The Volga: Cars , Food, and Energy

If you are familiar with U.S. geography, it may be helpful to think of the Volga region as Russia's Midwest. The region is located in the middle of the country, along the longest river in Europe, the Volga. It is rich in agricultural lands and hydropower resources. It is also home to some of the largest factories of the former Soviet Union (FSU), including most of the automotive and aerospace factories. It is also pretty much “average” in its demographics, economics, and politics, just like the Midwest.

The region discussed here coincides with the Volga federal district (as defined in 2000) and includes portions of the old Volga-Vyatka, Povolzhye, and Urals economic regions. The district now contains 14 subjects of federation, including six autonomous republics, one kray, and seven oblasts.

Note that Astrakhan and Volgograd Oblasts and the Republic of Kalmykia, which were included in the Povolzhye economic region, are not considered here; they are included in the South federal district now. The Volga district as currently defined and as discussed in this chapter occupies 1 million km2 (about the area of Bolivia) and is home to 31 million people (a little less than California's population). The population is 71% urban, which is about Russia's average. Its population density of 30/km2 makes it the third most densely populated district in the country after the Central and South districts. The region is home to many important cities, including five over 1 million (Nizhniy Novgorod, Samara, Ufa, Kazan, and Perm) and seven between 500,000 and 1 million (Saratov, Togliatti, Ulyanovsk, Izhevsk, Penza, Orenburg, and Naberezhnye Chelny). Most of these are capitals of their respective subjects of federation. The largest city, Nizhniy Novgorod (called Gorky in the Soviet period), is the fourth biggest city in the country and is one of Russia's top manufacturing centers and consumer markets.

The region has an excellent position with respect to transportation networks. The Volga River, with its tributaries the Oka and Kama, connects the region with Moscow and St. Petersburg, as well as with the Black, Baltic, and Caspian Seas. Numerous railroads, highways, oil and gas pipelines, and airports provide additional infrastructure. The Volga district's location between the Central and Urals districts ensures robust trade links with the rest of the country. In the south, the district borders now-independent Kazakhstan. The Northwest district to the north provides coal and timber resources. In short, this is one of the most advantageously located areas in the entire country.

The Volga River, the longest in Europe at 3,690 km, gives the region its name. A cascade of hydropower plants—Gorkovskaya (580 megawatts [MW]), Cheboksarkaya (1,379 MW), Saratovskaya (1,290 MW), Volzhskaya (2,300 MW), and Nizhnekamskaya (1,080 MW)—on the Volga provides cheap electricity; however, it also creates disruptions for migrating sturgeon and other fish, and a lot of fertile land has been taken out of production because it is flooded by the reservoirs. The Volga is navigable from about mid-March to November in the middle reaches. It is one of the most heavily used rivers in the world, both with respect to the amount of water used for industry and irrigation and in terms of total freight shipping. It is also one of the most polluted rivers of the FSU. However, swimming in many stretches away from the big cities is safe, and fishing for pike and sturgeon is common.

Physical Geography

The relief is flat, slightly undulating plain, covered with thick glacial deposits in the northern half. A slight hilly plateau 350 m high extends from north to south along the right (west) bank of the Volga. Interesting caves are found in the foothills of the Urals (e.g., the Kungur ice cave in Perm kray is over 6 km long, and the Kapova cave in Bashkortostan is 2 km long); they are natural wonders of the region. There are relatively few valuable mineral deposits. Nationally significant are petroleum (9% of Russia's reserves), natural gas (6%), oil shale (51%), and sulfur deposits.

Petroleum is produced at over 150 sites, with a few large oil fields dominating the production, mainly in Tatarstan Republic and Samara Oblast. Proximity to the iron ore deposits of Kursk, the coal of northern European Russia, and the nonferrous metals of the Urals makes shipping of raw materials into the region an easy task. Additional iron and copper ore deposits are found in Orenburg Oblast within the region. Most of the forest resources are concentrated in the north of the region, especially in Nizhniy Novgorod and Kirov Oblasts, which are over 50% forest-covered. Average forest cover in the southern part of the region is only 8%.

The climate is more continental here than near Moscow. Snow cover lasts for at least 5 months, with the average temperature in January reaching –16°C. Summers can be warm in the north and hot in the south. The average July temperature in Nizhniy Novgorod is +18°C, and near Saratov is +20°C. The absolute temperature records in Kazan were –47°C for winter and +38°C for summer. Precipitation values in the north of the region are about 500–600 mm/year, but in the south only about 400 mm/year. The overall climate here is virtually identical to that in the upper U.S. Midwest (i.e., Minnesota and Wisconsin). Soils are primarily gray forest soils (alfisols) in the north, and chernozems (mollisols) and chestnut semidesert soils (aridisols) in the south. The northern third of the region is in the coniferous and mixed forest zone, while the southern two-thirds are in the forest–steppe and true steppe zones. Some rare plants and vegetation types occur on the west bank of the Volga on chalk cliffs.

The region is rich in protected areas, with 14 zapovedniks, 8 national parks, and 4 federal wildlife refuges. Volga–Kama Zapovednik occupies about 11,000 ha on the left bank of the Volga in Tatarstan; it protects undisturbed forest–steppe areas of the middle Volga. Zhigulevsky Zapovednik, surrounded by Samarskaya Luka National Park near Samara, protects basswood forests and forest–steppe areas with many “relict” species (i.e., species surviving from earlier ages) of plants along the high right bank of the Volga. Some of the relicts date from the Pliocene era—typically, remnants of the warmer period when steppes were more widespread. Orenburgsky Zapovednik protects steppes in the transition zone between Europe and Asia south of the Ural Mountains.

Cultural and Historical Features

Culturally, the Volga region is one of only two in Russia with a heavy presence of many minorities from the Uralic (Finnish) and Altaic (Turkic) families. Most of the Uralic peoples are Orthodox Christian, while most of the Altaic peoples are Muslims. The Mari people have not been thoroughly converted one way or the other; many retain their traditional animist/shamanist beliefs. The Chuvash people are distinct in that they are of mixed Tatar and Uralic ancestry, and they are predominantly Orthodox Christians. The Uralic peoples (Maris, Mordvinians, Komi Permyaks, and Udmurts) live in the north and west of the region, while the Altaic peoples (Tatars, Bashkirs, Chuvashs) live mainly in the center and east of the region. Each of the groups has its own autonomous republic, where they are either a majority (e.g., the Tatars represent 53% of the population in Tatarstan, and the Chuvashs 70% in Chuvashia) or a large minority (e.g., the Mordvinians represent 35% of Mordovia's population, and the Maris 43% of Mari El). The Tatars, Bashkirs, Chuvashs, and other cultures created their own literature, folk and fine arts, styles of dress, and architecture. For example, Mari and Mordvinian peasant women in traditional dress have different patterns on their headgear. Some of the traditions are shared by many ethnic groups, thus establishing a general “Volga” culture that crosses ethnic/linguistic boundaries. The Russian language serves as a common communication tool; virtually all people in the region can speak it, and most can also read and write Russian. One of the Russian cultural specialties in the region is a distinct style of hand-painted decoration, used to ornament wooden spoons and bowls in the village of Khokhloma since the 17th century. Intermarriages between Russians and non-Russians, and between different groups, of non-Russians, are very common in the region. Several of the well-known contemporary artists in Russia from the region have multicultural backgrounds—for example, the rock singers Zemphira Ramazanova (an ethnic Tatar born in Ufa, Bashkortostan) and Yuri Shevchuk (a Ukrainian–Russian raised in Ufa). Other celebrities from Ufa include the Russian painter Mikhail Nesterov and the Tatar dancer Rudolf Nureyev. The pop singer Alsou comes from Bugulma, Tatarstan, and is an ethnic Tatar.

Nizhniy Novgorod and Samara are the largest cities in the region, each with over 1 million people. These two cities have given many celebrities to the world as well. For example, Nizhniy Novgorod was the birthplace of the Soviet writer Maxim Gorky, and the city bore the writer's name in Soviet times. Other famous people from Nizhniy include Nikon, the great 17th-century patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church; inventor Pyotr Kulibin (d. 1818); mathematician Nikolai Lobachevsky (d. 1856); and composer Mikhail Balakirev (d. 1910). The legendary Soviet aviator Valery Chkalov, who was the first in the world to fly nonstop over the North Pole in 1935, was born in Vasilevo (now Chkalovsk) in Nizhniy Novgorod Oblast. Nizhniy also gave the world the microbiologist Irina Blokhina, the pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, and the supermodel Natalia Vodianova.

Samara, well known from the Russian folk song “Samara Gorodok,” has also produced a few well-known personalities, including Eldar Ryazanov, one of the best movie directors; the actress Ershova; and the spacecraft designer Kozlov. Kazan is a typical Tatar city and another important cultural center of the region (Vignette 24.1).

Despite the region's high cultural diversity, the demographic situation in the Volga district mirrors that for Russia as a whole: Its population is declining (the average rate of decline was –0.6% in 2005). In the economically depressed Kirov and Ulyanovsk Oblasts and in Mordovia, the decline exceeded 1%. On the other hand, in the relatively booming Tatarstan, the decline was merely –0.2%. The Volga region is one of the three best in Russia with respect to average life expectancy: In 2005 it was 65.26 years (58.64 for men and 72.59 for women). This reflects good nutrition and the economic prosperity of the region, as well as lower-than-average alcoholism rates (especially in the Muslim subjects of federation).


The Volga region is an economic giant in Russia, especially with respect to machine building, car and aircraft manufacturing, and the space industry. In 2004 it accounted for 16.5% of Russia's gross domestic product (GDP) and 23% of all industrial output. Two of its wealthiest areas, Tatarstan Republic and Samara Oblast, have higher-than-average gross regional products (GRPs) in Russia; these were about $4,150 per capita in 2004. The two poorest, Mari El Republic and Penza Oblast, had GRPs of only $1,654 per capita in the same year. The region's richest subjects of federation are the ones that produce or refine petroleum, have a strong machinery-building base, and/or have well-developed and diversified agriculture. In 2004 Tatarstan was in 4th place among the 88 subjects of federation at that time in the amount of money made in mineral extraction. Overall, the Volga region accounts for 14% of Russia's petroleum production, and about 2% of its natural gas. It is, however, responsible for about one-quarter of all petroleum refining.

With respect to machinery production, the region is second only to Central Russia and accounts for about 25% in the country. Until a few years ago, when new car factories appeared in Kaliningrad and Leningradskaya Oblasts in the Northwest, the Volga region was the only one in the country to assemble passenger cars. There are automobile factories in Togliatti (AutoVAZ), Nizhniy Novgorod (GAZ and PAZ), Izhevsk (Izhmash), Ulyanovsk (UAZ), and ZMA (Naberezhnye Chelny). Now they make a total of about 1 million cars per year, or about 80% of Russia's total. The KAMAZ plant in Naberezhnye Chelny is one of the largest truck assembly plants in the world. The company makes about 67,000 heavy trucks (over 14 tonnes) per year and is the largest truck manufacturer in Russia, although only 11th worldwide. Another regional specialty, the aerospace industry, is well represented in Kazan (helicopters), Samara (Tu-154 airplanes, Soyuz and Progress spacecraft, civilian and military satellites), Ulyanovsk (Tu-204 passenger airplanes and An-124 cargo airplanes), Nizhniy Novgorod (MIG-29 and MIG-31 fighter jets), and Saratov (Yak airplanes and some helicopters).

Many factories in Mari El, Mordovia, Chuvashia, and Udmurtiya specialize in producing radioelectronics and testing equipment for civilian and military uses. Nizhniy Novgorod Oblast is the giant of the Russian shipbuilding industry, producing over half of all ships for river traffic and many ocean-going vessels.

Petroleum refinery and petrochemicals constitute the second leading industrial specialty of the region. All of Russia's major petroleum companies have some presence in the region, including Lukoil, TNK-BP, Tatneft, and Rosneft. The Volga region produces the lion's share of Russia's motor oil, and leads the country in production of plastics and fertilizer. Production of potassium fertilizer from the extremely rich Solikamsk and Berezniki deposits in Permsky Kray accounts for 42% of the country's total! There is a large nitrogen fertilizer factory in Togliatti, and phosphate production is heavy in Salavat, Bashkortostan. Yoshkar-Ola (Mari El), Saransk (Mordovia), and Penza are major pharmaceutical producers. Kirov specializes in making shoes, leather jackets, fur coats, and toys, as well as, ironically, weapons.

The Volga region is also an agricultural giant, producing about 25% of the grain and sunflowers, 15% of the sugar beets, and 12% of the potatoes and vegetables in the country. It also accounts for about 15% of meat and milk production. The region leads the nation in arable land—18.7% of the territory, for a total of 45 million ha. Typical crops grown in the north include barley, rye, oats, and winter wheat. In the south production of summer wheat is important, along with buckwheat, millet, hemp, hops, sugar beets, and mustard. The main zones of agriculture are located along the right (west) bank of the Volga, which has a milder climate. The main livestock production is concentrated in Bashkortostan and Tatarstan. Together these two republics account for 13% of the cattle, 11% of the milk, 9% of the hogs, and 7% of the eggs produced in Russia.

The infrastructure of the Volga region is multimodal; it is mainly centered on Nizhniy Novgorod and Kazan in the middle, and on Samara and Saratov in the south. The cities along the Volga tend to be very long, but narrow, stretching parallel to the river for 20–30 km. Kirov and Perm are located along the northern branch of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, while Kazan, Ulyanovsk, and Samara lie along its southern branch. All major cities in the region have good connections to each other and the rest of the country via railroads and paved highways. The Volga is, of course, the main waterway. Numerous oil and gas pipelines run through or originate in the region, with the most important nodes being Alemetyevsk (the start of the Druzhba pipeline to central Europe), Samara, and Nizhniy Novgorod. Nizhniy Novgorod's airport is used as a reliever for Moscow in poor weather. Samara, Saratov, Kazan, and Perm have large airports as well.

Challenges and Opportunities in the Volga Region

The Volga region is advantageously located in Russia between north and east, south and west, along a major waterway. It is also a culturally diverse place, where different cultures have generally enriched each other, although interethnic tensions are on the rise. The region is less developed over much of the heavily forested, cold Kirov Oblast, and in the poor rural Mordovia Republic and Penza Oblast. However, all units have at least one big city with strong industry, education, and cultural services. The region has enough qualified workers for the available employment.

The current boom in the oil and gas industry has helped the region, which specializes in both production and refining of these fuels. Also, production of cars and airplanes is growing again, including some joint ventures with foreign participation. Future challenges include conversion of large military facilities to civilian uses, continued modernization of the old Soviet factories, investment in better infrastructure and education, and retention of the best young workers instead of losing them to Moscow or St. Petersburg. The region is a net importer of energy, despite the availability of large hydropower dams on the Volga, and may need new nuclear and wind power stations in the near future. Lack of water for irrigation in the warming world may present challenges for the region's agriculture, especially in the already semiarid south. Tourism in the region has a lot of potential for growth; the main focus of foreign tourism at the moment is on the Volga itself, as seen on week-long ship cruises from Moscow or Nizhniy Novgorod. More inland itineraries could be developed that capitalize on the district's rich cultural and natural heritage.


  1. Investigate the hydropower potential of dams on the Volga River, and compare those with dams on another large river (e.g., the Nile, Colorado, or Missouri). What are the similarities and differences in major issues surrounding the hydropower resource?
  2. Discuss the relative strengths and weaknesses of the GAZ and AutoVAZ automakers. Are there any compelling geographic factors responsible for the success of these two enterprises in capturing the lion's share of Russia's light truck and car markets, respectively?
  3. Develop a ranking of all the Volga region's subjects of federation, based on their potential for interethnic violence. What were the main factors used in your index? Compare it to those developed by your classmates.
  4. Study existing itineraries for the Volga River cruises. What can be improved?