The Essence of Eastern Europe: Part 1

January 29, 2011

The term Eastern Europe alone can conjure up many feelings, often wildly variant depending on the person hearing it. Everybody who has traveled in both Western and Eastern Europe immediately knows the distinction, largely based on “feeling” rather than anything else. While the two certainly are geographical concepts at their most basic level, there is an underlying attitude between them that creates a schism through Central Europe.

First, I’m going to make sure we’re all on the same page in terms of borders before I move onto the second part of this post. There is a band that runs north-south through the center of Europe that encompasses a few countries. Countries within this band are often categorized as Central Europe. To the east of this band is Eastern Europe, and I’m betting you can guess what lies to the west. Geographically, the countries that comprise this band are Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, Slovenia, and Hungary. The first thing you’ll notice is that this is not a clear-cut definition: The width of Poland occupies all of Central Europe while stretching easily into Eastern Europe as well; Hungary is just as far east as Serbia or Macedonia yet it’s typically considered Central Europe rather than Eastern Europe; Greece is considerably further east than Montenegro, yet it’s often lumped in with Western Europe in guidebooks. The list goes on and on, and serves as a good reminder that the distinction between Western and Eastern Europe is not purely geographical, yet the Ukraine is undeniably Eastern while France is undeniably Western… the gray area is in the middle.

The best way to define whether or not a country is in Eastern or Western Europe is to go there and see for yourself. Don’t pay attention to where it is on the map, just see what it feels like. Warsaw, for example, feels much more Eastern European than say, Budapest or Vienna, but they’re all in Central Europe. The previous few paragraphs are essentially a really long-winded way of saying that Eastern Europe is a socioeconomic rather than a geographical construct.

I think, at one point, EU borders would have been a fairly good distinction point between the two zones, perhaps pre-1995 EU, leaving out Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and all those “Eastern” countries. Nowadays, it’s not really feasible to say that EU countries are Western Europe. Walk the streets of Bucharest or Sofia and you might be shocked to discover that they are indeed EU capitols.

In my next post I’ll talk about what I think it is that makes Eastern Europe what it is.

2 Responses to “The Essence of Eastern Europe: Part 1”

  1. You’ve missed Northern and Southern Europe. Serbia is in Central and Southern.

    • ibarrere Says:

      Indeed, however, that’s complexity that I don’t really want to get into in this post. My geographic analysis is certainly over-simplified, but I wanted to present it in such a way to focus on the differences between west and east. To your average “non-Europeaner” the distinction is most visible between the east and the west. Maybe I’ll save Northern and Southern Europe for when I move to Helsinki.

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