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The Volga – A journey along the lifeline of Russia

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Today we take you to the heart of Russia, more precisely to the Volga River. The Volga is much more than just a river, it is a symbol of Russia and of paramount importance for the historical development of the country. Many tourists take a Volga cruise and we will show you what there is to see on such a trip along the Volga along the way. We start at the source of the Volga and then travel to its end in the Caspian Sea. Come with us on a journey along the longest river in Europe and discover with us how diverse Russia’s lifeline was and is!

volga river source
This neat gate and the chapel behind it mark the unspectacular source of the Volga River

This is the Volga

The Volga is the longest river in Europe with more than 3500 kilometers. Although this only puts it in 17th place worldwide, it is the longest river on our planet that does not flow into a sea (the Caspian Sea is actually a lake). Like the Dnepr and the Daugava, the giant river begins in the Waldai Heights near the old Hanseatic city of Velyky Novgorod, about 300 kilometers northwest of the Russian capital Moscow.

Volga Don Canal
Lighthouse on the Volga-Don Canal between Volgograd and Rostov-on-Don

Channels and the importance of the volga river for Russia

On its way to the Caspian Sea, the Volga passes countless streams. However, the river becomes Russia’s lifeline not only because so many important historical cities lie on its banks, but also because it is connected by canals with the Black Sea, the White Sea and the Baltic Sea and thus also plays an important role in foreign trade. Above all, however, the Volga is a mystically transfigured place of great importance to the Russians, whose consequence is comparable to that of the Rhine in Germany or the Vistula in Poland.

The course of the Volga

Initially, the Volga flows in a southeasterly direction towards the capital Moscow. After about 200 kilometers it passes Rzhev, from here it is already navigable by smaller barges. However, the Volga does not pass Moscow, because Moscow lies on the river Moskva of the same name. The Volga now turns to the northeast and reaches Tver and the Rybinsk reservoir. Here, the river changes direction again and flows southeast, where it passes some of the oldest cities in Russia.

After passing Kazan, it first goes straight south for about 1,000 kilometers before the Volga changes direction for the last time at Volgograd and now flows eastward into the Caspian Sea, where its journey ends.

The most beautiful places along the Volga river

You see, on its way the Volga does not only do some detours, but you pass on a Volga cruise also some of the most beautiful cities in Russia. And now we want to introduce them to you in more detail.

Wolga Twer

Tver

Tver is the first major metropolitan city on the course of the Volga River. The history of Tver, which was called Kalinin until 1990, dates back to the Middle Ages, which makes Tver one of the oldest cities in Russia. The conditions for a flourishing trading town were ideal here, as the Volga and Tvertsa rivers flow together here. In the Middle Ages, a separate principality was formed here, which eventually lost out to the rising Moscow in the power struggle and experienced an economic downturn. This did not change until the 18th century, when with the founding of St. Petersburg, Tver was suddenly conveniently located between the two metropolises of Moscow and Petersburg.

Today, Tver has a population of around 400,000 and, despite its great industrial importance, has many historical sights. The city was destroyed by fire in the 18th century, so there is not much left to see of medieval Tver. However, Catherine the Great invested a lot of money in the reconstruction, among other things a palace was built for the tsarina, but also numerous other buildings in the style of early classicism can be seen before we continue towards the Rybinsk reservoir.

Kaljasin Wolga Kirche
Source: Olga1969, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

On the way down the river we pass Kalyazin. Stalin had the old Kalyazin flooded and with the city also the St. Nicholas Cathedral sank. Only its bell tower still rises from the floods, one of the most impressive photo motifs of the Volga region.

Rybinsk Wolga Kreuzfahrt
View of the old town of Rybinsk

Rybinsk Reservoir and Rybinsk

Rybinsk Reservoir is the second largest artificial body of water in Europe after Kuibyshev Reservoir. It is almost ten times the size of Lake Constance and is therefore also called the Rybinsk Sea. The lake was created in the 1930s and is an important station on the Volga-Baltic route. In the 1940s a huge power station was built here. Two towns, several villages and ancient monasteries fell victim to the reservoir. The Soviet leadership showed little squeamishness in the realization of the construction project and resettled over 150,000 people.

The Volga makes a turn to the southeast here and next passes the city of Rybinsk with its 200,000 inhabitants, where the Sheksna flows into the Volga and additionally feeds it with water. Like Tver, Rybinsk is very old and was developed into one of Russia’s largest inland ports under the tsars. Later, the city was an important engine of Russia’s industrialization, yet there are still quite a few historical sights to admire here, including the neoclassical cathedral, which you can see in the picture next to the historic grain exchange.

Jaroslawl Wolga
View of the Cathedral of the Dormition of Mary in Yaroslavl

Yaroslavl

Yaroslavl is located about 100 kilometers southeast of the Rybinsk Reservoir. The beautifully situated city is over 1000 years old, was at times something like the capital of the Tsarist Empire, and was once the second largest city in the country after Moscow. The center resembles a symphony of baroque and classical buildings and on our first visit to Yaroslavl over ten years ago, we were really sad to move on again, there is so much to see here. Despite heavy destruction during World War II, countless historic buildings have survived, including the Cathedral of Mary the Dormition, the Prophet Elijah Church and the Transfiguration Monastery. No wonder Yaroslavl is one of the most important tourist cities in Russia and has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Kostroma Wolga
View of the central Sussanin Square in Kostroma

Kostroma

Only 80 km further, we reach Kostroma, another tourist highlight of a Volga cruise. Kostroma is also one of the oldest cities in Russia and has numerous sights. Here, too, the Volga had a positive effect on the economic development of the city. In the 17th century Kostroma was even after Moscow and Yaroslavl the third largest city in the country, today it is relatively small with its nearly 300,000 inhabitants. The Ipatios Monastery, the Epiphany Monastery and, above all, the almost closed neoclassical buildings around Sussanin Square with its characteristic rows of merchants, a complex of 20 buildings with arcades, still bear witness to that old prosperity.

Modern and ancient landmark of the city: the stadium and Alexander Nevsky Cathedral on the Oka River

Nizhniy Novgorod

Passing Kineshma with its Trinity Cathedral and the highest bank on the Volga, we now continue to Nizhniy Novgorod. Nizhny (“Little”) Novgorod is a little less known than Veliky (“Big”) Novgorod some 900 km to the northwest, but no less worth seeing. With over 1.2 million inhabitants, Nizhniy Novgorod, formerly called Gorky, at the confluence of the Oka and Volga rivers, is the largest city on our route so far, and many of you may remember the place from the 2018 World Cup.

Secluded pedestrian zones like Bolshaya-Pokrovskaya Street in Novgorod are rather the exception in Russia

The city’s Kremlin was once the citadel of the country’s most important fortress, but there are also numerous other sights to discover at this important industrial site. There is, for example, the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, which looks somewhat like the little sister of Moscow’s St. Basil’s Cathedral. Three monasteries, the beautiful pedestrian zone Bolshaya Pokrovskaya with the Art Nouveau building of the National Bank and the Empire-style trade fair building are just some of the sights in this city steeped in history, which we are now leaving for an even more important metropolis.

Kazan

It is about 400 kilometers to Kazan. The city with its more than 1 million inhabitants is the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan and a feast for the eyes. It has a multi-ethnic character. The Muslim Tatars built many magnificent mosques here over the course of time, of which the Kul Sharif Mosque surpasses all others in splendor. Yet it is only about 15 years old! It stands in the middle of the Kazan Kremlin, not far from the Cathedral of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, and is intended as a symbol of the peaceful coexistence of cultures in this multifaceted city, where Orient and Occident collide and create a colorful synthesis of the arts.

View of Kazan Kremlin with Annunciation Cathedral and Kul Sharif Mosque

Kazan was the first non-Russian city to be conquered by Russia, which is why Kazan is also considered the nucleus of the multi-ethnic state of Russia. The conquest under Ivan IV led to the construction of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, the most famous and iconic Russian place of worship. Kazan is of high importance for Russian Christians because the most venerated icon in the Orthodox world, Our Lady of Kazan, is located here. She can be seen today in the Annunciation Cathedral.

Ulyanovsk and Kuibyshev Reservoir

Only a few kilometers beyond Kazan, the Kama, a nearly 2000 km long stream, feeds the Volga with more water. The Kama is the largest of the 200 major tributaries of the Volga. From here on, the Volga no longer flows eastward, but southward, reaching Ulyanovsk after 200 km. The former fortress city stretches on both banks of the Kuibyshev Reservoir, the largest reservoir in Europe, and used to be one of the richest cities of the Tsarist Empire. It was here that Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, whom you probably know better by the name of Lenin and after whom the city is still named, saw the light of day in 1870.

The tranquil village of Novodeviches on the reservoir south of Ulyanovsk

The reservoir is about 550 km long and starts south of Kazan, includes Ulyanovsk and then stretches to Tolyatti in the direction of Samara, following the course of the Volga River. Forced laborers had to create it and were also involved in the construction of the Lenin Hydroelectric Power Plant, which opened in 1957 and was the largest such power plant in the world at the time.

Samara Wolga
View of the “White House”, the government palace of the Samara regional administration, with the monument commemorating the victory in the Second World War in the foreground.

Samara

After just under 100 kilometers, the Volga makes a horseshoe-shaped loop and thus completes a 180° turn. Exactly in the middle of this loop lies Samara, Russia’s sixth largest city with 1.1 million inhabitants. Samara was also a fortress in former times. Conveniently located at the confluence of the Volga River and the Samara River (Turkish for “steppe river”), Samara subsequently also became an important trading center and in the 19th century rose with its surrounding area to become the most important center of grain processing in Russia. During the Second World War, part of the Soviet leadership was evacuated to Samara and a bunker was built for Stalin. It was never occupied, but can be visited today. Today Samara presents itself modern and is also visited by many people from the surrounding area because of its beaches.

The Volga near Engels

Saratov and Engels

Passing the city of Syzran, the journey continues for just under 500 km to the twin city of Saratov/Engels on both banks of the Volga. Engels, named after the communist thinker Friedrich Engels, has only about 200,000 inhabitants and is thus four times smaller than Saratov. What few in the West know: Not the GDR, but the Volga German Republic was the first socialist German republic. It had its headquarters in Engels and administered the settlement area of the Volga Germans. With the advance of German troops to the Volga, however, it was dissolved and most Volga Germans were deported to Siberia and Central Asia.

Despite this interesting historical episode, however, there is not much to see in the city, which is dominated by the automotive and engineering industries. This is different in Saratov. Saratov has a pretty old town with many Art Nouveau buildings and museums and is an important university town. It is fun to drift through the streets here, even if many historic buildings have not yet been restored.

Russland Sehenswürdigkeiten

Volgograd

The Volga now flows south for about 400 kilometers before reaching the metropolis of Volgograd. Volgograd has only borne this name since 1961. Before that, the large city was known as Stalingrad and embodied the horrors of war, but also the turning point on the Eastern Front. Much of the old building fabric fell victim to the German destructive frenzy, and it is like a miracle how the city has risen like a phoenix from the ashes. The horrors of the war, but also the Soviet triumph, are recalled by the monumental statue “Mother Homeland Calls”. With its 85 meters and expressive face, it is considered an icon of Soviet architecture and the symbol of the Soviet struggle against Nazi Germany.

Symbol of resistance: the ruin of the so-called Pavlov House was held by the Red Army for two months during the battle for Stalingrad and became a symbol of resistance against the German invaders

But there is also much to see besides the statue, especially for fans of Stalinist monumental architecture. The city naturally took on a special role because of its role in the “Great Patriotic War” and because it bore Stalin’s name, and there is no shortage of magnificent Stalinist buildings here. Volgograd is therefore exciting especially for architecture fans.

Evening atmosphere in Astrakhan (Source: Alexxx1979, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0, picture edited)

Astrakhan

Slowly the Volga cruise is coming to an end. The last major city on the Volga cruise is reached after another 500 kilometers: Astrakhan. Astrakhan is the Russian gateway to the Caspian Sea and the main base of the Caspian Fleet of the Russian Armed Forces. The city is the oldest on our Volga cruise so far and was an important Persian trading post in the early Middle Ages. Today the city resembles an architectural puzzle with buildings from several epochs and is therefore very diverse. Oriental influences can already be clearly felt here.

Satellite image of the Volga Delta, on the right you can see the Caspian Sea

Volga Delta

A few kilometers behind Astrakhan begins the Volga Delta, with almost 30,000 km² the largest river delta in Europe. Large parts of the region are protected as many migratory birds stop here. The delta is especially known for its sturgeon populations. Unfortunately, there is often illegal sturgeon fishing, caviar is known to have a high value in the Russian cuisine. The unique natural landscape is severely threatened by man, and pollution is also a problem for the Volga on its last meters before it flows in numerous arms into the Caspian Sea, where our journey along the Volga ends.

Your Volga Cruise

Volga cruises are offered by numerous companies, with some starting the trip in Astrakhan and others ending there. Typically, they also include Moscow. Since the Russian capital is not on the Volga River, it is accessed via the Moscow Canal, which connects the capital with the Volga. The Moscow-Astrakhan or Astrakhan-Moscow route is usually estimated to take two weeks, with opportunities for extensive sightseeing at key stops. Of course, the price varies depending on the type of cabin and its equipment. But you should calculate with 1500-2500 euros.

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Markus Bingel has studied and worked in Poland, Ukraine and Russia for a long time. As a travel book author, he is drawn to the countries of the “Wild East” several times a year – and he is still fascinated by this region every time. As co-founder of Wild East, he would like to introduce you to the unknown, exciting and always surprising sides of Eastern Europe.

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