Since ancient times, the Volga has supported agricultural settlements and served as a main link in transcontinental commerce. More than 1000 years ago, the Vikings plied its waters, establishing a trade route between Baghdad and the Baltic.
A Volga Encounter
The first traveller to write a Volga diary was Ahmed ibn-Fadlan, a secretary of the Baghdadi embassy who arrived in Great Bulgar in 922 to convert the local khan and his people to Islam. His travelogue is one of very few preserved written documents describing the ancient people who populated the area and travelled up and down the Volga. One of his most striking stories describes an encounter with Scandinavian travellers, whom ibn-Fadlan describes as ‘people with most perfect bodies’, but also as ‘the dirtiest of Allah’s creatures’.
Enter the Khazars
In the latter centuries of the first millennium, the Lower Volga was dominated by the Khazars, a Turkic tribe whose leaders converted to Judaism. The Khazar capital stood at Itil (present-day Astrakhan). The Middle Volga was the domain of another Turkic tribe, the Bulgars. Descendants of the Huns and distant relatives of the Balkan Bulgarians, they migrated eastwards, mixed with local Finno-Ugric tribes and adopted Islam in the 10th century. The river was also a vital conduit in the lucrative fur trade for Novgorod’s merchants.
The Golden Horde
In the 13th century, the entire Volga region was conquered by the heirs of Chinggis (Genghis) Khaan, the Mongol-led Golden Horde, who made Saray (near present-day Volgograd and Astrakhan) their capital. For the next 200 years, the Volga’s Slavic and Turkic communities swore allegiance and paid tribute to the great khan, or suffered his wrath. Challenged by the marauder armies of Timur (Tamerlane) in the south and upstart Muscovite princes in the north, the Golden Horde eventually fragmented into separate khanates: Kazan, Astrakhan, Crimea and Sibir. In the 1550s Ivan the Terrible razed Kazan and Astrakhan, and claimed the Middle and Lower Volga for Muscovy (modern-day Moscow), the capital of the new Russian state.
While the river trade was a rich source of income for Muscovy, it also supported gainful bandit and smuggling ventures. Hostile steppe tribes continued to harass Russian traders and settlers, and the region remained an untamed frontier for many years.
In response, the tsar ordered the construction of fortified outposts at strategic points on the river. Serfs, paupers and dropouts fled to the region, organising semi-autonomous Cossack communities that not only defended the frontier for the tsar but also operated protection rackets, plundered locals and raided Russia’s southern neighbours.
Cossacks conducted large-scale peasant uprisings. In 1670 Stepan Razin led a 7000-strong army of the disaffected, which moved up the Lower Volga before meeting defeat at Simbirsk (Ulyanovsk). In 1773 Yemelyan Pugachev declared himself tsar and led an even larger contingent of Cossacks and runaway serfs on a riotous march through the Middle Volga region. The bloody revolt was forever romanticised by Alexander Pushkin in his novel The Captain’s Daughter.
Germans in the Volga Region
Astounded by the scale of rebellion, Catherine the Great sought to bolster the economic development of the region by inviting Germany’s peasants to settle here from 1763, mainly around Saratov. By the end of the 19th century, the population of ethnic Germans had reached more than 1.5 million.
In the 1920s a German autonomous republic was established along the Lower Volga, but it was dissolved amid persecutions during WWII, and German inhabitants were forced into exile. After Stalin’s death, nearly a million survivors were liberated from Siberian labour camps, but were not allowed to return to their old villages.
The USSR harnessed the mighty Volga for its ambitious development plans. Eight complexes of dams, reservoirs and hydroelectric stations were constructed between the 1930s and 1960s. A network of canals connected Russia’s heartland to Moscow and the Baltic and Black Seas and provincial trading towns grew into urban industrial centres closed to outsiders.
After the collapse of the USSR, each of the Volga regions went its own way. Some, like Ulyanovsk, resisted change, while others such as Samara, Saratov and Tatarstan moved quickly to liberalise markets and politics. When in 2004 the system of electing regional governors was changed to give Moscow direct control over the appointment, pluralism and dissent all but vanished from the region.