In This Review

The Volga: A History of Russia’s  Greatest River
The Volga: A History of Russia’s Greatest River
By Janet M. Hartley
Yale University Press, 2021, 400 pp.

Hartley’s chronological narrative, rich in vivid detail, begins over 1,000 years ago, when the principality of Kievan Rus vied with the Khazar Khaganate and the Bulgars for the lucrative trade on the Volga River. By the mid-sixteenth century, Tsar Ivan IV had established control along the entire length of the river, thereby turning Russia into a multiethnic and multiconfessional empire. The Russian state’s dominance, however, was not yet secure: in the eighteenth century, the Volga was the scene of massive Cossack revolts that sparked outbursts of peasant violence. Russian authorities struggled to protect the transportation of valuable goods on the Volga against banditry. Hartley offers a fascinating account of the logistics of navigating the Volga before the introduction of steamships, including the herculean work of barge haulers, who had to drag boats upstream. In the nineteenth century, the Volga, which had once been the marker of a frontier, came to be seen as an intrinsically Russian river, the “Mother Volga” glorified in art, music, poetry, and later also film. In 1943, the Battle of Stalingrad, fought on the river’s west bank, produced the ultimate victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany and reinforced the Volga’s standing as a powerful national symbol.