Volga is Europe’s longest river – 3.692 km. Its source is in the Valdai Hills ( 225 m above sea level ) in the Tver region northwest of Moscow. It is of crucial importance to most of European Russia. And it is linked to other rivers and lakes by a number of man-made canals.
The name Volga comes from Bulgar. They were a Turkic population living around the river from the 7th century ( after the fall of the Hunns ). Others say the name comes from an old Slavic word for wetness. Actually, both interpretations might be true.
The Russians call the river Volga-Matushka ( Mother Volga ).
During the Soviet time a number of big dams have been built to regulate the river and to produce electricity. Many monasteries and old villages along the river are now under water because of these dams.
Two on the most important canals are:
The Moscow canal from Volga to the Moscow river ( 128 km ). It was built by Gulag-prisoners in the years 1932-37.
The Volga-Don canal near Volgograd ( 101 km ). Built 1947-52 by German prisoners of war and Gulag prisoners.
The Vikings ( esp. from Sweden ) used Volga to sail all the way to the Caspian Sea to trade with the Middle East. Many remains from them are still found. They were called the Rus. That is how Russia got its name. Some Russian historians claim that it actually was vikings from Jutland in Denmark, who played the main role in the founding of Russia.
Our cruise will take us on this tour:
Astrachán – Volgográd – Sarátov – Samára – Kazán – Cheboksáry – Nízhny Nóvgorod – Kostromá – Yaroslávl – Ulich – Moscow.
This is a city of 520.000 inhabitants. Founded in 1558. Distance to the Caspian Sea: 66 km. It is on the same parallel as Vienna and Lyon.
The city is built on several islands and has therefore many bridges and canals.
The Volga delta to the south of the city can have up to 200 river arms, when the river has a lot of water. It has a lot of sturgeon and exotic plants.
Back in time the city was the capital of the Astrachan Khanate from 1459 – 1556. Then the Russian zar Ivan the Terrible conquered the city. The Kremlin of the city was built during the 1580ies. These fortresses were also seen as protection against invaders from the east.
During the bolchevik revolution in 1919 the workers in Astrachán made a revolt against the communists. Thousands were shot by the new secret police, the Cheka , under the command of Sergei Kirov. Others were thrown in the river with stones around their neck.
When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 their aim was to reach as far east as the line Archangelsk in the north to Astrachán in the south. They never made it. And Astrachán was not occupied.
Today the city has an important fishing fleet. It also produces footwear and clothes. The socalled Astrachán fur is well known too and made on the basis of raw material from Siberia.
In the city you find old cathedrals ( such as the Ascension Cathedral from 1700-10 in the Kremlin, a Roman catholic church ( Our Lady of Assumption from 1778 ), and synagogues.
The population is very mixed – Europeans, Asians, etc. . And Christians, Muslims and Buddhists live peacefully together in the city.
Culturally Astrachán is also very rich – incl. a new State Theatre and Opera from 2011.
Its airport is very new and modern – it opened in February 2011.
Among its twinned towns are Ljubljana in Slovenia and Brest in Belarus.
The city has today about 1 million inhabitants. It is 80 km long and covers an area of 565 sq.km.
From 1589 the city was called Tsaritsyn ( from the Turkic words sary-sin = yellow water ). In 1807 the city had 3.000 inhabitants. In 1900 it had grown to 84.000.
After the communist revolution the name of the city was in 1925 changed to Stalingrad. And it became an important area for heavy industry.
During World War II some of the most fierce battles in the war took place around Stalingrad. From August 1942 to February 1943 ( a bit more than five months ) between 1,2 and 1,7 million people were killed. Though the Germans at some point held about 90 % of the city they were not able to hold it. The German commander, field marshal Friedrich Paulus surrendered ( against the order of Hitler ). As he said at the time: I am not going to commit suicide because of thisBavarian corporal ! About 91.000 German soldiers were taken prisoners. Less than 10 % of them came back to Germany ten years later. Paulus himself was a luxury prisoner in Russia until 1953. After that he settle down in Dresden in the GDR and had a minor role in the East German military until his death.
Stalingrad was completely destroyed during the war. And an immense reconstructed started right after the war.
In 1961 the name was changed to Volgográd.
Today is has as one of the few Russian cities a communist mayor.
The city is a very important industrial centre with shipbuilding, oil refineries, steel production, aluminium plants, etc.
A huge monument / sculpture of “Mother Russia” is placed on one of the hills, where to worst battles took place. The Panorama Museum gives an overview of the battle of Stalingrad.
Among the city’s twinned towns are:
Coventry, Liège, Dijon, Turino, Cologne, Chemnitz, Port Said and Hiroshima.
This is a city of 837.000 inhabitants. They are a mixture of Russians, Tatars, Ukrainians, Jews and Germans.
At the time of the Golden Horde the city was called Ukek ( 1250-1355 ). Sarátov was founded in 1590. The name comes from Turkic Saryk Atov =the island ofv the hawks - or from Tatar: Sary Tau = yellow mountain.
When Sarátov was built the timber for the houses was prepared at the upper end of the Volga, because the forests were here. All pieces for each house got numbers, and everything was sent several hundred km down the river. The town Sarátov was in this way built within a few weeks. This was important to secure the area against new attacks from the east.
The Sarátov city and area was very important for the about 800.000 Germans, who at the invitation of zarina Catherine II came to Russia in the years from 1763. They settled down here to cultivate the land and to start productions. They also became industrialists, scientists, musicians, artists, etc. The city of Pokrovsk ( now: Engels ) on the other side of the river from Sarátov, was their capital.
When Hitler’s troops invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 Stalin ordered all Volga Germans moved to Sibiria and Kazachstan, as he did not trust their loyalty. When they later in the 1950ien and 1960ies were rehabilitated only few of them returned to the Volga area. But there are still many remains from their stay such as the Roman-Catholic cathedral St. Klementy. During the Soviet time it was a Childrens Cinema.
Sarátov was until 1991 a closed city due to its military installations. Many military airplanes were produced here.
Sarátov has a humid and continental climate. At winter it gets up to 92 cm snow.
The city is today and industrial city. And it also has many educational and cultural institutions. Among them are many art museums.
Sarátov has among its twinned cities:
Bratislava, Lodz, Marseille, Tour and Bristol.
This city has 1,2 million inhabitants and lies where the river Samára reaches the Volga.
Its name in the years 1935-91 was Kúybyshev.
Before 1586 lots of sea pirats operated from here. Then the Russians made it one of their fortresses against the east.
After the revolution a very serious famine happened in 1921. Thousands of people died. The Norwegian Fridjof Nansen organized on behalf of the League of Nations a very important emergency aid.
During World War II Samára was designated to be the Soviet capital, as Moscow was in great danger of falling to the Germans. The Soviet government worked in Samára ( Kúybuyshev ) from October 1941 until the summer of 1943.
At the same time the city produced a lot of the weapons for the war.
Samára is still today a very important industrial city ( space stations, satellites, etc. ). It has a lot of educational and cultural institutions.
Its waterfront towards the river is very long and very popular for relaxation.
Among its twinned cities are: Stuttgart and Palermo.
With its 1,1 million inhabitants the city is the capital and largest city of the Republic of Tatarstan.
It has been built where the Kazanka river meets the Volga.
The word Kazán comes from bulgar and means: boiler.
The Khanat of Kazan existed until 1552, when Ivan the Terrible and the Russians conquered the area. It was an enormous massacre on the local people.
A fortress – a Kremlin – was build. It has since 2005 been a UNESCO World Heritage site.
In 1917 Kazán was one of the key centres of the revolution.
The city is an industrial and a financial centre today.
Kazán has since 2000 been totally renewed and modernized.
It is considered the “third capital of Russia”. And it is also the sports capital of the country.
In 2013 the Summer Universiade will take place here. And FIFA has chosen the city for its World Cup in 2018.
The population in the city is still very mixed. And Russian as well as Tatar is spoken there.
Among Kazán twin towns are:
Braunschweig and Antalya.
This Volga-city has today 450.000 inhabitants. It is the capital of the Chuvashi Republic.
Before 1469 it was a Bulgar city with the name Veda Suver.
After the Russians conquered the area in the 1550ies a Kremlin was built in 1555. It still has 25 churches and 4 monasteries inside. All Russian-Orthodox.
The city has an artificial bay with popular cafes and promenades. It also has a lot of cultural activities and institutions – some of them in Chuvash language – spoken by about 1,6 million people. Famous are their opera, their ballet and their puppet theater.
A Language Festival was organized in the city in 1996.
On the industrial side the city has a big tractor plant and also a major electricity facility.
And most important: The beer of Cheboksáry is very famous
Among the city’s twin towns are Eger in Hungary and Antalya in Turkey.
This city has today 1,3 million inhabitants and is built, where the river Oka hits the Volga. It was founded in 1221.
The name means ( in Russian ) Lower Nóvgorod ( or Lower Newtown ). Novgorod is a city not far from St. Petersburg. Often it is just called: Nízhny.
Nizny has a very rich history and beautiful buildings. It has among many other buildings two medieval abbeys. It also has a mosque and a synagogue. A huge art gallery is also here.
The fortress, the Kremlin, was built 1508-11. It was important in the wars with the tatars in Kazán.
The famous family Stroganov ( the richest family in Russia at the time ) came from and lived in Nízhny.
During the Soviet period the city was called Gorki from 1932-90. It was named after the poet Maxim Gorki, who was born here. And who supported the revolution.
Nizhny was a closed town during the Soviet era. Lots of military research and production took place here.
And the physicist and human rights leader Andrei Sacharov was forced to live here in the years 1980-86. Then Michail Gorbatjov called him personally one day and told him that he was free to move wherever he wanted. His house is now a museum.
Among Nízhny’s twin cities are: Essen, Linz and Tampere.
This small town around two hours by hydrofoil from Yaroslávl ( see below ) is part of the so-called “Golden Ring of Moscow”.
It is special in the sense that it still looks like it did when it was built in the 12th century. With a number of churches, monasteries, a small mosque, etc. In the area around the town lots of animals like elks are living.
With its 600.000 inhabitants this is the oldest town at the Volga. It also belongs to the “Golden Ring of Moscow”. And it is often called “The Florence of Russia”.
It was founded in 1010 on old towns from the Viking period.
It is placed on rolling hills in a lovely landscape.
The city was an important industrial centre already before World War I.
During World War II the Yaroslávl was frequently bombed, but never conquered by the Germans.
It served as a refuge for people, especially children, from Leningrad, during its 900 days blockade. They came during the winter over the ice on Lake Ladoga.
The city holds a lot of cultural activities, and the atmosphere is very special.
It has since 2005 been a UNESCO Heritage site.
Among Yaroslávl’s twin cities are:
Coimbra, Exeter, Hanau, Jyväskylä, Palermo and Kassel.
This small town of 34.000 inhabitants is the third part of the ”Golden Ring of Moscow”. It goes back to 937. And it was during the Tsarist time known as a pilgrimage town.
Many old churches and monasteries can be seen in the town. It also has its own Kremlin, of course.
Today it is in particular known for the huge Úglich Reservoir ( Dam ) from 1939. It is 143 km long and covers 249 sq.km.
Niels Jørgen Thøgersen
May 5, 2012 ( 2nd ed. )