- The Lands beyond the RiversDirections and Potentials in Riparian Histories of Russian and Soviet Eurasia
The Volga bears scars, according to a Russian folktale. They are the birth-marks of empire. The great river incurred these injuries when it confronted Tsar Ivan IV, the Terrible, in 1552. The Volga transected the eastward path of Moscow’s attack on the Kazan Khanate and, as soldiers crossed, the waterway overturned their vessels and drowned them. The story goes that the tsar responded by sending his executioner, knout in hand, to whip their aquatic foe into submission. Thus conquered, the river let the Muscovites pass, and they went on to defeat their human adversaries too. The Volga, meanwhile, never recovered from the beating. To this day, you can see evidence of the violence in blemishes on its waters, reflected by the light of the setting sun.1
This story is a fantasy, but it rightly highlights the presence of the Volga in Ivan IV’s victory over Kazan, which is conventionally seen as having launched the imperial era of Moscow and Russia.2 In reality, the conquest was the culmination of a decades-long process through which the tsar and his allies gradually annexed the khanate’s territories along the river.3 The empire then grew along the river, southward to the Caspian Sea, before expanding far in every other direction. Over the next four centuries, Russian and then Soviet history continued to unfold in a close relationship with the waterway. So it is no surprise that Eurasian cultural identity is also closely tied to the river that many have called “Mother Volga.”4 [End Page 138]
As Europe’s longest river, it is like other major channels, commonly understood as a metaphor, a model waterway, and a spatial point of reference. The significance and implications of such meanings, rarely of interest to historians of Eurasia, are the subject of this article. The six books under review explore past social relationships with rivers, demonstrating the potential of the topic to excite and even challenge understandings of Russia and the USSR. Half of these monographs explicitly focus on the Volga and its immediate environs. In the other three—addressing fluvial systems of Siberia and Central Eurasia—the Volga basin permeates, either as a touchstone because of its iconic status or looming through its undeniable relationship to the seats of tsarist and Soviet governance west of the Ural Mountains. That “west,” like the Volga, enjoys hegemony within the scholarly literature on a scale that is out of proportion with Eurasian geography, limiting synthetic understandings of the past, which include river-society relationships.5 The books under review are different. They demonstrate how riparian histories require that researchers pay more than lip service to the space and diversity of politics, economy, and culture. Just as Russians were in the company of more than 100 “nationalities” occupying tsarist and Soviet Eurasia, the Volga is but one of over 100,000 rivers flowing through the same, vast region. Most of these streams, like the ethnicities, are to the east and south...