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The Volga River , long characterized as “Mother Volga” and renowned as the cultural heart of Russia, rises in the Valdai Hills northeast of Moscow and runs 2,300 miles in a sweeping arc to the south before reaching its complex delta on the Caspian Sea. The Volga is fed by more than 200 tributaries and drains a watershed comprising 40 percent of European Russia, that portion of the country reaching from its western boundaries to the Ural Mountains. The vast Volga watershed embraces 40 percent of the Russian population, 45 percent of the country’s industry, and half of Russia’s major agricultural sector. An important transportation route in Russia for centuries, the Volga has been compared to the Great Lakes in North America for its key role in economic development. Currently, the Volga carries nearly 70 percent of all cargo on Russia’s inland waterways. There are hundreds of ports and industrial docks along its course, and eight major complexes with dams, hydroelectric generating plans, and reservoirs line its bustling banks. The dams and reservoirs have transformed the Volga into a series of expansive lakes.
Boats on the Volga can reach the Black Sea through the Volga-Don Canal, and access to St. Petersburg and the Baltic Sea is possible through the Volga-Baltic waterway, which links the river with Lakes Ladoga and Onega in the north. The Volga reaches Moscow via the Moscow Canal and the Moscow River. Because of Russia’s increased connection with the European Union, negotiations have been underway to allow access to the Volga and other Russian inland waterways by other European countries.
The Volga has been subjected to a great degree of pollution from a variety of sources. Industrial wastes, runoff of agricultural chemicals, and infusions of silt from deforested lands have seriously endangered the river. The construction of dams along the river has made it difficult for fish to reach spawning grounds and chemical changes in the water from pollutants have damaged the fishing industry. Pollutants from the Volga entering the Caspian Sea have damaged the immune system of thousands of seals and greatly reduced the fish catch. Especially vulnerable has been the sturgeon, the source of the Russian delicacy caviar. Although the delta of the Volga has thousands of individual streams serving as filters to cleanse the waters, this natural process does not trap all the pollutants carried in the waters.
The environmental degradation of the Volga has attracted international attention. In 2003 President Vladimir Putin stated his intention to double Russia’s gross domestic product by 2010. Economists and environmentalists both expressed concern about the difficult task of balancing economic growth and protection of the environment in the Volga basin. Monitoring this situation is now the task of CABRI/Volga, a multinational organization dedicated to addressing risk management in the Volga basin. Institutional members represent the Russian Federation, Germany, The Netherlands, Greece, Italy, France, Hungary, and Malta. The acronym CABRI stands for Cooperation Along a Big River, and the organization has advocated for strong water management and coordination among groups administering environmental protection programs in the Volga basin.
- Micha Bradshaw, A New Economic Geography of Russia (Routledge, 2006);
- Tim McNeese, The Volga River (Chelsea House Publications, 2005);
- Lawrence Oliphant, The Russian Shores of the Black Sea in the Autumn of 1852: With a Voyage Down the Volga and a Tour through the Country of the Don Cossacks (Adamant Media Corporation, 2000).