Mother Volga passes through what can be called the heartland of Russia, both historically, culturally and economically. Europe's longest river at 3,700 km, the runners-up don't stand a chance against her. More than 60 million people live in the Volga Basin, and about 70 species of fish live in the river, including the Caspian sturgeon, pike and herring.

Volga's starting point is not as majestic as certain mountain rivers I could mention. At only 225 metres above sea level in the Valdai Hills northwest of Moscow, she flows sedately into the Rybinsk Reservoir, and leaves it heading east.

Volga now flows past several old cities: Yaroslavl, also passed by the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Kostroma of poetry and beauty, where the Kostroma river meets the Volga, witnessed by the golden cupolas of the Ipatievsky Monastery. Kineshma of the holy St. Basil. Cheboksari, capital of the Chuvash Republic with more of a pagan history. Nizhnii Novgorod, Russia's third largest city and home of the Matryoshka dolls. Kazan, built by the Mongols and improved on by the Russians. Simbirsk, birth place of Lenin, for a time renamed Ulianovsk in his honour.

Thence the river turns south. Volga passes Samara, which offers her the Samar River, Saratov, which bridges her, and Volgograd, named after the river, containing a memorial of all the Russians who died in the second world war. At Astrakhan the river spreads into a wide delta and empties peacefully into the Caspian Sea.

The most important waterway of Russia, Volga is linked through canals to the Baltic and Black Seas as well as the Don, Moscow and Oka rivers. Most of the cities on her banks have flourished because of the trade on the river, and have also taken advantage of her gifts of hydroelectricity and irrigation water. Travelled by steamships and barges the river became the best mode of transportation in Russia, a significance she never entirely lost. She was still important for troop movements during World War II, when she witnessed the Battle of Stalingrad.

However, her children have not been cherishing their mother properly. Volga has been a victim of long and unregulated pollution from agriculture and industry, leading to high levels of heavy metals and bacteria, and low levels of fish and purity. Too much drainage from irrigation has lowered the flow of the river, causing the level of the Caspian Sea itself to sink. Russia has begun to address these problems, but there is still a long way to go.

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