Volga River, a river in Russia. Its length—2,290 miles (3,685 km)—and annual flow are the greatest of all European rivers. The Volga originates in the Valday Hills northwest of Moscow and flows eastward through a forested plain to Kazan. There the river heads south and winds across grassy steppe and semidesert to its delta at the north end of the Caspian Sea. The main tributaries are the Oka and Kama rivers. Altogether the Volga system drains an area of about 533,000 square miles (1,380,000 km 2 ).
Navigable for nearly its entire length and ice-free for more than half the year, the Volga is one of Europe's busiest commercial waterways. It carries most of Russia's river freight.
Since the 192O's, several major dams and bypassing locks have been built to improve navigation and provide hydroelectric power. These include large installations near Rybinsk, Nizhniy Novgorod, Samara, Saratov, and Volgograd, all of which back up immense reservoirs. In addition, canals and neighboring rivers link the Volga to Moscow, as well as to the Black, Baltic, and White seas. This vital artery, together with the vast mineral and agricultural wealth of its basin, has aided the development of numerous large cities along its banks. They include Nizhniy Novgorod, Kazan, Samara, Saratov, Volgograd, and Astrakhan.
Despite the building of dams along its course, the Volga is still important for fishing, though to a lesser degree than formerly. To a limited extent the river is also a source of irrigation water for the arid region north of the Caspian Sea.
The Volga is of more than economic significance. To the Russians, who sometimes call it "Mother Volga," it is full of symbolic meaning and it is the subject of numerous songs and legends.
The first known settlements in-the Volga valley occurred in the 7th century when Slavic and Finnic tribes inhabited the middle basin and used the river as part of a trade route to Central Asia. In the period from the 11th to the 16th century the Russian state evolved in the region between the river's upper course and the Oka. There it was confined until the Mongols were driven from the southern steppes. When that occurred, in the 16th century, the Russians spread southward and the Volga River became a great artery between the Russian heartland and Central Asia.