As befitting a book with such a reassuringly clumsy moniker, ‘An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery’ is a book with an identity crisis. In true Slavic form, this identity crisis has many crises hidden within, a Russian doll of predicaments you could say. The first clue as to this confliction of personality comes with the title itself, a phrase that rolls off the tongue despite the awkwardness of the words contained within. One glance brings many assumptions; a picture book, all about Slavs, probably miserable. All three of these would be assumptions accompanied by the vindication that comes from being correct, whilst at the same time completely incorrect.
There are illustrations, yes, but they are an add-on as opposed to the main meal. They are vital to the book itself, but using the adjective within the title could easily be construed as something of a red herring. Sure, the Slavs take centre stage but they aren’t the only actors in front of the audience. Such is the nature of modern European society, a multi-ethnic melting pot of this, that and everything; a Slavic woman of today could have Germanic ancestry and a Celtic future. Besides, what does all of that even mean? Historians, academics and nationalists have argued over ethnicity for centuries, a comically skewed book on the subject certainly makes no pretentions as to having any answers. Misery? Well, one or two chapters maybe but on the whole not at all. Sure, all but six of our heroes are dead and many of them died in grizzly fashion, but the constant theme throughout is optimism, hope and joy, even in the darkest moments.
As much a collection of short stories as it is an encyclopaedia, ‘An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery’ is a ride through the evolution of the 10 historically Slavic nations of Europe from violent, murderous warlords and medieval kings all the way to freedom fighters, scientific trailblazers and one guy who looks like Postman Pat. 10 nations of varying size, power and influence throughout history are dissected in desperate attempt to learn how World War One began, how contact lenses ended up being so comfortable and to put to bed the most pertinent question of all; just who is the World’s Strongest Man?
The confusing land known as Bosnia, or Bosnia-Herzegovina, or BiH or lord knows what else is visited primarily in its years as the Ottoman Empire’s borderland, a heart-shaped spot in the middle of Europe that provided poets despite its conflict and rebels fighting insurmountable odds. The murkiness that surrounds modern interpretations of that nation certainly won’t clear, but insights as to why it is so may just peek from the gloom.
A trip to Bulgaria follows this, the oldest Slavic nation but still one that many identify with armed goons and corruption, the xenophobe’s idea of Eastern Europe come true. We learn that it was the Ottoman Empire’s most irritating of itches, that its revolutionaries achieved more than most and that without it we wouldn’t know the unbridled joy of natural yoghurt.
What was once known as Yugoslavia is revisited in the shape of Croatia, home to Europe’s most beloved coastline, most easily recognised breed of dog and more red and white checkerboards than one can shake a stick at. Croatia represents our first tentative footsteps into the hard world of a minority nation under Austro-Hungarian rule, but one that was willing to fight for its existence. The intense longing for self-rule is a constant theme throughout the book, and the story of Croatia may just be the most heart breaking to be told in that area. It isn’t all struggles though, as Europe’s oldest vampire makes his appearance at the end of this chapter.
The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Montenegro get the least attention in the book, a result of their most contentious histories. Both nations are closely tied to another (or to three others in the case of FYROM), and as such the heroes are accompanied by nationalist questions that history hasn’t been able to answer. Even so, linguists, poets, musicians and a parade of excellent moustaches stand out here.
My parents still refer to the area as Czechoslovakia, but the Czech Republic and Slovakia come with very different stories and identities, a fact that this book makes abundantly clear. Both struggled under the strain of a disinterested empire, but it on opposite sides of that two-headed beast. When they came together in the 20th century the state provided a small moment of light in an otherwise murky communist era, a two-pronged attempt to create socialism with a human face. It isn’t all history and politics though, as inventors, reformers and mythical Robin Hood-esque characters populate these two chapters.
Serbia may have garnered itself a pretty terrible reputation in the 1990s, but this book chooses to focus more on its historical achievements in science and technology, to show a nation with its focus on the future. This isn’t to say the past is ignored, far from it, and anyone interested in the modern Serbian nation is in for a treat here. Not only this, but fans of James Bond may learn something new about their most-dapper hero also.
Slovenia closes this book out, a small nation in the very centre of Europe that could put forward a solid argument for being the most European of nations. Hordes of visitors every year gawp in amazement at its mountains and rivers, but few know of its proud history of poetry, resistance art and long river swimming. Slovenia may just be Europe’s most surprising nation, along with its prettiest.
A big influence on the decision to create this book in the first place, Poland is the most populous of the nations in the tome and also acts as the home of its most famous names. Copernicus, Chopin and Curie represent the big three C’s of Slavic history, names that the everyman on the street will recognise. It isn’t all about the familiar though, as record-breaking sailors and strongmen also get a look-in.
Eschewing sterile academic language in favour of a more humorous dry form, ‘An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery’ aims to present these fascinating historical characters in a most palatable form. Perfect for tourists confused as to why a square bears a certain name, for backpackers looking to impress their fellow travellers in hostel common rooms with a detailed knowledge of Slovakian inventors (complete with ready-made jokes) or for anyone interested in the creation of the modern world but intimidated by the patronising manner of more academic books, this book aims to provide an alternative for the curious, a humorous history book that doesn’t require a thesaurus.
An identity crisis doesn’t have to be a negative thing. Just as much at home in the house as the hostel, ‘An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery’ is a book for the fanatical as much as the curious as much as the downright apathetic.