The Volga

The Volga – A History of Russia’s Greatest River

By Janet M. Hartley

Yale University Press – £25.00

And in the steppes beyond the Volga

You dug your trenches in haste

And in battles you marched

To the limits of Europe.

(‘The Volga in the Second World War’)

[…] the river was a dividing line between European civilization and Asian barbarism.


There is something resoundingly inviting about this book, which is hard to put your finger on.

Maybe it has something to do with the way authoress, Janet M. Hartley, both portrays and conveys her subject, which in this instance, is Europe’s longest river, the Volga (which stretches over 3,500 kilometres from the heart of Russia to the Caspian sea – thus essentially separating East from West).

Her style of writing invites the reader to take place in an ultimate travelogue of dense discovery and heroic history; which in literary essence, is as equally drenched in turmoil as it remains somehow surprisingly open to social change: ‘’Settlements on the river Volga were a microcosm of the ethnic and cultural complexity of the Russian Empire and the Soviet state, and this study will examine the relationships between different groups of people on the Volga, and between non-Russians and the government […]. The middle and lower Volga regions were the first significant non-Russian and non-Christian lands where the Russian empire had to establish and exercise control. In many ways, they provided a testing ground, and then a model, for imperial (and to an extent) policies towards non-Russian peoples (Introduction).

As much is further dissected and further investigated throughout this book’s quintessential four parts (‘Early History of the Volga,’ ‘The Volga in the Russian Empire: Violence and Control on the River,’ ‘The Volga in the Russian Empire: Life and Identity on the River’ and ‘Soviet and Post-Soviet Volga: Conflict, Identity and Managing the River’) of which its seventeen chapters do much to enlighten the reader by way traversing a history heroically steeped in change, conflict and of course, folklore.

It is the latter that primarily drew me to The Volga – A History of Russia’s Greatest River, something, that in relation to Russia especially, has always resonated with a fierce force of grounded belonging and romanticism: ‘’The Volga became the subject of poetry, literature and art, and helped shape a sense of Russian identity through a shared experience of the river. Late-eighteenth-century odes to Catherine II both glorified the river and also ‘tamed’ it to honour the ruler […]. The famous painting by Ilia Repin, Barge Haulers on the Volga, uses this image to depict the exploitation and suffering of ordinary people in late tsarist Russia. The battle of Stalingrad reinforced the special importance of the river as a barrier that protected the Soviet state and all its people, Russian and non-Russian, from those who wished to destroy them, and this was reflected in contemporary poems and songs.’’

As the author of Catherine The Great, Simon Dixon, has since written: ‘’Taking a majestic sweep through centuries of turbulent history, Hartley traces in vivid detail the significance of a river that has served Russia’s multi-ethnic population as economic lifeline, strategic battleground and symbol of freedom.’’

Furthermore, she has done so in a way that can only be described as commanding and rather eloquent.

David Marx

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