From the Nile to the Danube and Amazon, mighty rivers have shaped world history. The Volga, the longest river in Europe, at 3,530 kilometres (2,193 miles), is well and truly in that category.
Flowing from the northwest of Moscow to the Caspian Sea, ‘through the forest zone of northern European Russia to the steppe and then to arid semi-desert in the south of Russia’, the Volga shaped the patterns of trade and exchange for both Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, and is still of great importance today, writes Janet M. Hartley.
Her book, The Volga, charts the human history of the river, from the earliest known records to contemporary times. These records begin around 650 AD, with the Khazar Khaganate, a vast territory that comprised nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples and whose ruling elite spoke a Turkic language. ‘The trade along the Volga to Itil was the source of Khazar wealth; it was also the root of competition with other states, and ultimately caused Khazaria’s decline and defeat,’ Hartley writes. The lucrative trade route down the Volga likely brought Vikings – the Rus – to northern Russia, who traded fur and slaves for silver coins, honey and weapons. The Rus were able to penetrate down the whole length of the river, and consolidate their position with strongholds in places such as Kiev.
Then, in the early 13th century the armies of Batu, the grandson of Genghis Khan, swept into the region, leading to centuries of conflict during which lands were seized and new regimes established. The Golden Horde would help to shape the region, with major cities sacked and others prospering.
Hartley, a professor of international history at the London School of Economics and the author of Siberia: A History of the People, does an excellent job of highlighting the many ethnic and religious groups that have lived in the shadows of Russia’s greatest river. In the ninth century, the Khazar elite adopted Judaism, likely as a way to assert independence from Christian Byzantium in the west and Islam in the south. It was Ivan IV, in the late 16th century, who was the first to be crowned Tsar of All Russia. His bloody military campaigns brought the then-predominantly Muslim lands of Kazan and Astrakhan under Russian control, along with the whole length of the Volga.
Land was often granted to military servitors and monasteries as a way of exerting control over the empire’s borderlands, and this was the case in the lower Volga regions. Peasants were also settled there. Even so, it wasn’t until the second half of the 18th century that the government in Moscow was able to establish a firmer grip.
The book takes us through the significant uprisings that broke out over the years, including the last great Cossack revolt in the late 19th century, led by Emelian Pugachev, who claimed to be Peter III (the husband of Catherine II who had been deposed and then murdered in 1762 by Catherine’s supporters). Like others before, Pugachev’s revolt was an abject failure, though it has lived on in Russian folk stories.
For much of history, travel along the Volga was dangerous. Gangs, army deserters and fugitive peasants would often attack travellers, while the waters themselves could be treacherous. The river also helped to spread diseases such as cholera and the plague. Even so, it’s estimated that a third of Russian river trade in the 19th century was conducted along the Volga, which was frozen for much of the year and navigable only from late March to early November. Boats had to be hauled up against the current, or off sandbanks during the drier months, backbreaking work that employed hundreds of thousands at its peak.
Later, the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917, and the establishment of the Soviet Union fundamentally changed the region, as it did the whole of Russia. The Volga was crucial to the outcome of the civil war, writes Hartley. ‘The fact that the Whites could not sustain a foothold in Volga towns and that White forces from the east and south were not able to converge on the lower Volga largely determined the outcome of the Civil War.’
Later still, the Battle of Stalingrad, a city on the banks of the Volga, was a key turning point in the Second World War. The five-month-long battle was one of the bloodiest of the whole conflict, leaving hundreds of thousands dead.
At times The Volga follows the chronology a bit too closely, and slips into an overly academic tone for what is really a popular history book. Overall however, it creates a vivid picture of this region throughout history, and the powerful river that has shaped so many lives.