The Soviets turned the Volga River into a machine. Then the machine broke.

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. 

man in his boat on the Volga

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.