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.'
Burke, Justin. "Nurturer of Statehood and Empire." Christian Science Monitor, 31 August 1993, 9 & 12.
Across the 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 crucial 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 along 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
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 Josephs 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
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 in both Russia’s revival and in producing
the next generation of leader. With the nation drifting amid political
and economic turmoil, several regions already have emerged as leader
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," says Olga Senatova,
an expert on the Volga region at the Russian State Committee for
"Moscow isn’t capable now of governing such a huge
country," Ms. Senatova adds. "Under the given circumstances,
local authorities are doing whatever is possible."
For example, in Nizhny Novgorod, located at the confluence of the
Volga and Oka rivers about 300 miles east of Moscow, a youthful
leadership team is emphasizing fast-paced, capitalist-style economic
reforms. The philosophy there is that the entrepreneur and individual
initiative are the keys to economic revival. Thus, officials aim
to set an example for all Russia by breaking the bureaucracy’s
control over the economic decision making process and unleashing
the nation’s economic potential.
But 200 miles down the river, in Tatarstan – one of Russia’s
autonomous republics, or nominal ethnic lands – officials
seem intent on pursuing a separate solution. Tatarstan is widely
recognized as the leader among the autonomous republics in the effort
to break free from Moscow’s rule. Officials in the capital,
Kazan, warn that the sovereignty aspirations of Tatarstan and other
autonomous republics threaten to spark the disintegration of the
Russian Federation. Tatar leaders counter that, given Moscow’s
present weakness, their sovereignty bid is the best way to preserve
regional stability, as well as create conditions for the rise of
a new, confederative state.
In addition, several large industrial centers along the river-
including Samara, Saratov, and Astrakhan – are to one degree
or another advocating more cautious reform strategies.
Some officials in these cities insist that Russia’s prevailing
conditions, which have developed over centuries, mean that anything
but a gradual transition from a planned economy to a market system
cannot be contemplated.
"Nothing can be accomplished quickly because inertia is an
important part of the mentality of our people," says Vladimir
Moskovsky, a top official in the Samara city administration.
"Evolution, nor revolution, is the key," Mr. Moskovsky
adds. "Revolutions are counterproductive because they destroy
the nation’s best minds and set society back."
But other Volga-area political leaders such as Alexander Zhilkin,
first deputy governor of the Astrakhan Region, say the cautious
approach may prevent Russia from breaking out of a historical vicious
cycle of heavy-handed rule accompanied by economic backwardness.
"With the government throttled by infighting and tentative reforms
failing to provide the tangible benefits for a large majority of
the population, Russia is ripening for a return to authoritarianism,"
Mr. Zhilkin says.
"The situation now reminds me of that following the February
Revolution," he says, referring to the 1917 uprising that
brought down the absolute monarchy.
"Back then the provisional government was paralyzed, and
the political vacuum was immediately filled by a Third Force [the
Bolsheviks]," Zhilkin says in an interview.
Although the go-slow approach currently appears to enjoy the broadest
support, officials are reluctant to predict what reform path could
ultimately be the most influential in transforming Russia. At the
same time, however, many stress without hesitation that it is necessary
to move forward.
"To rule according to old principles isn’t only no
longer possible, but also dangerous," says Yuri Byelikh, the
governor of the Saratov Region.
Tour boat: Passing through locks on
Moscow River, on the way to the Volga.
In the Volga city of Nizhny Novgorod, north of Moscow, officials
have pushed aside central planning and embraced a program
of rapid market reforms.
Reprinted with permission of the Christian Science