Shock Waves: Eastern Europe after the Revolutions

By John Feffer | Go to book overview

Chapter 1
History and geography

The people of Central Europe...cannot be separated from European history; they cannot exist outside of it; but they represent the wrong side of this history; they are its victims and outsiders. 1

— Milan Kundera

The center of Europe is not Paris, or Berlin, or even Prague. Assuming the European continent to extend from the Atlantic Ocean to the Ural mountain chain, the geographic center of Europe is to be found in what was once the Soviet Union. The navel of the continent the ancient Greeks called the "land of the setting sun" rests somewhere in the Carpathian mountain region of Ukraine. 2 A map with Ukraine at the center therefore reveals that "Eastern" Europe is not eastern at all but in fact certifiably central.

Not that the attributive "Eastern" has ever possessed a precise geographic meaning. It has always been more a cultural designation used to refer to sections of Europe not considered 100 percent European, whether because of religion, economic development, ethnic composition, or political temperament. Indeed, Eastern Europe is so often portrayed as being "apart" from the West — a region both grey and backward, historically and culturally in the hinterlands — that it is often surprising to be reminded that Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of a church that would later stand in East Germany, that Copernicus studied and worked in Poland, that Kafka wrote his distinctive German-language novels in Czechoslovakia, that the first subway system on the European continent was built in Budapest in 1896, that Bucharest was once known as Little Paris, that rich cultural communities flourished before World War II in a great central European swath from Vilnius ( Lithuania) and Lvov ( Ukraine) through Chernovtsy ( Ukraine) to Timisoara ( Romania) and Novi Sad (Vojvodina). Eastern Europe has thus been central to the grand European narrative, not merely a jumble of "noises-off."

Artificially bracketed off from Europe, "dragged Eastward" in Czech writer Milan Kundera's phrase, 3 this compact region straddling the

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