Europe’s Far East – The Ural Mountains: Vast, Vital & All But Forgotten

Where does Europe begin and where does it end? This is an open ended question with no easy answer. The answer can vary, depending upon politics, culture, linguistics, economics or any number of other parameters. When it comes to geography, the popular conception for the northern end of Europe is likely to be somewhere above the Arctic Circle in Scandinavia or Russia. For the south, the answer might be Greece. For the west, most people would probably say Ireland or even Iceland. As for the east, there is a simple yet rarely known natural line of demarcation, the Ural Mountains.

The Ural Mountains of Russia stretch 2500km north to south - from the Arctic to the border with Kazakhstan

The Ural Mountains of Russia stretch 2500km north to south – from the Arctic to the border with Kazakhstan

No Line On The Horizon – Sizing Up European Russia
It is not surprising that Russia contains two of Europe’s frontiers. Russia is massive, even if one does not include the 75% of the nation that lies east of the Urals and is part of Asia. European Russia dwarfs all other European countries in size, for that matter it dwarfs all of Europe. It is over six times the size of the second largest country in Europe, its neighbor Ukraine. Another way of looking at it is that almost two-thirds (64%) of Europe is in Russia. Yet when the world looks at Russia, it probably only thinks of two places: Moscow and St. Petersburg. These are not only the largest cities in the country, but also the political, financial and cultural nerve centers of Russia. They have no equal, in either the western imagination or for that matter, the Russian one.

Conversely, there is a whole lot more to European Russia than these two cities, everything from the Volga River Region to the Caucuses, with Europe’s most towering peaks. Yet the Ural Mountains are all but unknown. Perhaps it is because they are not all that noticeable on a map. This is because they are part of, as well as surrounded by, the world’s largest land mass, Eurasia. Nonetheless, this far eastern boundary of Europe has exerted a dramatic influence over Europe, Russia and world history during the last one hundred years. Even if few know of the Urals and even fewer visit them, this makes them no less important.

The Ural Mountains form the natural border of Far Eastern Europe

The Ural Mountains form the natural border of Far Eastern Europe

The End of Old Europe – The Building Of A New One
The largest city in the Urals is Yekaterinburg. This was where the last Tsar, Nicholas II along with his family, was murdered in 1918. Far away from the splendor and traditions of imperial Russia, here in the Urals largest city, the Romanov dynasty came to an end. The bodies ended up being thrown down a shaft at the Four Brothers Mine, 25 miles outside the city amid the forests of the Urals. To this day, there continue to be questions over the exact events. In this region, not so easily accessed then or now, the air of intrigue is still pervasive. The frosty silence that permeates these low mountains, does not give up its secrets so easily. What is known though, a symbolic piece of the old European aristocratic order, Tsardom, was eradicated forever in the heart of the Urals.

From the beginning of the 20th century right up to its midpoint, the Urals were often a transit point on a path that led to exile, imprisonment or even worse further to the east. Less known, is that these mountains sheltered the strength of the Soviet Union during World War II. Over a thousand factories in western Russia were disassembled and railroaded into the Urals where they were put back together with astonishing speed. They produced thousands upon thousands of rockets, tanks and planes that were used to roll back the tide of German militarism. For those who believe that if the Germans had taken Moscow, they would have been victorious during World War II, the Urals provide a strong antidote to such historical counterfactuals. The industrial might of the Soviet Union was replicated here, fifteen hundred kilometers east of Moscow in cities such as Magnitogorsk and Chelyabinsk. To gain total ascendency over the Soviet Union and complete conquest of Europe would have meant rolling all the way into the Urals. This distance would have been extremely difficult to cross with an army, even in the maddest of imaginations. In the shadow of these low lying mountains the counter strength of the Soviet Army was being marshalled. Once unleashed, this force came roaring straight out of the European Far East and swept all before it. Eastern and Central Europe would never be the same.

After the war ended, the Soviets decided to continue industrializing the Urals, this time it was to become the heart of a nuclear military industrial complex. Five of the ten Soviet secret nuclear cities, were located in the Urals region, hubs of industrial and scientific strength. The Urals were just the place for “secret” cities, since the mountain range was scarcely known and extremely vast, over 2,500 kilometers of lakes, woods and rocks, stretching from the Arctic all the way to Kazakhstan. Closed to outsiders, including almost all Soviet citizens, these cities were where much of the Soviet nuclear arsenal was constructed. Amidst one of the world’s oldest mountain ranges, these cities strove to create the materials and devices that could possibly lead to the destruction of humanity.

The Europe & Asia Border Monument at Pervouralsk in the Ural Mountains

The Europe & Asia Border Monument at Pervouralsk in the Ural Mountains

Vital & Forgotten – Europe’s Far Eastern Border & The Future
The Cold War ended over two decades ago and the “secret” cities have long since been opened, but the Urals have remained a distant and distinct geographical entity, a world away from the European consciousness. Far away from Russia’s more famous tourist tracks, unless one lives nearby or transits the Urals, they are barely noticed. That does not mean they are no less vital to Russia’s economic and industrial strength. These ancient mountains hold innumerable minerals and ores that are of great economic value. Resource extraction fuels the Russian economy and the Urals are a focal point for these endeavors. The Urals will continue to be mined for their bountiful, buried treasure, they will continue to host millions of Russians and they will continue to provide the border between Europe and Asia. And hardly anyone will even notice.