This indomitable region of the world is home to the Russian nation, a country with a history that goes back hundreds of years. Identifying where the borders sit, culturally and geographically, is challenging due to the country occupying over 6.6 million square miles. This makes it the largest country in the world, a fact that obfuscates the specific continent(s) it sits on. In order to understand Russia’s unique location, straddling both Europe and Asia, a deep dive into the history, geography, and culture of its people is essential. Recent events of the modern era have shown the current Russian administration to be expansionist in their efforts to annex territories from neighboring sovereign countries; this instability provides a perfect justification for learning about Russia's widespread dominion.
In the 13th century, Russia was a small state called Muscovy around their central capital, Moscow. The state expanded until Grand Duke Ivan III made massive territorial advances by the year 1505. In the 17th century, the Russian Tsars once again increased the nation's size to borders similar to today, spanning between Europe and the Pacific Ocean. Finally, Peter I relocated the capital to Petrograd (modern-day Saint Petersburg) for access to the sea, which a massive empire needs, and for protecting government institutions on the fortified islands that the harbor provided. The Romanov family secured and increased those boundaries until the Soviet Union took over in 1918, restoring Moscow as the capital. Still, Russia suffered significant land loss during the transition to the modern-day government, represented by Boris Yeltsin. Today, those 'lost lands' are nations such as Ukraine and Belarus, which the Putin administration is desperate to reabsorb.
The Ural Mountains and the Ural River are the definitive boundaries between the Asian and European continents. Therefore, as the Russian Federation currently straddles both plates, Russia is in Europe and Asia. Since both Moscow and Saint Petersburg are closer to Europe, the Asian half of Russia has been largely forgotten throughout history. Therefore, Russia is often falsely misunderstood as a solely European nation, which negates the many groups of Asian people living in its eastern territories. Russia also owned Alaska until 1867 but sold it to the United States for $7.2 million. This domain over three separate continents solidifies Russia as the third-largest nation throughout history. The British Empire covered 13.71 million square miles, and the Mongol Empire 9.27 million square miles at their peak, beating Russia by a significant margin (although, Soviet Russia’s landmass did cover an astonishing 8.80 million square miles).
The Russian territory east of the Urals encompasses Siberia and stretches eastward to the Bering Sea, which is north of the North Pacific Ocean. In fact, Russia and Alaska are only separated by 2.4 miles at their closest points to each other. Russian territory also stretches north and south in Central and East Asia. The country shares a maritime border with Japan in the North Pacific Ocean. It also shares land borders with the countries of Central Asia, which were once part of the Russian-dominated Soviet Union, and the East Asian countries of Mongolia, China, and North Korea. A staggeringly large land, it is remarkable that the nation has remained mostly united after decades of instability and economic struggle.
Two of Russia’s ten biggest cities, Yekaterinburg and Chelyabinsk, lie roughly on the border between Europe and Asia in the Ural Mountains. Only three of Russia's largest cities, Novosibirsk, Omsk, and Samara, are in Asian territory. The bulk of Russia's population in Asia lives close to the border with the country's southern neighbors. Thus, it is as if a somewhat narrow, populous strip stretches from the Ural Mountains to the country's east coast.
Although most of Russia's landmass is in Asia, much of the Russian population lives in the European part of the country. About 77% of Russia’s 143 million people live in the territory that lies in Europe. This includes Russia's most populous city, Moscow, which is still the country's capital. It has more than 12 million residents, making it the second-most populous city in Europe. Other large cities in the European part of Russia include St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Kazan, and Rostov-on-Don.
Over 190 ethnic groups currently reside within Russia, although over the past few centuries, systematic genocides have wreaked havoc on many of the former populations that called the region home. This expansion by force, up until the 19th century, is fresh on the minds of groups forced to migrate into the Ottoman Empire, such as the people of Circassia. Many people in Russia are Slavic, who predominantly live in the western region, while Mongol and Turkic heritage is also common. Other groups like the Tatars, Bashkirs, Chuvash, and Chechens are ethnic minorities.
Today, Russia is a diverse country in which the customs and traditions of both Europe and Asia thrive. More than three-quarters of the country’s population is Russian by ethnicity. Yet ethnic Russians are only one of the many ethnic groups in the Russian Federation. Many of these groups, such as the Karelians, Mordovians, and Udmurts are, like the ethnic Russians, European in origin; whereas other ethnic groups are Asian in origin, including the Buryats and the Yakuts, who live in the eastern portion of Siberia. The largest minority group in Russia today is the Tatars (or Tartars), a group of Turkic-speaking people, whose origins lie in present-day Mongolia. Expressions of Russian culture are typically found in diverse literature, ballet, painting, and classical music.
Many countries have made the mistake of believing that Russia’s size is also its weakness, which in theory would allow many vulnerabilities during times of war. Rather, history has proven that attempts to conquer the nation have proved fruitless because of its unforgiving scale, not in spite of it. French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte lost over 400,000 soldiers while attempting to occupy Moscow. The Russians burned and abandoned the city as a strong statement of solidarity with their national identity, in 1812. In World War II, Hitler’s forces made the same mistake and suffered similar results. It is evident that when Russians stand together for their greater good, they can achieve marvels despite differences in their geographic or cultural backgrounds.