"The Volga! There is a mystery, a charm in all mighty rivers, which has ever made us gaze upon them with an interest beyond that inspired by other great and glorious sights; but to look on the largest of the European rivers gave a thrill of joy surpassing all former pleasure of the kind."
This quote by Robery Bremner in 1830 opens Professor Janet M. Hartley’s latest history, The Volga: A History (Yale University Press, 2021). The book uses the Volga to frame the history of Russia: from its pre-Russian state through the growing Russian Empire, and ending with the Soviet Union and today’s Russian Federation. The book presents the Volga as both a divider between “East and West”, but also a meeting ground of different cultures and ideas — and how that drove efforts to create the Russian identity.
In this interview, Janet and I talk about the Volga, and its central place in Russian history. We talk about how the Volga connects to trade, cultural exchange and the formation of the Russian state and identity. Finally, we explore what we gain by looking at a country’s history through a geographical feature like a river.
Janet Hartley is Professor Emeritus of International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where she worked for over 30 years. She is the author of seven books on Russian history including Siberia: A History of the People (Yale University Press: 2014). She has also edited or co-edited 7 books and written many articles on Russian history in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Nicholas Gordon is a reviewer for the Asian Review of Books. In his day job, he’s a researcher and writer for a think tank in economic and sustainable development. He is also a print and broadcast commentator
Nicholas Gordon is a reviewer for the Asian Review of Books. In his day job, he’s a researcher and writer for a think tank in economic and sustainable development. He can be found on Twitter at @nickrigordon.