When a country has borders with Poland in the West and Japan in the East, it gives rise to the question – just what continent is Russia in? Is Russia in Europe or Asia? Or is it in both continents at the same time?
The quick and simple answer is that, because the Ural Mountains form the boundary between the two continents and mark the unofficial border between Asia and Europe, Russia is a part of two continents – Russia is in both Europe and Asia.
But the detailed answer is slightly more complex that just considering where is Russia located geographically. To deal with it properly we need to look more carefully at Russia’s geography, its history, its politics and its culture.
Last updated: 27 June 2016.
Is Russia in Europe or Asia geographically?
Although Russia is thought of by many people as a European country, almost three quarters of its landmass is actually in Asia, east of the Urals. A more pertinent question might be – is Russia in Asia?
It is usually accepted that the Ural Mountains mark the border between Europe and Asia. Anything to the west of the Urals is considered to be in Europe and everywhere on the Eastern side of the range is considered to be in Asia.
Russia is a massive country – 17,098,242 square kilometres in size. But only about 4 million square kilometres of Russia are in Europe, west of the Urals. The remaining 13 million square kilometers, including Siberia and the Russian Far East are in Asian Russia.
European Russia is much more densely populated than the rest of Russia, though. About 75% of the Russian population lives in European Russia. Population density in European Russia is around 27 people per square kilometer, whereas in Asian Russia contains just 2.5 people per square kilometer.
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.
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What other countries are in more than one continent?
Russia is one of a select number of countries in the world that are located in more than one continent. The other famous example of a transcontinental state is Turkey, which is also in both Europe and Asia. Istanbul, the largest city in Turkey, is one of the few examples of cities which are located in multiple continents.
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 because it straddles the Suez Canal is in both Africa and Asia, and Greece, which is mostly in Europe, but has a couple of islands near Turkey, in Asia.
Did Russia once span three continents?
Historically, Russia is one of the few countries in the world that has held territory in three continents at the same time.
As well as its European and Asian territory, Russia held territory in North American in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, through the auspices of the Russian American Company. Quite a few Russian colonies were founded in Alaska, as well as a number of others along the western seaboard of North America, going as far south as Fort Russ (now Fort Ross) in 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.
How has Russian territory changed over the years
Watch this video to see how Russia’s borders have ebbed and flowed over the centuries. It shows whether Russia is in Europe or Asia with an animated map.
At times the Russian government has controlled only small amounts of territory in European Russia, often around the Moscow area. Whereas, at other times, its reach has expanded into Poland in West and North America in the East.
Is Russia a part of Europe or Asia politically and culturally?
The split between two Russia’s two identities has been a major factor in Russian politics and has shaped 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 modernisers of Russian history. Until Peter’s arrival, Russia was a landlocked, and generally not well respected country.
Peter believed that Russia could not hope to be a great power without looking outwards, and so he traveled across Europe to learn about new technologies and ways of organising society. He took many of these new developments back to Russia, and his vision was instrumental in turning Russia into a strong country and a major player in 16th century Europe.
The debate became formalised, and entrenched, in 1840s and 1850s when two opposing intellectual movements began to take shape. On the one hand were the Westernizers, who advocated building Russian society along Western, European lines. And, on the other hand were the Slavophiles, who wanted Russia to accept its uniqueness and develop its own, distinct way of doing things – their vision was a more traditional, less individualistic society.
Since then, every Russian leader has faced the dilemma of whether to build closer links to Europe, or Asia, and Russia has often see-sawed between the two approaches. As a result, Russia has developed in a way that doesn’t quite fit either vision.
A modern example of this tension is the different approaches taken by two of Russia’s most recent Presidents – Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin. While Yeltsin adopted Western free-market economic policies at the end of the Cold War, Putin’s Russia is characterised by a more centralised form of State Capitalism, combined with an assertive foreign policy.
Perhaps this tension is one of the reasons why many 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.
Is Moscow in Europe or Asia?
Moscow, the capital city of Russia, sits at the Western point of Russia, close to the country’s borders with Ukraine, Belarus and Estonia and with the Ural Mountains several hundred miles to the east.
So, the answer to the question ‘is Moscow in Europe or Asia?’ is that Moscow is comfortably in the European part of Russia.
The majority of major Russian cities lie to the east of the Ural Mountain range – for example, St Petersburg, Samara and Kazan are all comfortably in European Russia.
A number of other cities lie just to the East of the Urals. The most prominent example is Novosibirsk, the third largest city in Russia, which is home to 1.5 million people. It lies just 30 miles east of the mountain range that separates the two continents. This leads many to claim that Novosibirsk is a city on the border between Europe and Asia.
The only other major city on the border between Europe and Asia is actually in Turkey. Istanbul straddles the Bosphorus Strait, another geographical boundary between Europe and Asia, and has its northern sector in Europe and its southern sector in Asia.
Is Russia in the EU?
No. Russia is not a member of the EU (European Union) and has no plans to join the EU.
Russia and the EU have strong trading links, and in 2014 50% of Russia’s exports were sent to EU states – notably in the form of gas and oil exports.
At the time of writing (2016), EU-Russia relations are tense because of the conflict. The EU has imposed sanctions on Russia and, in return, Russia has imposed a ban on importing food from EU member states. The sanctions have not dramatically affected trade between Europe and Russia, however.
Formal relationships between Russia and the EU are governed by a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement which was signed in June 1994.
Is Russia in NATO?
No. Russia is not a member of NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization).
The relationship between Russia and NATO was positive in the 1990s and early 2000s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A number of Western and Russian leaders even suggested that Russia should join NATO.
Russia did join the NATO Partnership for Peace program in 1994 and in 2002 a Russia-NATO council was formed to handle joint security issues.
In recent years, however, relations between the two organisations have soured and on 1 April 2014 NATO suspended co-operation with Russia. Relationships have further worsened during the conflict in Ukraine.
The Russian government has instead focused on developing the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a security, military and political organization whose members are Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.