Russia = Asia or Europe? Tan Shang Jien

Unlocking Russian identity: European or Asian?

Russia is geographically based in both Europe and Asia. The traditional boundary between these two continents is generally held to be the Ural Mountains.

The split between two continents has been a major factor in Russian politics, and its relations with the outside world for hundreds of years. Russia has never quite decided whether it is a European country, or an Asian country.

The confusion goes back to the times of Peter the Great, who was one of the great modernizers of Russian history. Until his arrival, Russia was a landlocked, and generally not well respected country – he looked to the new technologies being developed in Europe, to the West, to turn Russia into a strong country. Since then, every Russian leader has faced the dilemma of whether to build closer links to Europe, or Asia.

In reality, Russia has developed in a way that is not quite European, and not quite Asian. It has many influences of both in its culture – perhaps this is why we in the West are so fascinated by Russia – we can see how similar it is to us in so many respects, but also how different.

There are some how believe that Europe and Asia are not actually separate continents. Instead, the European and Asian continents should be treated as one mega-continent called Eurasia. This is because, geographically, there is no real border between Europe and Asia – the choice of the Ural Mountains was largely arbitrary and based on history and politics. If Eurasia existed, it would be the largest single continent in the world, with a population of around 4 billion people – almost a quarter of the world’s population.

Russia is one of those few global countries that straddle two continents. The other famous example of a transcontinental state is Turkey, which is also in both Europe and Asia. But there are also quite a few other, less well known, transcontinental states. Examples include Kazazkhstan, which has a couple of provinces west of the Urals, Egypt, which is in both Africa and Asia, and Greece, which is mostly in Europe, but has a couple of islands near Turkey, in Asia.

The Russian Empire, at one time in history, actually straddled three continents – its domain spread from Europe in the West, through Asian Russia, and all the way to North America, where it had Russian American colonies in Alaska and Northern California. Russia gave up its American territories in 1867, when it sold Alaska to the United States for $7.2 million in a sale known as the Alaska Purchase, or Seward Purchase.


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