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Environment and History

The Aesthetics of the Volga and National Narratives in Russia

Dorothy Zeisler-Vralsted

Environment and History 20 (2014): 93-122. doi: 10.3197/096734014X13851121443481

Simon Schama’s provocative work, Landscape and Memory, reveals the role that nature has historically played in shaping culture. Although much of Schama’s focus predates the twentieth century, this essay on the historical development of the Volga River extends up to the present. The thesis, however, of demonstrating the continuity of earlier nature myths with the present, is an ongoing theme in this recounting of the effects of modernisation on the Volga while a nationalist rhetoric touts its aesthetic qualities. These aesthetics – symbolised through literary and artistic representations of Mother Volga – contributed to an emerging national narrative in Russia in the nineteenth century. This national identity is articulated through a rich visual culture that includes the work of Russian artists such as Isaac Levitan and Ilya Repin with their landscape portrayals of the Volga.

As a result, the river assumed an iconic status which enhanced the story of its transformation. By the 1930s, the Volga underwent a major engineering project that rerouted part of the river into the Moscow Volga Canal. Construction of the project took four years, during which an array of journals, photographic essays and newspaper articles chronicled progress, celebrating this symbolic foray into the modern nation-state. Overlooking the beginning of the project were two towering statues of Lenin and Stalin, reinforcing the nationalist attributes of the project.

In the 1930s Soviet Union, literature is rife with references to the conquest of nature in service of socialism. Harnessing rivers was especially attractive to Stalin in his push to modernise. But the Moscow Volga Canal was not just a showpiece – although in some instances the architecture rivaled the newly built metro stations – as it connected Moscow to the Caspian Sea, provided hydropower and supplied drinking water to Moscow.

In conclusion, this essay will expand on nature’s integral role in shaping culture with twentieth-century examples of how the Volga River continued to serve a nationalist discourse for a country in the throes of modernisation. The story of the Moscow Volga Canal is also a reminder that nature is often the repository to which nations look when crafting their identity.

KEYWORDS: River studies, nationalism, national identity, art

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