The Soviets turned the Volga River into a machine. Then the machine broke.

man in his boat on the Volga


Since almost all the cities and towns of the Volga, and Moscow, through the canal, end up using the river for water supply, this pollution carries a large bill for water treatment. “The worse the water in the Volga, the more expensive it is to make it drinkable,” says Demin. Since the Volga basin is home to 60 million people, about half of Russia’s industry and a comparable part of its agriculture, the costs add up.

A recent analysis compiled by Carbon Brief, a UK-based climate news outlet, places the USSR and Russia third in the world in terms of historical greenhouse gas emissions. A national assessment report compiled by Russian climate scientists in 2014 said that at a time of man-made climate change, average annual temperatures in the country have risen twice as fast as the world average. The report also indicated that the trend is expected to continue. The impacts of climate change, driven in part by Soviet industrial development, are already visible in Russia, from permafrost degradation to desertification in agriculture-intensive southern stretches of the country. The same large-scale industrial development that spawned the Greater Volga and was fueled by river waters also contributed to the global problem of climate change, which has now brought the threat of water scarcity to millions of people living in cities throughout of the Volga.

When I visited the waterfall’s final node, the Cheboksarskoe Reservoir, about 370 miles east of Moscow, in 2010, I saw algal blooms that made the water look like a witch’s infusion.

The nearby city of Cheboksary, the capital of Chuvashia, one of Russia’s several ethnic republics, was lush, peaceful, and welcoming when I visited. I was part of a press tour organized by RusHydro, the owner of the waterfall, who had been lobbying the government to raise the water level in the reservoir. Years later, it is still five meters below where RusHydro wants it to be, because the Cheboksarskoe reservoir is where, after four glorious decades, the Great Volga project finally stumbled.

In the mid-1980s, with volumeMikhail Gorbachev decided that the Soviet Union could use a little more freedom of the press and transparency, allowing citizens to discuss and even criticize the decisions of their government. And so irreversible environmental damage to the Volga gradually became part of a broad public conversation as well. A 1989 book on the river called out the people behind the construction of reservoirs that led to “the life-giving water of the Volga turning into dead water, with nothing we can do about it.” “Boasting around the world that the Volga-matushka [mother-river] she has been domesticated several times, still calling herself her children, who domesticated her also condemned her to a long, horrible and painful disease, ”the book reads.

“Whose land is being destroyed and whose water is being polluted so someone else can make money?”

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