The longest river in Europe, the Volga, is often revered in Russia as the national river of the country. In fact, it has a massive basin covering nearly two-thirds of the European part of the country. The Volga River rises in the Valdai Hills northwest of the Russian capital of Moscow and continues flowing south until it drains into the Caspian Sea, covering a distance of 3,530 km along this course. Around 200 tributaries join the Volga along its route as the river basin drains an area of 1,380,000 km2. Eleven major cities in Russia, including Moscow, are based along the drainage basin of the Volga River.
During the early Middle Ages, several tribes, such as certain groups of the Slavic, Bulgar, and Khazar peoples, settled along the upper, middle, and southern courses of the Volga River Basin. In 1221, Russians founded the city of Nizhny Novgorod on the Volga River while land south of the city, in the Golden Horde of Volga, was under the control of the Tatar Khanates. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Russians managed to claim their control over most parts of the Volga River Basin. In 1700, an Englishman, John Perry, first measured the flow of the Volga below Kamyshin, today in the Volgograd Oblast of the Russian Federation. The Volga River Delta was surveyed and explored by the Maritime Bureau in 1809–1817, and again in 1829. Further explorations and surveys were conducted in the later years in efforts to cover the length and breadth of the river and its tributaries in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Nearly 40% of the Russian population lives near the Volga River Basin, and half of the country’s farmers practice agriculture along this river. A large number of industries are also based on the banks of this river. The use of the river as a waterway from inland areas to the ports in the Caspian Sea facilitates the transport of goods meant both for import and export. Over half of the inland freight of Russia, comprising of construction materials, petroleum and petroleum products, farm produce, agricultural aids and machinery, and automobiles alike, is transported via the waterways of the river and its tributaries. Nizhny Novgorod, Tver, Ulyanovsk, and Samara are some of the major ports along the Volga. The Volga and its tributaries have also been extensively exploited for the creation of massive dams and reservoirs with hydroelectric potential. Eight hydroelectric power stations on the Volga and three on its tributary, the Kama River, together have the capacity to generate around 11 million Kilowatts of power.
The climate of the Volga River basin exhibits variation along its course from north to south. The northern reaches of the river experience a temperate climate defined by cold, snow-covered winters, and warm, humid summers. Meanwhile, the lower parts of the river basin have hot, dry summers, and cold winters. Precipitation levels gradually drop from north to south. The Volga River Delta at the mouth of the river is a species-rich habitat harboring 430 species of flora, 127 fish species, 260 species of birds, and 850 species of aquatic invertebrates, as well as a large repertoire of insect species. Many migratory birds, such as Dalmatian pelicans, great white egrets, breed in the Volga Delta's wetlands. Fish species in the river include several kinds of sturgeons, Volga lampreys, whitefish, and herrings.
Threats and Disputes
Although the Volga River has benefited the Russian economy for ages, the effects of indiscriminate human activity have taken their toll on the ecosystem of the river basin. The large-scale inundation of the river, facilitated by the development of dams and reservoirs along its course, has led to a lowering of the volume of waters reaching the Caspian Sea. This, combined with the high rates of pollution of river waters, has greatly dilapidated the aquatic flora and fauna of the river. Fish species like the beluga sturgeon and whitefish, which reside in the sea but migrate to the upper reaches of the Volga for spawning, are now facing obstructions to their natural migratory routes. Large-scale poaching of fish species of the river has led to the endangering the survival of these fishes. Currently, six species of sturgeons are listed as Critically Endangered, six are Vulnerable, and all but two species are in some way threatened.