Kazan (meaning a cooking pot in Tatar) is the Istanbul of the Volga, a place where Europe and Asia curiously inspect each other from the tops of church belfries and minarets. It is about 150 years older than Moscow and the capital of the Tatarstan Republic (Республика Татарстан) – the land of the Volga Tatars, a Turkic people commonly associated with Chinggis Khaan’s hordes.
‘Oh, Samara, the little town, I am so restless – give me some rest.’ The quintessential drinking song is now only partly true: this city of over a million is little no more, and in recent years has focused on drawing visitors to the city. Not without justification, for Samara is a pleasant place to visit.
With its East-meets-West feel, Astrakhan is an unusual provincial capital where a pretty river promenade and city parks are offset by architectural heritage in a shocking state of decay. Once upon a time, its streets saw German pastors mingling with Indian tea traders and Kazakh herdsmen.
Volgograd is a grandiose city in all senses. It was founded in 1589 as Tsaritsyn, but it made history during a 36-year period when it appeared on maps as Stalingrad. In 1942 the city became the scene of an epic battle that changed the course of WWII. The number of soldiers and citizens who died in this battle is almost twice the current population of the city.
Welcome to Lada-land, the place where one of the world’s most ridiculed vehicles is produced. The city is a particularly depressing Soviet urban sprawl, where the quality of the roads matches that of Lada cars. That said, it is strategically placed by the giant Kuybyshev reservoir dam, with the Zhiguli Hills starting right across the water.
This neat little town, famous for its distinct style of folk art, appeals to day trippers arriving in hydrofoils or by bus from Nizhny Novgorod. At the time of the schism in the Russian Orthodox Church (1660), Gorodets became home to a population of Old Believers seeking religious sanctuary. They became skilful craftsmen, artists and wealthy tradesmen.
In the 1870s, Ilya Repin spent two years in this village just north of Samara on the west bank of the Volga. Here he completed sketches for his famous painting Barge Haulers on the Volga, which is now in St Petersburg’s Russian Museum. Today, this pleasant village welcomes art lovers and day trippers.
It might be the smallest town in Tatarstan, but Bolgar (Болгар) shares its name on equal terms with the country of Bulgaria. The word ‘Volga’ is most likely a Slavic corruption of the same name. Bolgar is the descendant of Great Bulgar, the capital of one of the most powerful states of early medieval Eastern Europe.
A favourite escape for Kazan’s artists, this island has some of the oldest architecture in the region and a fascinating history. When Ivan the Terrible decided to end the Kazan khanate, he first ordered a base be built for the coming onslaught on top of Mt Kruglaya at the mouth of the Sviyaga River.