​Volga, ​Volga, ​Volga: Where, Why and What for?

PHOTO by ppl1958 / Depositphotos
One of the longest rivers in the world and the longest in Europe, Volga remains one of the most important water arterias in Russia. But what do we know about it?

What’s life like in Povolzhye today, how its towns and cities have changed since Soviet times and how can the region be rejuvenated? On Oct. 3, employees of the Strelka Institute went on a field trip. Four groups, four different routes, five topics and a contemporary portrait of the Volga river and its towns as the outcome of their research.

Strelka.com talked to Institute lecturers Kuba Snopek and Nicholas Moore to find out what’s the point of this river voyage.

Tell us a bit about field trips at "Strelka".

Kuba Snopek: The Institute has quite a history of arranging trips of this kind. Field trips are short expeditions made to the places that interest us the most. They happen every year, fourth year was the only exception. I think it’s really useful to see places in smaller resolution, to be able to touch the city and take pictures, talk to the local people, meet the experts researching this area. Photo and video materials, notes, drafts, impressions – all of this needs to be collected in a really short period of time.

Why this year the choice has fallen on Volga?

Nicholas Moore: The idea came to me last year. I was a student at Strelka and our group was unable to go on a field trip because of the unstable international situation. This year it was decided that because Strelka is in Russia and Russian condition is still mostly unknown a Russia-oriented field trip would be a useful thing to do.

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And so we started thinking what is the best way to visit Volga. We searched for some material about Volga as a whole, as a key factor allowing the cities to develop. It appeared that there’s a lot of research on specific cities, but there’s no material about the role of Volga per se. So we decided to do a slightly crazy thing that is to actually study the whole Volga ourselves. Students were split into four groups each of them visiting a particular segment of the river: Kazan – Ulyanovsk, Tolyatti – Samara, Saratov – Volgograd and Astrakhan.

What was the principle for dividing into groups? Surely there were those who wanted to go to Saratov, but were sent to Kazan instead?

Nicholas Moore: Cuba, through long years of experience in Strelka, identified the solution that would make the least number of people heart-broken. We asked the students to divide into four teams each with the same number of people, same number of foreigners, same number of architects and with a balance of men and women. Our message to them was: "Make four teams that are equally strong." Once this was done, we offered them to pick the locations they will go to out of a hat. As a result, they were able to form their own working teams and then chance determined where they went.

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How did the students prepare for this trip?

Kuba Snopek: We prepared some basic information and then the students looked for more specific material and data. So, we told them the brief history of Volga and its cities, and then they were obliged to find the most up to date and exciting information about what’s going on in the area right now. Prior to the trip, we made some basic maps to show stuff like transport links and the electricity network, and then students created new maps with new layers of more specific information.

What themes the students are going to explore during the trip?

Nicholas Moore: We developed five themes so that we can see Volga as a whole. They are arranged in a particular order starting from the more general issues all the way to the more specific ones.

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Kuba Snopek: This is simply a structure, because the very goal of this project is not just to make a portrait of contemporary Volga, but also to understand where the potential for growth is. The main hypothesis of the project is that Volga has already been a catalyst for development twice. The first time was when the primordial Volga allowed the cities to become what they were. The second time was when Volga became the Soviet Volga – a modern river turned into a gigantic power station with the industry located on its shores. So the main research question is could Volga become the catalyst for development for the third time and if yes, how will it affect its cities?

Nicholas Moore: The first topic is dedicated to what we call Designed Memory. That includes monuments and parts of cities that have been preserved for particular reasons, but it also includes things like "designed forgetting," for example the erasure from history of the Volga Deutsche ethnic group. I think, in cities like Stalingrad or Volgograd we will find unique examples of this practice.

The second theme is Engineered Nature. At some point in its history the river became almost a piece of technology designed and used by humans. So, we are going to look at the regularisation of the river, the damming of the river. It’s also interesting to look at the canals that cross the landscape made in the XVIth century, and study the Soviet industrialisation of the river, and the area where the sturgeon population is being bred, which is basically a fish factory. We are also going to visit the nature reserve located in the Volga delta, the first of its kind in the Soviet Union. By the way, it’s Putin’s favourite place to fish. On the other hand, Volga is an extremely toxified river. All the industrial cities that are upstream are pouring waste into it, but at the other end there is a nature reserve. So, this is the kind of paradox that we hope to explore in this theme.

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The third theme is the Suburbanised Shore. In many cases, in spite of the fact that Volga played an essential role in the foundation of many cities, it is no longer related to the city as a space. We have villages or farmlands that have been flooded bordering with the industrial hinterland and military sites. The meeting of the urban and the river is what we are interested in. These areas might have a great potential from an architectural perspective or an urban planning perspective.

Of course we also looked at architecture which is our fourth theme. Floating hotels, fishing camps, the Stalinist heritage. We are looking for styles, themes, elements of architecture and design that can form a setup for the Volga character. As an architecture institute we’re interested in understanding the potential of this architecture. River regions and places near water in general are in fact where most of the population of the world lives. And as things like sea level changes, or water quality become a more pressing concern, there is a possibility that Volga can be a site of potential and experimentation for the design of cities not only in Russia, but also in the rest of the world.

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And the final theme, theme five, is called River Culture. It’s also dedicated to architecture but here the focus is on the local people and their culture. Fishermen, guides taking tourists around to hunt or fish, tradesmen on ferries, people stuck in traffic jams on the bridge over Volga. We want to understand how this river is uniting people’s lives and shaping their everyday routines.

You said that the outcome will be the portrait of Volga river as a whole. How exactly it is going to be presented: as a film, a magazine or maybe a website?

Kuba Snopek: We want to use various formats: video, photo, interviews – as many as possible. I think the outcome will be an online magazine.