Georgia: Asian, European, or Just Georgian?

Most geographical definitions of Europe do, in fact, exclude Georgia. A modified version of the border that Herodotus’ contemporaries agreed on—along the Tanais River, today’s Don—is still the most commonly accepted version of the Europe-Asia border, following the Don, Kuma, and Manych rivers from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. Other geographers put it along the ridge of the Caucasus Mountains, which separate Russia from Georgia—a particularly cruel irony, given that Georgia’s embrace of a European identity is focused largely on distinguishing itself from Russia.

In the 1950s, Soviet geographers undertook an effort to finally eliminate confusion about where the border between Europe and Asia lie, and as part of that they solicited opinions from the geographical societies of the three “Transcaucasus” republics: Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. The first two argued that they should be placed in Asia, with only the Georgian opinion dissenting, on “historical-cultural” grounds, that the southern border of the Soviet Union, separating it from Iran and Turkey, was the proper border with Asia. But Moscow disagreed: “That sort of radical decision would hardly be accepted by the scientific community either in the USSR, or outside its borders. In geographical, historical-ethnographic terms the Transcaucasus belongs to Asia,” wrote geographer Eduard Murzaev, summarizing the debate in a Soviet journal.

And so Georgians since then have preferred to demur on the question of where exactly the border of Europe lies. Even Georgian textbooks don’t argue that Georgia is geographically in Europe, instead offering varying definitions of “political” Europe, “geographical” Europe, and so on. “In Georgia, there’s no interest in discussing this,” Gverdtsiteli tells me.

In Roads & Kingdoms, Joshua Kucera travels to the nation of Georgia, along the border of Russia and Europe, to examine the longstanding debate about whether it belongs to Asia, Europe or the Middle East, and why it matters.

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