G. Hausmann: Mütterchen Wolga

Mütterchen Wolga. Ein Fluss als Erinnerungsort vom 16. bis ins frühe 20. Jahrhundert

Hausmann, Guido
Campus Historische Studien 50
Frankfurt am Main 2009: Campus Verlag
494 S.
€ 49,90
Rezensiert für 'Connections' und H-Soz-Kult von:
Eva-Maria Stolberg, Institute of History, University of Duisburg-Essen

Rivers have reappeared in historical research, they touch manifold aspects as environment, technology, economic and social life, they are keywords in national myths. Indeed, rivers are an inseparable element of human history. As Christoph Mauch and Thomas Zeller, editors of “Rivers in history: Perspectives on Waterways in Europe and North America” put it: “Sources of both abundance and destruction, life and death, rivers have always had a powerful hold over mankind.” [1] This emphasizes the dynamism of rivers as a location of human en-counters with nature. There are several studies by historians who have recently „discovered” rivers for research, for e.g. on the Rhine, Themse, Mississippi and rivers in Southeast Asia. [2] Concerning a world history of rivers, rivers in Eastern Europe still represent a lacuna.[3]

Guido Hausmann explores in his habilitation thesis the impact of the river on Russian nationhood. The vitality of a river is often visualised as a woman, as a mother. The Volga is a kind of mother who is nourishing their Russian “children”. The impact of this mighty river has a long tradition as Hausmann convincingly here presents. His study begins with Volga legends in the early tradition of Tatars who named the river Idil’ and the images of a biblical Jordan fostered by medieval Russian orthodox monks of the Tolgskii monastery near Iaroslavl’. The author broadens then our knowledge of the Volga as an imperial artery that manifested since Tsar Peter the Great and Catherine II. At least he puts an view on the development of the river in the era of Russia’s technological advancement in the nineteenth century with the introduction of steamers. The structure of this monograph is well balanced and the argumentation is fluid. The book has not the rigid format as other German habilitation works do often have. It is an academic pleasure to read this book. When I read this book, I had the impression that the Volga landscape raised before my eyes. Hausmann’s study is the story of the river and the landscape, the life of the Turk nomads, the monasteries, the Volga boatmen, the tourists on the steamers.

Unfortunately, Hausmann does not develop further his concept of the Volga as “location of memory” into the 20th century. Predominately the author provides the development of historical memory through Tsarist imperial rule. The main question whether there was a change or a continuity after the October Revolution and the instalment of the Soviet regime remains unanswered. The Volga in Soviet times was no tabula rasa. Which role did the Volga play in Soviet propaganda, in the local and national memory of Soviet people? What about the images and the historical memory in today Russia? In the period of collectivization and during World War II the Volga played a significant role. The Volga became a location of a destructive memory in contrast to imperial times. It was associated with the deportation of Volga Germans and Tatars, with the frontline of a total warfare between Germans and Russians which is symbolized by the city Volgograd. Volgograd was stylized as kind of fortress of Stalinism and Socialism along the river. In the 1960s American journalists from CBS gave a good report on the provincial life along the Volga, on the construction of a social modernity through technological projects, the uplift of the population after the years of Stalinism and war.[4]

Despite these shortcomings, the real strength of Hausmann’s book lays on the imperial period. Hausmann effectively combines social with cultural history. He made extensive use of archival documents in the regional archives in Tver’, Iaroslavl’, Nizhnii-Novgorod and Kazan’ in order to provide a regional perspective on Russia’s mighty river. The author shows that the Volga was not a purely ‘national’ river, instead it had an imperial dimension. Here, different nationalities – Russians and Tatar peoples – were living together. The Volga was a gateway for Russia’s warfare and trade with Oriental empires like the Ottoman and Persia. It was a borderline, but also contact zone between Russian orthodoxy and Islam. The Volga was a place of Russia’s “imperial” inclusions and exclusions, thereby reflecting the two sides of Russia’s empire-building. Hausmann also reflects on the aspect of time. He convincingly shows the changes from a religious river landscape in the Middle Ages, to the imperial in the era of enlightenment (the time of grand tour and exploration), to the popular in the nineteenth century (the Volga boatmen). Implicitly, the author shows that there were different social strata which had their own image of the Volga: the Orthodoxy, the nobility (here with the one-sided view on the monarch Catherine II) and the common people (Volga boatmen). Insofar, “Mother Volga” had many faces and she also had a long tradition in human memory.

[1] Christoph Mauch, Thomas Zeller (eds.), Rivers in History. Perspectives on Waterways in Europe and North America, Pittsburgh 2008, p. 1.
[2] Gertrude Cepl-Kaufmann / Antje Johanning (eds..), Mythos Rhein. Zur Kulturgeschichte eines Stroms, Darmstadt 2003; Peter Ackroyd, Die Themse. Biographie eines Flusses, München 2008; Robert V. Heynes, The Mississippi Territory and the Southwest Frontier, 1795-1815, Lexington 2010; Tilman Frasch (ed.), Stromlinien in Südostasien (= Periplus. Jahrbuch für Außereuropäische Geschichte), Münster 2009.
[3] From a transnational view on rivers in Central and Eastern Europe see Eva-Maria Stolberg, „O biegu rzek”. Zwischen Oder und Weichsel. Flüsse und ihre Bedeutung für die nationalstaatliche Entwicklung Ostmitteleuropas. Ein Werkstattbericht, in: Lars Kreye / Carsten Stühring / Tanja Zwingelberg (eds.), Natur als Grenzerfahrung. Europäische Perspektiven der Mensch-Natur-Beziehung in Mittelalter und Neuzeit: Ressourcennutzung, Entdeckung, Naturkatastrophen, Göttingen 2009, pp. 113-132. The article is part of a greater research project that will be completed by 2012.
[4] Marvin L. Kalb, CBS Television Network. The Volga. A Political Journey through Russia (1967).

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