Volga: The Longest River Shaping Russian History

What Does Volga Mean in Russian?

The longest river in Europe, the Volga has shaped the history of Russia. It has both united and divided its peoples.

The turn-of-the-century engineer Konstantin Bogoyavlensky wanted to build a hydro power station on the Volga. But the local authorities and clergy objected.

The Mennonites living in the area feared “Russification” and military service, which went against their pacifist beliefs.


The Volga flows through three terrestrial ecosystems from its source in Valdai Hills northwest of Moscow to the Caspian Sea. The river is a rich repository of minerals, including oil and natural gas. It also provides a major shipping and fishing thoroughfare.

The mighty river has long played a critical role in the history of Russia. It served as a major conduit of trade and ideas, supporting the rise of Nizhny Novgorod as a trading center in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was a major site of conflict between the Finno-Ugric settlers of Khazaria and the advancing states of Kievan Rus and the Golden Horde, later between the khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan and Moscow and other Russian principalities.

It was a source of inspiration for writers and artists, and its ‘gloomy grandeur’ became a symbolic emblem of a national identity. The Volga was also a crucial element of the modernization project that transformed Russia into an industrial powerhouse.


In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Volga water carried goods and ideas between the thriving commercial centers of Nizhny Novgorod and Moscow. It also drew the attention of intellectuals struggling to define a national identity, inspiring musicians, poets, and painters.

For many German settlers who arrived in the 1760s, the Volga meant a new homeland. They settled mainly on the western “mountain side” of Saratov province, where their soil was better than that of the eastern “meadow side.”

With the outbreak of World War II, the Soviet government abolished the Volga German Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic and expelled its inhabitants. Many were sent to Central Asia, Siberia, and Kazakhstan. Others scattered to Argentina, where they established towns and villages around the country. They keep their heritage alive with annual festivals, such as the Kerb, the Strudelfest, and the Fullselfest.


The Volga is a symbol of Russia and Russian culture. It is used in a variety of ways, including transportation and power generation. The river is also a vital part of the economy.

It has served as a line between Europe and Asia. This is reflected in the topography. The land on the west side of the middle and lower Volga is hillier and more cultivated. The southeastern side is much flatter. The middle and lower Volga has drawn people from a wide range of backgrounds. These include Old Believers — schismatics in the Russian Orthodox Church — and non-Slavs, such as the Mari and the Khazars.

In the nineteenth century, the Volga began to undergo gradual “Russification.” This affected the farming practices and language of the Volga Germans. In addition, the men were required to serve in the military, which went against their pacifist religion. Ultimately, this pushed many Volga Germans to leave the region.


The Volga’s massive size and historic importance rank it among the world’s great rivers. Its basin straddles two-fifths of Russia, and the river itself spans more than 2,300 miles. It is a vital transport route, and its wide river valley provides agricultural opportunities. It is also a source of political conflict. The major Cossack revolts of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were essentially Volga revolts, as rebel armies raided towns along the river.

A system of dams and reservoirs has helped fuel the economy, but they have also dramatically altered the habitat of many species in the river. The anadromous fish (famous for their caviar) that spawn in the Caspian Sea and swim downstream into the Volga, for example, have been severely affected.

The Volga’s low-water conditions this year may be a warning of problems to come. And the river’s managers haven’t done a very good job of adapting to changing circumstances. A recent report by the Accounts Chamber of Russia criticized Healthy Volga for an excessive focus on point-source pollution and a convoluted management structure that hasn’t improved water quality.

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