In her concise, lucidly written new book, the historian Janet Hartley takes this uncontroversial premise and excites it with drama. This isn’t a book about the Volga itself, but rather the river’s role — physically and symbolically — in the turbulent making of Russia. For those in search of a topographical survey from source to delta, look elsewhere ... Hartley retells these already familiar stories as miniature dioramas, resisting digressions that take us too far from the water’s edge ... Hartley is as preoccupied by how people lived in the cradle of ‘Mother Volga’ as by the headlines the river wrote. In these pages you will find as much on the interiors of a Tartar home as you will on the formation of Moscow. Passing, ornamental details such as these are the book’s most delightful moments ... a comprehensive biography, but not necessarily a definitive one. Only a brief final chapter deals with the ecological costs of centuries of civilisation and the more recent disruptions to its biodiversity from rapid, mismanaged industrialisation during the Soviet Union. At just over 300 pages (plus an abundance of notes and dense bibliography), however, its concision should not be mistaken for thinness. This is a work of masterful condensation, commanding storytelling and an invitation to marvel at the ‘gloomy grandeur’ of one of the Earth’s oldest residents.
Hartley, emeritus professor of international history at the London School of Economics, has produced a study of the Volga that is as well-researched and accessible to general readers ... Hartley has a good eye for the significant detail.
The Volga is enormous, one of the longest rivers in the world, and covers so many different kinds of territory that it might well be said to thread different worlds together on its temperamental path to the Caspian Sea. In telling the story of those worlds, Harley is faced with an impossible narrative; any riparian history can only ever be a judicious culling from an infinite trove of stories ... The Volga tells many of the most dramatic of those stories - tales of war and disaster, famine and long marches played out against some of the most stunning landscapes anywhere on Earth ... Hartley smartly narrates peace and war, exploration and exploitation. The tale necessarily ends on notes of ecological caution; like all other natural features on the planet, the Volga has been greatly despoiled by the humans it’s helped over the centuries ... Janet Hartley has done a superb job writing the biography of a river that, despoiled or not, will be flowing long after its plaguing humans are gone.