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The Volga ( ) is the largest river in Europe in terms of length, discharge, and watershed. It flows through central Russia, and is widely viewed as the national river of Russiamarker. Out of the twenty largest cities of Russia, eleven, including its capital Moscowmarker, are situated in the Volga's drainage basin. Some of the largest reservoirs in the world can be found along the Volga.


The Russian hydronym " " is akin to the old Mari name of the river - Volgydo that means "bright". Mari people are considered as the first people in Volga. Presently Mari call the river as Юл (Jul) that means "way" from Tatar. The name volgydo is cognate to Finno-Ugric valkea meaning "white" or "bright". Russians explain Volga from slavic word for "wetness", "humidity" (влага, волога). The Russian name is transliterated as Volga in English and Wolga in German.

The Turkic people living along the river formerly referred to it as Itil or Atil. In modern Turkic languages, the Volga is known as İdel (Идел) in Tatar, Idyll in ancient Chuvash-Bolgar, Атăл (Atăl) in Chuvash, Idhel in Bashkir, Edil in Kazakh, and İdil in Turkish. The Turkic peoples associated the Itil's origin with the Kama River. Thus, a left tributary to the Kama river was named the Aq Itil (White Itil).

Under the Mongols, the river was known by its other Turkic name Sarı-su ("yellow water") but Mongols used also their own name Shar mörön ("yellow river").

The ancient and modern Mordvin name for the Volga, Рав (Rav), apparently reflects the ancient Scythian hydronym *Rhā, suppedly cognate with the ancient Avestan and Sanskrit names Rañha and Rasah for a mythical river supposed to flow around the earth. It has even been suggested that the name Russian itself might have been derived from Rasah/Rosah, the Iranic name of the Volga River (by F.Knauer Moscow 1901). These Iranic words are all connected in their primary meaning of "dew, liquid, moisture".


The Volga is the longest river in Europe. It belongs to the closed basin of the Caspian Seamarker. Rising in the Valdai Hillsmarker above sea level north-west of Moscowmarker and about south-east of Saint Petersburgmarker, the Volga heads east past Lake Sterzhmarker, Tvermarker, Dubnamarker, Rybinskmarker, Yaroslavlmarker, Nizhny Novgorodmarker, and Kazanmarker. From there it turns south, flows past Ulyanovskmarker, Tolyattimarker, Samaramarker, Saratovmarker and Volgogradmarker, and discharges into the Caspian Sea below Astrakhanmarker at below sea level. At its most strategic point, it bends toward the Don ("the big bend"). Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad, is located there.

The Volga has many tributaries, most importantly the Kama, the Oka, the Vetluga, and the Suramarker rivers. The Volga and its tributaries form the Volga river system, which drains an area of about 1.35 million square kilometres in the most heavily populated part of Russia. The Volga Deltamarker has a length of about 160 kilometres and includes as many as 500 channels and smaller rivers. The largest estuary in Europe, it is the only place in Russia where pelicans, flamingoes, and lotus may be found. The Volga freezes for most of its length for three months each year.

The Volga drains most of Western Russia. Its many large reservoirs provide irrigation and hydroelectric power. The Moscow Canalmarker, the Volga-Don Canalmarker, and the Volga-Baltic Waterwaymarker form navigable waterways connecting Moscow to the White Seamarker, the Baltic Seamarker, the Caspian Seamarker, the Sea of Azovmarker and the Black Seamarker. High levels of chemical pollution currently give cause for environmental concern.

The fertile river valley provides large quantities of wheat, and also has many mineral riches. A substantial petroleum industry centres on the Volga valley. Other minerals include natural gas, salt, and potash. The Volga Delta and the nearby Caspian Seamarker offer superb fishing grounds. Astrakhanmarker, at the delta, is the centre of the caviar industry.

Confluents (downstream to upstream)

Reservoirs (downstream to upstream)

A number of large hydroelectric reservoirs were constructed on the Volga during the Soviet rulemarker. They are:

Human history

The downstream of the Volga, widely believed to have been a cradle of the Proto-Indo-European civilization, was settled by Huns and other Turkic peoples in the first millennium AD, replacing Scythians. The ancient scholar Ptolemy of Alexandria mentions the lower Volga in his Geography (Book 5, Chapter 8, 2nd Map of Asia). He calls it the Rha, which was the Scythian name for the river. Ptolemy believed the Don and the Volga shared the same upper branch, which flowed from the Hyperborean Mountains.
Many Orthodox shrines and monasteries are strewn along the banks of the Volga

Subsequently the river basin played an important role in the movements of peoples from Asia to Europe. A powerful polity of Volga Bulgaria once flourished where the Kama river joins the Volga, while Khazaria controlled the lower stretches of the river. Such Volga cities as Atil, Saqsin, or Sarai were among the largest in the medieval world. The river served as an important trade routeconnecting Scandinavia, Rus', and Volga Bulgaria with Khazaria and Persiamarker.

Khazars were replaced by Kipchaks, Kimeks and Mongols, who founded the Golden Horde in the lower reaches of the Volga. Later their empire broke into the Khanate of Kazan and Khanate of Astrakhan both of which were conquered by the Russians in the course of the 16th century Russo-Kazan Wars. The Russian people's deep feeling for the Volga finds echoes in their culture and literature, starting from the 12th-century Lay of Igor's Campaign. The Volga Boatmen's Song is one of many songs devoted to the national river of Russia.

Construction of Soviet dams often involved enforced resettlement of huge numbers of people, as well as destruction of their historical heritage. For instance, the town of Mologamarker was flooded for the purpose of constructing the Rybinsk Reservoirmarker (then the largest artificial lake in the world), and the construction of the Uglich Reservoirmarker entailed the flooding of several monasteries with buildings dating from the 15th and 16th centuries. In such cases the ecological and cultural damage often outbalanced any economical advantage.

20th-century conflicts

During the Russian Civil War, both sides fielded warships on the Volga. In 1918, the Red Volga Flotilla participated in driving the Whites eastward, from the Middle Volga at Kazan to the Kama and eventually to Ufamarker on the Belaya River.

In modern times, the city on the big bend of the Volga, currently known as Volgogradmarker, witnessed the Battle of Stalingradmarker, the bloodiest battle in human history, in which the Soviet Unionmarker and the Germanmarker forces were deadlocked in a stalemate battle for access to the river. The Volga was (and still is) a vital transport route between Russiamarker and the Caspian Seamarker, which provides access to the oil fields of Apsheronmarker.

Hitler planned to use access to the oil fields of Azerbaijanmarker to fuel future German conquests. Apart from that, whoever held both sides of the river could move valuable troops and war machines, across the river, to defeat the enemy's fortifactions beyond the river. By taking the river, Hitler's Germany would have been able to move supplies, guns, and men into the northern part of Russia.

For this reason, many amphibious assaults were brought about in an attempt to remove the other side from the banks of the river. In these battles, The Soviet Union was the main offensive side, while the German troops used a more defensive stance, though most the fighting was head on head, with no clear offensive or defensive side.

Ethnic groups

The first people along the upper Volga are Mari (Мари) and their west ethnic group named Merya (Мäрӹ) that came here around 1-3rd century. In the 8th and 9th centuries Slavic colonization began from Kievan Rus'. They brought Christianity, and a part of local people took Christianity and gradually became East Slavs; the remainder of Mari people migrated to the west far inland. In the course of several centuries they assimilated the indigenous Finnic population which included Merya and Meshchera peoples. The surviving peoples of Volga Finnic ethnicity include the Maris and Mordvins of the middle Volga.

Apart from the Huns, the earliest Turkic tribes arrived in the 7th century and assimilated some Finnic and Indo-European population on the middle and lower Volga. The Christian Chuvash and Muslim Tatars are descendants of the population of medieval Volga Bulgaria. Another Turkic group, the Nogais, formerly inhabited the lower Volga steppes.

The Volga region is home to a German minority group, the Volga Germans. Catherine the Great had issued a Manifesto in 1763 inviting all foreigners to come and populate the region, offering them numerous incentives to do so. This was partly to develop the region but also to provide a buffer zone between the Russians and the Mongol hordes to the east. Because of conditions in German territories, the Germans responded in the largest numbers. Under the Soviet Unionmarker a slice of the region was turned into the Volga German Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic to house many of the Volga Germans. Others were executed or dispersed throughout the Soviet Union prior to and after World War II.


The Volga, widened for navigation purposes with construction of huge dams during the years of Stalin's industrialization, is of great importance to inland shipping and transport in Russia: all the dams in the river have been equipped with large (double) ship locks, so that vessels of considerable dimensions can actually travel from the Caspian Seamarker almost to the upstream end of the river.

Connections with the Don River and the Black Seamarker are possible through the Volga-Don Canalmarker. Connections with the lakes of the north (Lake Ladogamarker, Lake Onegamarker), Saint Petersburgmarker and the Baltic Seamarker are possible through the Volga-Baltic Waterwaymarker; and a liaison with Moscow has been realised by the Moscow Canalmarker connecting the Volga and the Moskva rivers.

This infrastructure has been designed for vessels of a relatively large scale (lock dimensions of 290 x 30 meters on the Volga, slightly smaller on some of the other rivers and canals) and it spans many thousands of kilometers. A number of formerly state-run, now mostly privatized, companies operate passenger and cargo vessels on the river; Volgotanker, with over 200 petroleum tankers, is one of them.

In the later Soviet eramarker, up to the modern times, grain and oil have been among the largest cargo exports transported on the Volga. Until recently access to the Russian waterways was granted to foreign vessels on a only very limited scale. The increasing contacts between the European Union and Russia have led to new policies with regard to the access to the Russian inland waterways. It is expected that vessels of other nations will be allowed on the Russian rivers soon.

See also


  1. See Max Vasmer's dictionary under "Волга".
  2. Lebedynsky, Iaroslav. Les Sarmates : Amazones et lanciers cuirassés entre Oural et Danube. Paris: Editions Errance, 2002.
  3. Volga River
  4. "In all, Soviet dams flooded 2,600 villages and 165 cities, almost 78,000 sq. km. - the area of Maryland, Delaware, Massachusetts, and New Jersey combined - including nearly 31,000 sq. km. of agricultural land and 31,000 sq. km. of forestland". Quoted from: Paul R. Josephson. Industrialized Nature: Brute Force Technology and the Transformation of the Natural World. Island Press, 2002. ISBN 1559637773. Page 31.
  5. Brian Pearce, Introduction to Fyodor Raskolnikov s "Tales of Sub-lieutenant Ilyin."
  6. ::The Battle of Stalingrad::
  7. [1]
  8. NoorderSoft Waterways Database)

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