Welsh writer John Bills currently resides in Prague, but his fondness for Central and Eastern Europe stretches beyond the borders of the Czech Republic. So far beyond, in fact, that he’s written a 600-page book dedicated to history’s greatest Slavs, wryly titled An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery.
That may sound a bit dreary, but John Bills’s tone is irreverent and self-deprecating, and his admiration for the men and women he writes about is unflagging. Slavic Misery plays on the stereotypes Westerners hold of Slavic people, their cities, and their culture, which Bills deems unfair at best, and which the book lovingly overturns.
"I'm going to let you in on a little secret,” the author writes, “one that you already know but don't quite accept because you saw some Serbian football hooligans on TV once; Slavs have given the world more than many care to admit, be it through invention, experimentation, dedication, or being really good at beheading Byzantine emperors. Sure, you can find your grim and shabby stereotype, but if you're telling me there are no grim and shabby people in Kidderminster then you are a liar."
Bills began to read about the lives of great figures in Slavic history as a summer hire in a hostel in Belgrade, but it wasn’t until returning to the United Kingdom that he began to conceive of publishing an encyclopedic collection. Miserable and not-so-miserable alike get their due in the book, and new entries continue to appear on Bills’s blog and social media. The author sat down with me to discuss his tome, its divisive title, and a couple of his favorite real-life characters.
“In Serbia, there was no excuse not to learn about these people, because I was doing a night shift. So I’m awake all night, there’s nothing to do other than fold laundry. I could watch Ghostbusters again, or I could learn about Duško Papov or something. And at some point, I don’t remember when, but I must have realized that I found it really interesting and that was what I wanted to do. So that was when a lot of the writing really kicked in, was night shifts in Belgrade.
“One of the things in Belgrade is that it's very easy to go to Belgrade and to live there and to love the social aspects. It's very easy to love the parks. It's very easy to love the confluence of the two rivers, because they're gorgeous. But you don't really love—I mean it is love, but I don't want to dissect love—but if you find yourself in a post office queue that hasn't moved for 45 minutes but everybody else seems to be moving, but you're not moving, and you're doing everything right, but still, you're in this post office queue and you're going nowhere, and you get to the desk eventually and you're in the wrong queue or whatever—fairly standard bureaucratic nonsense—if you still love the place, then there's obviously something a little deeper there.
“I was a cricket fan growing up. I still am a cricket fan. And you can’t really be a casual cricket fan. It’s maybe a bit like baseball in that there’s so much going on that you kind of have to be really, really into it. So there’s been a thousand things in my life that I liked, but probably only four or five things that I was like, ‘I really like this, so I’m going to learn everything about it.’
“My hometown, there was quite a large influx of Polish people. Like the Polish population went from zero to about 50. Which isn't much, but if you spoke to people in the town it was like 'Oh my god, they're taking over!' 'No, they're just getting jobs.’ And then one day I was in a pub, I won't name the pub, and there were a group of chaps sat nearby to me and my friends, having that conversation about the Poles coming over here, immigrants, blah blah blah blah blah. And then a woman came in the pub with a charity collection bucket for [the charity] Marie Curie, and they changed completely. 'We love this, Marie Curie Care, here's a pound, here's a pound, here's a pound.' And I wasn't by any means knowledgeable. But I knew who Marie Curie was, I knew she was Polish, I knew she had left for France in search of more opportunities, and I was just appalled. Like, 'What? No! Marie Curie was an immigrant!'
“One of the ideas behind the title was that people stereotyping was essentially making a judgement based on very little information. And I—rather stupidly—but I wanted the title to be something that would, not actively turn people off, but people would judge the whole thing based on the title, which is stereotyping. So it's almost like a book entirely about removing a stereotype that removes itself of people who will jump to those conclusions.
“Misery as a concept is inevitable. There's no way we can avoid it. There's no way that your life is going to be free of misery. And that's fine. The clicking moment for me was, my sister died when I was 20, and that was obviously horrible, blah blah blah. And for years and years, I tried to deal with it or cope with it or find a way to. When I was 29, 28, or something like that, my closest friend in Belgrade said, "It isn't going to get any better, sorry. Stop trying to make it better.' And it did. It didn't make it better, but then you kind of step back and go, 'Okay, yeah, it's okay for things to be bad sometimes, it's okay for things to be difficult, it's okay.' And once I stopped beating myself up for finding things difficult, it does get easier. And misery's a bit like that in that it doesn't have to be a mountain that we're looking at thinking, 'Oh my god, this is humongous,' it can just be a mountain like, 'Okay, well we've got to climb a mountain then.'"
“Jan Žižka…It might just be cynicism, but sometimes I read history and I think, ‘No, that’s not how it happened. This is exaggerated over time.’ That’s fine, that’s totally fine. Now, his story is a bit like that, where I’m sure most of it happened, but at the same time, he had one eye? You can’t do that with one eye. And he ended with no eyes! So I just love the sort of bloody minded—I see in the Czechs a theme of bloody-mindedness throughout the whole chapter, of people who actively harmed their own lives for either ideas or because they believed in something.
“18th century Montenegro: A guy turned up in Montenegro claiming to be a dead Russian czar, he didn't say he was dead, and the people of Montenegro just accepted it, and he was their leader for about a decade, I want to say. And his name was Stephen the Little, Šćepan Mali, and he did quite a good job. It's one of the greatest examples of absolute conviction that I can think of, and that's important in life: Even if you have no idea what you're doing, if you look like you know what you're doing, people can generally accept it.
“There was a Slovakian explorer called Móric Beňovský, who may have been Hungarian, may have been Polish, depends who you ask, who just consistently got himself arrested and escaped from prison. Ended up going to France and convincing the king of France to allow him to have his own little colony on Madagascar, so he was the king of Madagascar in the end, which, he ended up being murdered by the Madagascan people, but his story is also sort of ridiculous. One of he aims of the book is to write a history book that is enjoyable. Because too many history books are written by academics, for academics, meaning huge swathes of the population just can't into them. That story about Šćepan Mali, that's a great story, doesn't matter that it was an 18th-century Montenegrin story. It was that fiction, it's wonderful.”
An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery can be found at slavicmisery.com. Bills is currently at work on a series of travelogues about the republics of the former Yugoslavia. His next book, Via the Left Bank of the 90s, tracks the history of Prague along its metro lines and is due to be completed later this year.