Volga River

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: European Geography

Volga River
Volga in Yaroslavl (autumn morning)
Volga in Yaroslavl (autumn morning)
Origin Valdai Hills
Mouth Caspian Sea
Basin countries Russia
Length 3,692 km (2,293 mi)
Source elevation 225 m (738 ft)
Avg. discharge 8,000 m³/s (282,517 ft³/s)
Basin area 1,380,000 km² (532,821 mi²)

The Volga, widely viewed as the national river of Russia, flows through the western part of the country. It is Europe's longest river, with a length of 3,690 km (2,293 miles), and forms the core of the largest river system in Europe. Some of the largest reservoirs in the world can be found along the river.


The Russian hydronym Во́лга is akin to the Slavic word for "wetness", "humidity" (влага, волога). It is transliterated as Volga in English and as Wolga in German. Another possibility is that the river's name has Finnic roots.

The Turkic populations living along the river formerly referred to it as Itil or Atil. Attila the Hun might have been named after this river as well. In modern Turkic languages, the Volga is known as İdel (Идел) in Tatar, Атăл (Atăl) in Chuvash and İdil in Turkish. Another version of the same root is represented by Mari Юл (Jul).

A still more ancient hydronym is the Scythian name of the river, Rha, which may reflect the ancient Avestan and Sanskrit names Rañha and Rasah for a sacred river. This ancient name survives in the modern Mordvin name for the Volga, Рав (Raw).


Map of the Volga watershed
Map of the Volga watershed

Rising in the Valdai Hills 225 m (740 ft) above sea level north-west of Moscow and about 320 kilometres south-east of Saint Petersburg, the Volga heads east past Sterzh, Tver', Dubna, Rybinsk, Yaroslavl, Nizhny Novgorod and Kazan. From there it turns south, flows past Ulyanovsk, Tolyatti, Samara, Saratov and Volgograd, and discharges into the Caspian Sea below Astrakhan at 28 metres 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 Sura 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 Delta 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 lotuses may be found. The Volga freezes for most of its length during three months of each year.

The Volga drains most of Western Russia. Its many large reservoirs provide irrigation and hydroelectric power. The Moscow Canal, the Volga-Don Canal, and the Mariinsk Canal systems form navigable waterways connecting Moscow to the White Sea, the Baltic Sea, the Caspian Sea, the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. 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 Sea offer superb fishing grounds. Astrakhan, at the delta, is the centre of the caviar industry.

Confluents (downstream to upstream)

Rzhev is the uppermost town situated on the Volga (early part of 20th century).
Rzhev is the uppermost town situated on the Volga (early part of 20th century).
  • Samara (in Samara)
  • Kama (south of Kazan)
  • Kazanka (in Kazan)
  • Sviyaga (west of Kazan)
  • Vetluga (near Kozmodemyansk)
  • Sura (in Vasilsursk)
  • Kerzhenets (near Lyskovo)
  • Oka (in Nizhny Novgorod)
  • Uzola (near Balakhna)
  • Unzha (near Yuryevets)
  • Kostroma (in Kostroma)
  • Kotorosl (in Yaroslavl)
  • Sheksna (in Cherepovets)
  • Mologa (near Vesyegonsk)
  • Kashinka (near Kalyazin)
  • Nerl (near Kalyazin)
  • Medveditsa (near Kimry)
  • Dubna (in Dubna)
  • Shosha (near Konakovo)
  • Tvertsa (in Tver)
  • Akhtuba (near Volzhsky) - a distributary

Reservoirs on the Volga

Nine major hydroelectric power stations and several large artificial lakes formed by dams lie along the Volga. The reservoirs, upstream to downstream, are:

  • Volgo Lake
  • Ivankovo Reservoir (the Moscow Sea)
  • Uglich Reservoir
  • Rybinsk Reservoir
  • Gorky Reservoir
  • Cheboksary Reservoir
  • Kuybyshev Reservoir
  • Saratov Reservoir
  • Volgograd Reservoir

Human history

Many Orthodox shrines and monasteries are strewn along the banks of the Volga.
Many Orthodox shrines and monasteries are strewn along the banks of the Volga.

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.

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.

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 route connecting Scandinavia, Rus', and Volga Bulgaria with Khazaria and Persia.

Several old towns, including Kalyazin and Mologa, were flooded by Soviet authorities in the 1940s.
Several old towns, including Kalyazin and Mologa, were flooded by Soviet authorities in the 1940s.

Khazars were replaced by Kipchaks, Kimeks and Mongols, who founded the Golden Horde in the lower stream of Volga. Later the Empire broke into the Khanate of Kazan and Khanate of Astrakhan; subsequently they were conquered by Russians in the 16th century.

In modern times, the city on the big bend of the Volga, currently known as Volgograd, witnessed the Battle of Stalingrad, the bloodiest battle in human history. The Russian people's deep feeling for the Volga often finds echoes in their songs and literature (see The Volga Boatmen's Song for one conspicuous example).

Ethnic groups

The indigenous population of Upper Volga were Finnic Merya, that were assimilated to Russians. Other Finnic ethnic groups are Maris and Mordvins of middle Volga. Turkic populations appeared in the 600s and assimilated some Finnic and Indo-European population at the middle and lower Volga, later they were transformed to Christian Chuvash and Muslim Tatars; also to Nogais, which were supplanted to Daghestan later. Mongolian Buddhists Kalmyks resettled to Volga in the 17th century.

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 Union 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 WarII!


Owing to the Coriolis effect, the Volga has a rocky right bank.
Owing to the Coriolis effect, the Volga has a rocky right bank.

The Volga 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 Sea almost to the upstream end of the river. Connections with the Don River and the Black Sea are possible through the Volga-Don Canal. Connections with the lakes of the north ( Lake Ladoga, Lake Onega), Saint Petersburg and the Baltic Sea are possible through the Volga-Baltic Waterway; and a liaison with Moscow has been realised by the Moscow Canal 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.

Until recently access to the Russian waterways was only granted on a 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. (Source: NoorderSoft Waterways Database)

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