“The Volga: A History of Russia’s Greatest River” by Janet M Hartley

Astrakhan Astrakhan

Endearingly referred to as “Mother Volga” in Russian, it is the longest river in Europe, flowing from forests to the steppes and marshlands of the Caspian Sea. In The Volga, Janet M Hartley pens a vivid, human-centered story of the great river standing at a crossroad of peoples and cultures. She explores and contextualizes its significance to the history of Russia. 

The river has its source northwest of Moscow, in the Valdai Hills. It continues its course through the city of Tver, Yaroslavl and Nizhni Novgorod, the latter acting as the unofficial boundary between the upper and middle Volga. The river then flows to Kazan and Samara, with Samara being the gate to the lower Volga down to Astrakhan and the delta region. This geography matters, as Hartley outlines, because it deeply influenced early settlements and conflicts.

The Volga is a borderland, in both a geographical and symbolic sense—a hinge between East and West.

The Volga, Janet M Hartley (Yale University, February 2021)
The Volga, Janet M Hartley (Yale University Press, January 2021)

The book engages with the historical developments on and around the river Volga, and the fascination the river exerts on culture (including a prolific literary, film, and musical trail). To understand the importance of the river on the collective mind in Russia and beyond, Hartley, a Professor of International History, starts with the first states which had emerged or settled on its banks. She indicates that these entities—Khazaria, Bolgar and Rus—aren’t what we would consider “states” in the modern-sense and carried varying degrees of political structure and attributes. Competition over resources, chiefly the fur trade market, resulted in inevitable conflicts over the control of the Volga. By the 11th century, the Kievan Rus grew strong enough to take control of  lands formerly belonging to Khazaria. Bolgar relocated its capital (also named Bolgar) away from the Volga to better protect it from incursions and raids. Most interesting in this chapter is the process of identity formation, as these three territories hosted early on a melting pot of ethnic and religious diversity featuring Slav, Turkic and Finno-Ugric populations, living side-by-side (and not always harmoniously), and the presence of animists, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims and Christians.

 Ethnicity and religion further intertwined when Vladimir, grand prince of the Kievan Rus, adopted Greek Orthodoxy in 988. The Rus have shaped modern Russian identity by placing a symbolic importance on Kiev and Ukraine, where the Rus first settled. However, Hartley recalls the scholarly view that the historical Rus were likely ethnically Vikings, although they quickly assimilated with the native eastern Slavs. One caveat perhaps of the book focusing on the Volga is that it glances at extraneous historical developments such as the rise of the Rus and one wished for more details on greater motives, interactions and personalities involved.

The history of the Volga is a story of newcomers and disruptors. The arrival of the Golden Horde tilted the balance of power in the mid to lower Volga, with the consolidation of khanates in Kazan and Astrakhan, and the consolidation of a Rus center in Moscow on the upper Volga. Increasingly during this time, a distinct “Russian” identity develops. By the 16th century, Grand Prince of Moscow Ivan IV (“The Terrible”) gained enough strength and confidence to seize control of the Volga down to its delta. To his contemporaries, this victory was also one of Christianity over Islam as the khan of the Golden Horde had adopted Islam some time between 1257 and 1266 (Islam was later declared an official religion in the 14th century).

Today, the river feeds and rests on a fragile ecosystem.

Hartley insightfully discusses the Russian administration of non-Russian and non-Christian people under its empire, including the adoption of different tactics and policies to exert influence, promote peace, and control. For instance, monasteries were granted lands and serfs in the lower Volga. Land further played a key role in the reward and assimilation of local elites. The Russians physically multiplied the construction of Orthodox churches along with “Kremlins”, changing the landscape of these historically non-Russian, non-Christian river banks.


The change from regarding the river as the border with the ‘other’ (Asia) to adopting it as a symbol of Russianness within Russia is in part the evolution of a Russian identity in which the Volga played a significant part.


The Volga then, and as Hartley frames it, is a borderland, in both a geographical and symbolic sense—a hinge between East and West. It’s a delight to discover in the book the origins of the Don and Volga Cossacks who were central to manning frontier outputs. Besides violence, looting, and piracy (which has been arguably dominating the common narrative of a lawless region), Hartley explores the regular life of the villagers and town dwellers, as the river was an artery for trade, but also saw arts and other occupations flourish.

“The river is crucial to all those who live on its banks but also to the Russians and non-ethnic Russians who have lived within the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union,” Hartley writes. An example of such importance is of course the Battle of Stalingrad (present-day Volgograd), which involved a six-month-long gruesome fight between Nazi Germany and Soviet soldiers during the winter of 1942-1943. The Battle (and Soviet victory) wasa turning point for the war. It galvanized the Soviet Union and its Allies after a rare German defeat; it also epitomized the values of sacrifice (after an estimated 2 million casualties), the refusal to surrender and love of the motherland. The Battle of Stalingrad represents a pivotal moment of the “Great Patriotic War” and the 20th century, capturing the country’s imagination in a way maybe only equal to the Battle of Borodino in 1812 which saw the start of Napoleon’s retreat and downfall.

Today, the river feeds and rests on a fragile ecosystem. Exploitation, pollution and climate change threaten life along its banks, and with it, comes a responsibility to ensure the taming of nature doesn’t lead to its death. Hartley’s voyage along the serpentine river is magical and full of charm convoking history, anthropology, geography and the arts. After her previous book focused on Siberia (Siberia: A History of the People), we look forward to what’s next.

Farah Abdessamad is a French-Tunisian writer who has worked and lived in Cambodia in 2008-2009 and in 2019. She is currently writing a literary fiction set in Japanese-occupied Cambodia, and is based in New York City.