The Soviets turned the Volga River into a machine. Then the machine broke.
Too many dams have made Russia's most important river dysfunctional. Here's how the mother river can be fixed.
You can find Dubna, a small town three hours away from Moscow by train, both on a map and in the periodic table: dubnium, element number 105, was discovered at a research center there, and named after the town. A hasteless town, Dubna is defined as much by the surrounding forests as by the water: it sits on the banks of the Ivankovskoe Reservoir, the first part of a massive hydropower project called “Big Volga” whose construction spanned decades during the Soviet era. The complex, consisting of 11 dams on the Volga and its largest tributary, the Kama, is responsible for about 5% of the total electricity production in Russia. The Ivankovskoe Reservoir is both the oldest part of the complex and the farthest upstream, situated almost at the Volga’s headwaters.
About 2,300 miles long, the Volga—sometimes referred to as “Volga-matushka,” or “Mother Volga”—is the longest river in Europe and the biggest by water flow, arcing from northwest of Moscow around and down to the Caspian Sea. Some 60 million people—about 40% of Russia’s population—live in its basin, which spans almost a tenth of the country’s vast territory. Moscow, with its 12 million people, gets most of its drinking water from the Volga via the Moscow Canal. About 1,500 miles downstream, the strategic port city of Volgograd, formerly known as Stalingrad, was the site of World War II’s most decisive, and arguably bloodiest, battle. As an artery of commerce, a source of energy and drinking water, and a conveyor of history, the Volga touches nearly every aspect of life in Russia. It is what the Mississippi is to the United States or the Rhein to Germany.
When the station in Dubna was designed, in the early 1930s, the young Soviet state had just decided to catch up with the capitalist states of the West by rapidly accelerating its industrial development—but in order to do so, it needed to generate energy on a massive scale. By the time the last station was built, in the 1980s, the Soviet Union, having just hosted the Olympics for the first time, was about to launch perestroika, a program of large-scale democratic reforms intended to end an era of stagnation and revitalize the flailing state. The history of the Big Volga project is, in a sense, the history of Soviet industrialization. It is also a history of rivalry with the US, which for decades raced the Soviets to build bigger, more impressive dams.
The project was one of the largest nature-transforming schemes in history: put together, the artificial reservoirs on the Volga are about as big as Lake Erie. It tried to harness the river to provide the Russian people with necessary things: energy, transportation, and water. But it tried to do too much.
The river has become polluted, silted up, and overwhelmed by invasive species. Water flows at a tenth of the speed it did before the dams were constructed, according to estimates by researchers at the Institute of Ecology of the Volga River Basin, in the central Russian port city of Togliatti. Widespread toxic algal blooms are now common.
As global temperatures rise, the Volga basin is getting less and less rainfall in the spring and summer, and more snow in the winter. Igor Mokhov, chief scientist at the Obukhov Institute of Atmospheric Physics of the Russian Academy of Sciences, points out that the intensity of spring and summer precipitation is expected to increase, making post-high-water planning more difficult. A team of Russian hydrologists, writing in an August 2021 paper in Ecohydrology & Hydrobiology, argued that because of climate change, “there will be more water in those regions [of Russia] where it is sufficient, and less where it is most needed.” The Volga basin is one of the regions most at risk, they wrote.
It is not an exaggeration to say that Russia’s mother river is broken.
I visited Dubna on a windy November morning. Runners in colorful clothing zipped by people walking their dogs along an unkempt reservoir front. I found myself in a grayscale photo of milky clouds and water like quicksilver, interrupted by the odd patch of evergreen and autumn brown. The opposite side of the reservoir was an impenetrable wall of coniferous trees, shrouded in a light mist.
I was trying, in vain, to orient myself to figure out how exactly one of the better-known stories about this reservoir must have unfolded. The story goes that in late November 1941, German forces were closing in on Moscow and had planned to cross the frozen body of water. The hydropower station workers reportedly decided to drain the reservoir, dropping water levels abruptly by two meters, crushing the ice and buying the city some time by stopping the invaders in their tracks. Eighty years later, though it was the same time of year, there was no ice in sight.
The hydropower station itself is a restricted site, encircled with an abundance of barbed wire, warning signs, and towering cranes so enormous there are small buildings on top of them. The noise of the water was pierced by seagulls and the occasional car as I walked along the dam. It was Unity Day, a modern Russian holiday devised to supersede a Communist holiday celebrating the 1917 revolution. Some of these people were driving to the Vladimir Lenin statue, a spot beloved by locals.
About the artwork:
A former velodrome racer for the Russian National Cycling Federation, Stoyan Vassev quit his sports career and began making photographs professionally in 2009.
The images accompanying this story are from his ongoing series No Fish, in which he documents
the effects of environmental exploitation on life in Kirovsky, a small fishing village in the Volga Delta.
I could see Lenin’s back at the end of the road. The statue was surrounded by ceremonial blue-green fir trees, and looked across the water at nothing in particular. The corresponding monument to Joseph Stalin had been demolished in 1962, after the Soviet government decided to “de-Stalinize” itself. The two monuments, each almost 40 meters tall, once guarded the entry point to the Moscow Canal, a Soviet engineering marvel connecting the Volga and Moskva rivers.
Beside the complex, there is a memorial hardly taller than I am. It looks like a random granite building block, tilted to the side, seemingly thrown out by the mighty waters to the foot of the Lenin monument and behind its back. The stone was placed there in 2013 to commemorate the more than 22,000 prisoners who died building the canal. Flowers and wreaths at the bottom were still fresh from the annual ceremony, held on October 30, when Russians remember those persecuted and murdered by the state, usually by reading their names aloud in front of countless similar memorials across the nation.
A young boy in a yellow jacket asked his mother, who was putting their things into the car parked near the memorial, “Mom, what’s written on the stone?”
To the builders of the canal, she responded without looking.
This only made him ask her another question: “Why builders? Isn’t the Volga a real river?”
In a way it isn’t really a river anymore—it no longer flows naturally. It is now so mediated by human intervention that it is better thought of as a machine.
Just two months after the first gulag prisoners had arrived at the future dam site in Dubna, in November 1933, research bigwigs at the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union gathered in Moscow to discuss the state of the Volga and the Caspian Sea. Evgeny Burdin, a historian in the Volga town of Ulyanovsk, some 900 miles downstream from Dubna, read to me from one of the reports presented at the meeting. The report predicted that reservoirs would cause “swamp formation due to flooding, poor conditions for soil self-restoration, flooding of cellars in homes, changing microclimate, algae blooms and stale water, pollution, slowing down of water flow, and local risks of malaria.”
The river has become polluted, silted up, and overwhelmed by invasive species. Widespread toxic algal blooms are now common.
“Even if there wasn’t deep public awareness and discussion, surely many of the hydrologists and engineers knew that there would be significant and unavoidable impacts … Many people were aware of it, but it was very difficult, I’m sure, to say anything,” Paul R. Josephson, a professor of Russian and Soviet history at Colby College, told me.
It was, indeed, quite difficult: one could be sentenced to hard labor for daring to criticize the government. In fact, one could even be very much in line with the government and still end up purged. That was what happened to Konstantin Bogoyavlensky, a turn-of-the-century engineer who designed the first known hydropower station project on the Volga, in the Samara region, a little downstream from Ulyanovsk, in 1910. The local authorities and clergy protested Bogoyavlensky’s idea, which required flooding a lot of land, and it was shelved until after the 1917 revolution. Described as a fanatic, the engineer spent years lobbying the national government to build his station—and succeeded, only to be declared a spy and an enemy of the revolution shortly afterward and sent to a gulag camp in Siberia, where he eventually died.
“The important things to get from the Volga were energy for industry and good conditions for shipping to and from Moscow,” Burdin told me. The technocratic, goal-oriented thinking of the time had no patience for polite objections from scientists or anything that could interfere with industrial development.
In April 1941, about two months before the USSR was attacked by Germany, bringing it fully into World War II, engineers started to fill the Rybinskoe Reservoir, the third one in the cascade, around 50 miles northeast of Dubna. (The second reservoir was also being filled at the time, but it was about a 20th the size.)
The Rybinskoe Reservoir would become the largest artificial body of water in the world at the time. More than 130,000 people had to relocate to make room for it, including some 6,000 residents of Mologa, a settlement first mentioned in historical chronicles in the 12th century. Mologa’s churches, the tallest buildings in town, had to be blown up. The dam and reservoir were also built by gulag prisoners, who worked through the war to make sure the unfinished station could still power Moscow.
The Rybinskoe Reservoir destroyed thousands of square miles of arable land for a relatively small amount of electricity—after upgrades, the hydropower station now produces 376 megawatts, less than a fifth of what America’s Hoover Dam puts out. By the 1980s, it began to look like a questionable bargain even for the USSR. Gosplan, the state planning agency, explored draining it. Experts concluded that “any consequences of draining the Rybinskoe Reservoir would be more drastic than those of filling it in the first place,” says Victor Danilov-Danilyan, head of research at the Water Problems Institute (WPI) of the Russian Academy of Sciences. It would take at least several hundred years for the area, covered in sediment that had accumulated industrial and household pollution, to recover on its own, he adds, while cleaning it up would essentially mean “relocating this awful mess elsewhere” at a cost that Russia couldn’t afford. And so the reservoir remains.
Decades later, the last surviving Mologa townspeople and their descendants still come to the nearby town of Rybinsk for an annual get-together in mid-August. Some of them visit the ruins that occasionally resurface when the year is particularly dry. That happened again in 2021, when summer left water levels in the reservoir low, causing alarm about potential water shortages downstream. In aerial photographs, the streets and foundations of Mologa formed an eerie geometry emerging from the lakebed.
The dam cascade has effectively turned the Volga into a chain of reservoirs. How much water gets through from the upper parts to the lower parts now hinges on a complex technical process that involves wrestling both innate uncertainty and worrying global trends. Natalia Frolova, a hydrologist and geographer at the Lomonosov Moscow State University, explains how the trend of shifting precipitation played out in 2021: the spring high water on the Volga was more or less normal and well predicted, and the reservoirs were full, but the drier conditions that brought out the Mologa ruins this past summer caused water levels in all the reservoirs to fall below normal levels
For the Volga cities, it’s not just about the quantity of water but also the quality. The Volga is consistently among the three most polluted rivers in the country, accounting for nearly 40% of all polluted wastewater in Russia. Alexander Demin, a river researcher at the Water Problems Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, says only about 10% of all wastewater from point sources like sewer pipes is treated to levels required by Russian regulation. There are also many diffuse sources of pollution that are not effectively regulated: agricultural runoff, rainwater, meltwater, wastewater from ships, and even polluted soils and other detritus that wash into the river as sediment.
Since nearly all Volga cities and towns—and Moscow, via the canal—end up using the river for their water supply, this pollution comes with a hefty bill for water treatment. “The worse the water in the Volga, the costlier it is to make it potable,” Demin notes. Given that the Volga basin is home to 60 million people, about half of Russia’s industry, and a comparable portion of its agriculture, the costs add up.
A recent analysis compiled by Carbon Brief, a UK-based climate media outlet, puts the USSR and Russia third in the world in all-time historical greenhouse-gas emissions. A national assessment report compiled by Russian climate scientists in 2014 said that at a time of human-caused climate change, average annual temperatures in the country have been increasing twice as fast as the global average. The report also stated that the trend is expected to continue. Impacts of climate change fueled in part by Soviet industrial development are already visible around Russia, from permafrost degradation to desertification in the agriculture-heavy southern reaches of the country. The same large-scale industrial development that spawned Big Volga and was powered by the river’s 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 towns along the Volga.
When I visited the final node in the cascade, the Cheboksarskoe Reservoir, about 370 miles east of Moscow, in 2010, I saw algal blooms that made the water look like a witch’s brew.
The nearby city of Cheboksary, the capital of Chuvashia, one of several ethnic republics in Russia, was leafy, quiet, and welcoming when I visited. I was part of a press tour organized by RusHydro, the owner of the cascade, which had been lobbying the government to increase 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 Big Volga project finally stumbled.
By the mid-1980s, with glasnost, Mikhail Gorbachev decided the Soviet Union could do with a bit more freedom of the press and transparency, letting citizens discuss and even criticize the decisions of their government. And so the irreversible environmental damage to the Volga gradually became part of a wide public conversation too. A 1989 book about 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 for us to do about it.” “Boasting around the world that the Volga-matushka [mother-river] has been tamed several times, still calling themselves her sons, those who tamed her also condemned her to a long, horrible, and painful illness,” the book reads.
“Whose land is being destroyed and whose water is being polluted so that someone else can make money?”
It was also apparently no longer possible to simply give thousands of people two months’ notice to leave their ancestral land, as was the initial plan for Mologa (the relocation ultimately took four years). Two nearby regions in European Russia, bordering Chuvashia, would be most affected by projected flooding: the Nizhegorodskaya Oblast to the west and the republic of Mari El to the north stood to lose territory, along with treasured historical landmarks such as gravesites and city churches, to rising waters. The republics protested and imposed delays, counting on central government funding to run out, which it did. In 1989, the Soviet government decided to keep the water level in the Cheboksarskoe Reservoir at a level that meant the hydropower station there could produce only about 60% of its designed electricity-generating capacity. The reservoir ended up about 380 square miles smaller than planned.
A river no longer runs through it
Because of the Cheboksarskoe debacle, the Volga-Kama cascade is, on paper, still unfinished. In a sense, the Soviet Union lost one of the more curious Cold War races: in the 1930s, as part of the New Deal, the US government started building a cascade of hydropower stations in the Columbia River basin in Washington state. For a while in the late 1950s, the giant Kuibyshevskaya station on the Volga was the largest in the world by capacity, a title it snatched from the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington. Both projects were being touted as the greatest of their kind, and there are a few parallels, Paul Josephson says: “They’ve really turned both rivers into machines.”
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the newly formed Russian government was left trying to fix the Soviet machine. The federal Volga Revival program, a conservation and restoration effort launched in 1996, met its demise just two years later during a bout of deep economic crisis and government turmoil. The newest iteration of these efforts, the Healthy Volga program, started in 2018; the government plans to spend 205 billion rubles ($2.9 billion) over six years cleaning up the gargantuan wastewater flow to the Volga.
But Healthy Volga is already being criticized for failing to make a dent in the problem: in late 2020, the Accounts Chamber of Russia, a state audit authority, issued a report titled Unhealthy “Healthy Volga,” chastising the program managers for an excessive focus on point source pollution and a convoluted management structure. Water quality in the Volga, the report found, hasn’t improved substantially over the last three decades.
Josephson, the historian, says the first necessary step is to enforce existing regulation and abandon the Soviet habit of making it cheaper to send untreated wastewater into the river and pay any resulting fines than it is to actually clean the water.
A frank and open conversation about the risks of projects such as Big Volga is essential beyond the Volga basin, argues Josephson. Many “zombie” Soviet projects have been coming back to life in modern Russia. Near Kamchatka, in Russia’s far east, a proposed 100-gigawatt tidal power complex that was once thought too expensive is now being reevaluated as a potential hydrogen factory. Two more large hydro stations, also discussed in the Soviet era, are planned for the Angara, the only river flowing out of Lake Baikal in eastern Siberia; with six stations in total, activists fear, the Angara will turn into “a cascade of dead reservoirs.” The Amur, a river on the Russia-China border, recently flooded, causing almost $7.5 billion in property damage and reviving plans for lowland dams and stations that had been made in the 1970s and ’80s.
In 2017, when the Moscow Canal turned 80, the CEO of the state-run company that manages it told the media, “It’s hard to imagine, but the Moskva River is about 80% Volga at this point.” He went on to say that before the construction of the canal, in the early 1930s, the situation was so dire the Moskva had been reduced to a trickle; right near the Kremlin, one could simply walk across it. As the Volga cities downstream face increasing water risks, the capital water authorities report that for the foreseeable future, Moscow is out of any danger.
It is telling that the Volga has been put to use to provide for the Russian capital. As Josephson muses: “Whose land is being destroyed and whose water is being polluted so that someone else can make money? The Volga serves the Kremlin. It is Moscow’s. It no longer belongs to the people along the Volga.”
Olga Dobrovidova is a science journalist based in Moscow.
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