Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Rivers, Memory, and Nation-Building: A History of the Volga and Mississippi Rivers

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Rivers, Memory, and Nation-Building: A History of the Volga and Mississippi Rivers

Article excerpt

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 deforce 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. …

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