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Ebb and Flow on the Volga

Times Staff Writer

As she rode a ferry past golden birch forests to her dacha, Galina Kudryavtseva looked at the waters of the mighty Volga River with the love of a child for her mother.

“Life without the Volga is unimaginable,” said the retired engineer, 69. “The Volga provides everything -- work, pleasure, it feeds people, and it’s incredibly beautiful.”

The 2,300-mile Mother Volga, a river of history, folklore, song and art, is far more than Europe’s longest waterway. Like the Mississippi in America, it defines Russia’s spiritual heartland. Talking with the people who live on its banks gives a sense of the hopes, dreams and disappointments of Russia today.

Flaunting feminine curves, the Volga meanders through the country. Rising northwest of Moscow, it grows stronger and wider after looping past Nizhny Novgorod, known as Gorky in Soviet times -- the city where human rights campaigner Andrei Sakharov was exiled in the 1980s. It flows east to Kazan, conquered by Ivan the Terrible in 1552, and on south to Volgograd, which, then called Stalingrad, was the site of one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. Finally, it spills into the salty waters of the landlocked Caspian Sea.

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To journey along the Volga, cutting through autumn morning mists or floating at night under star-spangled skies, is to taste a broad slice of life in post-Soviet Russia. The villages and holiday dacha settlements that hug the river reflect the divisions that have emerged here: Scattered amid the rundown houses of poor farmers and the modest weekend cottages of factory and office workers are the luxury getaways of those few who have made it big in the new world of “Wild East” capitalism.

Left behind in the ruins of communism, most older Russians despair at the loss of the security they once knew. Those under 35, convinced their lives can be richer than those of their parents, square their shoulders and fend for themselves.

The generation gap is as broad and deep as the Volga itself.

“Now, of course, the young people who work hard earn good money,” said Valery Miller, 53, the engine mechanic on a ferry based in Kazan. “But the old people worked hard their whole lives, and they get a pittance. Here, old people are abandoned by their government. I’ve been abroad, and I’ve seen how old grannies bent over with age still have a chance to travel, to visit other countries. A Russian granny has none of these opportunities.”

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As the Volga undulates its way past cities, it seems to follow the course of this post-Soviet divide. The hardscrabble outskirts show a mix of run-down apartment blocks and a modest number of shiny new high-rise buildings, with a few very old wooden homes that speak of a simple and disappearing beauty. In the more vibrant city centers, construction cranes loom as spiny symbols of progress, and solid stone or brick structures are being renovated to serve as fancy residences and offices.

“There’re lots of computers everywhere,” Ravil Badratginov, 13, said when asked how he thought his Kazan region differed from the times before he was born. “There are new factories. Old buildings are being torn down or remodeled. We have lots of computer classes in school.”

“Young people have hope for the future and believe it lies in their own hands,” added Alsu Nasybulina, 25, a woman who was helping chaperon Ravil’s class on a field trip.

Miller, the ferry mechanic, considers himself a lucky man to be working on the river. “When you sit indoors, you don’t see anything,” he said. “Here you see all the variety of the world, and you commune with nature. It’s almost like combining work and rest.”

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The Volga today is no longer the free-flowing river captured by Ilya Repin in his famous “Volga Boatmen” -- which depicts bedraggled human beasts of burden harnessed to long ropes, trudging wearily along the bank as they pull a barge upstream. Dams built decades ago have tamed the once-wild waters, turning long stretches into placid lakes, like beads strung on a necklace.

“The river used to be much narrower, and all along the banks were lush meadows,” recalled Vadim Demyanov, 57, head of a ferry docking station near Kazan. “After the hydropower station was built, it became much wider. I was small then, but it was prettier.”

The story of Stenka Razin, a 17th century river pirate turned Robin Hood who led a peasant rebellion, is known to nearly everyone here in the Volga region. Though the revolt failed, the rebel leader and the ideal of economic equality he fought for against the corrupt and repressive czarist state still resonate among people here.

A beloved folk song tells of how Razin threw his new bride into the Volga to prove to his skeptical men that their cause would always come first. As far as the song and most of its listeners are concerned, that gruesome deed simply made him more heroic.

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“He gave up love in order to stick to the right course,” Valentina Moiseyeva, 55, a high school math teacher from Nizhny Uslon, near Kazan, said after explaining the song’s story line.

Barges carrying gravel, sand or coal; fishing boats; ferries; hydrofoils; tour boats and sailboats now ply the more placid Volga. A high-speed hydrofoil connects Kazan and Bolgar, a downstream town of 9,000 where decay and stagnation still dominate, as in many smaller towns and villages of the region.

“It’s very difficult to get a job here,” said Valentina Zavarikhina, 67, a part-time janitor at Bolgar’s intercity bus station. “There used to be factories, but all of them were closed down and people are unemployed.”

Younger Russians are struggling too. Andrei Mamonov, 28, who lives in a village near Bolgar, would love to move to a city, but with a wife and a young son, he isn’t confident that he could earn enough to pay the rent.

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Mamonov owns his home in the village and makes ends meet by holding down three jobs. He earns $63 a month working in the school’s heating plant. He also moonlights as a taxi driver using his own car, and he grows vegetables and raises rabbits. “Everybody here keeps livestock,” he said. “You need it to live, to have meat. And if you have something extra you can sell it.”

But, he said, life in his village, right on the Volga, also has its rewards. Children especially love to swim in the great river, and adults may venture into the forest to pick mushrooms.

Between Bolgar and Ulyanovsk, where Vladimir I. Lenin was born, the river broadens into one of its periodic elongated lakes, reaching a width of about 15 miles before narrowing again.

Natalia Drozdova, 57, director of Lenin’s birthplace museum, said that most people she knew lived more poorly than in Soviet times and had lost confidence in the future.

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“For me it was a tremendous shock when at the age of 50 I first saw homeless children and street urchins living outside,” she said. “Before we never knew what drug addiction was. Everyone could get a free education, and so on. Very often you hear the same kinds of things I’m saying from people who come to visit this museum. Perhaps reforms were necessary, but not in the way they took place.”

A few hundred yards from the museum, a bride and groom had come to a scenic embankment overlooking the Volga to pose for wedding photos. The young friends accompanying them had an upbeat view of the changes.

Alexei Kim, 25, manager of an auto repair shop, even had kind words to say about Russia’s widely unpopular “oligarchs,” who in the 1990s gained control of state assets that were privatized and are now fabulously wealthy.

“Those people who envy them say bad things about them, but those willing to work hard don’t have anything against them,” he said.

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The groom, Sergei Grishin, 21, said he was looking forward to a good life. “The new part of our city is very young and flourishing, and young people want to have children, and want their children to have children,” he said. “So we’re optimistic about the way things are going.”

Perhaps no place better reveals both the decaying ruins of Soviet collapse and the breath of new hope than the Volgograd Shipbuilding and Ship Repair Plant, directly across the river from the former Stalingrad.

At first glance, broken windows and rusting pipes of unused workshops speak of industrial disaster. An old wooden plank bearing the painted visages of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin has been used to board up one shattered window. Weeds and wild saplings are taking over the 50-acre grounds.

But the shipyard, working at about half its old capacity, has turned the corner, its new owners say. With about 350 permanent and 400 seasonal workers, it is helping build a new Russia, turning out tourist boats. And there are plans for a yacht club on its valuable waterfront.

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“If you come back in 10 years, you won’t be able to recognize this plant. I can say this with complete confidence. The land alone is worth its weight in gold,” said Deputy General Director Alexander Alifanov, 55, who has worked at the once state-owned shipyard for 25 years and is now one of its owners.

On the river’s western bank, where the Red Army stopped the Nazi onslaught in the Battle of Stalingrad, Yulya Yermolina, 13, roller-bladed with two friends near the ruins of an old brick building left standing as a war memorial. At least 600,000 soldiers on each side died in the six months of fighting during the autumn and winter of 1942-43.

The teenagers had no doubt that the sacrifices made in the war were worth it. “As a result, this city survived,” Yulya said. “It’s become beautiful and famous.” The girls expressed certainty that thanks to their city’s growth and new technology such as cellphones and DVDs, their lives will be more comfortable, interesting and happy than those of their parents.

The epic battle on the Volga is memorialized with a 279-foot steel-reinforced concrete statue of Mother Russia -- a woman raising a sword and calling out for the defense of the homeland.

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“It’s a sacred place,” Valentina Minakova, 68, said as she rode a ferry on the Volga, the statue visible from the boat.

“We watched Stalingrad burn,” she said. “Now we see the city in its new face. The new mayor is young and very good. In just two years he’s cleaned up the city a bit. He’s planted flowers. The city was neglected for so long that it’s impossible to fix it up overnight.”

Minakova said she had been to Moscow but preferred her hometown and its beautiful river. “As soon as I’m away from it, I feel something missing,” she said. “This is home.”

Holley, a Times staff writer in the Moscow Bureau, was recently on assignment along the Volga River.

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