Nurturer of Statehood and Empire Russia's History Has Been Forged for Centuries in the Volga River Valley. Today, a Journey along Its Banks Reveals the Divergent Views Shaping the 'New Russia.'

By Justin Burke, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, August 31, 1993 | Go to article overview

Nurturer of Statehood and Empire Russia's History Has Been Forged for Centuries in the Volga River Valley. Today, a Journey along Its Banks Reveals the Divergent Views Shaping the 'New Russia.'


Justin Burke, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


ACROSS this vast Eurasian territory, there are rivers greater in length and power, but none that has been more influential in shaping Russia's statehood than the Volga.

It stretches more than 2,100 miles, originating in the Valdai Hills north of Moscow, then curving around the Russian capital before flowing south to the Caspian Sea. Though immense by any standard, the Volga is only the fifth longest river in Russia, after the Ob (2,700 miles long), Amur, Yenisei, and Lena - all located in Russia's Asian regions.

Historically, however, the Volga has been the primary nurturer of Moscow's rise from an obscure principality in the 12th century to an empire in the 19th century and a global superpower in the 20th.

The Volga and its tributaries were the most important trade links to both East and West for the nascent principality of Muscovy. And later, when the state started expanding in the 15th century, the river played a critical role in territorial conquest and the establishment of the Russian Empire.

Over subsequent centuries, many of the events and personalities that have come to define modern Russia can trace their origins to the Volga. For example, the Time of Troubles - the 17th century era of weak leadership and social upheaval - both began and ended in cities on the river. The Volga was also where the Red Army reversed the tide in its fight against the Nazis during World War II. And it was along the river that Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin grew up, studied, and embarked on a revolutionary career that would culminate in the Communist takeover of Russia in November 1917.

Now, as the 21st century approaches, modernization has caused the Volga to lose stature as a trade route. At the same time, its natural course and physical beauty have been drastically altered by a series of hydroelectric dams, construction on which began during Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin's 1930s industrialization drive. Those dams, in turn, generated the power for the massive industrial enterprises that appeared along the Volga during the Communist era.

The changes have meant the disappearance of a powerful symbol of Russian folklore - the Volga boatmen hauling barges on the river to the rhythm of their haunting chorus. In their place, there's now a fleet of freighters and tankers plying a river that in some areas more resembles a sea - as the dams have created reservoirs 20 miles wide. Industrialization, meanwhile, has produced pollution that threatens the river's future.

Yet, despite the Volga's transformation, many of those living and working along it still refer to it as "Mother Volga," a sign the river's symbolic value remains embedded in the national consciousness.

And given that more than a third of Russia's 150 million citizens resides in its basin, the Volga seems destined to again play an influential role both in Russia's revival and in producing the next generation of leaders. With the nation drifting amid political and economic turmoil, several regions along the river already have emerged as leaders in the effort to give shape to a post-Communist Russia.

The ultimate goal of these regions is the same, namely ending the chaos produced by the Soviet Union's collapse and replacing it with stability and prosperity. But vastly different methods are being employed in pursuit of the objective.

"Developments should not be viewed in progressive and conservative terms. It's a matter of the governable and the ungovernable," says Olga Senatova, an expert on the Volga region at the Russian State Committee for National Policy. …

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