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, Volgograd (once Stalingrad) and Astrakhan. A wide variety of ethnic groups have made their home in the Volga basin including Tatars, Germans and Kyrgyz.
David Holley wrote in the Los Angeles Times: The “Mother Volga, a river of history, folklore, song and art, is far more than Europe’s longest waterway. Like the Mississippi in America, it defines Russia’s spiritual heartland. Talking with the people who live on its banks gives a sense of the hopes, dreams and disappointments of Russia today... As she rode a ferry past golden birch forests to her dacha, Galina Kudryavtseva looked at the waters of the mighty Volga River with the love of a child for her mother. “Life without the Volga is unimaginable,” said the retired engineer, 69. “The Volga provides everything — work, pleasure, it feeds people, and it’s incredibly beautiful.”[Source: David Holley, Los Angeles Times,, December 5, 2005]
“The story of Stenka Razin, a 17th century river pirate turned Robin Hood who led a peasant rebellion, is known to nearly everyone here in the Volga region. Though the revolt failed, the rebel leader and the ideal of economic equality he fought for against the corrupt and repressive Tsarist state still resonate among people here. A beloved folk song tells of how Razin threw his new bride into the Volga to prove to his skeptical men that their cause would always come first. As far as the song and most of its listeners are concerned, that gruesome deed simply made him more heroic. “He gave up love in order to stick to the right course,” Valentina Moiseyeva, 55, a high school math teacher from Nizhny Uslon, near Kazan, said after explaining the song’s story line.”
Route and Flow of the Volga
The Volga flows 3,690 kilometers (2,293 miles )in a southeasterly direction from the lake-studded and swampy Valdai Hills, 320 kilometers (200 miles) southwest of St. Petersburg, to the landlocked Caspian Sea which is 30 meters (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 11 kilometer (seven mile) stretch.
Holley wrote: “Flaunting feminine curves, the Volga meanders through the country. Rising northwest of Moscow, it grows stronger and wider after looping past Nizhny Novgorod, known as Gorky in The Soviet era — the city where human rights campaigner Andrei Sakharov was exiled in the 1980s. It flows east to Kazan, conquered by Ivan the Terrible in 1552, and on south to Volgograd, which, then called Stalingrad, was the site of one of the bloodiest battles of World War II.”
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 Nizhny 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 Volgograd is the canal that connects it to the Don River. After Volgograd 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." There is often flooding. Russian say this is when the Volga is most beautifu. The break up of the ice is looked forward to with optimism as a sign that spring has arrived and the winter is over. 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).David Holley wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The Volga today is no longer the free-flowing river captured by Ilya Repin in his famous “Volga Boatmen” — which depicts bedraggled human beasts of burden harnessed to long ropes, trudging wearily along the bank as they pull a barge upstream. Dams built decades ago have tamed the once-wild waters, turning long stretches into placid lakes, like beads strung on a necklace. “The river used to be much narrower, and all along the banks were lush meadows,” recalled Vadim Demyanov, 57, head of a ferry docking station near Kazan. “After the hydropower station was built, it became much wider. I was small then, but it was prettier.” [Source: David Holley, Los Angeles Times,, December 5, 2005]
The dams and the reservoirs 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.”
Decay and Changes Along the Volga
[Source: David Holley, Los Angeles Times,, December 5, 2005] David Holley wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “As the Volga undulates its way past cities, it seems to follow the course of this post-Soviet divide. The hardscrabble outskirts show a mix of run-down apartment blocks and a modest number of shiny new high-rise buildings, with a few very old wooden homes that speak of a simple and disappearing beauty. In the more vibrant city centers, construction cranes loom as spiny symbols of progress, and solid stone or brick structures are being renovated to serve as fancy residences and offices. Left behind in the ruins of communism, most older Russians despair at the loss of the security they once knew. Those under 35, convinced their lives can be richer than those of their parents, square their shoulders and fend for themselves.
The generation gap is as broad and deep as the Volga itself. “Now, of course, the young people who work hard earn good money,” said Valery Miller, 53, the engine mechanic on a ferry based in Kazan. “But the old people worked hard their whole lives, and they get a pittance. Here, old people are abandoned by their government. I’ve been abroad, and I’ve seen how old grannies bent over with age still have a chance to travel, to visit other countries. A Russian granny has none of these opportunities.” “There’re lots of computers everywhere,” Ravil Badratginov, 13, said when asked how he thought his Kazan region differed from the times before he was born. “There are new factories. Old buildings are being torn down or remodeled. We have lots of computer classes in school.” “Young people have hope for the future and believe it lies in their own hands,” added Alsu Nasybulina, 25, a woman who was helping chaperon Ravil’s class on a field trip. “It’s very difficult to get a job here,” said Valentina Zavarikhina, 67, a part-time janitor at Bolgar’s intercity bus station. “There used to be factories, but all of them were closed down and people are unemployed.”
Younger Russians are struggling too. Andrei Mamonov, 28, who lives in a village near Bolgar, would love to move to a city, but with a wife and a young son, he isn’t confident that he could earn enough to pay the rent. Mamonov owns his home in the village and makes ends meet by holding down three jobs. He earns US$63 a month working in the school’s heating plant. He also moonlights as a taxi driver using his own car, and he grows vegetables and raises rabbits. “Everybody here keeps livestock,” he said. “You need it to live, to have meat. And if you have something extra you can sell it.” But, he said, life in his village, right on the Volga, also has its rewards. Children especially love to swim in the great river, and adults may venture into the forest to pick mushrooms. Miller, the ferry mechanic, considers himself a lucky man to be working on the river. “When you sit indoors, you don’t see anything,” he said. “Here you see all the variety of the world, and you commune with nature. It’s almost like combining work and rest.”
Traveling on the Volga
Many Western travelers that visit the Volga area, the Golden Ring and the waterways beteen St. Petersburg and Moscow cruise the canals, lakes and rivers on 300-passenger Russian vacation ship that are virtually floating hotels, complete with restaurants, cabins and a music salon where classical musicians perform every night. The journeys often begins or ends in Moscow so you will have a chance it these as well. Tour groups in the United States that offer cruises in Russia include Russian River Cruises and Viking River Cruises.
Most travel on the Volga is done on river cruises in hydrofoils. Many of the main attractions are grim cities that were closed in the Soviet area: Niznhny Novgorod, Kazan and Astrakhan. The scenery on the river banks is a mix of green pastures and woods, with villages and moored fishing boats here and there. Although river traffic is less than what it was in the Soviet era but especially in the summer regular boats still ply the river in both direction on a daily basis. A number of cruise ship ply sections of the Volga.
A typical long distance cruise runs from Moscow to Kazan, Ulyanovsk, Volgograd, the Volga-Don Canal and Rostov-on-Don and includes river travel, and stops for picnics and sight seeing in the cities. Accommodation and most meals are aboard the ships. Passenger boats run only between Moscow and Astrakan. There used to be boats between Tver and Moscow but these stopped running after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But boats are available from Uglich to Yaroslav.
David Holley wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “To journey along the Volga, cutting through autumn morning mists or floating at night under star-spangled skies, is to taste a broad slice of life in post-Soviet Russia. The villages and holiday dacha settlements that hug the river reflect the divisions that have emerged here: Scattered amid the rundown houses of poor farmers and the modest weekend cottages of factory and office workers are the luxury getaways of those few who have made it big in the new world of “Wild East” capitalism. Barges carrying gravel, sand or coal; fishing boats; ferries; hydrofoils; tour boats and sailboats now ply the more placid Volga. A high-speed hydrofoil connects Kazan and Bolgar, a downstream town of 9,000 where decay and stagnation still dominate, as in many smaller towns and villages of the region. [Source: David Holley, Los Angeles Times,, December 5, 2005]
Source of the Volga
Source of the Volga (450 kilometers north of Moscow) is a remote area of forests and lakes reached by 150 mile train ride from the Volga city of Tver. The source is reached down a down a cart track. Next to the source is a village with some painted wooded houses. Over the source — a marsh with brown peat-stained water — is a Chinese-style pavilion. On a nearby hill is large redbrick church with seven domes built around 1890.
The source of the Volga is located on the Valdai Ridge of the Valdai Hills, in the watershed between the Caspian and the Baltic seas. It is located in Ostashkovsky District of Tver Oblast, on the outskirts of Volgoverkhovie village, at an altitude of 228 meters above the level of the Baltic Sea. Several springs on the edge of a nameless swamp produce a small basin which is recognized as the source of the Volga.
A chapel was built over the spring in ancient times, and it is now being renovated. There is a well-maintained wooden bridge, several dozen meters long, over the swampy land, leading to the building. In the center of the chapel there is a round opening with a protective enclosure, directly over the spring. The house is surrounded by a platform with steps leading down to the water.
The Volga flows out from the little swamp as a brook, about one meter wide and no more than 30 centimeters deep. It is even narrower during the dry season, and sometimes the first few dozen meters from the source dry up. The water, which is potable, is of a reddish-brown color. The first bridge across the Volga in this place is only 3 meters long. The source of the Volga is protected as a natural monument. The eponymous nature reserve around it includes a forest with a total area of 4,100 hectares.
Volga-Baltic Waterway connects the Baltic Sea with the Volga River through a series of rivers, lakes and canals. Along the shores are small farms, rolling green hills, old villages and birch forests. Both Peter the Great and Stalin had hope to complete a Volga-Baltic water but that goal was not realized until the summer of 1964, when the last link of the waterway — the 368-kilometer (229-mile) stretch between the Rybinsk Reservoir at Cherepovets and Lake Onega — was completed. Linking the major cities of European Russia and sometimes called the "Path of God," the 1,100-mile waterway includes dams, locks, canals, reservoirs, Vytegra and Kovzha rivers, Lake Beloye, and the Sheksna River. River cruise ships ply the waterway from May to September.
The Volga-Baltic Waterway — officially called the V.I. Lenin Volga-Baltic Waterway and formerly known as the Mariinsk Canal System — has a total length is about 1,100 kilometers (685 miles). Originally constructed in the early 19th century, the system was rebuilt for larger vessels in the 1960s, becoming a part of the Unified Deep Water System of European Russia. According to Encyclopædia Britannica: “The first link between the Volga and the Baltic, via Vishny Volochek, the Msta River, and the Ladoga Canal, opened in 1731, creating a route 1,395 km (867 miles) long. A second route, the Tikhvin system, opened in 1811, creating an 890-km (about 550-mile) waterway via the Mologa and Syas rivers. A third route, the Mariinsk system, opened in 1810, using the Sheksna and Svir rivers; it was improved in the 1850s and again between 1890 and 1896, creating a 1,135-km (705-mile) waterway for boats drawing less than 1.8 meters (5.8 feet). It was decided to rebuild the whole system in 1939, and this was completed in 1964.” [Source: Michael Clarke, Encyclopædia Britannica]
Going from the Volga to St. Petersburg and the Baltic Sea, the waterways starts, Michael Clarke wrote for Encyclopædia Britannica, “at Rybinsk, on the Volga River and the Rybinsk Reservoir, and goes northward by way of the Sheksna River, which was converted to a reservoir by a dam and power station above Cherepovets, to Lake Beloye. Crossing the lake, now within the Sheksna Reservoir, the waterway follows the Kovzha River, which is linked by a canal section over the watershed to the Vytegra River; the latter canal section was improved by the construction of six locks and two hydroelectric stations and reservoirs. The Vytegra River flows into Lake Onega, and from there the waterway continues westward through the Svir River. It follows the Svir to Lake Ladoga and the Novoladozhsky Canal and then to the Neva River, which empties into the Gulf of Finland at St. Petersburg. The length of the waterway from Lake Onega to Cherepovets is 368 km (229 miles). The system has seven modern automatically controlled locks and can take craft with drafts up to 3.5 meters (11.5 feet) and 5,000 tons capacity; in contrast, the old Mariinsk system, with 38 locks, had a limit of 600-ton barges.
Moscow-Volga Canal heads north from Moscow and connects with the Volga about 137 kilometers (85 miles) north of the capital near the town of Uglich. Ships traveling the canal pass through 11 locks and pass sunbathers, bucolic villages, birch forest and farmland.. Commissioned by Stalin to bring drinking water to Moscow and built largely by gulag prisoners, the canal was took 4½ years to make and was opened in 1937 to mark the 800th anniversary of the founding of Moscow.
The Moscow-Volga Canal is of great importance to the national economy and to Moscow’s health. The relatively clean water coming through the canal has helped solved Moscow's water-supply problems. In conjunction with Volga-Don canal and the Volga-Baltic Water, the Moscow-Volga Canal has given Moscow access to the White Sea in the north, the Baltic Sea near Scandinavia and the Black Sea and Caspian Sea in the south. See, Uglich, Cherepovets, Yaroslava, Kostrama
Volga-Don Canal (32 kilometers south of Volgograd) was constructed and opened in only three and half years. It connects the Volga River — and with it the Caspian Sea — to the Don River — and with it the Sea of Azov and Black Sea Its completion in 1952 was an important milestone in the creation of 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 64-kilometer (40-mile) canal links these two great rivers. The Soviet Union and Russia for a long time 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. Barges and ships are often held up by bottlenecks that form at the canal locks.
Navigation on the Volga-Don canal begins in late March and ends in early December. It is closed in the winter because of ice. Ships can pass through the canal from several hours to several days, depending on the amount of traffic. In 1997, a museum was opened up close to the 1st lock that covered the history and construction of the canal and exhibits documents and things from that time. In 2010, the reconstruction of the canal’s hydraulic structures, sluice gates, pumping systems, electrical equipment and machinery began. Complex reconstruction of the Volga-Don Canal with updated of navigation systems, pumping stations and upgrading of all of the gateways was scheduled for completion in 2019.
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 marshes helps filter pollutants from the Volga so that the water is relatively clean when it reach the Caspian Sea. The Volga Delta is home to over 200 different kinds of bird, including herons, ducks, swans, white-tailed eagles and many other species as well as wild boar, foxes, beavers, muskrats and 30 other animals. In the summer the area comes alive with color as vast carpets of pink and white lotus flowers bloom.
The Volga Delta is the largest delta in Europe and has grown significantly in the 20th century due of changes in the level of the Caspian Sea. In 1880, it covered an area of 3,222 square kilometers. Today it has an area of 27,224 square kilometers and is approximately 160 kilometers across. The Delta is known for its famous Caspian shallow waters and the Major Bank, the main shipping and fish migration thoroughfare, its impassable thickets of reeds, jungle-like ducts, and its rich fish population.
All the major fish species found in Europe live in the Volga Delta: crucian carp, pike, tench, carp, catfish, saber fish, perch, chub, roach, and many others. The Volga-Caspian region is one of the world's major destinations in terms of its diversity and abundance of fish. Sturgeon, the source of caviar, is of particular importance. The region is home to the common sturgeon, beluga, stellate sturgeon, and sterlet. Overfishing threatens these fish.. Fishing stations in the Volga Delta are located in Kamyzyaksky, Krasnoyarsky, Narimanovsky, Privolzhsky, and Volodarsky municipal districts. Their presence makes it possible to visit the shallow waters in Ikryaninsky, Kamyzyaksky, and Limansky municipalities, as well as on five banks of the lower Volga: Igolkinsky, Belinskiy, Novo-Vasilievsky, Malo-Belinskiy, and Karaisky.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Federal Agency for Tourism of the Russian Federation (official Russia tourism website russiatourism.ru ), Russian government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.
Updated in September 2020