Janet Hartley, "The Volga: A History of Russia’s Greatest River” (Yale UP, 2021)


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The Volga begins as a small trickle in the Valdai Hills in the north of Russia, and broadens and expands as it heads south, past the storied medieval cities of Tver, Kostroma, and the great trading hub of the nineteenth century, Nizhniy Novgorod, down to Kazan, the capital of Muslim Tatarstan, then Ulyanovsk, the birthplace of Vladimir Lenin, on to Samara, site of the great peasant revolts led by Stenka Razin and Yemelyan Pugachyov. From there, the river flows down to Volgograd, better known as Stalingrad, where the Red Army pushed back the seemingly unstoppable Nazi offensive during World War II, and finally down to Astrakhan, where the Mongol invaders kept their court until Ivan the Terrible conquered the city in 1556. Then, finally, the mighty river empties into the Caspian Sea. So much of Russian history has played out on the banks of this mighty river.

The Volga cleaves European Russia from north to south and divides it from east to west, and for centuries, the mighty Volga has challenged and inspired Russians in their quest for expansion, modernization, and self-identification. The river and its role in Russian history is the subject of a new book by Professor Janet Hartley, Emeritus Professor of International History at the London School of Economics: “The Volga: A History of Russia’s Greatest River” (Yale University Press, 2021).

The Volga: A History of Russia’s Greatest River (Yale UP, 2021) examines the role of the river in Russia’s development as a political and economic power, but also the river’s enormous impact on Russian culture and national identity. Though the structure of the book is chronological, Hartley brings in the major events of Russian history as convenient mile markers, but it is the compelling narrative of social history which pulls us into the slipstream of the book.

Several through lines emerge in Hartley’s account of “Mother Volga.” The river divides Russia from East to West, and often this division plays out in stories of contrasts: Muslim versus Christian, outlaws versus the state, pirates versus traders, and invading armies pitted against each other. But the river also unites Russia along the North/South axis, acting as a conduit for trade, culture, and political ideas.

As Russians struggled through the centuries with their national identity, the Volga offered a potent symbol and cultural touchstone, which was amplified in poetry, painting, song, and later famously in sculpture. Though the river is most commonly evoked as a “mother” figure, Hartley points out that throughout Russian history rulers have often sought to “tame” the Volga: Ivan the Terrible famously had the river whipped, and contemporary poets portrayed the river as a supplicant to Catherine II as she expanded the borders of the Russian empire. Hartley also takes us inside twentieth-century attempts to tame the Volga, which have resulted in lasting environmental harm to the life-giving river, and leaves us hopeful that the generation now coming of age will take on the challenge of redressing this damage.

Janet Hartley is Professor Emeritus of International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where she worked for over 30 years.

Jennifer Eremeeva is an American expatriate writer who writes about travel, culture, cuisine and culinary history, Russian history, and Royal History, with bylines in Reuters, Fodor's, USTOA, LitHub, The Moscow Times, and Russian Life. She is the award-winning author of Lenin Lives Next Door: Marriage, Martinis, and Mayhem in Moscow and Have Personality Disorder, Will Rule Russia: A Pocket Guide to Russian History.

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