No. 1, 2005

Alexander Makarov


Just as Russia is unimaginable without the Volga, the lower reaches of that river are unthinkable without Astrakhan, a city of a dramatic and crowded history.

Waves of various civilizations - Huns and Sarmatians, Khazars and Pechenegians, Polovtsians and Tataro-Mongols - clashed in the Lower Volga steppes. Astrakhan witnessed boisterous assemblies of Don Cossacks led by Razin and Bolotnikov, the violent uprising of 1705-1706, resounding tocsin tolls in Pugachev's times, a red flag fluttering over the Astrakhan Kremlin in January 1918, the din of furious anti-aircraft fire during a Luftwaffe raid in August 1942, and a lot more.

The first written mention of Astrakhan dates back to the 13th century when it was referred to as Astarkhan, a Tatar village on the right bank of the Volga. Later, it became the capital of the Khanate of Astrakhan.

In 1533, Astrakhan concluded an agreement on alliance with the Russian state, but in 1554, Russia attacked the Khanate of Astrakhan in a bid for an outlet to the Caspian Sea. As early as 1556, Astrakhan became part of Russia. A small fortress at first, it gradually became an important frontier outpost protecting Russia from aggressive steppe-roaming nomad tribes and, with the passage of time, turned into a large city with broad streets, majestic cathedrals and shops run by foreign merchants - Persian, Hindu, Dutch and English.

History means not only dates, however. The history of the city reads like a novel tracing dramatic human destinies, abounding in strong characters, extraordinary events, exciting episodes and mysteries waiting to be unraveled. Suffice it to say that Astrakhan saw Tamerlane, Stepan Razin, Peter the Great and many other outstanding men.

The 1897 census set the population of the Astrakhan Gubernia at over one million, most of them engaged in farming, livestock-breeding, fishing and salt production.

Six settling tanks were set up on the city grounds for crude oil arriving from the Apsheron Peninsula by coasting vessels and then proceeding further down the Volga. The pits were used as an oil storage equipped with a single oil pumping machine and two jacks installed in a decrepit wooden den.

Astrakhan's position at the edge of the sea made it a port and a shipbuilding center, with shipyards, docks and industrial production workshops mushrooming there at the turn of the 20th century. The government shipyard which had taken just one year to build was the largest of them all in 1858. In the same year, a wooden floating dock was launched in 1859.

Astrakhan became an important base for the Nobel Brothers' Oil Production Company which built repair yards, a dock, warehouses and a wharf.

Nikolay Artemyev, one of the Artemyev brothers who had initiated tanker transportation of petroleum products, opened his shipyard on the bank of the Volga. Besides doing ship repairs, his company created a number of small steamers (the 40-hp Moryak and the 30-hp Obrazets) and several sea-going schooners. The shipyard existed until its owner's death in 1896.

In the early 20th century, Astrakhan continued to grow fast. New monumental buildings appeared on the quay and in business sections of the city, along with municipal institutions, the Mariinskaya girls' school, the city electric power station and the Alexander and Maria hospital. On July 15, 1902, the Cathedral of the Holy Prince Vladimir, built in commemoration of the 900th anniversary of Christianity in Russia, was consecrated.

In the mid-20 century, a master plan of Astrakhan's further development was adopted to give a new impetus to its improvement and reconstruction. New parks and squares were laid out, the Volga embankment was reconstructed, the foundation stone was laid for the State Television Center, the restoration of the Kremlin began, the building of bridges was stepped up, new housing developments cropped up and new asphalted roads were laid.

But for all that, Astrakhan remains, in this hectic 21st century of ours, largely an open-air museum where practically every stone breathes history.

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Oil of Russia, No. 1, 2005
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