You can find Dubna, a small town three hours away from Moscow by train, both on a map and in the periodic table: dubnium, element number 105, was discovered at a research center there, and named after the town. A hasteless town, Dubna is defined as much by the surrounding forests as by the water: it sits on the banks of the Ivankovskoe Reservoir, the first part of a massive hydropower project called “Big Volga” whose construction spanned decades during the Soviet era. The complex, consisting of 11 dams on the Volga and its largest tributary, the Kama, is responsible for about 5% of the total electricity production in Russia. The Ivankovskoe Reservoir is both the oldest part of the complex and the farthest upstream, situated almost at the Volga’s headwaters. 

About 2,300 miles long, the Volga—sometimes referred to as “Volga-matushka,” or “Mother Volga”—is the longest river in Europe and the biggest by water flow, arcing from northwest of Moscow around and down to the Caspian Sea. Some 60 million people—about 40% of Russia’s population—live in its basin, which spans almost a tenth of the country’s vast territory. Moscow, with its 12 million people, gets most of its drinking water from the Volga via the Moscow Canal. About 1,500 miles downstream, the strategic port city of Volgograd, formerly known as Stalingrad, was the site of World War II’s most decisive, and arguably bloodiest, battle. As an artery of commerce, a source of energy and drinking water, and a conveyor of history, the Volga touches nearly every aspect of life in Russia. It is what the Mississippi is to the United States or the Rhein to Germany.

When the station in Dubna was designed, in the early 1930s, the young Soviet state had just decided to catch up with the capitalist states of the West by rapidly accelerating its industrial development—but in order to do so, it needed to generate energy on a massive scale. By the time the last station was built, in the 1980s, the Soviet Union, having just hosted the Olympics for the first time, was about to launch perestroika, a program of large-scale democratic reforms intended to end an era of stagnation and revitalize the flailing state. The history of the Big Volga project is, in a sense, the history of Soviet industrialization. It is also a history of rivalry with the US, which for decades raced the Soviets to build bigger, more impressive dams.

The project was one of the largest nature-transforming schemes in history: put together, the artificial reservoirs on the Volga are about as big as Lake Erie. It tried to harness the river to provide the Russian people with necessary things: energy, transportation, and water. But it tried to do too much.

The river has become polluted, silted up, and overwhelmed by invasive species. Water flows at a tenth of the speed it did before the dams were constructed, according to estimates by researchers at the Institute of Ecology of the Volga River Basin, in the central Russian port city of Togliatti. Widespread toxic algal blooms are now common. 

As global temperatures rise, the Volga basin is getting less and less rainfall in the spring and summer, and more snow in the winter. Igor Mokhov, chief scientist at the Obukhov Institute of Atmospheric Physics of the Russian Academy of Sciences, points out that the intensity of spring and summer precipitation is expected to increase, making post-high-water planning more difficult. A team of Russian hydrologists, writing in an August 2021 paper in Ecohydrology & Hydrobiology, argued that because of climate change, “there will be more water in those regions [of Russia] where it is sufficient, and less where it is most needed.” The Volga basin is one of the regions most at risk, they wrote.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Russia’s mother river is broken.

I visited Dubna on a windy November morning. Runners in colorful clothing zipped by people walking their dogs along an unkempt reservoir front. I found myself in a grayscale photo of milky clouds and water like quicksilver, interrupted by the odd patch of evergreen and autumn brown. The opposite side of the reservoir was an impenetrable wall of coniferous trees, shrouded in a light mist.

I was trying, in vain, to orient myself to figure out how exactly one of the better-known stories about this reservoir must have unfolded. The story goes that in late November 1941, German forces were closing in on Moscow and had planned to cross the frozen body of water. The hydropower station workers reportedly decided to drain the reservoir, dropping water levels abruptly by two meters, crushing the ice and buying the city some time by stopping the invaders in their tracks. Eighty years later, though it was the same time of year, there was no ice in sight.

The hydropower station itself is a restricted site, encircled with an abundance of barbed wire, warning signs, and towering cranes so

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By: Olga Dobrovidova
Title: The Soviets turned the Volga River into a machine. Then the machine broke.
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Published Date: Wed, 15 Dec 2021 12:00:00 +0000

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