, right?
COWEN: It’s essentially at Western European living standards. Croatia is not there, but the fact that it is not dominantly Orthodox Christianity: Should we then infer it’s going to join the Western European community in some fundamental way that perhaps Bulgaria will not?
MIKANOWSKI: I think we should be optimistic about Croatia. I think the EU is the driver of a lot of that. I don’t think we should be that pessimistic about Romania and Bulgaria. I think, actually, Romania is showing — and that’s coming out of communism, a much more rural, much more backward economy than Slovenia — but I think it’s growing really fast. I think things are actually pretty OK there politically.
I think that idea of an Orthodox disease is maybe a figment of geography more than a deeply cultural matrix that we think. I’m not — I think we could be optimistic about Croatia and Romania simultaneously. Bulgaria maybe too. I’m not sure that I believe in a kind of Orthodox curse. I think it has more to do with how things shook up internally in former Yugoslavia and where those countries are in relationship to that industrial core of Germany, Austria, Switzerland.
COWEN: How will Romania and Bulgaria, in particular, deal with depopulation? You can move almost anywhere in the EU. Their birth rates are low and probably falling. There’s also, not so far away, North Africa, growing population, a lot of migration using boats. They’re closer to that than, you know, Finland is. What’s that going to look like? How many people will be in those places, and where will they come from?
MIKANOWSKI: Well, Romania’s birth rate is pretty high. I think it’s right along the top of — maybe I’m a little out of date, but along the top of European birth rates, and probably because it’s quite a rural country. They —
COWEN: That’s going to change as they grow, right? And a lot of people have left and will leave.
MIKANOWSKI: Well, right now there’s a huge influx of Ukrainians and probably — well, Moldovans all left. A quarter of Moldova left Moldova.
Romanians will also return. A great way to find out what’s going under the surface in European labor and migration is go to bus stations — long-haul bus stations. I remember trying to catch a bus from Seville to Lisbon, which for whatever reason is really hard. It’s not a good connection. But I was at the bus station, and there were tons of buses to places like Câmpulung Moldovenesc, Suceava, Botoşani: rural Moldavian cities (the part of Moldavia in Romania). Seventeen 25-hour bus rides because there are so many Romanians in Spain. And you can see the same thing in Italy, same thing in Portugal. Some of those people are going to come back. A lot of them are coming back.
You’re going to get an influx from over the border. Right now, Ukraine is going to lose people because that economy is going to be in, I think, crisis for a long time. The migrants that are coming overland from Asia: they tend not to stop in the Balkans. That’s a thruway for them, even in Hungary. They are trying to get to Germany, France, Great Britain. Very rarely do the migrants from — maybe a little bit, but that’s not a major influx. Because also the living standard gap I don’t think is big enough.
COWEN: Does Moldavia have a future as an independent nation?
MIKANOWSKI: I hope so.
COWEN: Obviously it’s very small; it’s next to conflict. Shouldn’t they just join Romania and then just be part of the EU? Why isn’t that a dominant move for them?
MIKANOWSKI: There has been a big political movement, and I think if they could do it, I think a lot of people would do it. They just renamed their language “Romanian.” The complicated history of Moldavian as a separate language has maybe come to an end. I think they voted in parliament after my book went to press, because I talk a little bit about Moldavian language and the Moldavian national anthem. After it was in press, they had this vote and “Moldavian” is now officially “Romanian.”
There is a move to — if they could make it work with Romania, I think a lot of people would do it. Then it’s the problem of Transnistria, which would not want to do it, which is much more ethnically Russian and essentially a separatist enclave. There’d be a real problem in how to incorporate it. Moldavian politics is not split Right, Left. It’s split pro-EU, pro-Russia. And pro-EU is the dominant force right now.
COWEN: Is there a future for a Serbian comeback where Belgrade again becomes a major transport hub, the country does well, it moves away from flirting with fascism, becomes less close with Putin’s Russia? Is there any path you can see for that happening — or that’s just a pipe dream?
MIKANOWSKI: A transit hub?
COWEN: Well, it originally was a big transit hub for the Balkans — say 30, 40 years ago. It was, relative to its peer group, quite prosperous. Now you go there: you see nice old buildings, but it feels like it doesn’t have much of a future — it’s in decline.
MIKANOWSKI: It is one of the best Balkan cities to party in.
MIKANOWSKI: It’s one of the funnest Balkan cities. It has reinvented itself as a Balkan party center. It really has this incredible culture of discos and these houseboats on the Danube where people party on.
To become a genuine transit hub I guess they would have to make nice with everybody around them and rebuild. It is hard to travel around the Balkans now because there are hardly any long-distance railways. It’s hard to even cross the — I had a terrible time going from Belgrade to Sarajevo because you don’t get sent to Sarajevo, you get sent to the Sarajevo that belongs to Republika Srpska, the Serbian part of Bosnia.
If they could resolve all their regional conflicts, then yes, that city is in a perfect position. That’s why it was so strategic for the Ottomans and the Hungarians and the Yugoslavs.
But yes, it’s a political issue, and I think it’s one that’s not going to be resolved very quickly. Between the Bosnian problems, between Kosovo, it’s not happening in the short term.
However, the Serbian solution is to be close to Russia and China. They have increasingly close links to especially China. Maybe they’re an island of Chinese influence in the Balkans. It’s their future.
COWEN: The Serbian obsession with, I guess you’d have to call it the 14th century: Is it an actual historic obsession or is it a stand-in for some other clash of values? How do you frame that or think about it?
So when you ask Serbians about Kosovo, they’ll tell you all these long stories about “the Serbian heartland is in Kosovo” and “Kosovo is Serbia.” Putting aside whether or not one agrees with any of that, what is it that they really mean when they’re saying it?
MIKANOWSKI: The Battle of the Field of Blackbirds, 1389: it is pivotal in Serbian memory and Serbian mythmaking, that moment — although they really mythologized it — of the great defeat of Serbia at the hands of the Ottomans, and then wresting a kind of victory by assassinating the Ottoman sultan in the last second after the battle’s been lost. I think there’s a real pull of history. There’s a real pull of the defeat. But in terms of a larger value, it’s the dream of Serbia as a great country.
Eastern European countries fall in two categories. There are countries that are small, and they’re happy being small — it’s a minority — and countries that are small to medium and dream of being big. Poland dreams of being big, but those dreams are less prominent than they used to be. Hungary dreams of returning to being big, and those dreams are still around. And Serbia dreams of being big.
It had that oversize role in Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia was, in a way, at least to some Serbs, not a Serbian empire but a big sphere of influence where they were the top dog. They were the big player. The Yugoslav Kingdom was very much like that, formed around Serbia. And Kosovo is the last piece of that. Once they lose that, and Montenegro, they’re really a small country. There really is no more dream. That’s how I read it.
COWEN: Once the United States steps back from that region, which sooner or later will happen — probably not sooner — won’t it just become part of Serbia, and they’ll get their larger nation back?
MIKANOWSKI: Well, not if Greater Albania has anything to say about it. Kosovo is so dominantly ethnically Albanian. It is a —
COWEN: That doesn’t mean they can defend themselves, right? Or do we get another Balkans war where there’s an Albanian ethnic movement for some kind of Greater Albania, there’s a movement for a Greater Serbia, those two clash and they end up fighting?
MIKANOWSKI: If you go to Kosovo, everywhere you see big silver monuments to the heroes of the 1999 Kosovar War and KLA [Kosovo Liberation Army] members. That’s going to be just a horrible — if Serbia were to take over Kosovo, it would be a nightmare insurgency. Maybe Serbia doesn’t — I definitely don’t think it’s worth it except on a — just satisfying psychological craving.
There’s a little Serbian majority strip — not a clear majority, but most of the Serbs live close to Serbia. Maybe some kind of partial partitioning in the future. But an actual Serbian takeover of Kosovo? I hope that doesn’t happen, because I think it would be ugly for both sides.
COWEN: Does Albania still have dreams of being something greater and larger? Because if you look at an ethnic map, it at least feels from the picture like maybe it could be.
MIKANOWSKI: Well, there are a lot of Albanians outside of Albania, and it matters to them. I was in Montenegro and I was in the Albanian — there’s an Albanian part of Montenegro that people don’t know about, in Ulcinj. Used to be the great Venetian city there; is dominant Albanian. Macedonia — North Macedonia has an Albanian majority. The region is almost a quarter Albanian, just about a quarter. And then Kosovo is majority Albanian.
I don’t know that Albania has expansionist ideas, but — to the extent that they have foreign policy aims — they do have to support their ethnic, their linguistic allies. There is a lot of intermovement. Kosovars go back and forth from Albania all the time. Albanians go to Kosovo. That’s an open border. That’s very easy to cross. Tons of people are constantly pouring across, and those relationships are very close. Does Albania have the power, have the ability to project a lot of power into its neighbors? Maybe — I’m not sure. but politically they do have to stand up for their co-ethnics.
COWEN: Is there some level of per capita income where you think this all more or less goes away? So you look at the two Irelands: you can’t say it’s settled. There’s no reunification, but it’s quite peaceful and we’re just not too worried about it, right? People are not religious. They’re fairly well off, whatever the problems may be.
Is that the likely future for the Balkans? That they become like the Irelands and everything festers but it’s just all quite fine because wealth is up? Or do you think it’s something darker than that?
MIKANOWSKI: That everyone is rich and happy and all the problems are Belgian problems that you kind of just live with?
COWEN: Yes. No one’s happy, and Belgium might split up still, but —
MIKANOWSKI: It might.
COWEN: — nonetheless it all feels quite diffused, whether it’s Ireland or Belgium. Some people would say Spain; maybe that’s still up for grabs.
MIKANOWSKI: I think so. Maybe this is naive, but the more European integration happens, the more that does lift some of those regional and enclave problems, as you can devolve some things to the EU. If the EU were to expand there — I think it would help a lot of those problems.
Is there a specific income level? They have a long way to go in Albania, North Macedonia, Kosovo. These are, aside from Moldova, the poorest countries in Europe. The amount of catching up before we can be Switzerland and all live happily together: it’s pretty big. If they did get there — and maybe they will — I think the temperature would go down. I don’t think it’s bred in the bone in some way. I think the temperature has been going down.
COWEN: I looked at some data recently. The most rapidly growing economy in Eastern Europe is Poland — no surprise. But №2 is Albania. And the place is booming.
What happened there? No one expected that. What have they done right?
MIKANOWSKI: It struck me — I was in Albania. I really did a deep tour of Albania and the Albaniphone regions next to it last year. And you do feel that boom. You can feel there’s a lot of Gulf investment, Saudi investment. There’s a ton of road building. There’s a ton of, actually, really good cultural infrastructure being built. They’re doing a great job with museums and heritage.
I was renting a car from somebody — a little Albanian car rental. The guy told me he spends six months in Albania; the other six months he goes to Great Britain. He works outside London as a programmer. He had programmed, he had designed, all his car rental agency’s programming.
I think there’s an openness. I think you have return migration from Italy and Switzerland and the UK that’s doing well. There’s enormous untapped tourism potential, because it’s the last piece of European — really prime Mediterranean coastline that hasn’t been developed deeply, extensively. In a small country, I think that really matters.
What else? I’m not sure. It’s under 3 million people, so small effects can have big consequences.
COWEN: Why are there so few Christian-Muslim problems in Albania relative to many other places in the world?
MIKANOWSKI: There are hardly any, and they have two —
COWEN: Is it Bektashi Muslims or some other reason?
MIKANOWSKI: There is a very moderate Sufi strain to Islam there. Although there’s some proselytizing by Salafis. It’s not just that anymore. There’s also two kinds of Christian: the Orthodox south, and actually the Catholic north was where all the tribal violence is. Those are the great Catholic hill tribes — were the really violent ones that do blood feud.
The take on this in Albania is that — I think one of their main poets said that the religion of Albanians is Albanianism — is that they’re all Albanian. They’re all Albanian-speaking. It kind of dilutes those differences. There’s a lot of intermarriage. The Islam is very mild. And the conflicts run in all different directions. Historically, they’re clan-based: clan-on-clan, not religion-on-religion.
The temperature: beyond just being this very mild Sufi Islam, the years of official atheism also cooled the temperature on religion a lot. The religion is . . . all three — Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Islam — are kind of muted, culturally, and Albanian national unity is more prominent psychologically.
COWEN: Hungary: What is your read on the current political situation? This has become a political football of sorts amongst the American Right. How bad is it — how far is it straying from, either, whether it’s democracy or rule of law (that is itself debated)? How should I think about politics in Hungary?
MIKANOWSKI: Hungary is pretty fascinating. It’s like if an American red state were completely captured by one party leader — or not, it doesn’t have to be a red state; could be like a Huey Long–type figure — who then was powerful enough to start really changing the rules. And to always color within the lines technically, while changing what those lines are. To be able to change the constitution — and a kind of legal authoritarianism.
I’ve talked to people who know [Viktor] Orbán, knew him as a student, knew him as an activist, as a libertarian-ish student leader. The thing they all say is that he’s incredibly smart, incredibly professional politician. He’s obsessed with the details of politics. He’s obsessed with the details of policy. He’s obsessed with the details of self-presentation. He has no particular ideological allegiance. This idea of him as a Christian nationalist is something he came up with strategically.
Everything, with him, is a strategic calculation on how to build and maintain power: his own power and his party’s power. He’s extremely good at it. He uses countless small measures that add up to small electoral victories and then takes those small electoral victories and parlays them into huge constitutional and transformational things across Hungary. He controls more and more of the media, more and more of the economy. He’s harder and harder to unseat.
Yet it’s not a hard dictatorship. I don’t think he would ever fire on crowds. I don’t think, faced with mass protest, he would resort to excessive violence. I don’t think he has the support in the police or any of the security services to be that kind of ruler, even if he wanted to be. So it’s a strange hybrid.
COWEN: And you think it’s broadly compatible with Hungary just staying in the EU: people looking a bit the other way on both sides, but it can just continue? Or not?
MIKANOWSKI: I think it’s amazing it’s gotten to this point. And the EU has abetted him, effectively. EU funds, which are hugely transformational in Hungary: if you drive around the Hungarian countryside, it’s kind of annoying because every 500 meters, it feels like, you come to a roundabout under construction, pointlessly. And that’s all EU money, and it’s all under the control of companies that — construction firms essentially act as extensions of Fidesz and Orbán’s power.
They control, as a party, this tap of money, and that helps solidify their power. The EU effectively helps fund their dominance as a political movement, as a political party. To me, it’s strange that it’s gotten to the point that it’s gotten, but unless there’s a big movement in Hungarian society, which has tended to be pretty quiescent, I don’t know how the EU would really — or why the EU would decisively step in.
The things that have gotten people really out in the streets in Hungary: one of the big ones was when internet prices were going to go up, and they backed down. He tends to back down when there’s a big protest. He does respond to that signal, but they keep the temperature pretty low in Hungary.
COWEN: Why are so many Hungarians so concerned with Trianon, the loss of territory? Who cares? Why should they care? What are they hoping to get?
MIKANOWSKI: I don’t think they care, literally. I think it’s a little bit “Remember the Alamo.” It by this point has moved into the realm of national symbols and symbology. You’ll see the Trianon belt buckles for sale and people wearing them where you have, like, “Free Trianon,” like “Big Hungary.” You can have a big silver one as a kind of Texas-style belt buckle. I don’t think that literally means — when people wear those, does that literally mean they want Bačka back from Serbia, that they want southern Slovakia back from Slovakia? Not exactly.
They’re one of those Eastern European countries that’s small but dreams of being big. They still have that sense of being robbed (which in a way they were), since their historical destiny was denied. And Orbán will play with that a little bit. He will suggest that maybe if Ukraine were to fall apart, and it’s about to fall apart, maybe there’s a little corner of Ukraine that was once Hungarian over on the other side of the Carpathians — maybe they should get that back.
But that’s more in the realm of dreams and symbols, not actual foreign policy aspirations. It is a little bit like the way Texans are about Texas, Hungarians are about Hungary. But I’m not sure we should read that totally literally.
COWEN: All the study of Eastern Europe, all the time that you spent there — Greater Poland, earlier Greater Lithuania, maybe Greater Serbia, Greater Albania, Greater Hungary: How has it shaped your view of just human nature, flat out? Is it that you think, “Well, what I see in Eastern Europe is a bit of an outlier,” or do you actually start seeing the rest of the world more in those terms? How has it shaped your general views of humanity?
MIKANOWSKI: If I can give you a little longer answer: It has shaped a view of humanity, but the part that has the most isn’t the kind of petty — I think a little bit petty — national aspirations. It’s not Lithuanian dreams of getting a little bit of Poland back or Hungarian dreams of getting the Bačka back. The part that’s really struck me deeply is the Holocaust.
My family, a lot of them went through the Holocaust in Poland. And studying the German occupation of especially Poland, where the Jews were so much, and the process — what happened there after the ghetto clearances, after ’41: I think that there’s a real message about human nature there. Sometimes it’s — people who talk about that will talk about, “Well, this is a Polish-Jewish thing. This is about anti-Semitism.” I think there’s actually something deeper.
There are three phases to the Holocaust in Poland. There’s an early phase of people are being rounded up and put into ghettos. Then, in 1941, the Germans invade the Soviet Union and a few months there’s Operation Barbarossa and a few months later they start clearing the ghettos out. They start the real process of eliminating Poland’s Jews and outright shooting people as they’re invading and rounding people up, taking them from ghettos to concentration camps where they’re gassed and killed. Then there’s this period — so that’s when most of the actual murder and death happens.
Then, from late 1941 to early 1945, there’s a small group of survivors in Poland, Polish Jews, who are in peril from all sides, have no legal standing, are nonpersons, can be hunted by anyone, can be killed by anyone, and have to find a way to survive in a true Hobbesian world and where food is becoming scarcer and scarcer, money is scarcer. Everything is scarce. In a real world of poverty. Because they’re surviving, usually, in —
Some people have false papers and can survive anywhere, hopefully, as long as they’re not denounced. Some people have a lot of money and use that for themselves. But the ones who escaped from the ghetto or ran away from transports or were otherwise just out at sea in Poland have to usually make a bargain with somebody. Have to find someone they can trade whatever they have, whatever money they have, whatever they can promise for shelter — and they do. A lot of people did that. It’s hard to know exactly how many, but a lot of people did that in ’42.
Then the war goes on and on and on, much longer than people expected: ’42, ’43, ’44. Winter after winter, things getting harder and harder. The longer that runs, the more this becomes a real experiment in human nature. Who survives and who doesn’t? Who is denounced and who doesn’t? I had family members who actually survived this way, miraculously, but some didn’t.
In the short run, a lot of people will make that bargain and be like, “I’ll take your money, and I’ll put you up. I’ll put you in my cellar. I’ll hide you in a room for a few months, for a year, for two years.” But the longer that goes, the riskier it becomes and the harder it becomes and the more there’s the temptation to say, “Actually, I’m going to give you up. My neighbors can see this. I can’t go on with this. I need the money. I’m too scared. Doesn’t seem like a point. Everyone’s dead.” If the war had been shorter, a lot more people would have been saved. The longer the war runs, the more people are either denounced by their neighbors or their own protectors denounce them. But the ones who are saved, in the long run: this is where the human nature comes in, what’s so interesting, is the —
How do you know who to trust? The people who end up protecting the people they protect the longest, hold out the longest, hold out to the end, are usually people who live on the absolute margins: widows, outcasts, people with no money, people in terrible shape, people whose lives would be transformed by having an iron stove or a pair of pants. But if you were to take that when you were hiding Jews, and you were to take their money and buy something like that, immediately all your neighbors would know what you’re doing, because every village is 100 eyes watching everybody else.
You make one move, you make one change, you buy a tin roof: everyone knows what you’re doing. Everyone knows you’re hiding a Jew. The people who were the best at saving the people they saved tended to be people who never made a bargain, who never asked for money, who just did it out of moral instinct. Because if you buy a life, you can sell it. The people who didn’t enter into that transaction, they held fast the strongest.
But how would you know that? Because just as possible, those people kind of on the margins, they can denounce someone for a tiny reward: for a bottle of vodka, for a kilo of sugar. Those are some of the rewards that people gave for Jews. If you were to ask them beforehand, “How would you act in this situation? What would you do?” I don’t think they’d have any idea what they would do. I don’t think they could predict themselves how they would act. That’s where you get at the human mystery. I think you don’t know: Some people have that moral instinct. Some people will do it out of an innate feeling, but most won’t.
To me, that means human nature is in some ways completely plastic, has no bottom, has no backside. Most people in the right situation — in the wrong situation, the worst situation — will act in any way, behave in any way. I think there’s almost no bottom to human behavior. The flip side of that is, in the worst situation, some people will act in the most remarkable way, in the best way. There’s kind of no way to know. To me, although I’m not primarily a historian of the Holocaust, that’s the lesson I take away.
I’m sorry for a very long answer.
COWEN: No, that’s great.
Given all your study of Eastern Europe, what is it you feel you understand about the current war in Ukraine that maybe other well-informed people would not?
MIKANOWSKI: What do I understand about the war in Ukraine?
I’ll tell you what: that what Ukraine is has shifted over time and is continuing to shift. I think people who look at this war and started being aware of it in 2022 — Ukraine is just a natural fact. They weren’t necessarily sure what it is or where it comes from. I think there is such a complicated story there of Ukraine between Poland and especially Russia of being entangled with both of those and creating itself in relation and against both of those.
It’s kind of a tangled family tree, and seeing how the pendulum has shifted even in a couple of years in the relationships between those three countries, where it was actually historically very tense between Poland and Ukraine, and the Polish government, which was always looking for something in the past — like a old wound to come back and celebrate and show off about. They were really showing off about — not celebrating, but commemorating the Polish-Ukrainian violence in World War II was a major thing, platform, of like, “Remember what the Ukrainians did to us.”
In a flash, it’s switched to “Poles and Ukrainians: brothers,” because of the big enemy. There’s more to that. Growing up — I don’t know, [Bohdan] Khmelnytsky and who he is to Ukrainians and Poles — that these are entangled stories.
But do I actually understand the course of the war better? And do I have a prediction for it? And did I understand it better when it started? Probably not. I feel like I understand some of the roots, and the roots don’t predict that well. So maybe I don’t have that much insight looking forward.
COWEN: In Eastern Europe, sexual dimorphism, maybe especially in parts of the Balkans, is it likely to go up or down? So a lot of men, they at least put on an air. There’s some kind of manly man, and they work out, they lift weights, they have muscles. Women: there’s a particular set of roles. And Putin in particular, but many other leaders there, like to attack the West for confusing the roles of men and women.
Is that going to intensify in the East? Or that’s just going to go away as per capita income rises, and they’ll feminize, too?
MIKANOWSKI: Well, they haven’t started yet. The Balkan male ethic is alive and well, at least to this observer — and they’re also just gigantic people down in former Yugoslavia.
Maybe Greece would be the place to track? I don’t think Greek men have followed some kind of postmodern, Houellebecqian course. I think we’re a long way off from losing the Balkan male, as is a natural species. I think we can improve the economy a lot, and that male culture, that ethos, is going to be around for a while. I don’t think they have anything to worry about.
COWEN: Last two questions. First, an educated American comes to you and says, “Jacob, design for me a two-week vacation in Eastern Europe, but forget about Budapest and Prague.” They’ve already been there. They’re not going to go, or they want to go anyway.
For two weeks, where do you send them? What’s the itinerary?
MIKANOWSKI: I’m going to ask one — is war a concern? Is Ukraine on the table or off the table?
COWEN: Not going to go to Ukraine, whether they should or not, right?
MIKANOWSKI: That’s a shame. And Budapest is off the table . . . so I, selfishly, will start you in Warsaw, because I love Warsaw and I’m a Varsovian. Warsaw is derided, but actually one of Eastern Europe’s most interesting cities. You get that history. The architecture’s not great, but the history’s right there under the surface, if you know what you’re looking for. Good airport, too.
Then I would send you south down to the mountains. You can skip Kraków on the same basis, as overtouristed (although it’s wonderful) as Prague and Budapest. Go down to Przemyśl near the Ukrainian border and get a sense of that old Hapsburg infrastructure and get a whiff of that, that you’re right on the border of Ukraine. You’re right on the border of Ukrainian influence, and you’re in that old Eastern Orthodox part of Poland, which used to be.
You can go to Szreniawa, too, and the wonderful museums there. Then down through eastern Slovakia, the kind of Ruthenian Slovakia (the parts of these Catholic countries that are Eastern Orthodox), and into northern Romania. Northern Romania is the best place to see traditional Eastern Europe. To see the world of haymaking and hand-built houses and the land of hay and wood. Maramureș is my favorite area.
Maramureș is kind of proverbially poor, northernmost half of Romania. Go to — there’s a village I love called Breb, but the whole valley — Ieud — is one of the most lasting, traditional parts of Eastern Europe. You can get a taste of what things might have been like certainly 30 years ago, 100 years ago.
Are we too late then — maybe down to Bucharest?
COWEN: You have a few more days left, yes. Pick another place or two.
MIKANOWSKI: We have a few more days left. Let’s go around Transylvania, which is beautiful and has plenty of great places to stay.
COWEN: Like Sibiu?
Sibiu’s great, but I like — actually, outside, in Cluj is interesting, but Viscri, Biertan — these places that used to be German have these fortified churches, and usually there’s a cool Hungarian nobleman’s house that you can stay in. Prince Charles loves this area and has these refurbished castles that he owns or manor houses that you can stay in, and it’s really neat.
Transylvania’s also one of the most culturally diverse places in Eastern Europe, and you have real Roma life. A lot of the formerly German towns are now mostly inhabited by Gábor Roma, Seventh-Day Adventist Roma. It’s pretty neat.
Then you can go down to Bucharest. No! You know what? I’m going to call an audible. If you can, if we can get across the border, let’s go to Belgrade and go to one of those houseboats and have some great risotto (I have a place), some great meat burek, and party on a houseboat, on a raft on the Danube. We can finish there.
COWEN: That’s great.
Very last question. Just to repeat, though, to everyone: Jacob’s book, Goodbye, Eastern Europe: An Intimate History of a Divided Land. I’m a big fan of this book; one of my favorite of this year.
But, finally, what will you do next?
MIKANOWSKI: I’m going to file my dissertation after an ungodly amount of time. In between writing the book, I went back to it, dumped most of it, rewrote it, and took on a different topic. And it’s done, and I can file it probably this month.
COWEN: What’s that on?
MIKANOWSKI: It’s on Ketman: this idea from The Captive Mind, by Czesław Miłosz, of ideological masquerade or disguise, that he took from — it’s a concept in Shiite Islamic practice that he read about, where Shiites, under duress, under Sunni rule, would pretend to be Sunni and had an obligation, religiously, to do that under the Abbasids. Then he’s like, “That’s what life is like under Stalinism. That’s what my peers were all doing.” They’re practicing Ketman. They’re splitting themselves into an inner self that believes in some older, prewar ideal of Catholicism or art for art’s sake or regular science, and there’s an outward face that is doctrinairely Marxist or doctrinairely Soviet or something.
And how he came up with that, the dialogues he had with some of his peers — especially one very interesting philosopher — and then how that was received in Poland: what people actually thought about it when they read about this, this guy who defected. It’s like, did that really happen or did it not?
Maybe I’ll do something with that, but I’ve got all the signatures ready; I’ve got to do some bibliography and it’s done.
COWEN: Congratulations on that. Jacob, thank you very much.
MIKANOWSKI: Thank you so much, Tyler. It’s been a blast.