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Rivers, Memory, and Nation-Building

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

Dorothy Zeisler-Vralsted
Copyright Date: 2015
Edition: 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Rivers, Memory, and Nation-Building
    Book Description:

    Rivers figure prominently in a nation's historical memory, and the Volga and Mississippi have special importance in Russian and American cultures. Beginning in the pre-modern world, both rivers served as critical trade routes connecting cultures in an extensive exchange network, while also sustaining populations through their surrounding wetlands and bottomlands. In modern times, "Mother Volga" and the "Father of Waters" became integral parts of national identity, contributing to a sense of Russian and American exceptionalism. Furthermore, both rivers were drafted into service as the means to modernize the nation-state through hydropower and navigation. Despite being forced into submission for modern-day hydrological regimes, the Volga and Mississippi Rivers persist in the collective memory and continue to offer solace, recreation, and sustenance. Through their histories we derive a more nuanced view of human interaction with the environment, which adds another lens to our understanding of the past.

    eISBN: 978-1-78238-432-8
    Subjects: History, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)

    On 21 July 2013,The New York Timesfeatured a story about the revival of Newark, New Jersey, a city long associated with urban decline and decay. Newark’s decline, in part a result of deindustrialization and the loss of jobs, also stemmed from environmental ills such as the earlier disposal of dioxin into the Passaic River, which runs alongside the city. Today, the river is central to Newark’s recovery and reclamation efforts include a new sewage treatment plant and a highly visible boardwalk, reconceptualizing the use of riverfronts. The Passaic, in turn, becomes symbolic of a renewed Newark. But the...

  6. CHAPTER 1 The Early Years
    (pp. 19-46)

    Rivers have always served utilitarian purposes and history is rich with examples of rivers as highways, boundaries, irrigators, and ultimately, unifiers. Mythologies beautified these pedestrian roles with accounts ranging from a river’s birth to its central place in the afterlife. In recent centuries, rivers assumed another function as they contributed to emergent national narratives.¹ For the Mississippi and Volga Rivers their niche in the historical memory is not only through myths but later revealed through epithets. The Mississippi River, known as the “Wicked River” to the early voyageurs, challenged those who tried to navigate an unknowable geography with hidden sandbars...

  7. CHAPTER 2 Rivers as Nation-Builders
    (pp. 47-76)

    Embedded in a historical memory spanning centuries and cultures, the Volga and Mississippi Rivers entered a new era in the nineteenth century. Straddling two worlds—the pragmatic and aesthetic—the rivers were still celebrated for their physical prowess based on long-standing roles as transportation arteries, unifiers, nurturers, and oppressors. Juxtaposed with the pragmatic and utilitarian needs the rivers served, the aesthetic properties of each river grew more pronounced throughout the century. Already iconic presences in the United States and Russia through folklore and mythology, the Volga and Mississippi Rivers evolved into nationalist symbols by the mid nineteenth century as the...

  8. CHAPTER 3 Rivers and Modernization
    (pp. 77-100)

    With the advent of the twentieth century, the creed of modernization became more pronounced as engineers, scientists, and political leaders joined forces to build what was perceived as a better world. Emboldened by the success of large-scale projects, like the Panama Canal, American political leaders and engineers were confident about the ability of science and technology to transform nature. After the Bolshevik Revolution, Soviet political leaders, such as Lenin and Trotsky, longstanding believers in the transformative potential of science and technology, added their voices to the twentieth-century call to modernize and ultimately conquer nature. Rivers, already prized for their roles...

  9. CHAPTER 4 Moscow— A Port to Five Seas
    (pp. 101-124)

    Returning to the early 1930s—and a background heralding the promise and advances of technology with engineering coups such as Dneprostroi or the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)—the construction of the Moscow-Volga Canal and the Mississippi River Channel Project commenced. Both projects, regardless of political ideology, were born out of a faith in modernity and a need to industrialize that prompted Trotsky to say that he could transform landscapes and U.S. engineers to promise they could make the American West “blossom like the rose.” Veering on the messianic, the belief in technology’s potential and modernization’s unequivocal blessings, the perceived success...

  10. CHAPTER 5 Navigating the Mississippi
    (pp. 125-146)

    The 1930s in the United States was a busy decade for engineers in which the Upper Mississippi River 9-Foot Channel Project with its eventual twenty-nine locks and dams was only one of many technological successes. Other well-known hydro-projects that were planned, started, or completed during the decade include Fort Peck Reservoir, which crosses the Missouri and was once the largest earthwork dam in the world; Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River, still one of the world’s largest concrete dams; and of course, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) with its numerous structures. Complementing and preceding the public works projects of...

  11. Epilogue
    (pp. 147-160)

    The 1930s was a pivotal decade as large-scale, multiple purpose projects became the standard bearers for modernization. The role of nature, especially rivers, changed as their manipulation, whether for improved transportation, irrigation, or hydropower was critical Further, with the completion of large-scale projects such as the Moscow-Volga Canal and the Upper Mississippi River 9-Foot Channel Project, the Soviet Union and United States demonstrated to the world that rerouting and reshaping river regimes was free of any ideological imperatives. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, the belief in modernization, oftentimes realized through multiple purpose river basin projects, superseded political distinctions. Instead the...

  12. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 161-180)
  13. Index
    (pp. 181-189)