GREAT RIVERS OF RUSSIA

WATER AND DRAINAGE IN RUSSIA

Russia is a water-rich country. The earliest settlements in the country sprang up along the rivers, where most of the urban population continues to live. The Volga, Europe's longest river, is by far Russia's most important commercial waterway. Four of the country's thirteen largest cities are located on its banks: Nizhniy Novgorod, Samara, Kazan', and Volgograd. The Kama River, which flows west from the southern Urals to join the Volga in the Republic of Tatarstan, is a second key European water system whose banks are densely populated. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Russia has thousands of rivers and inland bodies of water, providing it with one of the world's largest surface-water resources. However, most of Russia's rivers and streams belong to the Arctic drainage basin, which lies mainly in Siberia but also includes part of European Russia. Altogether, 84 percent of Russia's surface water is located east of the Urals in rivers flowing through sparsely populated territory and into the Arctic and Pacific oceans. In contrast, areas with the highest concentrations of population, and therefore the highest demand for water supplies, tend to have the warmest climates and highest rates of evaporation. As a result, densely populated areas such as the Don and Kuban' river basins north of the Caucasus have barely adequate (or in some cases inadequate) water resources.*

Lakes, Inland Seas and Disappearing Lakes in Russia

Russia's inland bodies of water are chiefly a legacy of extensive glaciation. In European Russia, the largest lakes are Ladoga and Onega northeast of St. Petersburg, Lake Peipus on the Estonian border, and the Rybinsk Reservoir north of Moscow. Smaller man-made reservoirs, 160 to 320 kilometers long, are on the Don, the Kama, and the Volga rivers. Many large reservoirs also have been constructed on the Siberian rivers; the Bratsk Reservoir northwest of Lake Baikal is one of the world's largest.*

The most prominent of Russia's bodies of fresh water is Lake Baikal, the world's deepest and most capacious freshwater lake. Lake Baikal alone holds 85 percent of the freshwater resources of the lakes in Russia and 20 percent of the world's total. It extends 632 kilometers in length and fifty-nine kilometers across at its widest point. Its maximum depth is 1,713 meters. Numerous smaller lakes dot the northern regions of the European and Siberian plains. The largest of these are lakes Beloye, Topozero, Vyg, and Il'men' in the European northwest and Lake Chany in southwestern Siberia.*

The Black Sea, Aral Sea and Caspian Sea were one part of a massive inland sea. The Black Sea gets it name from the storms that frequently darken the skies over the waterway. The Aral Sea was once as large as Ireland. Caspian Sea was named after an ancient river called the Caspii.

In 2005, 48-foot-deep White Lake in town of Bolotnikkovo, 240 miles east of Moscow, suddenly disappeared. A pensioner who saw it go told the Los Angeles Times: “The ice was just hanging over an empty lake. I heard a noise, and I looked right, I saw there was an abyss, and the water was rushing into the abyss like mad. The trees were falling into the lake and getting sucked in too.” Within minutes a lake, known for its large carp and pleasant swimming, was gone. Scientists theorize that the soil under the lake suddenly shifted, creating a gap to an underground cave, large enough to absorb all the lake’s water.

Principal Rivers of Russia

Russia’s principal rivers are the Amur, Irtysh, Lena, Ob’, and Volga. The Irtysh, Lena, and Ob’ flow northward across Asian Russia into the Arctic Ocean. The Volga is the longest river in Europe. All of these rivers have complex systems of tributaries that collectively drain much of Russia’s territory. [Source: Library of Congress, October 2006 **]

Forty of Russia's rivers longer than 1,000 kilometers are east of the Urals, including the three major rivers that drain Siberia as they flow northward to the Arctic Ocean: the Irtysh-Ob' system (totaling 5,380 kilometers), the Yenisey (4,000 kilometers), and the Lena (3,630 kilometers). The basins of those river systems cover about 8 million square kilometers, discharging nearly 50,000 cubic meters of water per second into the Arctic Ocean. The northward flow of these rivers means that source areas thaw before the areas downstream, creating vast swamps such as the 48,000-square-kilometer Vasyugane Swamp in the center of the West Siberian Plain. The same is true of other river systems, including the Pechora and the North Dvina in Europe and the Kolyma and the Indigirka in Siberia. Approximately 10 percent of Russian territory is classified as swampland. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

A number of other rivers drain Siberia from eastern mountain ranges into the Pacific Ocean. The Amur River and its main tributary, the Ussuri, form a long stretch of the winding boundary between Russia and China. The Amur system drains most of southeastern Siberia. Three basins drain European Russia. The Dnepr, which flows mainly through Belarus and Ukraine, has its headwaters in the hills west of Moscow. The 1,860-kilometer Don originates in the Central Russian Upland south of Moscow and then flows into the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea at Rostov-na-Donu. The Volga is the third and by far the largest of the European systems, rising in the Valday Hills west of Moscow and meandering southeastward for 3,510 kilometers before emptying into the Caspian Sea. Altogether, the Volga system drains about 1.4 million square kilometers. Linked by several canals, European Russia's rivers long have been a vital transportation system; the Volga system still carries two-thirds of Russia's inland water traffic .*

Volga River

The Volga River is the longest river in Europe. Draining two thirds of European Russia and nearly a third of Europe and known to Russians as "Mother Volga," it is of great importance and economic value to Russia. Navigable nearly its entire length, it is the country's main commercial waterway, providing connections between the Baltic Sea, St. Petersburg, Moscow, the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea. [Source: Howard Sochurek, National Geographic, May 1973]

The Volga has the largest drainage basin of any European river and carries nearly two thirds of Russia's waterborne cargo and provides electricity and irrigation water. Over a forth of Russia's population lives within the river's half million square mile drainage basin, an area twice the size of Texas. In Russian Volga means "holy" and often times the river is referred to as Matushka, or mother.

The Greeks discovered that the Volga flowed into the Caspian Sea in the 2nd century A.D. and the Geographer Ptolemy described it around 150 A.D. The Volga has been an important trade routes since Viking times. Between the 9th and 12th century, Vikings used it to transport goods between Scandinavia and northern Russia and Persia and Constantinople. Before steamboats were invented, huge gangs of serfs pulled barges upstream with ropes. Many cities of importance are located on it: Yaroslavl, Nizny Novgorod (formally Gorky), Kazan, Volgagrad (once Stalingrad) and Astrakhan. A wide variety of ethnic groups have made their home in the Volga basin including Tatars, Germans and Kyrgyz.

Route and Flow of the Volga

The Volga flows 2,293 miles in a southeasterly direction from the lake-studded and swampy Valdai Hills, 200 miles southwest of St. Petersburg, to the landlocked Caspian Sea which is 92 feet below sea level. Canals connect it to the Baltic and White Seas in the north and the Don River in the south, which runs into the Black Sea. Before the canals were built it was possible to travel from the Caspian Sea to the Baltic Sea via the Volga and a series of northern rivers and lakes except for one seven mile stretch.

Amazingly the Volga falls only a few hundred meters during its long meandering routes. From the Vladay Hills the Volga passes through a series of lakes and flows generally eastward. Near Nizhni Novgorod, it is joined by its tributary, the Oka. At Kazan it turns southward and absorbs the Kama River , which is fed by snow from the Ural mountains. At Kuybyshev the Volga makes a great sweeping bend and continues southward. Above Volgagrad is the canal that connects it to the Don River. After Volgagrad the Volga turns sharply southeast and is a conglomeration of rivers that branch out into a wide delta at the Caspian Sea. This part of the river is where sturgeon are caught that produce Russia's famous caviar.

The Volga is generally broad and shallow and has little current. Below the Kama it is more than two miles wide. The river flow varies greatly depending on the season. Most of freezes in the winter. In the spring it is a "swollen torrent of broken ice." In the summer the river slowly drops until it becomes a "maze of invisible shallows" in the autumn.

The Volga Delta (south of Astrakhan on the Caspian Sea) is where the mighty Volga river breaks up into at least 800 branches and thousands of smaller streams that flow through vast marches. The Volga Delta is home to over 200 different kinds of bird, including herons, ducks, swans, white-tailed eagles and host of other birds, and wild boar, foxes, beavers, muskrats and 30 other animals. In the summer the area comes alive with color and carpets of pink and white lotus flowers bloom. The marsh helps filter pollutants from the Volga so that the water is relatively clean when it reach the Caspian Sea.

Volga River Infrastructure and Pollution

The Volga is one of the most mucked with rivers on the planet. Volga pollution comes from industrial waste, sewage, pesticides, fertilizers. Many factories and cities empty their waste in the Volga. Pollution tends to settle in the lakes or slow-moving areas rather than being flushed out if the river was more free flowing. In some of the reservoirs heavily polluted muck is several meters thick.

Dams and reservoirs—many constructed during the Stalinist era—are located at intervals of every 200 miles along the rivers length. Before each one the river expands into a hue artificial lake that has submerged old villages and towns. Kuibyshev reservoir near Kazan is the largest artificial lake, covering an area of 2,500 square miles. Boats skirt the dams through a network of locks. The next largest lakes together cover about 3,000 square miles. In some places the steeples of churches from submerged towns and villages peak above the waters. Cities and towns and factories along the shores are often so ugly you wish they too had been submerged.

The dams and the reservoirs make the river easy to navigate and generate some electricity (although not as much as anticipated because the water moves slowly through the turbines) but they have also created environmental problems. The dams disrupt spawning routes. The slowness of current creates breeding grounds for fish parasites.

Dams, reservoirs and irrigation projects linked with the Volga for a while reduced the level of the Caspian Sea. There was some discussion of using nuclear weapons to blast a channel from the Pechira River to the Volga to increase the Volga's flow. It is said that only 3 percent of the water in the Volga basis is safe to drink. More than 42 tons of toxic wastes collect in it every year. The WWF has pressured the World Bank not offer any loans for Volga projects, saying it is a “potential ecological and social disaster.”

Don River and the Volga-Don Canal

The Don is the second most important river after the Volga. It begins near Moscow and flows south, entering the Sea of Azov, a branch of the Black Sea near Rostov-on-Don. Between the Don and the Volga is large area of fertile steppe, much of which has been converted to farm land. The Don is dammed up into reservoirs like the Volga, below the dams at Volgodonsk, the river takes on a wild natural character again: kingfishers, herons, and egrets, sea eagles and cormorants appear as one approaches the Black Sea.

Known as “Father Don” to Don Cossacks, who had their homeland on the river, the Don bisects an area of rolling hills. It is often frozen until late spring. In the spring fields sometimes flood. In the winter the area around the river is very cold, with the first snowfall often in November. In the summer it can be very hot and dry, with a brown haze of dust hanging over the landscape. To the east is most steppe. The land is more fertile to the west.

The Volga-Don Canal (20 miles south of Volgagrad) was constructed and opened in only three and half years. Connecting the Volga and Caspian Sea with Don and Black Sea, its completion in 1952 was an important milestone in the creation of the Russia's inland waterway from the Black Sea to the Baltic.

The Volga flows from north of Moscow into the Caspian Sea while the Don empties into the Black Sea near the city of Rostov. The 40 mile canal links these two great rivers. Russia invested more in barges and canals than they did in trucks and highways which is one reason their transportation system has such a difficult time delivering fresh vegetables to the north before they spoil.

Rostov-on-Don (200 miles southwest of Volgagradi) is a pleasant city of 1 million located where the Don River empties into the Black Sea near Russia's southernmost point. It is an industrial center lying in the middle of a large farming region. It is the terminus of most long-distance Volga cruises.

Ob River

The Ob River—flowing northeast of Novosibirsk and Tomsk in western Siberia—is forth longest river in the world if you include its major tributary the Irtysh River. The westernmost of three great rivers of Asiatic Russia, it is over 5570 kilometers (3461 miles) long and is an important commercial waterway that transports goods back and forth between the Trans-Siberian Railway and the resource rich regions of northern Siberia. Since it is frozen over half the year activity on the river is concentrated mostly in the summer months. [Source: Robert Paul Jordan, National Geographic, February 1978] Yenisey River

The Yenisey River is the largest river in Russia in terms of volume. Running northward through Siberia for 3,300 kilometers (2,050) miles, The Yenisey-Angara River system is the world sixth longest river system. It is only 25 kilometers shorter than the Ob. The Yenisey originates in Tuva in the Altay mountains in Mongolia and flows through Krasnoyarsk and Yeniseysky into the Kara Sea an Arctic Ocean. It's tributary the Angara flows out of the Lake Baikal. The Yenisey has been polluted by waste from plutonium processing plants.

During the summer ferries operate between Krasnoyarsk and northern destinations such as Dudinka and Vorontsovo, both about 1,900 kilometers (1,200 miles) north of Krasnoyarsk. The down stream voyages takes about four days and the upstream trip back to Krasnoyarsk takes about six days. It is possible to fly one way and travel by boat the other.

The boats leave every two to four days, and are usually not full but you may have trouble getting a ticket in the class you want. The boats stop in Yeniseysk (413 km north of Krasnoyarsk), Bakhat (1023 km) and Igarka (1744 m). Dudinka is a seagoing port at the mouth of Yenisey. It is the capital of the Yaymar (Dolgan-Nenets) Autonomous District.

The Ob and the Irtysh River begin in the Altay Mountains, a range located near where Russia, China, Kazakhstan and Mongolia all come together, and flow northward. Although the Ob and the Irtysh begin at points within a couple of hundred miles of one another the two rivers don't join until the Irytysh has traveled over 1,600 kilometers (1000 miles). Once the two rivers have dropped down out of the highlands the meander lazily through open steppes, then rich farmland, and meet in flat, swampy plains, where the width of river ranges between a half a kilometer and a kilometer and a half. The Ob then passes through fir and spruce forests of West Siberia, then through Arctic tundra before finally emptying into the Kara Sea, an arm of the Arctic Ocean.

The Ob is one of the great Asiatic Russian rivers (the Yenisey and the Lena are the other two). According to the Guinness Book of World Records, it has the longest estuary (550 miles long and up to 50 miles wide) and is widest river that freezes solid. The mouth of the river on the Arctic Ocean is ice free only a couple of months a year. Huge flood sometimes form in the spring when high waters fed by melting snow and ice meet still frozen section of the river.

The main city on the Ob is Novosibirsk. Parts of the Ob are very polluted and nearly void of life. At the mouth of the river so much land has been degraded by gas exploration that huge chunks of permafrost land have literally melted into the sea.

Lena River

The Lena River begins in the mountains east of Lake Baikal and empties into the Arctic Ocean 4,400 kilometers (2,734 miles) later. One of the longest rivers in the world, it flows through taiga, bogs and tundra and some of the remotest and coldest parts of Siberia, where temperatures routinely drop to -70 degrees F in the winter. The Lena is a major transportation route in central Siberia. It was first explored in the 17th century by Cossack fur hunters, who built stockade towns and subdued local people such as the Yakuts and Evenks. Ust-Kut (between Bratsk and Lake Baikal on the BAM railway) is a port on the Lena River with 70,000 people. Founded in 1631, is a jumping off point for trips on the Lena River, There isn't much to see in the city itself other than a shipbuilding works, museum and mud baths.

The Lena is frozen up to eight months of the year river, sometimes becoming solid ice from top to bottom. In early May the river goes through an awesome transformation, changing from a frozen lake into a raging torrent in a matter of weeks. Water that was frozen all winter is unleashed. The plains flood and huge block of ice are carried in a currents that uproots trees and erodes the river banks. This torrent reaches its peak in June when 65 more times water enter the Arctic Ocean than in April.

Cruising on Lena River is possible during July and Agist on paddlewheel steamship ferries that take five days to travel the 2,000 kilometers (1,242 miles) from Ust' Kut to Yakutsk, with stops in the major towns of Kirensky, with some charming colorful wooden houses, and Olekminsk. There are hardly any roads in this area. The only other way to get to Yakutsk is by air. The price on the sleeping quarters vary from $40 for an 8-berth-cabin to $106 for the a two-berth, 1st class cabin.

There are also hydrofoils that leave daily or every other day from Ust-Kut and head as far as Zhigalo, Vitim and Peleduy, which are about 12 hours away. The cost varies from $25 to $50.

Amur River

Amur River is the longest river in Russia, the eighth longest in the world and the most important waterway in the Russian Far East. Originating in the high plateaus of Mongolia and Siberia, the 4,166-kilometers (2,744 mile)-long river empties into the Pacific where its mouth is over 16 kilometers (ten miles) wide. It drainage basin, which includes parts of Mongolia, Siberia and China, is approximately 1,844,000 square kilometers (712,000 square miles), an area six time the size of Italy. [Source: Simon Winchester, National Geographic, February 2000]

Taiga, birch forests and wetlands flank long stretches of the Amur. One hundred species of fish live in its waters, including massive kaluga sturgeon, which can reach over 20 feet in length, weigh more than a ton, live to be 100 and produce 400 pound of valuable caviar. Salmon are the most important fish. Each year the salmon run last for almost three months. The waters also carry 25 million tons of silt to the North Pacific every year. Although the Amur is primarily a slow, lazy river it is not utilized commercially since it is so remotely located.

The tributaries of the Amur are fed mostly by monsoon rains. Consequently its water levels rise dramatically during the summers and drop during the dry winter. From May to November, when the river is free of ice, the Amur is navigable it entire length. During the winter, the Amur freezes over for as long as six months. The ice is up to six feet deep. Vehicles are driven on the river and floating docks are pulled up from the shores. The remainder of the year it is used by variety of boats, including barges, ferries and gunboats, which are the primary means of transportation.

Route and People of the Amur River

The Amur River is known to the Chinese as the Heilong Jian, the Black Dragon River. The first 1,100-mile-long section of the river defines the border between northern China and southeast Russia. The region was the site of a battle between Manchus and Cossacks in 1689. The current borders are the result of the Treaty if Aigun, signed in 1858, which the Chinese regarded as only temporary. [Source: Simon Winchester, National Geographic, February 2000]

The Amur formally begins near the forest town of Skovorodino, where the Argun and Shilka Rivers join to form the Amur proper. Other major tributaries include the Zeya, the Bureya and the Amgun rivers to the north and the Sunagri and Ussuri to the south. The final 650 miles of the river flows completely through Russia. From Khabarovsk, the Amur heads north for 400 miles, passing through remote forests, swamps, muddy coastal flatlands and empties into the Sea of Okhotsk, an arm of the Pacific Ocean, by way of a large gulf by the drab city of Nokolayevsk. Boat captains hate navigating the final section because the water is shallow and the navigable channels change all the time.

About 8½ million people live on the Amur’s length. Those that live on the Chinese side are noticeable more prosperous than those on the Russian side. Ferries are the primarily means of transportation across the river in summer. Buses cross the ice in the winter. Not as many people cross the river as you would think because Russians and Chinese remain so suspicious of one another. Those that cross are primarily Russian and Chinese traders carrying Russian-bound plastic bags filled with blocks of tea, T-shirts, sandals, whiskey and even Chinese-made vodka. There are only two bridges across the Amur. No dams have been built. In recent years fishermen have been complaining about pollution which comes from both Chinese and Russian sources.

The Nania, Ulchi and Evenki ethnic groups live along the Amur river in far eastern Siberia. Some villages still have shaman and do the old dances but many of traditions are being lost and young people are more interested in the modern world than the old world. There are about 30,000 Evenks in Evenk, National Area, Yakutia, Taimyr, Buryatia and Sakhalin.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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