Following the Volga – Thom Wheeler’s journey through 500 years of Russian history

(Guardian) – The Volga river slices through the heartland of Russia and covers a diverse set of cultures. You could probably travel its length in a week if you jumped on trains.

I took two months doing it, partly for romantic reasons. My childhood friend Vicky was marrying another friend of mine, Dimitri (whom I met while working in St Petersburg), in Astrakhan, at the end of the river, close to the delta. They met when she came on a trip I was running to St Petersburg.

Stalin’s dream was to create the largest working waterway in Europe, capable of handling a constant flow of freight. Some might argue that the Volga embodies all the ugliness of the Soviet machine, ruthlessly ripping through Russia. But it is also a river of art, literature and myth. Pushkin, Tolstoy and others wrote of its magic. Many think it represents the real Russia.

The source of the Volga, near Staritsa in the Valdai hills, is housed in a wooden chapel, with the same smell and damp air as a Finnish sauna. Candles and icons decorate the walls.

This was once a wild province, like Siberia. From the 16th century, the fertile river banks attracted settlers and Russian traders, and it thrived. Now it’s a patchwork of industrialised and rural landscapes. You travel through arable land for miles, then have mile upon mile of stark concrete.

I rowed for 180km to the first major town, Tver. This part, north of Moscow, was my favourite – quiet, gentle, it runs through a soothing bygone Russia, my fantasy Russia of the 19th century and Tolstoy. There are lots of orthodox churches, and homestays. After that I used buses and trains – and walked 100km from Ulyanovsk to Samara.

Samara is a real summer destination, with a beach on the Volga. You have people rollerblading and cycling along the promenade, and a seaside feel that’s quite incongruous to the area.

I spent a week sleeping under the stars on a rug – I tend to travel quite rough. The Transit Hotel in Samara was interesting: it’s at the main railway station and offers a glimpse into the bureaucracy that still exists in provincial Russia. Because I didn’t have the right paperwork they wouldn’t let me have a room, but for $5 I could sleep in a chair for four hours. Every 20 minutes or so there was a 1970s-style Tannoy going off, announcing trains and destinations.

I took a boat from Kazan to Ulyanovsk, the birthpace of Lenin. It’s a six-hour trip and I’d decided to be organised and had queued for hours several days earlier to book a seat (there were only nine) on the boat. But I still ended up in the only seat that faced backwards. I was eyeballed by passengers plus what felt like 100 children, for the whole journey. I had nausea and was surrounded by boxes of vegetables.

Volgograd is a mesmerising city. The Soviet iconography is still very evident and the statue of Mother Russia, a memorial to the Battle of Stalingrad, is mindblowing. At 80 metres high it’s intimidating but it means a lot to the Russian people – you’ll see them having picnics around it.

I speak Russian badly, but people are always open to conversation. In rural areas this will be about the important things: family, food, shelter. Because it’s such a huge country, there are large gaps between the big cities, so people see central government as a long way away with no bearing on their day-to-day lives – on the potato harvest. There’s very little aspiration, which is quite enlightening. It’s all a bit mindful really, they’re living in the moment.

The trip finished at my friends’ wedding in Astrakhan. There’s a lot of drinking at Russian weddings, so it was fairly disorganised. And Astrakhan never failed to surprise me: on a relatively commercial major street, you’ll see goats tethered outside the banks, grazing on the grass.

Source: Reuters | Author: Gemma Bowes


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