Podcast with Janet M Hartley, author of “The Volga: A History of Russia’s Greatest River”


“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.”



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

This quote by Robert Bremner in 1830 opens Janet M Hartley’s The Volga: A History of Russia’s Greatest River. 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, Professor Hartley 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 (2014). She has also edited or co-edited 7 books and written many articles on Russian history in the eighteenth and early 19th centuries.

Nicholas Gordon has an MPhil from Oxford in International Relations and a BA from Harvard. He is a writer, editor and occasional radio host based in Hong Kong.