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Goodbye, Eastern Europe (lareviewofbooks.org)
91 points by Thevet on Feb 17, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 71 comments

> 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?

As one who actually lived or traveled to several of those places, I'd submit that the answer is quite a few things.

There's surface level resemblance between the two lists when you're in a shopping mall or a shop heavy district. Outside of the latter, however, Western cities and countryside stand out as much wealthier in all sorts of ways. In particular less places that look like they're in shambles.

The contrast is comparable what you can encounter in the US countryside (which at times is borderline 3rd world-ish) vs e.g. major US metropoles (which compare to major Western European cities in sophistication and wealth).

I'd like to add that if you only look at the brands and stores, you might not see a lot of difference.

But if you read/listen to the news, talk to the people or just overhear their conversations in the streets, you'll probably perceive the difference and get to look at the place with different eyes.

I'm living part of the year in Poland. I've noticed a surprising pessimistic attitude here, when outward economic signs have been very positive for more than a decade. People are equally surprised when I express my optimistic American attitude. Truthfully, many of my American friends would be quite jealous of the lives of my Polish friends.

I think this difference is deeply rooted in history and is a clear continuing legacy of the iron curtain.

A a Pole I agree - pessimism is our way of life :) It only requires a cursory study of our history to see why we always expect the worst outcomes (as that's what has been happening to us in the last 200 hundred years, with the recent exception of post-Soviet era).

Poles emigrated to America in the 1800's (I think) and around here (the US Midwest) they are expected to be pragmatic and stubborn. Not negative at all; just impossible to push around.

Its interesting to see how attitudes diverge when populations split anyway.

I have a pet theory that immigrant populations hang onto a snapshot of their culture when they leave. The mother country has no need for this nostalgic attachment and continues to evolve, sometimes rapidly.

Pessimism is our national trait.

Maybe for the most part, but as a Belgian with a Slovak girlfriend, I can say I would pick Bratislava over Charleroi any time.

As a Brit living in Vilnius I'd also agree. The city is much tidier and cleaner than anything in the U.K., people are friendlier and the shops seem of a higher quality (there's no high streets full of Poundland and 99p Store here).

Me too, if only for the weather and the parties. :D

As an aside you touch on a separate point: it's much easier for your girlfriend to find work in Belgium than it would be for you to find one in Bratislava. Which probably explains, much like here further south, the mass exodus of the youth and a somewhat pessimistic attitude of the locals towards their country's economy.

You are conflating the poverty of US country side, there are certainly pockets of third-world level poverty esp. rio grande valley, Appalachia, Mississippi delta, but those are not the standard, Yes, there are relatively less wealthy than cities, but to compare them with slums of manila or Bombay is being disingenuous.

Hence my writing "at times". Will edit to make it appear earlier for clarity. And certainly agreed that they're a far cry from favelas.

Yeah, I definitely agree that I have never been to a place in the USA that borders on third world conditions, and I've been to many rural places. Is there a particular definition you're using, or some example of a place in the USA you feel fits this?

>Yeah, I definitely agree that I have never been to a place in the USA that borders on third world conditions, and I've been to many rural places

Depends on what you mean by "third world conditions" too. There are places in the third world that are heaps and bounds above some US towns and cities.

Try parts of Mississippi, Appalachia, etc. Or heck, try Pine Ridge SD, where life expectancy "in 2007 was estimated to be 48 for males and 52 for females."

Nothing specific, just vague recollections of places in central California while visiting the area. I'd stop (or not) with an "Oh wow, I've gone to cheap taco place in Mexico that were less in shambles" in the back of my head.

It's nowhere near comparable to Latin American slums, obviously, but it certainly looked on par with what you see in the Belizean or Mexican countryside. And it was a far cry from what I've ever encountered in rural France, Benelux, or Germany outside of abandoned crack shacks.

Also the third world country we like to call "Oklahoma"

I'm going to guess you've never been?

Have you? I live two hours from Oklahoma. I drive through regularly so I have seen much of the state.

Eastern European here.

Yes, the heritage of the iron curtain is slowly disappearing, but I would not say that it is happening as fast as the author thinks it is.

As an example, there is still a serious division between the "nationals" and "occupants" (Russian speaking people) in Latvia. We have different politicians, celebrations, churches, companies and neighborhoods for people speaking in either the Latvian or Russian language.

Youth still tries to get away from the country since the working conditions are not the best. I'm lucky to be working in IT, where it's much better than the for the rest of the population (developers tend to make more than our politicians), but that's due to western countries looking for cheap IT labor (cheap for them; but good money for locals).

As another Eastern European, can I just say good riddance. At least good riddance to the defeatist depressive attitude that followed the collapse of the communist experiment. Our actual traditions and culture don't seem to be in any danger of disappearing coughexcluding the immigrantscough and with the influx of western capital the ones interested in preserving them have the means to do so.

> and "occupants" (Russian speaking people)

Who you also consider "non-citizens"[1], but not in the sense that they're citizens of some other state, you just refuse part of country's population of some citizen rights (like voting) as if it was Apartheid all over again.

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-citizens_(Latvia)

The "non-citizen" issue is a way for Latvia and Estonia to display their continued displeasure of having subjected to have played host to USSR military forces in 1940 that then paved the way for their military occupation by Germany in 1941 and then a counter-occupation that turned into a result indistinguishable from de facto annexation by the USSR in 1944.

It's a long-lasting grievance that could perhaps be eased by some diplomacy, but is instead being used by all aggrieved parties to further antagonist, and nationalistically protectionist agendas. There is little practical incentive for either Latvia or Russia to soften first, for reasons more than just national pride: this is a power play like any other. In truth, the status, while somewhat derogatory, is not particularly horrific, and impacts people's daily prosperity or international mobility little.

It's disingenuous to try to frame it as a human rights violation; it's most certainly not, but it is a festering issue that doesn't make reconciliation any more likely or easier.

> It's a long-lasting grievance that could perhaps be eased by some diplomacy

> There is little practical incentive for either Latvia or Russia to soften first

Let me try to understand. Latvia calls some of its citizens "non-citizens" and somehow Russia (a different country) has the option of "softening first". By doing what exactly?

What are the issues that Russia should go soft on in order for Latvia to stop considering a fraction of its population "non-citizens"? And why it was an issue in the 90's where the Russia was famous "The Coma State"?

I've lived in the US for a while now, but I'm still also Eastern European (Bulgaria) and I completely disagree that it's "disappearing".

Romania, Serbia, "Macedonia" (yes, the quotes are intentional, and yes, I know it's not cool, and yes, this is pretty typical), Bulgaria - they're all on a completely different level of human development, corruption, values, etc.

Part of the reason is 500 years of Ottoman rule, another part is the close proximity and close relations with the Russian Empire/USSR/Russia, but someone who's Czech or Hungarian or a Croat is much closer culturally with someone from Germany/Austria than someone from Bulgaria is.

Being part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and part of the Ottoman Empire completely changed how those countries developed, and the situations they're in now, even though countries are sometimes only hundreds of miles apart.

Hungary, Czechoslovakia had revolutions, in '56 in '68 respectively, to attempt to escape the iron grip of Mother Russia while a large portion of Bulgarians to this day are Russophiles and nostalgic about those days, not to mention EU- and NATO-sceptics.

Props to Western Europe for literally dragging countries like Bulgaria and Romania and Serbia away from the clutches of the Russian Bear and into Western Civilization, but I'm not convinced they'll be successful.

> Props to Western Europe for literally dragging countries like Bulgaria and Romania and Serbia

What kind of effort has Western Europe actually put towards "dragging us into western civilization"? We just became a market for their goods and a pool of cheap skilled and unskilled labour. Recently, they even started praising our corrupt politicians (from the GERB party) just for keeping a pro-EU stance.

Most people had a genuine pro-western attitude in the 1990s, but that is now evaporating because we realised that the West doesn't care at all.

I find this kind of history fascinating. Do you know of any books or articles that go into more detail on these differences and the history behind them?

Not sure if it's exactly what you're asking for, but an american acquaintance of mine is doing a podcast "hardcore history" style about Bulgaria (http://bghistorypodcast.com/) and since most of that land was actually Bulgaria a long time ago, it should cover a lot of the region.

Bulgarians are actually the oldest nation in Europe and the country has preserved its name since its founding in 681 AD. Medieval Bulgaria has had a long and glorious history before the Ottoman invasion in 1396. During the 500-year lasting Turkish yoke we managed to preserve our traditions, language and religion. Only a very small percentage of the population was converted to Islam.

The country is independent since 1908, and before that no one wanted to convert the local population, because non-Muslims paid higher taxes. Can we please stop it with the internet patriotism?

Are you one of these proponents of denying the horrifying Turkish terror and atrocities against our predecessors, and of rephrasing it to "a peaceful and enriching coexistence with the charming Muslims"? And that the blood bath of children and women in Batak was just a manifestation of an odd cultural trait from the Turkish bashibozuks?

That kind of morally relativistic BS happily doesn't ring true for the majority of contemporary Bulgarians who haven't been a subject of liberal brainwashing.

>Props to Western Europe for literally dragging countries like Bulgaria and Romania and Serbia

Some of us who still live here like to think that our votes and civic choices also had a tiny influence in the matter.

A curious thing to note is that population numbers are declining across most of Eastern Europe, which I don't think is the case in the West, because of immigration.

"Enough with the stereotypes..."

And then some more paragraphs of stereotypes.

People here are complex, just as they are everywhere. The washing-over of several different empires has added even more layers to the cultures of Eastern Europe, but to paint it as uniformly bleak is to miss the humor and wit and diversity of this place.

The trappings of modern consumer life are just a varnish on this place. Only a shallow reading would mistake them for anything else. Master a Slavic or Baltic or Turkic language and then dive down the rabbit hole. It's fun. It's weird. And it's definitely not dead.

Beware: historian R. J. Evans is known and controversial for having weird theses about Central/Eastern Europe and supporting them with misrepresentative, cherry-picked arguments.

The essay quoted in the article is a prime example:

He compares the humanisic philosophers of Austria to the natural philosophers of the West, while ignoring the significant actual scientific output of the Empire (things like Auenbrugger's invention of percussion as a diagnostic technique, Semmelweis' introduction of antiseptics, Loschmidt's groundbreaking work on ideal gases). He also deliberately mixes events from different time periods into a confused narrative: for example, Baron Chaos' Austria was the massively German-speaking southeastern part of the HRE, which does not fit the description of "too many nationalities, too many fractious nobles and rebellious provinces" more representative of the late, sprawling empire (which, by the way, also had scientific output comparable to the West).

I for one am happy that we can buy (the same) clothes, do the same things and almost live the same life in Eastern Europe as in Western Europe.

Maybe foreigners increasingly miss out on a good laugh as the horse carriages disappear from the Balkans. Maybe a westerner is disappointed that his long weekend slumming in Prague is spoiled by normalty. Maybe an intellectual's romantic dream of Eastern Europe is ruined.

But for those of us who live here, it's better this way. Maybe not for many people in the older generations, though.

I am always irked by the people (usually well-to-to Westerners, though it doesn't matter too much) pining for "authenticity" and shabby chic of some place being "spoiled by capitalism". People have to live there, you know, they are not your theme park. So if they want to drive nice reliable cars and wear nice comfortable and beautiful clothes, it's great, even if those are exactly the same cars and clothes you find at your place.

It's a common mistake that everything behind the iron curtain is considered "Eastern Europe".

Say this to someone from Bratislava, Prague or anyone else of that region, and they will correct you that they live in "Central Europe".

While we (Western Europe and probably US) associate those countries with the Soviet influence, they themselves consider themselves 100% European, and didn't understand why Western Europe never came to rescue them. They want to forget the Soviet influence as fast as possible.

It's not that clearcut though. My wife (Hungarian) and her friends, who grew up before the Berlin Wall fell, tend to identify as being Eastern Europeans (because Soviet block). I imagine it's a generational thing, though, with elders and youngsters being cognizant about being from Central Europe.

The author touches on something I've often thought about - the crazy ethnolinguistic diversity within the Austro-Hungarian empire and the fringes of the Russian one.

Consider Lviv - Polish, Austrian, and Ukranian; Catholic, Orthodox, and Jewish. Or, Bratislava: 40% German, 40% Hungarian, and 15% Slovak. The creator of Esperanto, L. L. Zamenhof wrote of the conditions in Bialystok which inspired him:

    The place where I was born and spent my childhood gave direction to all my future struggles. In Białystok the inhabitants were divided into four distinct elements: Russians, Poles, Germans and Jews; each of these spoke their own language and looked on all the others as enemies.
In the aftermath of WWII, the populations within the former Austrian empire became extremely stratified, with the notable exception of Yugoslavia, which retained it's multi-ethnic character.

Now that we have an open Europe, the once-strict are starting to become less meaningful again. I wonder to what extent the populations of Europe will again intermix. Sadly, seeing the Balkans subdivide in to smaller and smaller states does not give one hope.

I'm only half Polish, but I live in Poland and I drive a miniature Fiat.

So don't worry. Everything is still fine.

My wife (American) lived in Poland with her family during 1989-1990. My in-laws still talk about their big family getting rides in a "mały Fiat".

I bought mine for 2000 PLN, in cash. I had only wanted to buy one for the novelty value, but when my friends asked the seller if he'll miss his Maluch, he said “well, I'm 86 now, and I can't drive anymore.”

I was heartbroken, so I just gave him the money and took it off his hands. Here's my little baby: https://www.instagram.com/p/BHKiB4Qg3pi/

Lovely car, lovely story :)


Thank you! Either they weren't calling them that in Kraków at the time, or my in-laws didn't understand enough Polish -- in the family story, they always call it "mały Fiat" :) (I should mention that I know even less Polish than my in-laws.)

Curiously few mentions of Ukraine, Belarus, Russia in the first half. You'd think they've produced enough literature to be mentioned, but no.

Then this gem:

> 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.

Not sure where this essay is headed; it starts off by noting the increased cosmopolitanization of contemporary Eastern Europe as affected by peacetime capitalism, while pointing that the psychological stereotypes live on in fewer and fewer places that are more rural and further from the malls and thoroughfares of second-tier cities. But then it winds through a retrospective of many decades of literature defined by different circumstances of the time: a multi-ethnic hodgepodge of people living in alternating periods of peacetime and war who often dipped down to dry humour to maintain some semblance of normalcy and sanity in spite of the political, military, and economic conflicts hanging over their lives.

Perhaps more so than in any other part of the world, Eastern Europe's people have been more acutely defined by economic inequality than anywhere else: whether from the Empire days when one's ethnicity was secondary to one's status as a serf or civis or nobility until it came time to kill each other in someone else's war, or from the Eastern Bloc times when socialist governments handed down a bureaucratic and unremarkable forced egalitarianism that applied only to the masses but not the ruling class, even if it gave them affordable housing and education and healthcare and womens' and workers' rights, or today when middle-class people in Timișoara and Debrecen can buy world-class consumer goods but good jobs are few and far between, and lucrative opportunities lie in few fields, or on the other side of the continent, or in remittances.

Yes, perhaps the stereotype of Eastern Europe is dead, and its cities are more lively to the untrained eye. But plenty of problems still exist; they're just hidden beneath a veneer of disposable spending of South Korean goods to absorb people's momentary desires while being unable to cultivate lasting wealth. It's still a deeply troubled place, albeit in ways that the banlieues of France, the run-down districts of Brussels, the declining Midlands, the small towns of America can relate.

Well, the same can be said about Western Europe. When did you last see a person in a national costume in Austria?

Are you referring the lederhosen? I saw it enough in Austria in the last few years to consider them more traditional than Germans

That doesn't mean they aren't Austrians anymore though.

There is a big difference between the facade, "there is American stores everywhere", and the deep culture behind, which clearly still is very present.

none of the stores listed in the first part of the article are American.

Ah ! I thought H&M was American, I stand corrected, thanks :-)

Tracht is fairly common in Austria. Many people wear it during the summer months when in the countryside. It is also very often worn as formal wear.

And would you want to? They are probably members of the Freedom Party!

Good that my country (Russia) stays the same and we keep our own culture and everything.

Keeping own culture is great. It would be even greater is people in Russia realized you can keep your own culture and also have some Western goodies like freedom of speech, freedom of press, democratic elections, tolerant civil society, independent courts that are ruled by the law and not a phone call from The Power (an unique Russian term - "Vlast'", or The Power, signifying the government as one monolith and blackbox-like entity having no connection with the people), and so on. Ah, and getting rid of the tradition of invading neighbors would be awesome too.

True. A slightly different flavor of USSR, but basically the same.

And everything? Presumably not a life expectancy for males of 64.7, females 76.3 and total life expectancy of 70.5 giving Russia a World Life Expectancy ranking of 107.

Obviously any country has problems. Good job, you found one

Sorry I only found a trivial one! Will try harder. Seriously though - this is a dreadful statistic isn't it? I've marked you up - feeling better?

You've just highlighted the sort of reward that you get for the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove the Soviet regime and freeing the world from Nuclear War fears and offsetting the Doomsday Clock by full 11 minutes.

Looking at a physical map of Europe is an interesting way to visualise how arbitrary the split into Western and Eastern Europe used to be: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Europe#/media/File:Europe_topo...

When I grew up in Western Germany, the world seemed to end at the Iron Curtain. Would be great if this is indeed changing now.

I once referred to Czech Republic as part of Eastern Europe to a Czech and was swiftly corrected. He felt it was Central Europe. I was grouping it as 'formerly Communist', but I'm sure Kafka would find more in common with Germany than Serbia. These definitions shed little light. Reading Hasek, even concepts like Austria-Hungary are nearly useless beyond knowing where the taxes go.

What a poorly timed article...with Russian aggression given implicit license by Trump's election and the rising tide of far right nationalism in Western Europe, the author just might get their (very bizarre and offensive imo) wish of a return to "a shared experience of occupation and exclusion, the permanent-seeming weight of economic backwardness, treasured memories of defeat".

It seems that HN is an acceptable political platform mostly if Trump's in the firing line. Does a statistical analysis of comments support my contention. No, it's just an impression. If I've got this wrong, I'm sorry.

I don't think my point is very political - Trump has made his sympathy with Russia and Putin, and his preference for foreign non-intervention (except in the Middle East) abundantly clear. I mean, yea the tone of my comment indicates that I don't think it's a good thing, but are you really going to argue that Trump and the other ascendent right wing leaders in Europe are going to decrease Russian expansion and aggression?

And as far as your comment, I think you are wrong. There are plenty of centrist and right wing voices on HN. I get push back on a lot of my leftist political comments. I mean we're making competing anecdotal arguments to take it for what it's worth, but just look at this thread: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13663629 The top comment is claiming to find the ideal of a globalized community is "deeply cynical".

Don't be a snowflake who worries that everyone's biased against you because of your politics, just make good and good-faith arguments.

Have you done the statistics? If not then should we not agree to disagree? I guess we both have other things to do than read HN all day. One could write a scraper I suppose.

On your snowflake accusation (wow - I've never been accused of that; usually the other way round! I don't recognize the concept of being 'offended' as anything other than a triviality so I'm mystified by the present turn of events in the West) I will add that my comment was not political. Any neutral observer will note the animus (irrespective of its level on HN) against Trump. That's not taking a side.

On the other hand I'm a snowflake insofar as understanding that political views are not welcome on HN and it's nice to relax into another world where politics are largely absent unless closely connected with an IT issue. That was my point. You might think that I didn't have to read your comment and you'd be right! I'll have to get over it. Thanks for the response. Making good and good-faith arguments - I'll go with that!

This brings up an interesting value that is part of HN community. That politics and IT are separable. I personally believe they are not and that it is a fantasy to think so. But we try anyway.

It depends on actions. If people try to politicize technology, they'll succeed. If they try to avoid it, it'll likely succeed too.

I don't know about our neighbors but us Slovenes consider ourselves as Central European. Even Wikipedia says so https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Central_Europe

Go to rural areas of Ukraine and Belarus. Eastern Europe is still kicking there hard.

An amazing fetishization of the "psychogeography" of what is colloquially called Eastern Europe. Borders which represent a bastardization of cultures and partitions for empires long past.

It starts off by playing on stereotypes of dirtyness, grit, and sanctuaries of sexual promiscuity whose location changes by which first world country you ask. Before diving into existential questions and nuances of a variety of cultures in the former second world. A term whose meaning is largely erased from the collective conscious and lost for a colliqualism of first and third world ambiguity.

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