The Volga River runs for 2,194 miles through Russia’s heartland. Starting up in the Valdai Hills on the northwestern side of Moscow it twists and turns in a southwesterly direction to the Caspian Sea. Very much like the Mississippi River in America, it is respectfully called the “Mother Volga” because of the life it carries. When Joseph Stalin decided to develop the wild and beautiful Volga into a viable commerce route, he faced two major problems.
First, it had to be redirected. Stalin ordered a canal built to finish the job of connecting The White Sea, Lake Vyg and The Volga. Originally started under the name of the Mariinsk Waterway in the 18th century, the White Sea-Baltic canal was designed to connect this route. Built with prison labor in the early 1930s, the canal cost the lives of 200,000 expendable men.
Another problem with the river was her moods. The Volga could be a vicious mistress with raging, ice-filled floods in the spring, and she could be virtually impossible to traverse because of shallow water in the summer. In 1941, Stalin ordered the construction of eight dams along this proposed aquatic superhighway. The project would be massive, but it would provide both power and control.
After these hydroelectric power-generating dams were built it took years for the Volga and the Don rivers to finish growing into their new boundaries. When expansion finished, man had control of nature, but forests and towns lay under a cloak of dark water. Church spires stabbed through the surface from the depths below like the hand of a drowned man reaching in vain for the sweet air above. The world below the surface was plainly visible from above the water for many years, but undercurrents over time brought up silt, making that world less visible, but still ready to sink those not remembering or suspecting.
Another gift Stalin gave the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was a border-to-border and beyond network of intelligence gatherers. One of these, the KGB, eventually covered the globe with agents like a dark cloak. Like Stalin’s series of dams these spies provided their own brand of power and control. For a long time they were visible from the surface, much like the underworld of the Volga. When moving borders, changing names and turbulent political undercurrents made the waters murky the underworld of espionage became much more difficult to see. But still there, ready to sink those not remembering or suspecting.