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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

In Russian folklore, the Volga River is mother and mistress, comrade and beloved companion and teller of tall tales. It stretches 2,300 miles. That makes it the longest river in Europe, equal to the mighty Mississippi. The Volga rises out of swamps northwest of Moscow in the Valdai Hills and flows south to the Caspian Sea. According to a Russian proverb, to know Russia is to know the Volga. So over the next few days, NPR's Anne Garrels will introduce us to the Volga, traveling Russia's principal waterway through the nation's heartland. Today, she begins her story in Moscow.

(Soundbite of music)

ANNE GARRELS: Passengers for a nine-day Volga cruise are greeted with sweet champagne. They're all Russians, the country's new middle class with enough money to plunk down the $1,500 tab. Almost all have now traveled overseas, but bored with foreign beaches now within easy access, they want to explore their country's history. This could be just a gilded tour of gilded domes but bartender Sergei Arlof(ph), who's plied this river more times than he can count, says it also raises uncomfortable questions.

Mr. SERGEI ARLOF (Bartender): (Foreign language spoken)

GARRELS: He says openly what many passengers will only whisper out of the way of a microphone, that the government and the people live in totally different worlds.

(Soundbite of horn blowing)

HAMILTON: The ship sets off from Moscow, one of the world's most expensive cities, full of five-star hotels and gleaming new buildings. But the capital's port, the window to the rest of the country, is a shadow of what it once was. The main grandiose building covered with ceramic scenes glorifying Soviet achievements is closed.

Looking at the river's slow, smooth-flowing water, it's hard to fathom what a huge burden it carries. The Volga basin makes up 8 percent of the vast Russian territory. But as it carves its way through European Russia, it supports more than 25 percent of the country's agriculture and industry and 40 percent of the entire population. And it's now much more than just a river.

Professor Rostislav Frolov at the Academy of River Transportation calls it a complex web of lakes, smaller rivers, vast reservoirs and manmade canals, a system that now stretches from the far north to the country's southern reaches.

Professor ROSTISLAV FROLOV (Academy of River Transportation): (Through Translator) Thanks to canals, the Volga is now the main link in a huge system that has allowed Russia to be connected to the White Sea far to the north, the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea, the Sea of Azov and the Caspian.

GARRELS: Moscow is not, in fact, on the river. When Russia was still but a collection of principalities, it had been founded on a much smaller river. Its isolation then had been its strength, but the world changed.

In the 1930s, Josef Stalin harnessed nature with prison labor, constructing a canal to link Moscow to the Volga 80 miles north. Unknown thousands died in the process.

(Soundbite of music)

GARRELS: Music accompanies the cruise ship as it pulls out into the canal. But one passenger cringes, saying we're floating on bones.

Yet without this canal and the Volga, river expert Vladimir Debolsky says the expanding Russian capital could not have prospered.

Mr. VLADIMIR DEBOLSKY (Institute of Water Problems): (Through Translator) The Moscow River, which often dried up, could not supply the capital's growing needs. Now, 90 percent of the water for this city of 10 million comes from the Volga. Yes, many died building this canal. I have no love for Stalin. But there was no other way to do it, given the conditions of the time.

GARRELS: Stalin also tamed this river to provide hydroelectric power. He pulled the river into a noose and put it to work with a series of lochs and reservoirs - all that is still in place. But as the cruise ship moves to the wide canal into the Volga, it seems like it owns the river.

Passenger and cargo transport is way down - one-sixth of what it was just 20 years ago. In the chaos of the '90s, ships were broken up for metal and quick cash, replacing what was so easily destroyed is difficult and expensive. And Russia is still wrestling with how to open the river to international traffic, though this would be a welcome source of income.

Gennady Rozenberg at the Academy of Sciences says the political and economic crises have brought some good news, at least for now.

Mr. GENNADY ROZENBERG (Biologist, Academy of Sciences): (Through Translator) There's much less industry now, and pollution is therefore less. However, this improvement has nothing to do with environmental measures. Now that the government says it is going to double the GDP, we can expect a lot of new serious problems.

GARRELS: His colleague at the academy, Vladimir Debolsky, worries the river is not getting the care and attention it needs.

Mr. DEBOLSKY: (Through Translator) I am old. After me, there is only one person left in my department. There are no young people following on. And we need time to train them.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

GARRELS: In the 16th century, the czarist forces moved south, conquering the long reach of the Volga and the basis of what we know is Russia. Siberia's remote rivers are longer, but 11 of Russia's 20 largest cities had their beginnings along these shores as Volga fortresses.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

GARRELS: The number of songs that evoke the river in Russia's history are endless, and the words are known by everyone on board.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

GARRELS: This river witnessed peasant rebellions and Cossack uprisings. The bloody civil war following the 1917 Revolution was decided on the Volga. One million Soviet citizens died defending the river during World War II.

It's a patchwork of ethnic groups, which were once subjugated but which are now rediscovering their roots, most noticeably in the Volga city of Kazan, where new minarets and gilt Orthodox copulas compete for prominence on the city's skyline. Half the million residents of this oil-rich city are Tatar Muslims.

So far, it's been an example of peaceful co-existence. But mufti Valiulla Yakukov worries the extremism and violence that's torn apart Russia's other Muslim regions could erupt here.

Mr. VALIULLA YAKUKOV (Mufti): (Foreign language spoken)

GARRELS: He fears an influx of conservative ideas from abroad is beginning to undermine local traditions of tolerance and could threaten the stability of the region. He's not an optimist.

The soothing sound of the river is deceptive. This is a voyage into Russia's past, present and future, where historians fight over the country's legacy, environmentalists struggle to get people's attention, politicians vie for power and ordinary Russians ask the eternal Russian question: Where are we going?

Anne Garrels, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

SIEGEL: This is NPR News.

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