1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Volga

VOLGA (known to the Tatars as Etil, Itil or Atel; to the Finnish tribes as Rau, and to the ancients as Rha and Oarus), the longest and most important river of European Russia. It rises in the Valdai plateau of Tver and, after a winding course of 2325 m. (1070 in a straight line), falls into the Caspian at Astrakhan. It is by far the longest river of Europe, the Danube, which comes next to it, being only 1775 m., while the Rhine (760 m.) is shorter even than two of the chief tributaries of the Volga—the Oka and the Kama. Its drainage area, which includes the whole of middle and eastern as well as part of south-eastern Russia, amounts to 563,300 sq. m., thus exceeding the aggregate superficies of Germany, France and the United Kingdom, and containing a population of fifty millions. Its tributaries are navigable for an aggregate length of nearly 20,000 m. The “basin” of the Volga is not limited to its actual catchment area. By a system of canals which connect the upper Volga with the Neva, the commercial mouth of the Volga has been transferred, so to speak, from the Caspian to the Baltic, thus making St Petersburg, the capital and chief seaport of Russia, the chief port of the Volga basin as well. Other less important canals connect it with the Western Dvina (Riga) and the White Sea (Archangel); while a railway only 45 m. in length joins the Volga with the Don and the Sea of Azov, and three great trunk lines bring its lower parts into connexion with the Baltic and western Europe.

The Volga rises in extensive marshes on the Valdai plateau, where the W. Dvina also has its origin. Lake Seliger was formerly considered The upper river. to be the principal source; but that distinction is now given to a small spring issuing beneath a chapel (57° 15′ N.; 32° 30′ E.) in the midst of a large marsh to the west of Seliger. The honour has also been claimed, not without plausibility, for the Runa rivulet. Recent exact surveys have shown these originating marshes to be no more than 665 ft. above sea-level. The stream first traverses several small lakes, all having the same level, and, after its confluence with the Runa, enters Lake Volga. A dam erected a few miles below that lake, with a storage of nearly 10,000 million cub. ft. of water, makes it possible to raise the level of the Volga as far down as the Sheksna, thus rendering it navigable, even at low water, from its 65th mile onwards.

From its confluence with the Sheksna the Volga flows with a very gentle descent towards the south-east, past Yaroslavl and Kostroma, along a broad valley hollowed to a depth of 150-200 ft, in the Permian and Jurassic deposits. In fact, its course lies through a string of depressions formerly filled with wide lakes, all linked together. When the Volga at length assumes a due south-east direction it is a large river (8250 cub. ft. per second, rising occasionally in high flood to as much as 178,360 cub. ft.); of its numerous tributaries, the Unzha (365 m., 330 navigable), from the north, is the most important.

The next great tributary is the Oka, which comes from the south-west after having traversed, on its course of 950 m., all the Great Confluence with the Oka. Russian provinces of central Russia. It rises in the government of Orel, among hills which also send tributaries to the Dnieper and the Don, and receives on the left the Upa, the Zhizdra, the Ugra (300 m.), the Moskva, on which steamers ply up to Moscow, the Klyazma (395 m.), on whose banks arose the middle-Russian principality of Suzdal, and on the right the navigable Tsna (255 m.) and Moksha. Every one of these tributaries is connected with some important event in the history of Great Russia. The drainage area of the Oka is a territory of 97,000 sq. m. It has been maintained that, of the two rivers which unite at Nizhniy-Novgorod, the Oka, not the Volga, is the chief; the fact is that both in length (818 m.) and in drainage area above the confluence (89,500 sq. m.), as well as in the aggregate length of its tributaries, the Volga is the inferior stream.

At its confluence with the Oka the Volga enters the broad lacustrine depression which must have communicated with the Caspian during Lacustrine depressions. the post-Pliocene period by means of at least a broad strait. Its level at low water is only 190 ft. above that of the ocean. Immediately below the confluence the breadth of the river ranges from 350 to 1750 yds. There are many islands which change their appearance and position after each inundation. On the right the Volga is joined by the Sura, which drains a large area and brings a volume of 2700 to 22,000 cub. ft. of water per second, the Vetluga (465 m. long, of which 365 are navigable), from the forest-tracts of Yaroslavl, and many smaller tributaries. Then the stream turns south-east and descends into another lacustrine depression, where it receives the Kama, below Kazañ. Remains of molluscs still extant in the Caspian occur extensively throughout this depression and up the lower Kama.

The Kama,[1] which brings to the Volga a contribution ranging from 52,500 to 144,400 cub. ft. and occasionally reaching 515,000 cub. ft. per second, might again be considered as the more important of the two rivers. It rises in Vyatka, takes a wide sweep towards the north and east, and then flows south and south-west to join the Volga after a course of no less than 1150 m.

Along the next 738 m. of its course the Volga—now 580 to 2600 yds. wide—flows south-south-west, with but one great bend at Samara. The Samara bend. At this point, where it pierces a range of limestone hills, the course of the river is very picturesque, fringed as it is by cliffs which rise 1000 ft. above the level of the stream (which is only 54 ft. above the sea at Samara). Along the whole of the Samara bend the Volga is accompanied on its right bank by high cliffs, which it is constantly undermining, while broad lowland areas stretch along the left or eastern bank, and are intersected by several old beds of the Volga.

At Tsaritsyn the great river reaches its extreme south-western limit, and is there separated from the Don by an isthmus only 45 m. in width. The isthmus is too high to be crossed by means of a canal, but a railway to Kalach brings the Volga into some sort of connexion with the Don and the Sea of Azov. At Tsaritsyn the river takes a sharp turn in a south-easterly direction towards the Caspian; it enters the Caspian steppes, and a few miles above Tsaritsyn sends off a branch—the Akhtuba—which accompanies it for 330 m. before falling into the Caspian. Here the Volga The lower river and delta. receives no tributaries; its right bank is skirted by low hills, but on the left it anastomoses freely with the Akhtuba when its waters are high, and floods the country for 15 to 35 m. The width of the main stream ranges from 520 to 3500 yds. and the depth exceeds 80 ft. The delta proper begins 40 m. above Astrakhan, and the branches subdivide so as to reach the sea by as many as 200 separate mouths. Below Astrakhan navigation is difficult, and on the sand-bars at the mouth the maximum depth is only 12 ft. in calm weather.

The figures given show how immensely the river varies in volume, and the greatness of the changes which are constantly going on in the channel and on its banks. Not only does its level occasionally rise in flood as much as 50 ft. and overflow its banks for a distance of 5 to 15 m.; even the level of the Caspian is considerably affected by the sudden influx of water brought by the Volga. The amount of suspended matter brought down is correspondingly great. All along its course the Volga is eroding and destroying its banks with great rapidity; towns and loading ports have constantly to be shifted farther back.

The question of the gradual desiccation of the Volga, and its causes, has often been discussed, and in 1838 a committee which included Karl Baer among its members was appointed by the Russian academy of sciences to investigate the subject. No positive result was, however, arrived at, principally on account of the want of regular measurements of the volume of the Volga and its tributaries—measurements which began to be made on scientific principles only in 1880. Still, if we go back two or three centuries, it is indisputable that rivers of the Volga basin which were easily navigable then are now hardly accessible to the smallest craft. The desiccation of the rivers of Russia has been often attributed to the steady destruction of its forests. But it is obvious that there are other general causes at work, which are of a much more important character—causes of which the larger phenomena of the general desiccation of Eastern and Western Turkestan are contemporaneous manifestations. The gradual elevation of the whole of northern Russia and Siberia, and the consequent draining of the marshes, is one of these deeper-seated, ampler causes; another is the desiccation of the lakes all over the northern hemisphere.

Fisheries.—The network of shallow and still limans or “cut-offs” in the delta of the Volga and the shallow waters of the northern Caspian, freshened as these are by the water of the Volga, the Ural, the Kura and the Terek, is exceedingly favourable to the breeding of fish, and as a whole constitutes one of the most productive fishing grounds in the world. As soon as the ice breaks up in the delta innumerable shoals of roach (Leuciscus rutilus) and trout (Luciotrutta leucichthys) rush up the river. They are followed by the great sturgeon (Acipenser huso), the pike, the bream and the pike perch (Leucioperca sandra). Later on appears the Caspian herring (Clupea caspia), which formerly was neglected, but has now become more important than sturgeon; the sturgeon A. stellatus and “wels” (Silurus glanis) follow, and finally the sturgeon Acipenser güldenstadtii, so much valued for its caviare. In search of a gravelly spawning-ground the sturgeon go up the river as far as Sarepta (250 m.). The lamprey, now extensively pickled, the sterlet (A. ruthenus), the tench, the gudgeon and other fluvial species also appear in immense numbers. It is estimated that 180,000 tons of fish of all kinds, of the value of considerably over £l,500,000, are taken annually in the four fishing districts of the Volga, Ural, Terek and Kura. Seal-hunting is carried on off the Volga mouth, and every year about 40,000 of Phoca vitulina are killed to the north of the Manghishlak peninsula on the east side of the Caspian.

Ice Covering.—In winter the numberless tributaries and subtributaries of the Volga become highways for sledges. The ice lasts 90 to 160 days, and breaks up earlier in its upper course than in some parts lower down. The average date of the break-up is April 11th at Tver, and 14 days later about Kostroma, from which point a regular acceleration is observed (April 16th at Kazañ, April 7th at Tsaritsyn, and March 17th at Astrakhan).

Traffic.—The greater part of the traffic is up river, the amount of merchandise which reaches Astrakhan being nearly fifteen times less than that reaching St Petersburg by the Volga canals. The goods transmitted in largest quantity are fish, metals, manufactured wares, hides, flax, timber, cereals, petroleum, oils and salt. The down-river traffic consists chiefly of manufactured goods and timber, the latter mostly for the treeless governments of Samara, Saratov and Astrakhan, as well as for the region adjacent to the lower course of the Don. Dredging machines are kept constantly at work, while steamers are stationed near the most dangerous sandbanks to assist vessels that run aground. The following table shows the principal river ports, with the movement of shipping in an average year:—

Chief River
 Ports on the 
Vessels. Tons.  Approximate 

 Entered.   Cleared.  Imported. Exported. Total.

 Astrakhan 2,724  3,228  938,000  3,734,000     4,672,000   7,812,000 
 Tsaritsyn 6,412  1,482 1,152,000   462,000  1,614,000  5,000,000
 Rybinsk 3,760  6,295 590,000 172,000    762,000  3,573,000
 Nizhniy-Novgorod   12,960    7,585  4,092,000     84,000  4,176,000  2,727,000
 Saratov 1,639  1,738 923,000 128,000  1,051,000  1,882,000

Formerly tens of thousands of burlaki, or porters, were employed in dragging boats up the Volga and its tributaries, but this method of traction has disappeared unless from a few of the tributaries. Horse-power is still extensively resorted to along the three canal systems. The first large steamers of the American type were built in 1872. Thousands of steamers are now employed in the traffic, to say nothing of smaller boats and rafts. Many of the steamers use as fuel mazut or petroleum refuse. Large numbers of the boats and rafts are broken up after a single voyage.

History.—The Volga was not improbably known to the early Greeks, though it is not mentioned by any writer previous to Ptolemy. According to him, the Rha is a tributary of an interior sea, formed from the confluence of two great rivers, the sources of which are separated by twenty degrees of longitude, but it is scarcely possible to judge from his statements how far the Slavs had by that time succeeded in penetrating into the basin of the Volga. The Arab geographers throw little light on the condition of the Volga during the great migrations of the 3rd century, or subsequently under the invasion of the Huns, the growth of the Khazar empire in the southern steppes and of that of Bulgaria on the middle Volga. But we know that in the 9th century the Volga basin was occupied by Finnish tribes in the north and by Khazars and various Turkish races in the south. The Slavs, driven perhaps to the west, had only the Volkhov and the Dnieper, while the (Mahommedan) Bulgarian empire, at the confluence of the Volga with the Kama, was so powerful that for some time it was an open question whether Islam or Christianity would gain the upper hand among the Slav idolaters. But, while the Russians were driven from the Black Sea by the Khazars, and later on by a tide of Ugrian migration from the north-east, a stream of Slavs moved slowly towards the north-east, down the upper Oka, into the borderland between the Finnish and Turkish regions. After two centuries of struggle the Russians succeeded in colonizing the fertile valleys of the Oka basin; in the 12th century they built a series of fortified towns on the Oka and Klyazma; and finally they reached the mouth of the Oka, there founding (in 1222) a new Novgorod—the Novgorod of the Lowlands, now Nizhniy-Novgorod. The great lacustrine depression of the middle Volga was thus reached; and when the Mongol invasion of 1239-42 came, it encountered in the Oka basin a dense agricultural population with many fortified and wealthy towns—a population which the Mongols found they could conquer, indeed, but were unable to drive before them as they had done so many of the Turkish tribes. This invasion checked but did not stop the advance of the Russians down the Volga. Two centuries elapsed before the Russians covered the 300 m. which separate the mouths of the Oka and the Kama and took possession of Kazañ. But in the meantime a flow of Novgorodian colonization had moved eastward, along the upper portions of the left-bank tributaries of the Volga, and had reached the Urals.

With the capture of Kazañ (1552) the Russians found the lower Volga open to their boats, and eight years afterwards they were masters of the mouth of the river at Astrakhan. Two centuries more elapsed before the Russians secured a free passage to the Black Sea and became masters of the Sea of Azov and the Crimea; the Volga, however, was their route. During these two centuries they fortified the lower river, settled it, and penetrated farther eastward into the steppes towards the upper Ural and thence to the upper parts of the Tobol and other great Siberian rivers.

Bibliography.—P. P. Semenov’s Geographical and Statistical Dictionary (5 vols., St Petersburg, 1863–85) contains a full bibliography of the Volga and tributaries. See also V. Ragozin’s Volga (3 vols., St Petersburg, 1880–81, with atlas; in Russian); N. Bogolyubov, The Volga from Tver to Astrakhan (Russian, 1876); H. Roskoschny, Die Wolga und ihre Zuflüsse (Leipzig, 1887, vol. i.), history, ethnography, hydrography and biography, with rich bibliographical information; N. Boguslavskiy, The Volga as a Means of Communication (Russian, 1887), with detailed profile and maps; Peretyatkovich, Volga Region in the 15th and 16th Centuries (1877); and Lender, Die Wolga (1889).

  1. To the Votyaks it is known as the Budzhim-Kam, to the Chuvashes as the Shoiga-adil and to the Tatars as the Cholman-idel or Ak-idel, all words signifying “White river.”