What pagans, Putin and the Volga say about Russia

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What pagans, Putin and the Volga say about Russia

A mighty river and nationalist myths loom large in fascinating history books by Janet M Hartley and Mark Galeotti

Tony Barber

In Stalingrad, one of Vasily Grossman’s two epic novels centred on World War 2’s most destructive battle, a particularly powerful passage depicts exhausted Soviet soldiers arriving at the River Volga and washing themselves in its waters. “This mass baptism before the terrible battle for freedom ... may have been as fateful a moment in the country’s history as the mass baptism carried out in Kiev a thousand years earlier, on the banks of the Dnieper,” Grossman wrote.

Kiev is now the capital of Ukraine, but the intense religious symbolism of Grossman’s scene captures the way in which Russians down the centuries have thought of the Volga as embodying their nation’s identity and fate. It flows for more than 3,500km from its source northwest of Moscow to the Caspian Sea. It has served as protector of “Mother Russia” against foreign enemies and as a symbol of freedom for those, like the peasant rebels of tsarist times and the early communist era, who resisted an oppressive state.

Yet if the Volga stands for the Russian national spirit, it does so in complex ways. Britain’s Janet M Hartley, author of The Volga: A History of Russia’s Greatest River (Yale University Press, 400 pages), and Mark Galeotti, author of A Short History of Russia: From the Pagans to Putin (Ebury Press/Hanover Square Press, 208 pages), each make the point that the river came under full Russian control only after Ivan the Terrible’s conquest of the khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan in the 1550s...

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