Between the end of WWII and the fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall, much of Eastern Europe had been tightly controlled and isolated by communist governments aligned with the Kremlin. They existed under a mutual protection treaty known as the ‘Warsaw Pact’, a response to the post-war military arrangement of NATO in Western Europe.
I remember visiting Prague in 1990, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It felt like a city that had just woken up from a very long slumber. Wenceslas Square was still plastered with makeshift memorials to patriots and loved ones who’d lost their lives during the years of resistance to the communist government.
Today, the majority of Eastern European nations are independent states and private enterprise has enlivened medieval cities, towns and villages.
Many of these nations have since joined NATO and the European Union. This is a thorny issue when it comes to relations between the West and Russia. Mistrust and misunderstanding have deep roots here and memories are long. Russia has long seen the border nations of Eastern Europe as their rightful sphere of influence as well as a buffer zone from invasion.
Moreover, this is ‘Slavic’ Europe, where language, culture and religion take a distinct turn toward Russia. The further east you go, the more you’ll notice it. For instance, western Slovakia uses the Latin alphabet. In the eastern half of the country, however, the Cyrillic alphabet is more prevalent and Orthodox Christianity is the dominant religion.
Cross from Slovakia into Ukraine and Western Europe seems further away. By the time you reach far eastern Ukraine, the ethnic majority is more Russian than Ukrainian and identifies more with Moscow than Kiev.