For Roads & Kingdoms‘ Edge of Europe series, writer Joshua Kucera is traveling along the disputed border between Europe and Asia, from Istanbul to the Russian Arctic, to explore the ancient history and current politics of how we divide up the world. Read about Kucera’s journey through Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan.”
In 1868, a chapter of the Russian Geographical Society opened in Orenburg, a Russian steppe town about 1,000 miles east of Moscow. Speaking at the opening ceremony, Orenburg’s governor, Gen. Nikolay Kryzhanovskiy, called on the geographers to support European Russia’s civilizing mission in what he called “wild Asia.” But to do that, they needed to determine exactly where that “wild Asia” began.
Russian geographers had earlier determined that the Ural River, which runs through Orenburg, was part of the border between Europe and Asia. Kryzhanovskiy seemed to agree: the geography of the lands on the other side of the Ural had “nothing in common with Orenburg and this side of the Ural,” he said in his speech. “There’s as much obvious natural wealth here as poverty there. There’s as much hope in the future here as there is hopelessness in everything there, as much life here as there is petrified deadness there.”
But where was “there”? Kryzhanovskiy told the geographers there was still more research to be done, to “more clearly define where truly lies the border between Europe, capable of civilized life, and Asia, doomed to grim despair.”
Today, Orenburg retains a European feel. Its pleasant downtown is like a little open-air museum of the days when it was an important colonial center rather than the out-of-the-way, mid-sized city it is today. There’s a miniature reconstruction of a 18th-century gate bestowed on the city by Empress Elizaveta—representing Orenburg’s role as the gateway to the East—and next to it, the handsome, yellow residence where Kryzhanovskiy and other governors managed the business of empire.
Orenburg also still considers itself the border between Europe and Asia, but less in the sense of the frontier of civilization and more as a small-town tourism branding effort. A grand footbridge, complete with a continental border marker in the center, connects the European center with a park and beach on the Asian side. Or, for about 75 cents, you can take a cable car with “Europe-Asia” painted on the side.
All photos by Joshua Kucera.
But the dramatic divide between Europe and Asia that Gen. Kryzhanovskiy described does not exist. Russia has become a sort of melting pot, and the descendants of those “wild Asians,” like Kazakhs and Bashkirs and Tatars, stroll along Orenburg’s footbridge along with ethnic Russians, with little to distinguish them but their facial features. And yet, geographers in Orenburg are again today revisiting the question of the border between Europe and Asia, trying once and for all to settle the question of where it really lies.
This may seem like an anachronistic undertaking in the 21st century, when it’s widely understood—by academic geographers more than anyone—that Europe and Asia have no natural, geographical meaning. Alexander Chibilev, the current head of Orenburg’s geographical society and the leader of the border-redrawing effort, will be the first to tell you that the idea of a strict divide between Europe and Asia is arbitrary. I meet him in his office in one of Orenburg’s grand, crumbling mansions, on a street as much pothole as pavement.
Chibilev was the one who gave me the text of Kryzhanovskiy’s speech about “wild Asia,” which he’d found in the society’s archives, and laughs as he recalls some of its more lurid passages. But he argues that as long as the concepts of Europe and Asia persist, it behooves us to at least come up with a common understanding, even if it’s ultimately arbitrary, of what those terms mean geographically.
Chibilev proposes moving the border from the Ural River to a set of hills further east. This doesn’t actually change much; ironically, it removes Orenburg from the border. “But they should keep the monuments here,” he says. “It’s good for tourism.”
Geography is serious business in Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin, in addition to his other duties, also happens to be the chairman of the board of the Russian Geographical Society. (Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu is the president of the society.) An Azerbaijani geographer working with Chibilev excitedly told me that Putin has been “personally briefed” on the Europe-Asia border project. Chibilev himself is more modest, and says only that Putin was in the audience during a conference at which he presented the Europe-Asia border project but noted that the president didn’t evince any obvious signs of interest.
Chibilev tries to play down the government’s role and insists that his work is apolitical. His justification for where the border should lie is based on geology and river flows. But he acknowledges the tension. “Unfortunately all this is the legacy of politics and geopolitics,” he says.
Europe is the civilization against which Russia defines itself
Politics and geopolitics have in fact been closely connected with every Russian effort to define the border between Europe and Asia. “Europe” in Russia means much more than just the western part of the country: It’s also the civilization against which Russia defines itself. Europe’s place in Russian identity is exceedingly complex and contains elements of insecurity, arrogance, admiration, and emulation. And these attitudes have been reflected in Russia’s efforts throughout the centuries to determine where the continent’s geographical borders lie.
When the ancient Greeks first defined the borders of Europe, its eastern edge was set at the Don River. But the ancients didn’t know enough about the Don to realize that it peters out well before the Arctic Ocean and so is not much of a continental divide. For centuries, that obvious flaw didn’t matter to Russians but, as geographer and historian Mark Bassin has documented, it began to become an issue during the rule of Peter the Great, who wanted Russia to become a European country. By this time, Europe had come to signify more than just a part of the globe (as it was to the Greeks) but a civilization: Christian, enlightened, and modern. But it was still a part of the globe, too, and Russians started to see the fact that Europe didn’t have a proper border as a problem for them.
So when Peter enlisted a scholar, Vasiliy Tatishchev, to write a new geography of Russia, one of his tasks was to determine a proper border between Europe and Asia. Tatishchev settled on the Urals, a modest range of mountains but more imposing than any of the other plausible options. That border caught on, to the extent that when Laurent Oliphant, a Scottish aristocrat who also later became a member of Parliament and a successful novelist, visited the old border (near Rostov on the Don River) in 1853, he believed that the eastward shift of the boundary had somehow meaningfully “Occidentalized” the territory: “Since the Don has ceased to be the boundary of Europe and Asia, the inhabitants of this district have become to some extent Occidentalised, and I saw none of those striking costumes described by earlier travelers.”
And travelers saw in the new border at Orenburg the appropriate mixture of Orient and Occident. British journalist David Ker traveled to Central Asia in 1873 and when he reached Orenburg, he wrote:
As the gateway of Asiatic commerce, and the capital of a distinct territory (a fact emphasised by the official division of the empire into Russia, Siberia, Turkestan, and the Orenburg district), Orenburg has a right to some appearance of wealth and civilisation; but, nevertheless, the first sight of it is always more or less of a surprise. The untravelled Western, to whom any part of the Asiatic frontier is on a par with Patagonia or the source of the Niger, would be somewhat bewildered at finding, in the very heart of the Eastern prairie, trim public gardens, and massive Government buildings, and well-paved streets thronged by fashionably-dressed loungers, and Tauchnitz editions of “Middlemarch” or “Poor Miss Finch” ranged behind irreproachable plate-glass. … This is the threshold of the world, and beyond it lies our plunge into the unknown.
Nevertheless, there have been dissenters who dispute that Russia should be included as part of Europe at all. In the 19th century, Russia had particularly bad relations with Europe, and anti-Western sentiment was on the rise. A movement known as the Slavophiles argued that Russia should reject Europe in favor of a vaguely defined Eastern identity. One Slavophile, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, wrote in 1876: “With our push towards Asia we will have a renewed upsurge of spirit and strength … in Europe we were hangers-on and slaves, while in Asia we shall be the masters. In Europe we were Tatars, while in Asia we too are Europeans. Our mission, our civilizing mission in Asia will encourage our spirit and draw us on.”
Nikolay Danielevskiy, another prominent Slavophile, disputed that Europe was a continent at all and argued that it should instead be considered just an appendage of Asia. For Danilevskiy, Bassin wrote, “there was no more effective way to demolish Europe’s resplendent aura than by relegating it to the status of a mere ‘natural’ extremity of the very region over which it was supposed to excel.”
Azov. The Don River, considered by the ancient Greeks and (most) modern Russians to be the Asia-Europe border.
The flip side of that argument was made by a British geographer, William H. Parker, in a 1960 article called “Europe: How Far?” At the height of the Cold War, Parker argued that because there was no natural division between Europe and Asia, Eurasia should instead be divided into six subcontinents, of which Europe would be one and the Soviet Union another. He justified the exclusion of the Soviet Union from Europe on political and historical grounds:
The best solution to this problem of a division between Europe and Asia would seem to be in discarding as outmoded the division of Eurasia into two very unequal parts along arbitrary and questionable lines, but rather to divide it into several sub-continents without violating the integrity of the Soviet Union. Europe then becomes indisputably that part of the continent to the west of the U.S.S.R. This interpretation is realistic in that it accords with what thinking people today mean by Europe, and it closely coincides with the historical and essentially geographical Europe.
Today, Russia is again grappling with its status vis-à-vis “civilized” Europe, with issues as varied as the annexation of Crimea, Olympic doping, and gay rights taking on an East vs. West cast. And so it is perhaps unsurprising that Russians are again raising the question of the geographical border between Europe and Asia.
The en vogue way to talk about Russia’s otherness today is with the concept of “Eurasia,” the idea that Russia and its former satellites are neither Europe nor Asia, something in between yet unique. Eurasia’s borders are never made explicit, but they often seem to coincide with those of the former Soviet Union.
Putin has an obvious sympathy for Eurasianist ideas. He has portrayed Europe as a place of moral rot and degradation and has tried (mostly unsuccessfully) to set up a “Eurasian Union” that would not just be an economic bloc like the EU but represent, in some fashion, Eurasian values. “The Eurasian Union is a project for maintaining the identity of nations in the historical Eurasian space … a chance for the entire post-Soviet space to become an independent center for global development, rather than remaining on the outskirts of Europe and Asia,” he said in a 2013 speech.
Discussions in Russia today about the Europe-Asia border also betray a clear Eurasianist influence. No longer a divide between civilization and “wild Asia,” the border is instead portrayed as a symbol of multiethnic Russia. “It’s not a divide, it’s a seam,” Chibilev tells me. In an academic paper, “The Europe–Asia Border in the Geographical and Cultural–Historical Aspects,” he elaborated: The border “not only separates the continents but also unites the territories of Russia and Kazakhstan … into an integral transboundary region, Central (Medial) Eurasia. … Most likely, this region will continue to play the role of a geopolitical buffer that determines socioeconomic and ethnocultural processes at the interface of Europe and Asia.”