The concept of “Eastern Europe” has its roots in both culture and geography. The four countries included in this treatment of the region -Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova- do indeed form the eastern part of Europe.
For much of the 20th century, they were joined as part of the Soviet Union, but since December 1991, they have existed as four separate countries. The smallest and southernmost is Moldova, north of the Black Sea but landlocked.
Russia, the largest country in the world, occupies not only a huge portion of Eastern Europe, but also the northern part of the continent of Asia. Ukraine and Belarus are sandwiched between Russia and Central Europe.
During the post–World War II Communist era, the term “Eastern Europe” carried a different meaning. It designated the six European countries whose Communist regimes were dominated by the Soviet Union: East Germany in the northwest, which was reunified with West Germany, or the Federal Republic of Germany in 1989; Poland; Czechoslovakia, which in 1993 split into two countries: the Czech Republic and Slovakia); Hungary; Romania; and Bulgaria.
Geographically, this use of the term Eastern Europe was incorrect. These former Communist countries are actually located in Central Europe and the northern part of the Balkan Peninsula.
Most of Eastern Europe is a vast, low-lying plain, bordering several seas: in the north, the White and Barents Seas; in the west, the Baltic Sea; and in the south, the Black and Caspian Seas. There are mountainous areas in western Ukraine, and some rolling hills west of Moscow and west of the Volga River.
To the south, the European continent borders Asia along the Caucasus Mountains, and to the east, the European-Asian boundary traditionally runs along the Ural Mountains and the Ural River, which ultimately empties into the Caspian Sea.
The majority of people living in this part of Europe belong to the group known as eastern Slavs -Russians (sometimes referred to as Great Russians), Ukrainians, and Belarusians. Most of the inhabitants of Moldova are related to Romanians and speak essentially the same language. Romanian is a Romance language; thus Moldovans are the easternmost speakers of this vast branch of the Indo-European language family.
Smaller ethnic groups include Turkic Gagauz in Moldova, Turkic Tatars in the Crimea, Slavic Ruthenians in western Ukraine, and Sami (or Lapps) in Russia's Kola Peninsula. The long-standing Jewish communities in Eastern Europe began to shrink in the late 19th century with the notorious “pogroms” of the Russian Empire.
These were organized semiofficial massacres of entire villages, which in turn led to massive emigration to the United States. During World War II, Nazi Germany invaded this region and was responsible for the death of many of the remaining Jews. Another Jewish exodus came in the 1970s and 1980s.
For most of the 20th century, until 1991, Eastern Europe's economies were controlled from Moscow. Since then, the region has struggled to emerge from the specialized roles that they held under the Soviet Union.
Ukraine's fertile black soil allowed it to provide approximately one-fourth of Soviet agriculture; Moldova was a leading supplier of wine and tobacco; Belarus served as an industrial center.
Russia had been the economic center of the region, controlling the inefficient centralized system. Even after independence, the economies of all the countries continue to be loosely interlinked. Russia remains a top trading partner and is the chief energy supplier for the region.
All the countries in the region have taken major steps to modernize and open their economies. But the Russian and Belarusian governments have recently reasserted control over parts of the private sector.
As a whole, the region showed a healthy economic growth rate of more than 6 percent a year after 2004. However, the dependence of Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine on Russia for energy supplies made those countries vulnerable to Russia.
Beginning in late 2008, moreover, the international financial crisis and ensuing economic decline ushered in major problems. Ukraine was particularly badly affected, experiencing one of the worst economic contractions in the world. Even resource-rich Russia was seriously hurt by falling oil and natural gas prices.
Although the region began to recover from this downturn, growth was very slow. Russia's dependence on its energy sector again became a liability when oil prices plunged in 2014-2015. This was seen as a major problem for future economic growth.
The first political entity in Eastern Europe was the Kievan Rus, or Russia, which arose during the second half of the 9th century and lasted until the Mongol conquest in the early 13th century.
According to legend, around 860 A.D., Slavic and Finnish tribes of northern Russia invited Danish Viking chieftain Rurik to “come and rule” over them. Rurik first came to Novgorod, and, somewhat later, his descendants founded the Kievan state.
The Mongols from central Asia swept over Eastern Europe between 1236 and 1240, and then ruled the region for 250 years. Their influence and the way it shaped the society is a primary reason that this part of Europe developed along so different a course from that of the west.
In the 14th and 15th centuries, a small area around Moscow (or Muscovy) gradually extricated itself from Mongol rule and began to expand in all directions. This was the beginning of the Russian Empire, which lasted until the revolution of 1917.
During the 18th century, most of the area of the three smaller countries in this group came under Russian domination and remained part of the Russian, and later Soviet, Empire until 1991.
For years, the Russian czarist empire was highly autocratic. Following the abolition of serfdom in 1861 (two years before the abolition of slavery in the United States), a gradual change for the better began. A small class of independent farmers arose, and arts, literature, and science flourished.
By the early 20th century, even some small elements of political democracy had appeared. This gradual inching toward a modern society was cut short -first by World War I and then by the Bolshevik takeover in November 1917.
The 20th century was much worse for Eastern Europe than was the Mongol domination; tens of millions of Soviet citizens perished, both as victims of political persecution and as casualties of World War II.
The post-Soviet developments have been difficult. For many people, democracy came to mean chaos, criminality, and lack of order. Some of the reforms initiated in the 1990s have also been undone in Russia and Belarus. Russia fiercely suppressed separatist insurgencies in the autonomous republics of the North Caucasus, particularly in Chechnya and later in Ingushetia.
At the same time, it has encouraged the separatism of the self-proclaimed Transnistrian Republic, the section of Moldova east of the Dniester River whose population is predominantly Slavic.
The relationship between Ukraine and Russia proved particularly thorny. Torn between its historical association with Russia and a desire to join the European Union (EU), Ukraine descended into civil war in 2014.
The crisis was touched off by the ousting of the pro-Russian president early in 2014. Russia responded by annexing Crimea outright. It then encouraged pro-Russian factions in eastern Ukraine to break away from the rest of the country. Russian troops appeared to be involved in the fighting in eastern Ukraine, although Russia denied it.
Despite periodic cease-fires, fighting continued in Ukraine. Russian interference in Ukraine was almost universally condemned by the international community and contributed to a rise in tension between East and West.