Why the Ural Mountains Are (Not) So Important

The New Silk Road through Eurasia

The Border between Europe and Asia

The Ural Mountains run north to south roughly from the Arctic Ocean to what is now the border between Russia and Kazakhstan, about 400 miles north of the Caspian Sea. They separate Western (or European) Russia from Russian Siberia. So they don’t define national boundaries or separate cultures; they merely divide one country. They just happen to be a rather humble, 1600 miles long mountain range, with the highest mountain just 6000 feet high. These are no Himalayas, Rockies or Andes. They’re more like the Appalachians.

And they are certainly not a beach. This is why they are so special, obviously, because other, normal continents need to be surrounded by water. Every other mountain range on earth is a mere topographical detail, noteworthy for being easy or difficult to traverse, suitable for milk-cow or goat raising, inhabited by friendly or unfriendly tribes., etc. But the Ural Mountains delineate a continent, or as the Mirriam-Webster Dictionary defines it, “one of the great divisions of land (such as North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, or Antarctica) of the Earth.”

You notice how these “such as” examples actually constitute the complete list of conventionally recognized continents, on Earth at least. And notice how five of these continents are surrounded by beaches facing oceans, bounding them discretely. Only Europe and Asia are defined by a mountain range. What sense does that make? Why do we have to divide Eurasia (a continent like the others, surrounded by water—by the Arctic Ocean, Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean, Red Sea, Mediterranean Sea, and Atlantic Ocean) into two?  Why do we grant special recognition to little Europe—what Nietzsche once called  “a peninsula of the greater Eurasian super-continent”—as a continent in itself?

I think we can blame the ancient Greek historian Herodotus (484-425 BCE) for popularizing, if not inventing, the Europe-as-continent concept. In his time the Greeks already distinguished between Europe, of which they were a part; Libya, to the south across the sea (in what came to be called Africa); and Asia, mainly what we today call Asia Minor (the Anatolian Peninsula that makes up most of Turkey) and Persia (Iran) beyond. But these were convenient practical distinctions, not a system of distinct continents.

Herodotus, however, in recounting the story of the Persian Wars (492-451 BCE), depicts the struggle between the Greek city-states and the invading Persians as in part a cultural war: a war between Greeks (Europeans) who know that all men are free, and the peoples of Asia, who know only than One (the Persian ruler) is free. This, like so many examples of scholarly propaganda, makes no sense. Greeks practiced slavery, big time, while slavery was morally abhorrent to the Zoroastrian Persians. “Freedom” was not the issue.

What Herodotus meant was that the Dorians and Ionians lived in independent city-states, run by collectives of free (slave-owning) men, while all in Asia cowered under the rule of the emperor. (He could not have known that it was but a matter of time before Greeks would establish an empire from Macedonia to Egypt to Afghanistan.) He was saying, perhaps (or so this has been interpreted) that the western mind is somehow different from the eastern mind, the latter more subject to both mental and physical servitude. This remains, in fact, a staple in western philosophical discussion. It is certainly present in Hegel, who opined, “The East knew and to the present day knows only that One is Free; the Greek and Roman world, that some are free; the German World knows that All are free.”  And in Marx, who described “Asiatic despotism” as “the political state [that] is nothing but the personal caprice of a single individual.” Some might find a subtle racism in the concept of Europe itself.

There are, of course, reasons to conceptualize Europe as a unit, which have nothing to do with this abstract Europe, tendentiously posited as the fountainhead of freedom versus all kinds of oppression characteristic of an essentialized East. For one thing, Christianity after 312 came to unify almost all of Europe by the late Middle Ages; and despite Muslim inroads, some of them temporary, into the Iberian and Balkan peninsulas, Sicily and the Caucasus, it has largely shaped European culture ever since and over all (despite the Wars of Religion accompanying the Reformation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) a more unifying than divisive force historically.

Within that, one should note that the division of Christianity into Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy occasioned by the Great Schism of the eleventh century created a cleft within Christendom. This was based fundamentally not on doctrinal issues so much as the fact that the former used the Latin language and script, the latter the Greek language and script. Plus the fact that the Pope in Rome crowned Charlemagne “emperor of the Holy Roman Empire” in 800 over the objections of the Byzantine emperor, who, of course, fancied himself the emperor of Rome. (The Russian elite having embraced the Orthodoxy of the Byzantines in the tenth century produced the Russian Cyrillic script, based on Greek, the parent of other Slavic scripts such as Serbian, Bulgarian, Macedonian, Belorusian and Ukrainian. Russia thus headed down a road somewhat different than that of the Roman Catholic countries.)

But all this took place within Europe, definitely; that is, there was an east and west within Europe from at least the eleventh century, if not from 330 when the first Christian emperor Constantine shifted the imperial capital to the Greek-speaking east. But there were more cultural commonalities than differences within this Europe, such that few would have attached its eastern part more to “Asia” than to Christendom.

The term “the West” has been used in journalism since at least the Cold War to exclude Russia (which as you’ve noticed, is also nowadays routinely excluded from “the international community” by propagandists for U.S. imperialism such as CNN’s State Department-embedded reporter  Christiane Amanpour ).  But from Asian points of view, Russia appears part and parcel of the west. A country of white people that first materialized as a Viking-Slavic mix around Kiev, embraced Christianity, then gravitated north and gradually built an empire extending from the Barents Sea to Alaska and to the borders of China—rather like other western countries built their global empires at the same time, imposing their religion and way of life at every step. All of this seems very, characteristically, European.

The reasons we conceive of Europe as a unit is similar to the reasons we conceptualize South Asia (another Eurasian subdivision) as a unit, although one should note that if mountains can define a continent, South Asia has the far better case than Europe. What are the Urals compared to the Himalayas?

There’s a mix of historical factors that distinguish Pakistan, India, Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives (South Asia as traditionally defined) from Sinocentric civilization, surely. But there’s also a big overlap between South Asia and Southwest Asia (Iran west to the Mediterranean, including ethnic and linguistic overlaps) and also between South Asia and Southeast Asia, where Theravada Buddhism, Sanskrit-derived scripts and Muslim merchants crossing the Bay of Bengal helped shape culture from the fourteenth century. So it wouldn’t make sense to posit a “South Asia” including all the non-East Asian parts, and opt for a Europe+Asia+South Asia three continent model.

But place that concept on hold. I just suggested it as a way to think about Europe’s legitimacy as a continent vis-a-vis other candidates.

So, in conceptualizing Europe as a unit, we acknowledge that there is a mix of historic factors setting Europe off from its near neighbors North Africa and Southwest Asia. Although when you think of it, didn’t we get the guitar via Moors coming into Spain from Morocco? And didn’t the Roman Empire convert to Christianity, something from (Asian) Judea, in the fourth century?

On the other hand—just to (since my DNA is 99% European) indulge in some sentimental appreciation of my ancestral Homeland. Europe was the Roman Empire! (Okay, well yes, its richest provinces were in the east and North Africa.) Through their conquests the Romans united much of Europe, making it one by roads, laws, slavery and miscegenation, linguistic change and the imposition of Christianity. “Christendom” in the medieval period pretty much corresponded to Europe, although some were aware that there was a Christian kingdom in Africa or India called Ethiopia and there were rumors in the twelfth century of a Prester John, a Christian king of a great kingdom somewhere far away. The Crusades, bringing European warriors into contact with the (more refined) Islamic civilization in the Holy Land, only confirmed a sense of European specialness. The ensuing battles with the Ottoman Turks into the modern period helped cement the consciousness of European-as-Christian. (You see this consciousness today in some of the discussion of Turkey’s possible admission into the EU.)

Europe was the Roman Empire, followed by the Holy Roman Empire, followed by the great monarchies of France, Spain, England and others, their aristocracies heavily intermarried, constituting a meaningful imagined whole. As the concept grew, Europe came to extend from Viking-settled Iceland in the mid-Atlantic (to the northwest); to the Iberian peninsula (abutting Africa in the southwest); and from the Kara Sea and the upper extremity of the Urals (in the northeast), down the mountain range to the Ural River. Peopled by a manageable mélange of Celtic, Germanic, and Slavic peoples, alongside the Greeks and Italians, they produced a recognizably common European civilization, then expanded outward colonizing the world from the time of Columbus. The European’s very success in quickly subjugating overseas empires such as the Inca confirmed the specialness of Europe.

Russia, between Europe and Asia

Russia was part of this Europe, western civilization, and Christendom. Russia was contained within geographic Europe until the late fifteenth century, when it began to expand beyond the Urals—precisely the time of the first west European voyages of discovery. As mentioned above, the first Russian state was formed around Kiev (in what is today Ukraine), by a ruling class of mixed Slavic and Varangian (Scandinavian Viking) origins in the ninth century and embraced Orthodox Christianity soon thereafter—that is to say, the Greek Orthodoxy of the Byzantine Empire to the south. The Russians adopted the Greek alphabet, which evolved into the Cyrillic one. This European people made contact in 1096 with a Turkish people called Bashkirs who lived on the western slopes of the Ural mountains. They had settled the mountain chain as far north as what is now called Perm Krai on the Kama River, the Volga’s largest tributary. The two peoples engaged in the fur trade for several centuries before the Russians began to colonize the region.

(Other) Europeans sometimes question the actual European-ness of the Russians. Aren’t they, in fact, part-Asiatic, if not in DNA and features, in their penchant for strongman government? In fact, the Slavic peoples as of the 6th century extended from the Danube to the Dnieper (Europe’s second and fourth longest rivers respectively). The Russians branched off at a certain point founding the above-mentioned Kievan Rus and then the Novgorod Republic farther north from the 12th to 15th centuries. Only thereafter does the Russian state span out into “Asia”, pushing forward to the Siberian Pacific coast by the 1630s. In the process they encountered numerous peoples including the Chinese, Turkish Muslims, Buryats, etc. and this expansion impacted Russian culture. The first European university to feature Japanese language instruction was the University of St. Petersburg. The first Buddhist temples in Europe were constructed in Russia, authorized by Catherine the Great.

The Buddhist khanate of Kalmykia in the Caucusus was incorporated into the tsarist empire in the 1650s. Russian expansion south, into Central Asia in the 1840s-90s, brought more Mongol and Turkish peoples into the empire.

Thus Russia is unquestionably European, but also at some point became Asian as well, rendering the low Ural mountain range irrelevant and the very concept of Europe somewhat less important. And long before that, Eurasia had been crisscrossed by the caravan routes that made up the “Silk Road” linking China with the Mediterranean from around 100 BCE. Silk Road trade has had significant impact on the development of “western” culture since Roman times. (Think silk, pepper, cinnamon, tea, paper, the printing press, the spinning wheel, gunpowder.) Eurasia is not just a geographical but in some ways a broader cultural category. Have you heard of Indo-European languages, which link the whole zone from the British Islands and the Scandinavian Peninsula to the Bay of Bengal?

So there are all kinds of reasons to consider Europe as a historical unit, and also reasons to assert its specialness. There are no persons more invested in such assertions of specialness than the white colonists of the Americas and their descendants. To conceive of their home continent as Eurasia—as one of far greater ethnic diversity than that random space called Europe between the Urals and the western sea—might bother them. (It’s one thing to say, “I’m a European-American,” another to say “I’m a Eurasian-American.”)

More importantly, the U.S. State Department has always made the Atlantic alliance (NATO), cementing a specifically North American-European bond, central to U.S. policy. It works overtime to discourage closer European ties to the great Eurasian powers including Russia, China, Iran.

The New Eurasia and the New Silk Road

But meanwhile Moscow, and Putin in particular, has been vigorously promoting the Eurasia concept. In his usage the term has the specific connotation of a continent-wide free market, extending as the Russian leader puts it, “from Vladivostok to Lisbon.” He and the Chinese are talking about multiple, high-speed railways and highway networks linking nations and markets. The China-Europe Block Train that opened last November now runs from Yuwi in Zhejiang to Madrid. That’s an 8,700 km railway route through China, Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Poland, Germany, France and Spain.

Beijing is at the same time promoting a $6 billion project for a railway from Shanghai to the Mediterranean, and another to Berlin through Russia. A South Silk Road is envisioned proceeding from Urumqi through Iran and Turkey to the Balkans. The greatest infrastructure projects in world history, linking trade between the Pacific and the the Atlantic are being arranged as we speak.(And by the way, both China and Russia are seriously planning for a tunnel spanning the Bering Strait to allow for direct railway traffic from Asia into North America. China is already developing the technology for an undersea channel from Fujian to Taiwan. Imagine being able to travel by train from Shanghai to San Francisco.)

The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), China’s answer to the World Bank, is playing a major role in financing these projects. Washington has discouraged its allies from joining; Japan which always defers to the U.S. has not. But both the U.K. and Canada infuriated the U.S. last year by joining, and they were followed by Germany, France and Italy.  They know there’s lots of money to be made from a more integrated Eurasian continent.

Overlapping the AIIB and the New Silk Road plans is the China-centered free-trade deal called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), involving all ten ASEAN countries (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam) plus China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. These constitute over 30% of the world market, and India and China continue to grow dramatically. (Having declined from 11% in 2011, the Chinese GDP real growth rate has stabilized at 6%, projected through 2021. India will likely have 7% growth for the next few years.)

Far less ambitious than the (now apparently doomed) Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that excluded China, this RCEP focuses on lowering tariffs and fixing common quality standards. Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo told the Diet recently that “if the TPP doesn’t go forward,” there’s “no doubt that there [will] be a pivot to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership,” adding matter-of-factly: “RCEP doesn’t include the United States, leaving China the economy [in the partnership] with the largest gross domestic product.”

Gordan D. Chang, writing for the neocon newspaper The National Interest, declares “The issue for America is not, as some think, TPP versus no TPP. The issue is whether the Asia-Pacific region follows Washington’s vision of trade or Beijing’s.” (What he means by this is that the success of TPP would have nudged China further and further from state economic institutions while TPP’s failure means China under Xi Jinping’s leadership will maintain its “1950s-inspired system of increased state involvement [that among] other things…has effectively been shutting his country’s market off to foreign companies with highly discriminatory prosecutions…has been increasing state-directed investment…has authorized a partial renationalization of enterprises and…has recombined already large state businesses back into formal monopolies.” In other words, its success will be a victory for Chinese state capitalism over U.S. capitalist imperialism, despite the Asia Pivot and all.)

The confrontation over “vision of trade” is between the U.S.-dominated Atlantic, and the Pacific—contested between the U.S. and emerging China—that leads through Eurasia all the way to the Baltic Sea, the North Sea, and the Bay of Biscay (that is, to the Atlantic, too). The Americas and Eurasia both straddle the Pacific and Atlantic. It’s just that Eurasia is so much bigger and richer, with 36% of the world’s landmass and 70% of its human population. So everyone’s jumping on board the RCEP—again, despite Washington’s statements of displeasure—including Japan, which is almost always a Washington lackey.

One has to imagine Wall Street divided between those observing China’s rise with dread—especially a China supplied with cheap energy from Russia, investing heavily in Russia, aligned politically with Russia and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization nations, including perhaps Iran (and Turkey!)—and those who are more concerned with getting their share of profits from investment in these ambitious projects. In any case, the shift of the world’s economic center to the Pacific is likely to shift back further west, pushing across Siberia towards the Ural Mountains. That means that the U.S. ability to harm Russia through sanctions, and pressure on allies to apply sanctions, will likely diminish.

Trump the Builder, and the Glorious History of U.S. Infrastructure

Meanwhile Trump’s sole domestic positive so far is the pledge to upgrade infrastructure —something I presume he can boast he knows something about—and to provide jobs in the process. But as I understand it this is basically a hoax, and what he’s proposing is tax breaks for existing plans for high-speed railways and highway repairs rather than a national plan using the people’s money actually discussed by the people.

Still, this is perhaps an occasion to think about the crucial role of the railroads in this country’s history, especially the transcontinental railroad that came together in May 1869 in Promontory, Utah, linking the coasts. Supported by the state, it was a huge employer (of immigrant labor Irish and Chinese, mainly) and had a huge immediate stimulating impact on the national economy. In the 1930s state-supported highway construction was a crucial element of the New Deal.

The U.S. once led the world in transportation infrastructure. Now it lags far behind. Japan’s Shinkansen averages over 200 miles an hour, and the ride is very smooth. The Shanghai Maglev Train can reach 500 miles an hour.  AMTRAC’s top speed is 150 miles an hour, and ride is rocky. China has over 12,000 miles of high-speed rail and has endless plans for expansion.

Will the U.S.’s One Percent look on as its rivals in Eurasia launch new infrastructure Sputniks towards the attainment of the greatest geographically contiguous economic union the world has ever seen? Will it really discard the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP, designed to exclude China and Russia) and instead opt to invest in a global transportation infrastructure worthy of a planet with an advanced civilization? Or will it sit on the side lines gesticulating, trying to pit a trans-Atlantic ideal based upon the history of colonial settlement over the last 500 years (and supposedly shared “western values”), against the deeper memory of the Silk Road, and the concept of Eurasia?

Will the State Department always echo Victoria Nuland in her ignorant and cynical depiction of U,S. support for a neo-fascist led coup in Ukraine in 2014 as support for that Eurasian nation’s “European aspirations”? (The eastern border of Ukraine as it happens is located about 900 miles west of the Urals, well west of a city once called Stalingrad—now called Volgograd—site of one of the most glorious battles in European history.)

Trump the builder may have thoughts on all this. Trump the China-basher might have thoughts on this too. It is unlikely Trump has read Herodotus on Europe and Asia, or Nietzsche on the topic of Eurasia, or even Putin’s speeches on Eurasian economic integration. But he must know that Eurasian economic integration is inevitable, and see that the Silk Road is resurfacing as never before, because over time construction techniques advance and the impossible becomes possible.

Did I mention that the Shanghai Maglev Train can reach 500 miles an hour? Or that you can now take the China-Europe Block Train from Zhejiang to Madrid? Or that in a generation you might be able to take a train from San Francisco to Shanghai through a Bering Strait tunnel?

Human capacities advance, surely. We get ever better able to communicate and associate than we could do in the days of the Silk Road caravans. We humans always impress one another with our inventiveness, our creativity. But you never know when a new khan’s going to appear and try to shake everything up. Or break everything.

Gary Leupp is a Professor of History at Tufts University, and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu. Read other articles by Gary.