Lacking any quantitative evidence, I'd wager that a majority of Americans primarily associate Central and Eastern Europe with travel, a trip they took or hope to take — like a visit to Prague or Warsaw, a cruise down the Danube or a vacation to the Dalmatian coast.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 might have colored that connotation, however, reminding anyone who needed reminding of the region's often precarious past.

As journalist Jacob Mikanowski lays out in his sprawling history "Goodbye, Eastern Europe," outside powers have long vied to exert influence on the liminal space between Western Europe and Russia, frequently by force. Prior to 1989, most of Eastern Europe sat behind the Iron Curtain, and in those countries not in thrall to the Soviet Union — Albania, Yugoslavia — local Communists provided the oppression. During World War II, Eastern Europe was carved up as bargaining chip, battleground and recompense. For centuries prior to World War I, it was controlled by Ottomans, Austro-Hungarians or (as ever) Russians.

Despite its relatively small size — Mikanowski's definition of Eastern Europe equals about 10 Minnesotas — the region is astonishingly varied. He cites this "diversity of language, of ethnicity, and above all, of faith" as the region's defining characteristic. But variety doesn't equal equality. Melting pots are rare, Mikanowski writes, and too frequently all that diversity has been kept apart. "In most places, segmentation, rather than integration, tended to be the rule," a reality that only increased as the "terrifying uniformity of the nation-state" arose during the 1800s.

Perhaps out of a need to circumscribe his Brobdingnagian undertaking, Mikanowski skips past centuries of Celtic, Germanic and other tribes, declaring that "[h]istory arrives only with the advent of Christianity and, with it, the written word" in roughly 1000 AD. Yet the scope of "Goodbye, Eastern Europe" — drawing on not only academic research but extensive travel and family genealogy — remains impressive, yielding a book chockablock with anecdotes.

There are downsides to this scale, too, chiefly in finding commonalities among 20 countries stretching from the Baltics to the Balkans. Especially early on, the book lacks much of a narrative thread, managing at times to feel simultaneously awash in scattershot facts and merely cursory.

This paradox is particularly prominent in sections on individual religions — Christians converting Pagans, Jews arriving from Spain and Germany, Muslims coming from Turkey — as well as intros to the formative Ottoman, Russian and Habsburg empires. When the focus moves to smaller groups or individuals, Mikanowski's ranging intellect and interests shine, highlighting engrossing figures, like contemporary Roma poet Gina Ranjičíć, and locales, like the short-lived Ukrainian hamlet of Verbivtsi.

The book's latter half, covering the 20th century, is both educational and timely, providing a primer for anyone wanting to more fully understand the stakes for the region, and world, should Ukraine's defense falter. Throughout the current war, factions in Belarus, Serbia, Hungary, Croatia and parts of Moldova have been probing the regional instability, while others have stridently opposed Russia's actions.

"Goodbye, Eastern Europe" won't answer every question, but it illuminates these motivations. And it may even lead you to finally book that trip, to experience firsthand the region's many varied rewards.

Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer.

Goodbye, Eastern Europe: An Intimate History of a Divided Land

By: Jacob Mikanowski.

Publisher: Pantheon, 400 pages, $30.