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Eastern Europe

Eastern Europe is the eastern part of the European continent. The term has widely disparate geopolitical, geographical, cultural and socioeconomic readings, which makes it highly context-dependent and even volatile, and there are "almost as many definitions of Eastern Europe as there are scholars of the region".[1] A related United Nations paper adds that "every assessment of spatial identities is essentially a social and cultural construct".[2]

One definition describes Eastern Europe as a cultural (and econo-cultural) entity: the region lying in Europe with main characteristics consisting in Byzantine, Orthodox and minor and limited Ottoman influences.[2][3]

Another definition, considered outdated by several authors,[4][5][6][7][8] was created during the Cold War and used more or less synonymously with the term Eastern Bloc. A similar definition names the formerly communist European states outside the Soviet Union as Eastern Europe.[3]

Eastern Europe, home of the bulk of world Jewry until the 1940s,[9] is the birthplace of Hasidic Judaism, Litvak Judaism and several Orthodox churches.



Regions used for statistical processing purposes by the United Nations Statistics Division (Eastern Europe marked red) : CIA World Factbook Pre-1989 division between the "West" (grey) and "Eastern Bloc" (orange) superimposed on current borders: Russia (dark orange), other countries formerly part of the USSR (medium orange), members of the Warsaw Pact (light orange), and other former Communist regimes not aligned with Moscow (lightest orange). Several definitions of Eastern Europe exist today, but they often lack precision or are extremely general. These definitions vary both across cultures and among experts, even political scientists, recently becoming more and more imprecise.[10]


  • The United Nations Statistics Division developed a selection of geographical regions and groupings of countries and areas, which are or may be used in compilation of statistics. In this collection, the following ten countries were classified as Eastern Europe:[11][12] Belarus, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Ukraine. The assignment of countries or areas to specific groupings is for statistical convenience and does not imply any assumption regarding political or other affiliation of countries or territories by the United Nations.[13] Rather than being geographically correct, the United Nations' definition encompasses all the states which were once under the Soviet Union's realm of influence and were part of the Warsaw Pact.
  • The United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names (UNGEGN) was set up to consider the technical problems of domestic standardization of geographical names. The Group is composed of experts from various linguistic/geographical divisions that have been established at the UN Conferences on the Standardization of Geographical Names.
  1. Eastern Europe, Northern and Central Asia Division:[14] Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bulgaria, Georgia, Russian Federation, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Ukraine
  2. East Central and South-East Europe Division:[14]Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Macedonia, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine
  3. Romano-Hellenic Division:[14] Fourteen countries[15] including Belgium, Cyprus, France, Greece, Holy See, Italy, Luxembourg, Monaco, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, Romania and Moldova
  4. Baltic Division:[14] Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania
  • Other agencies of the United Nations (like UNAIDS,[16] UNHCR,[17] ILO[18] or UNICEF)[19] divide Europe into different regions and variously assign various states to those regions.

European Union

The Multilingual Thesaurus of the European Union[20] defines the following countries geographically located in

  • Central and Eastern Europe: Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Georgia, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine;
  • Southern Europe: Cyprus, Greece, Vatican City State, Italy, Malta, Portugal, San Marino, Spain.


The Ural Mountains are the geographical border on the eastern edge of Europe. In the west, however, the cultural and religious boundaries are subject to considerable overlap and, most importantly, have undergone historical fluctuations, which make a precise definition of the western boundaries of Eastern Europe somewhat difficult.

Political and cultural

One view of the present boundaries of Eastern Europe came into being during the final stages of World War II. The area eventually came to encompass all the European countries which were under Soviet influence. These countries had communist governments, and neutral countries were classified by the nature of their political regimes. The Cold War increased the number of reasons for the division of Europe into two parts along the borders of NATO and Warsaw Pact states. (See: The Cold War section)

A competing view excludes from the definition of Eastern Europe states that are historically and culturally different, constituting part of the so-called Western world. This usually refers to Central Europe and the Baltic states which have significantly different political, religious, cultural, and economic histories from their eastern neighbors. (See: Classical antiquity and medieval origins section)

Contemporary developments

The fall of the Iron Curtain brought the end of the East-West division in Europe,[21] but this geopolitical concept is sometimes still used for quick reference by the media.[22]

The Baltic states

The Baltic states were widely recognised as occupied by the former Soviet Union and are EU members. They can be included in definitions of Eastern Europe in being situated between Western Europe and Russia and, geographically, in Northern Europe. However, they are generally considered Western European based on cultural, historical, and religious factors.[23][24]


The Caucasian states can be included in definitions of Eastern Europe with reference to its Soviet membership and its legacy as well. These countries participate in European Union's Eastern Partnership Program. These countries are members of Council of Europe.

Other former Soviet states

Several other former Soviet republics are considered to be part of Eastern Europe in both a political and a cultural sense.

  • is a transcontinental country in Central Asia and Eastern Europe, the vast majority of its territory being located in central Asia.[25]

Central Europe

Most Central European states had communist governments implemented during the Cold War but became EU members. In the post-Iron Curtain era, the label Eastern European can be regarded as derogatory in a Central European context, especially since the enlightened concept of Central Europe survived the "Great Russian Chauvinism," and ethnocentric, political oppression that lasted since the end of World War II. In the words of historian Timothy Garton Ash, "Central Europe had triumphed" in 1989, and continues to solidify its presence on the geopolitical map of the world, as evidenced by the Visegrad 4 Group (V4). "Capitalism against Communism can no longer be used to clarify difference; instead vague and imprecise definitions exist. These too, are slowly being eroded as Eastern and Western Europe merge into a single 'Europe'".[26] The following countries are still being labeled Eastern European by some commentators (in the former geopolitical sense, due to their Communist past) and as Central European by others (in the sense of occupying a niche between Western and Eastern Europe in terms of economy, history, religion, and culture).[23][24][27]

  • (reunified, now Germany)
  • is most often placed in Central Europe but sometimes in Southeastern Europe.[28]

Southeastern Europe

Most South-eastern European states did not belong to the Eastern Bloc (save Bulgaria, Romania, and for a short time, Albania) although some of them were represented in the Cominform. Only some of them can be included in the classical former political definition of Eastern Europe. Due to cultural diversity of the region, affiliation of individual countries may be difficult. All of these states except Bulgaria, Romania and usually Slovenia can be considered as being in Southern Europe.[11] However, most can be characterized as belonging to South-eastern Europe, but some of them may also be included in Central Europe or Eastern Europe.[29]

  • belongs to Southeastern Europe.
  • may be included in Southeastern Europe
  • is in the central part of the Balkans,may be included in Southeastern Europe, but also Eastern Europe in the Cold War context
  • may be included in Southeastern Europe and Central Europe.
  • belongs to Southwest Asia (Middle East), but because of its political, cultural and historical ties with Europe, it may be included into Southeastern Europe.
  • may be included in Southeastern[30] and Southern Europe, but the country does not form part of Eastern Europe in the geopolitical sense nor in the colloquial sense.
  • belongs to Southeastern Europe. Its status as an independent country is still a matter of much dispute. See: International recognition of Kosovo.
  • belongs to Southeastern Europe.
  • belongs to Southeastern Europe.
  • can be included in Eastern Europe in the Cold War context, but is commonly referred to as belonging to Southeastern Europe[31] or Central Europe.[32]
  • may be included in Southeastern Europe and Central Europe.
  • lies partially in Southeastern Europe: the region known as East Thrace, which constitutes 3% of the country's total land mass, lies west of the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara, and the Bosphorus.


Classical antiquity and medieval origins

The earliest known distinctions between east and west in Europe originate in the history of the Roman Republic. As the Roman domain expanded, a cultural and linguistic division appeared between the mainly Greek-speaking eastern provinces which had formed the highly urbanized Hellenistic civilization. In contrast the western territories largely adopted the Latin language. This cultural and linguistic division was eventually reinforced by the later political east-west division of the Roman Empire.

The division between these two spheres was enhanced during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages by a number of events. The Western Roman Empire collapsed starting the Early Middle Ages. By contrast, the Eastern Roman Empire, mostly known as the Byzantine Empire, managed to survive and even to thrive for another 1,000 years. The rise of the Frankish Empire in the west, and in particular the Great Schism that formally divided Eastern and Western Christianity, enhanced the cultural and religious distinctiveness between Eastern and Western Europe. Much of Eastern Europe was invaded and occupied by the Mongols.

The conquest of the Byzantine Empire, center of the Eastern Orthodox Church, by the Muslim Ottoman Empire in the 15th century, and the gradual fragmentation of the Holy Roman Empire (which had replaced the Frankish empire) led to a change of the importance of Roman Catholic/Protestant vs. Eastern Orthodox concept in Europe, although even modern authors sometimes state that Eastern Europe is, strictly speaking, that part of Europe where the Greek and/or the Bulgarian Cyrillic alphabet is used (Greece, Cyprus, Serbia, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia).

The Cold war divides Europe into the Eastern and Western bloc

During the final stages of WWII the future of Europe was decided between the Allies at the 1945 Yalta Conference, between the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Winston Churchill, the President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and the Premier of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin.

Post-war Europe would be mostly polarized between two major spheres: the mainly capitalist Western Bloc, and the mainly communist Eastern Bloc. With the onset of the Cold War, Europe was divided by the Iron Curtain.

This term had been used during World War II by German Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and later Count Lutz Schwerin von Krosigk in the last days of the war; however, its use was hugely popularised by Winston Churchill, who used it in his famous "Sinews of Peace" address March 5, 1946 at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri:

As the Cold War continued the use of the term Central Europe declined. Although some countries were officially neutral, they were classified according to the nature of their political and economical systems. This division largely defined the popular perception and understanding of Eastern Europe and its borders with Western Europe till this day, along with the increasing polarization of the West-East relationship.

Eastern Bloc

The political borders of Eastern Europe were largely defined by the Cold War. The Iron Curtain separated the members of the Warsaw Pact (in red) from the European members of NATO (in blue). Dark gray indicates members of the Non-Aligned Movement and light gray indicates other neutral countries. Eastern Europe was mainly composed of all the European countries liberated and then occupied by the Soviet army. It included the German Democratic Republic (also known as East Germany), formed by the Soviet occupation zone of Germany. All the countries in Eastern Europe adopted communist modes of government. These countries were officially independent from the Soviet Union, but the practical extent of this independence - except in Yugoslavia, Albania, and to some extent Romania - was quite limited.

Under pressure from Stalin these nations rejected to receive funds from the Marshall plan. Instead they participated in the Molotov Plan which later evolved into the Comecon (Council for Mutual Economic Assistance). As NATO was created, most countries of Eastern Europe, became members of the opposing Warsaw Pact, forming a geopolitical concept that became known as Eastern Bloc.

  • First and foremost was the Soviet Union (which included the modern-day territories of Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova). Other countries dominated by the Soviet Union were the German Democratic Republic, People's Republic of Poland, Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, People's Republic of Hungary, People's Republic of Bulgaria and Socialist Republic of Romania.
  • The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (formed after WWII and before its later dismemberment) was not a member of the Warsaw Pact. It was a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement, an organization created in an attempt to avoid being assigned to any of the two blocs. The movement was demonstratively independent from both the Soviet Union and the Western bloc for most of the Cold War period, allowing Yugoslavia and its other members to act as a business and political mediator between the blocs.
  • Socialist People's Republic of Albania broke with the Soviet Union in the early 1960s as a result of the Sino-Soviet split, aligning itself instead with China. Albania formally left the Warsaw pact in September 1968, after the suppression of the Prague spring. When China established diplomatic relations with the United States in 1978, Albania also broke with China. Albania and especially Yugoslavia were not unanimously appended to the Eastern Bloc, as they were neutral for a large part of the Cold War period.

Since 1989

Following disappearance of the Iron Curtain, the political situation has changed and some of the former members of the Warsaw Pact joined NATO. With the Fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 the political landscape of the Eastern Bloc, and indeed of the world, changed. In the German reunification, the Federal Republic of Germany peacefully absorbed the German Democratic Republic in 1990. COMECON and the Warsaw Pact were dissolved, and in 1991, the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

Many European nations which had been part of the Soviet Union regained their independence (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Ukraine, Belarus).

Czechoslovakia peacefully separated into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993.

The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) fell apart, creating new nations in 1992: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) and Macedonia (see Breakup of Yugoslavia). FRY was later renamed to Serbia and Montenegro and, in 2006, it broke up into these two countries.

Many countries of this region joined the European Union, namely Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. Three other states, Croatia, Macedonia and Montenegro are currently negotiating membership in the EU.

See also

  • Slavic Europe
  • Enlargement of the European Union
  • N-ost
  • Russian explorers
  • Geography of the Soviet Union

European geography:

  • Central Europe
  • East-Central Europe
  • Southeast Europe
  • Eastern European Group
  • Western Europe
  • Geographical midpoint of Europe


Further reading

  • Susan Gal and Gail Kligman, The Politics of Gender After Socialism, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.
  • Kristen Ghodsee, Muslim Lives in Eastern Europe: Gender, Ethnicity and the Transformation of Islam in Postsocialist Bulgaria. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009
  • Katherine Verdery, What Was Socialism and What Comes Next? Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996

External links

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