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.

Kyiv 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 both 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 sta...

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