The Slavs as a race of people have been unfairly stereotyped by those in the West for a very long time; be it the brooding Serbian hitman in another God-awful Jason Statham action movie or the “bloody Polish coming over here and taking our jobs and welfare” moaning in The Daily Mail, the truth is that the Slavic nations of eastern Europe have given the world so much genius, creativity and romance. And all to very little widespread acclaim.
With a burning desire to redress the imbalance and enlighten the anglosphere about the historical wonders born of the 10 predominantly Slavic nations of Europe, Welsh writer John Bills – also of this parish – has spent the past 5 years answering rarely-asked questions such as: who invented soft contact lenses? Where was Europe’s oldest vampire found? Who was the first woman to sail around the world on her own? Is it possible for a human to deadlift cattle? In doing so, he has produced An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery, a hugely entertaining, beautifully illustrated book that is “much a collection of short stories as it is an encyclopaedia” and which explores and celebrates the many Slavic men and women who have left an indelible mark on history.
Just back from promoting the book in the former Yugoslavia, John spoke to us about the inspiration for writing it, the feedback he’s received, and getting drunk with Martina Navratilova.
Could you explain to the uninitiated, what ‘An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery’ is about? Would it appeal more to history buffs than to someone with a desire to learn more about the region and its people, for instance?
‘An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery’ is almost certainly not a book for history buffs. If you’re interested in history then yes, it may well be, but if you’re an academic looking for academic work then I’m going to have to apologise. If you already know everything about František Palacký, Tito and the rest then you might as well move on. ‘An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery’ has two clear aims. The first is to shine a light on the good and the great of the Slavic sphere, the scientists, warriors, revolutionaries, athletes, musicians, poets, bandits and alcoholic swimmers from the Slavic nations of Europe, writing about an often disrespected group of nations in a positive and respectful light.
The other aim was to write a history book that was as engaging and entertaining as it is informative. A lot of people seem to be put off reading weighty non-fiction because of how intimidatingly much of it is written, books written by academics looking to impress other academics. Ordinary folk should be able to read and learn about Krste Misirkov, Marie Curie, Vasil Levski or Mihajlo Pupin without having to doubt themselves. History should be fun and exciting. This book is both of those.
Growing up in Wales in the 90s, when the former Soviet Union states were ‘opening up’ and the Balkans was torn apart by civil war, can you remember what initially piqued your interest in Eastern Europe?
Eastern Europe first came into my world via football, if I remember correctly. Various British teams would inevitably draw Eastern European sides in continental competition, and pundits would talk as if it was a different world. I didn’t pay too much attention. My first sentient experience came prior to university, when I travelled around the continent with friends. We stopped in Poland, Czech Republic (sorry, Czechia) and Slovenia during the trip, and it was the latter that opened my eyes. I came home and started reading about Slovenia, which led to reading about Yugoslavia. It all went from there.
I vaguely remember my grandmother giving me a collection of Soviet badges as a child, but I didn’t pay attention to them at all. I should probably dig them out, but at the time I think I was more interested in cricket.
You have been travelling around promoting the book in recent months- how has it been received so far, particularly in the Slavic nations? Have there been many irate emails from Croatians at seeing Tito mentioned in the chapter on their country!?
The reception has been overwhelmingly positive, which has been great for my nerves. I had nightmares of people berating me for putting Tito in Croatia or Delčev in Macedonia, but luckily I’ve only had to deal with this a couple of times. Most of the feedback has been about how great it is to see a foreigner be so positive and enthusiastic about the various nations, and how strange it is to see a foreigner be so excited about folk like Stamen Grigorov, Staka Skenderova and L’udovit Štur. I met some fantastic people and had a great time, to say the least.
The events were a lot of fun, and I hope to get some more organised over the next few months. The first run was through the former Yugoslav states – I’m hoping to get Poland, Slovakia and Czechia done before the end of the year. I should also think about doing something similar in the UK, but I don’t have the finances for such an endeavour.
Lame question time: you can invite 3 historical (living or dead) Slavic figures to dinner. Who do you invite and why?
Lame questions are the best. I’m an absurd individual at heart, so I’d more than likely lean towards picking the strangest combination I can think of. Moric Benyovszky is a must though. He was a Slovakian soldier and adventurer whose life would be considered too outrageous if it was fictional. He escaped jail in Kamchatka, stole a naval ship and travelled the world before becoming King of Madagascar. The story is probably highly exaggerated, but no one wants truth at a dinner party. Benyovszky would bring the stories to the table.
I’d also invite Martina Navratilova, as she strikes me as one of the most self-assured individuals there has ever been. I still hold her up as the greatest non-Roger Federer tennis player in history, but her influence off the court puts her in a league of her own too. The only problem with inviting Martina is that I really enjoy saying her surname, and the assumed alcoholic intake of the dinner would almost certainly lead to me being annoying and saying NAV-RAT-I-LO-VA way too much.
The final place at the table would probably go to Josip Reihl-Kir. JRK was the police chief in Osijek at the beginning of the Croatian war in 1991, who pretty much single-handedly kept Slavonia vaguely peaceful until he was murdered in July of that year. Kir is an example of an ordinary individual who did what was right and good despite being in the centre of a rotting society. Those sorts of people should be cherished.
I would have gone for Krum the Fearsome, Mariusz Pudzianowski and Martin Strel, but I don’t think I could afford the amount of food and alcohol that would be imbibed at that do.
How would you describe the general impression towards Slavic people in Britain? Was the outcome of the Brexit result down to the fact that a sizeable percentage of the native population is hostile towards Eastern Europeans?
I’m not sure if I’m qualified to speak about the nation as a whole, but I’d wager that the general impression isn’t a positive one. My hometown is a delightful place, but ‘the Polish’ definitely get tarnished with a pretty negative brush more often than not. You could probably swap Slavic people from any other non-British ethnicity and the same mentality would be apparent. People in small towns tend to be a little wary of ‘others’.
As for Brexit, there are a million and one reasons why that happened. Hostility to Eastern Europeans probably influenced the vote of some, but I wouldn’t say it was the main reason. Brexit happened because a lot of people believed a lot of nonsense written on buses, but the discontent towards Europe isn’t exactly new. It is a lot more complex than ‘fuck Eastern Europeans’.
Having spent a considerable amount of time among the Slavic people, have you noticed many similarities in their overall characteristics, or is a Slovak completely distinct to a Bulgarian for example?
Without sounding entirely boring, there are plenty of similarities and plenty of differences. I also found the Czechs and Slovenes to be very similar, which often leads to people thinking I’ve got the Slovenes and Slovakians confused. I haven’t. The biggest differences aren’t nation to nation though, more city to town to village. People in Zagreb seem to have more similarities with people in Krakow than they will with people in Knin for example. The same goes the other way – someone from Skupljen might have more in common with someone from Nasavrky than with someone from Belgrade.
The whole process of researching, writing, illustrating, getting a publisher and promoting the book: in the end, have you enjoyed it? Would you have any words of wisdom and/or inspiration to those who are thinking of creating a book of some kind?
I enjoyed parts of it, I certainly didn’t enjoy others. The researching was the best part, the process of learning and discovering never, ever gets old. I think it is my enjoyment of this that stops me committing fully to writing any fictional stuff. The writing was a joy as well, although there certainly were times where it felt as though it was never going to end. Aleksandra’s illustrations really reinvigorated the whole project too, I hope she gets plenty of attention for the portraits.
If someone is thinking of creating a book, the only advice that matters is to get it done. Don’t try and write something perfect immediately, it is much better to get something down and edit it as you move forward than to rely on some sort of mythical inspiration that doesn’t actually exist. There are no montages for writers, just a lot of shots of typing and emptying ashtrays.