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The Volga Reviews

The Volga by Janet M. Hartley

The Volga: A History

Janet M. Hartley

3.75 out of 5

3 reviews

Category: Non-fiction, History
Imprint: Yale University Press
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 5 Jan 2021
ISBN: 9780300245646

A rich and fascinating exploration of the Volga-the first to fully reveal its vital place in Russian history

4 stars out of 5
25 Apr 2021

"Janet M. Hartley’s fascinating book "

Such caprice aside, The Volga ends on a dying fall. The shift to market capitalism in the 1990s hit the industrial economy hard, and the vaunted tradition of dam-building and water management has left the area with significant ecological problems, damaging the lucrative caviar trade. As the Moscow poet Tatiana Shcherbina wrote in 2012, Volgograd is now a “cemetery-city” dominated by its monument to the Battle of Stalingrad, reducing passers-by to the situation of mere “cockroaches” compared with memory’s megaliths. Increasingly, the river itself shrinks to the status of an amenity, its banks the scenery for cruises purveying the generic Russianness of vodka, matryoshka dolls, costumed balls in palace interiors and a cappella choirs. All good fun in its way, but without the complexity and richness of the history that Janet M. Hartley has managed to capture in this absorbing and ambitious book.


4 stars out of 5
Tony Barber
12 Feb 2021

"Hartley has a good eye for the significant detail."

Hartley has a good eye for the significant detail. Famously, Catherine invited thousands of German colonists to settle on the Volga, where they farmed their lands in peace for almost 200 years until Josef Stalin deported them en masse to Siberia and Kazakhstan in 1941. Less well remembered is that the arrival of the Germans in Catherine’s reign prompted some 150,000 local Kalmyk inhabitants to pack up their tents and leave for their ancestral homelands on the Chinese border. Attacked by bandits and suffering from extreme weather, up to 100,000 died, Hartley estimates.

3 stars out of 5
Matthew Janney
16 Jan 2021

"(A) concise, lucidly written new book"

The Volga is 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.