If you were to ask someone what the Volga meant to them you would probably get one of two responses. The first: ‘The Volga? Never heard of it!’ The second, a story of the tragic, turbulent and often brutal history of a river, at the heart of which would probably be Stalin’s vision of ruthless and rapid industrialisation. And of course it is the latter that resonates most with our understanding of Russia’s history; at once a place of merciless aspiration, tragedy and loss.
Certainly the Volga can evoke this history…factory chimneys pushing out endless clouds of smoke, sewage pipes spewing pollution into the water. Some might argue that the modern day, Post – Soviet Volga river is indeed an artificial defiance of nature, tearing through Russia’s heartland, as Maxim Gorky said a ‘uniquely eloquent’ tragedy.
But, there is another story of the Volga, one that evokes the many other qualities that Russia has bestowed upon the world throughout her history. This is a story of love – and even the tragedy of love – in all its manifestations. And this is the story that most resonates with my experience of the river; as a site of art, literature, myth, legend.
My first exposure to the river was through an encounter with Ilya Repin’s painting the ‘The Barge Haulers’ during a visit to the Russian Museum in St Petersburg. The painting depicts a group of beaten, exhausted and worn men dragging a barge along the river. One of these people is defiantly raising their head whilst the others plough on with heads lowered. Painted ten years after the emancipation of the serfs Repin foregrounds his chosen subject the Burlaki in the painting. They were the last living descendants of the serfs and Repin studied some thirty (somewhat resistant) living characters prior to creating The Barge Haulers, filling two albums with sketches before setting to work on his masterpiece. During this period, many of the Burlaki were fleeing brutal landowners and subsequent wretched living conditions, drawn to the Volga too because of its promise of a new life and abundance of food.
On the one hand then, Repin’s masterpiece – which is now widely reknown as one of Russia’s most important paintings – is a political picture; a pictorial statement about the brutalist Czarist regime. For me however, in my novice appreciation of art, Repin’s picture is almost Turner-esque in its portrayal of passion and atmosphere inspired by waterways and man’s relationship to them. What I see in The Barge Hauler’s is a human embodiment of defiance against the state, a story of optimism and spirit that recurs across Russian history and many of its cultural outputs.
My second introduction to the Volga was through the playwright Alexander Ostrovsky. His play ‘The Storm’ parallels my own (albeit slightly less serious) re-telling of love found through The Volga. In The Storm, Ostrovsky tells a story of two young lovers and their relationship, at the centre of which is the Volga, culminating in the headstrong and passionate heroine throwing herself into the river and meeting an untimely demise. In my own story, retold through ‘The Way a River Went’, whilst there is (thankfully) no such tragic ending to love, it too follows two modern day lovers whose wedding in Astrakhan inspired me to embark on a journey of the river from source to delta. Like Ostrovsky’s protagonists, it was their love that enabled me the opportunity to build my relationship with the river. The friends that I had seen come together, whose wedding I had travelled to, were starting their very own journey together, a journey as yet as untainted as the source of the Volga itself, a journey as exciting as that of any beginning.
From the unadulterated purity of the river’s source in the lush gently undulating Valdai Hills, it is difficult not to be immediately captivated by this stretch of water, impossible not to be seduced by the story that unravels with every bend in the river. From the Volga’s ‘little beginning’ it comes alive with a wealth of myth and legend, culture and tradition. From Afanasy Nikitin to Alexander Pushkin, from Emillian Pugachev to Stenka Razin, ghosts and their stories abound, inhabiting the banks from Tver to Yaroslavl, Kazan to Samara.
The banks of the river like the country as a whole are changing and may well look very different a century from now as many people leave for the cities, (ironically the gradual reduction of industry is helping to correct the rivers ecological parity), however the place the river holds in the heart of the Russian people will remain for as long as there is a trickling source. As the Russian poet Nikolai Nekrasov wrote about the Volga: ‘I’ve changed a lot, but you are the same….. so light so majestic, as you used to be.’
So the Great Volga is a story of industrialisation, of the rape of the landscape, the destruction of wildlife and nature, it is also a story far more complex, multi-faceted than that, as beautiful as it is ugly; much like the river itself.