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  • Rivers, Memory, and Nation-Building: A History of the Volga and Mississippi Rivers by Dorothy Zeisler-Vralsted
  • Philip V. Scarpino
Rivers, Memory, and Nation-Building: A History of the Volga and Mississippi Rivers, by Dorothy Zeisler-Vralsted. New York, Berghahn Books, 2014. xiii, 189 pp. $95.00 US (cloth).

The Volga River and the Mississippi River have a great deal in common. The two rivers are the longest waterways in their respective continents: the Volga in Europe and the Mississippi in North America. Americans and Russians have each heavily modified the continental rivers for domestic and industrial purposes, sewerage, hydroelectric power, recreation, and navigation. Communities located along both rivers became international ports and a part of an international maritime transportation system. As with most large flood plain rivers, the Volga and Mississippi are also artefacts. They are what Richard White describes as the ‘‘organic machines,’’ material symbols of the merge between human and natural history in the Anthropocene era.

Dorothy Zeisler-Vralsted demonstrates that the ‘‘Mother Volga’’ and the ‘‘Father of Waters,’’ or the Volga and the Mississippi, played key roles in the identity, culture, and memory of Russia and the US. Leaders of both nations long dreamed of harnessing the hydroelectric and commercial potential, and undertook significant improvements in the 1930s. The Moscow-Volga Canal was completed in 1937 as part of Joseph Stalin’s second Five-Year Plan. The Upper Mississippi River 9–Foot Channel Project neared completion during the New Deal. These two projects are a fundamental part of the volume and serve to unite Zeisler-Vralsted’s comparative analysis.

The author divides her study into an introduction, five chapters, and an epilogue. Chapters one and two offer a comparative historical and cultural overview of the Mississippi and Volga Rivers from the sixteenth century through the nineteenth century. Chapter three examines the role of these rivers in industrializing and urbanizing nations. The final two chapters address the development of the Mississippi and Volga, with a focus on the 1930s. The rich and detailed citations are a tour de force of sources related to these rivers and the environmental history of rivers more broadly.

At the same time, the thematic direction of the author’s analysis downplays the role of political and economic systems in shaping the historical relationship between people and rivers. In her introduction, the author asserts that ‘‘political ideologies become conflated as the historical similarities overwhelm any national differences’’ (80) and ‘‘from the perspective of the rivers, political ideology mattered little’’ (12) — a theme that carries throughout the volume. One is reminded of the recent scientific literature on the Anthropocene that, for the most part, treats human agency as a single, undifferentiated variable. While this scholarship notes the profound role of human action in shaping the present-day global environment it [End Page 428] overlooks crucial explanatory variations in the intertwined roles of culture, economics, and politics.

By arguing that ‘‘political ideology mattered little,’’ the author discounts profound differences between economic systems and forms of government (12). In the USSR, the authoritarian government all but eliminated dissent as well as checks on the government’s bureaucrats and engineers. The Moscow-Volga Canal, for example, led to the relocation of 110 towns, the use of forced labour, and the deaths of approximately 28,000 workers. In the case of the Mississippi, a citizen protest lead by the Izaak Walton League and professional concerns raised by fisheries scientists pushed the US Army Corps of Engineers (coe) to shift from fluctuating to stable water levels behind the navigation dams, a decision that maintained the integrity of the Upper Mississippi River Wildlife and Fish Refuge. The long-term costs associated with developing the Volga and constructing the Moscow-Volga Canal highlighted the environmental consequences of river development in the Soviet style. In assessing the historical interplay between people and rivers, political and economic systems matter a great deal and contribute to our understanding of the complex historical journey that created place over time. The career of Hugh Lincoln Cooper might have been a useful comparison of the US and Soviet development of rivers in the early twentieth century. Cooper served as chief engineer of the Keokuk Dam...


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