The river Volga is of particular interest to me as my grandfather, Cazimir, settled in a little town on the river’s border. This was at the beginning of the twentieth century, and he was a young man just out of engineering college. When his parents’ country house burned down and there was no money to pay university fees, being very mathematically gifted, he went to an engineering college. His tutor recommended him to the head of the steelworks in the town situated on the Volga’s border. I think that the change that occurred in him when he saw ‘the pour’ is worth retelling here:
‘They left the building and turned into the wide entrance of the steelworks. The courtyard, littered with pieces of broken slag, bits of iron and skeins of wire, led into the hubbub of the workshop. A cacophony of noise hit them. Anton pointed to the huge, high furnace. A gaunt man, in dark glasses and protective clothing, stood several feet from the open furnace doors, stirring the red-hot liquid iron with a long rod, which was shaped like a giant ladle. “Have you noticed what the rod is made of?” shouted Anton through the noise of the huge bellows and the rhythmical beat of the hammers. Cazimir looked closer, the blackened rod was made of wood. He turned to Anton surprised. “Yes, it is wooden. A metal rod would melt in seconds!” Somewhere from behind their backs, a low train of open, metal baskets, full of ore, trundled rustily towards the side of the furnace. Each basket was raised by a special lift to the open mouth of the furnace before being emptied swiftly. Cazimir looked amazed, and Anton could not help a smile. “Wait until the pour – then you will see something to talk about.” A loud bell drowned out their voices. The founder solemnly put on a hat with a wire net, covering his face. Next, went on knee-pads, a thick hide apron and finally, long, wide gloves. Only then did he slowly drill, using an oxyacetylene flame, the opening through which the fluid mass of iron would flow. The semi-darkness around them was suddenly lit up by the flash of a thousand burning stars. From the mouth of the furnace gushed a stream of flame-coloured lava, which glided swiftly through the channels and into waiting containers. The luminous glow, the heat and the sheer brilliance of the oscillating colours took Cazimir completely by surprise. He looked on, spellbound. He felt moved beyond reason and breathlessly light of heart; so much so that when the founder removed his hat and gloves, and came to greet them, Cazimir without a word, shook his hand strongly. He was led further into the workshop. There, shimmering sheets of metal flowed, with a haunting, strange whining, from the rolling-mills onto wide benches. The sound of this alien music made Cazimir come out in goose pimples, and yet he wanted to stay right here in the middle of this workshop.” This is as beautiful as any music, I didn’t know that poetry is not only in flowers and music.” He decided that the steelworks were his future.
The Volga was then a vastly impressive river, as it is also today. It is the longest river in Europe situated in Russia but then it was partly in Poland. After the Russian Revolution, the part that was Polish became Russian and my grandfather and his family had to hastily escape to Poland on a train that was driven by armed guards, who would often stop the train and demand any valuables from the passengers if they wanted to continue the journey. In earlier years my grandfather’s life close to the Volga was wonderful, full of weekend fishing trips together with a local man called Vasyl.
Above is shown the beginning of the Volga in the Valdai Hills in Central Russia.
The length of the Volga is 3,531 km and it starts in the Valdai Hills in central Russia and flows into the Caspian Sea. The river is regarded as a symbol of Russia and is referred to as the Mother of the Nation. In 1901 Chekhov took a cruise on the Volga for his honeymoon with his wife Olga Knipper. She was the actress for whom he wrote The Cherry Orchard. At that time he was already suffering from consumption and was prescribed as a cure, kumys. It was known to all steppe nomads as fermented mare’s milk and is even mentioned in Homer’s Iliad.
Along the Volga, there are situated several great towns and cities, among them the most important city Volgograd. The great city, Volgograd, previously known as Stalingrad, was built by Tsar Peter the Great in 1706. Famous for its magnificent buildings created in marble and named a Hero City after the unsuccessful siege by Germans during the Second World War, it was a favourite place of Catherine the Great. She created the spectacular art museum, the Hermitage, full of great paintings, and other works of art.
The Hermitage was created by Catherine the Great after she bought a vast collection of paintings from the Berlin merchant Johann Emst Gotzkowsky. The anniversary of its founding is on 7th December, St. Catherine’s Day. The Winter Palace is part of the museum. The Hermitage is the second-largest art museum in the world.
The only place in Russia where pelicans, flamingos, and lotuses can be seen is the river Volga. Like most great rivers, the Volga has inspired many Russian folk songs. One of them is popular – ‘Down the River Mother Volga.’ Others include ‘Song about Volga River’, written by Leonid Kharitonov, and ‘The Song of the Volga Boatmen’ sang by the burlaks or barge-haulers.
Poets were also influenced by the beauty and magnificence of Volga. The 19th-century Russian poet Nikolai Nekrasov wrote:
“I’ve changed a lot,
but you are the same,
so light, so majestic,
as you used to be.”
The poet Edna Dean Proctor in her admiration of the Volga, wrote:
“And still we kept the Volga’s tide,
The Volga rolling grey and wild,
While the gulls of the Caspian over it flew,
A flash of silver and jet in the sun.”
The great Russian poet and translator, Constantine Balmont summed up the significance of the Volga:
“Water is a mirror of beauty, ever creating in our inexhaustible Universe, and glory to that country that has found a mighty river for its face. There is no Egypt without the Nile, there is no India without the Ganges; Russia is among the greatest and most beautiful countries because it has the Volga.”