Travelogues and Geopolitics

Where does Europe end, and Asia begin? This question may seem obvious: atlases will tell us that the continental border follows a line across the Bosphorus, the Black Sea, the Caucasus Mountains, the Caspian Sea, and the Ural Mountains. Alternately, the question may seem unanswerable: the notions of "Asia" and "Europe" are primarily cultural constructs, for which physical borders don't exist.

But for the last two centuries, foreigners traveling through Eurasia have been tempted to redraw the continental boundaries where they saw fit, in ways that created or reflected the geopolitical discourse of the time and of their home countries. 

  • "I saw the Ottoman’s fortress—austere, and darkly impending high over the vale of the Danube – historic Belgrade. I had come, as it were, to the end of this wheel-going Europe, and now my eyes would see the splendour and havoc of the East. The two frontier towns are less than a cannon-shot distant, and yet their people hold no communion. The Hungarian on the north, and the Turk and Servian on the southern side of the Save are as much asunder as though there were fifty broad provinces that lay in the path between them." (Alexander Kinglake, Eothen, 1844)
  • "Kiev, Tbilisi, and Baku neither look nor feel like the grand European capitals of London, Paris and Rome. Littered with the hulking architectural and mental debris of the Soviet Union, these cities – and the countries of which they are the capitals – are in serious need of an overhaul...  Of course, this is not a new challenge for Europe's East, where Western Christendom, Slavic Orthodoxy, and Turkic Islam have clashed for more than a thousand years..." (Parag Khanna, The Second World, 2009)

This project traces the representation of the border between Europe and Asia, West and East, in English-language travelogues of the 19th century and of the post-Cold War period. It examines the tropes used to describe that boundary, explores the close relationship between geopolitical discourse and travel narratives, and traces how, over that period, Russia was transformed from a marker of the West to a marker of the East. 


Joshua Kucera