The Volga in Russian geopolitics

The longest river in Europe is marked by Soviet history. From dams to fishing to industrialization, it is at the heart of the continental upheavals that are occurring before our eyes.

Specialist geographer of Russia, author of numerous authoritative publications on this country, Pascal Marchand has just published a new work entitled Volga, the heritage of modernity. He had written his doctoral thesis on the development and environment of the Volga at the end of the Soviet period.

global scale

The main thread of the work is to return to the stages of development of the largest European river, which made it go from a natural watercourse to a river. built, alternating failures and successes, positive and negative consequences on the economy and the environment. The author decides to overvalue, in number of pages and chapters, fish (when it comes to physical geography) and fishing (when it comes to human activities), without leaving out any theme, because the whole is very complete.

Since it involves retracing the major stages of the destruction of the Volga, the book is essentially written in the past tense. It takes its place perfectly in the collection, entitled Gohistory of a river. The end of the eighth chapter, focused on river traffic, as well as the general conclusion, under the title The Volga, a river in Asia?are an exception: they form a development on current events and even future perspectives.

For the geographer, these last pages are undoubtedly more captivating than the others. There we find confirmation that the author is the great specialist in Russian geopolitics, which he contextualizes on the Eurasian and even global scale. Planetary historical upheavals are occurring before our eyes, in which Russia happens to be the protagonist. The economic and geopolitical perspectives of the North-South corridor, from the Volga to India, via the Caspian and Iran, constitute the most striking example.

A panthon of Marxism-Leninism

The work begins with a prologue where the author spins a metaphor that has been dear to him for a long time: that of a Volga Valley of the Bolshevik Kingsof a river panthon of Marxism-Leninismdune mausole valleylike an orthodox iconostasis of Soviet communism.

The first chapter is devoted to physical geography, with a view to constraints and potential for development and production, particularly hydroelectricity. Its originality lies in the place given to fish biogeography.

The second chapter studies the political-administrative and natural context in which the damage works took place. He explains how Soviet power coped with years of drought in the Volga basin, resulting in a drop in the level of the Caspian, and how this exceptional climatic period was able to influence certain planning decisions of the time. The basin transfer projects are all the more detailed as the author interprets their failure as being a major cause of the collapse of theUSSR.

The third chapter presents the consequences of the transformation of the river into a staircase of lakes, due to the construction of a dozen dams from the 1930s to the 1980s. The author first quantifies the areas of land submerged, all the greater as they are dams. of plain. He then discusses their role in regulating flows, flood reduction being the most successful effect, which was also the most sought after.

Since 1962, however, the Volgograd dam has reconstituted a artificial floodin order to promote fish populations in the lower Volga; but the released flow remains less significant than that of the former natural flood. The chapter ends with environmental problems: the hydromorphism of the land surrounding the lakes, due to the rise in the water table, the retreat of the banks due to erosion and, finally, the siltation of the reservoirs.

The following chapters are devoted to fish stocks and fishing activities, a good part of which concerns the emblematic question of sturgeon and the geographical sector of the lower Volga, where the theme of irrigation competes with it.

Urbanization and river traffic

In the chapter devoted to the towns of the Volga, the historical heritage of the oldest fortresses (Kremlins), generally made of wood, is highlighted.; but, with the fall of the Tsarist Empire, the banks of the great river remained devoid of a truly large city, apart perhaps from Saratov.

Late in European history, it was Soviet industrialization which caused the urbanization of the Volga. The Second World War (the Great Patriotic War in Soviet terminology) gave it a considerable boost, since in the face of the Nazi advance, it was necessary to evacuate and relocate the factories located further west to the Volga, in the Urals and in Siberia.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Soviet economic growth was largely planned towards the Volga and, at least for hydrocarbons and heavy industries, its largest tributary, the Kama. Basic industries were accompanied by the automobile industry, particularly in the city of Togliatti (on the Volga) for cars and that of Nabirijni Tchelnyi (on the Kama) for trucks, aeronautics in the cities of Kazan, Ulyanovsk, Samara and Saratov, and aerospace above all Samara.

The eighth and final chapter focuses on river traffic. The large-scale navigable Volga is an old dream of Russian power, but in fact a recent construction, resulting from the Soviet policy of major works, which has not been completely completed. the fall of theUSSRriver navigation collapsed, but a revival is emerging, the old Five Seas System once again becoming, in a new form more oriented towards the Indian Ocean, an issue of global importance.

One of the problems lies in the filling level of the Cheboksary reservoir, which, if too low, hinders the movement of large ships on a section. The author presents the standoff between the central power, which would like to raise the level, and the local authorities who, supported by environmentalists, refuse it and win their case.

Rigor and personal impressions

This small synthetic work has a total of 5 figures (4 maps and a section) and 28 black and white photos. An appendix is ​​made up of a table summarizing the numerical characteristics of all the dam lakes which harness the river and its main tributary. There is no bibliography, this being replaced by references in the twenty pages of notes located at the end of the work.

The whole thing is lively, interspersed with a few personal anecdotes, such as having suffered from the stifling heat in the streets of Volgograd, or the regret at having noted the loss of a large part of the Russian bibliographic collection at the Institute of Geography in Paris.

A connoisseur of the Volga for several decades, Pascal Marchand has created a comprehensive work, written concisely while exhaustively addressing all the themes. This rigorous academic work does not prevent the author from giving his opinion and personal impressions, with which we may not always agree, but which make reading easy and often captivating.