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.

The End of the Beginning – Tsar Nicholas II’s Abdication & Pskov

Just after 9:00 p.m. on March 15, 1917 at a railroad siding in the city of Pskov in western Russia, two men entered the Imperial train of Russian Tsar Nicholas II. These men had come to ask for Nicholas’s abdication from the throne. Soon after they began speaking, Nicholas intervened. In a calm and stoic manner he stated, “I have decided to renounce my throne today.” Not long after these words left his lips, Nicholas removed himself from the room in order to write an abdication manifesto. When he returned over an hour later, Nicholas handed over a document which said among other things, Internal popular disturbances threaten to have a disastrous effect on the future conduct of this persistent war… In these decisive days in the life of Russia, we thought it our duty of conscience to facilitate for our people the closest union possible and a consolidation of all national forces for the speedy attainment of victory. In agreement with the Imperial Duma, we have thought it well to renounce the Throne of the Russian Empire and to lay down the supreme power.”

Pskov Railway Station - point of abdication

Pskov Railway Station – point of abdication

From Autocracy to Anarchy –From Witness To Experience
Since that time, much has been made of the fact that Nicholas’s abdication brought an end to over three hundred years of Romanov rule over Russia. While that is certainly true, of even greater consequence was that the abdication sent Russia into a spiral of chaos, lurching wildly from autocracy to anarchy. It took five epically violent years for the chaos to subside and solidify into a communist dictatorship. This was not the end though, greater catastrophes were to follow. At the time, Nicholas’s abdication manifesto struck an official and patriotic tone – a version that the Provisional Government saw fit to suppress. Meanwhile, remarks Nicholas made in his private diary at the end of that same night would turn out to be much more prescient. He scrawled, “All around me I see treason, cowardice and deceit.” What Nicholas saw was his recent past, but he might as well have been predicting the future of Russia. Ironically, this sentence by Nicholas could have been written by its forthcoming leaders, the ultimate ideologue, Vladimir Lenin and the ultimate dictator, Josef Stalin.

In retrospect, of all the words in Nicholas’s abdication manifesto, “the speedy attainment of victory” was the one phrase furthest from what actually occurred. In the decades following the abdication, Russia experienced an unfathomable degree of loss. One of the places where the loss was greatest, happened to be where Nicholas abdicated, Pskov. Pskov’s brush with one of the most important historical events of the 20th century was brief. Nicholas’s train moved out that night, never to return. The last Tsar might as well have taken peace with him. The city had unwittingly been a silent witness to history. It would now move from witness to experience. Historical forces would transform the area over the next thirty years, leaving wounds that irreparably scarred Pskov and from which it has never quite recovered. With the fall of Tsarism, a violent array of competing armies, nationalities and ideologies spent the following three decades passing through, occupying or attempting to destroy Pskov.

Soviet soldiers surrendered all across Belarus, including Pskov, as the German Army swept through the area

Soviet soldiers surrendered all across Belarus, including Pskov, as the German Army swept through the area

Birthrights to Blood Rites
The Soviets left the most lasting impression, but not before they vanished and reappeared on multiple occasions. It was a historical act worthy of magic, black magic. They fought revolution, civil war and two world wars in the streets of Pskov. They just could not leave it alone. Neither could many others. To be on this eastern borderland of Europe was to be constantly vulnerable. Pskov was not so much a birthright as a blood rite. Consider the life of a Pskovian born in 1914. By their thirtieth birthday they would have experienced three foreign occupations, two World Wars and one of the deadliest dictatorships in human history. Rather than give medals to anyone surviving this endless succession of cataclysms, many got the Gulag instead. Pskov was too close to the enemy without and within.

Twice during the 20th century the German Army occupied the area. The first occupation, following the end of the Great War on the Eastern Front, was relatively benign. This iteration of Germanity was more interested in extraction than execution. Pskov happened to be on one of the main rail routes the German Imperial Army used to ferret out men and material from the east. It was all done in vain, supporting an army fighting towards defeat on the western front. Less than a quarter century later, the experience was different, not by degrees, but by extremes. In the intervening years the German Army had morphed into a juggernaut. Pskov and its surroundings were soon overrun. In the army’s wake came the virulent ideological strain of Nazism.

From July to July, 1941 through 1944, the city’s inhabitants experienced thirty six months of pure hell. This time the occupier’s war aims were both ideological and racial. They wanted to cleanse and purify Pskov as well as the vast lands beyond of both Slav and Jew. The latter were all but executed by any means available. The former suffered horrible excesses, but reappeared with a vengeance three years and tens of thousands of lives later. Pskov was never the same again. It had lost a huge proportion of its population. In the aftermath of the war, the Soviet’s poured in resources to the rebuilding effort. The Stalinist architecture was soulless, an attempt to reshape the city in forms of concrete. Pskov never returned to the prosperity it had enjoyed before the thirty years of catastrophe which had engulfed it. Eventually with the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union it went back to its distant past, as a border city. Today it is just a fifteen minute drive from the Estonian border, but in a larger sense it is a world away. It belongs to Russia and for better or worse always has. As shown by its calamitous 20th century history it probably always will.

Plaque at the Pskov Railway Station - noting Tsar Nicholas's abdication

Plaque at the Pskov Railway Station – noting Tsar Nicholas’s abdication

The End of the Beginning
Today, on a wall of the Pskov Railway station a historical plaque has been mounted which states that the Last Tsar, Nicholas II abdicated at here in March 1917. That is an interesting fact, but does not do justice to the importance of the event. What that plaque does not say is that the Tsar’s abdication at Pskov was not really about the end of something, but instead the beginning of much worse. The importance of Pskov in the historical drama of Russia’s 20th century is not just what happened here, but what was to come.