Only a short distance from the major industrial and commercial cities of Togliatti and Samara is the Zhigulevskii nature reserve1. It contains some of the most beautiful scenery2 in central Russia. There are mountains covered in forest and full of wildlife, rocky steppes with unique plant life, and spectacular views overlooking the broad river Volga as it makes a detour around the Samarskaya Luka peninsula on its way south to the Caspian Sea. Some writers have even compared the Zhiguli mountains to the much higher mountains of the Crimea and the Caucasus.
The Zhiguli mountains have a fascinating history, the traces of which are still visible in the nature reserve and surrounding area. The river Volga has long been a very important trade route, linking Asia and Europe. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, before the Russian tsars had established full control over the region, bands of cossack-pirates lived in the mountains. From vantage3 points high above the Volga, they looked out for ships on the river below and then seized4 the ships and their valuable cargoes5. The caves6 provided hideouts7 from the troops the tsars sent against them. Stepan Razin, the Cossack who led a great revolt8 against the Moscow government in 1670-1, also had a base in the Zhiguli mountains. A generation later, Peter the Great sailed past the mountains on two of his military campaigns: in 1695 on his way to Azov, and in 1722 en route9 to Persia. His associate Alexander Menshikov was so impressed that he acquired land on the Samarskaya Luka. As the Russian economy developed, the river Volga became even more important as a trade route. The ships travelling upstream were pulled, against the current, by gangs of people. Their back-breaking10 work was immortalized by the artist Ilya Repin in his famous painting ‘Barge-haulers11 on the Volga’. Repin painted the picture in the summer of 1870, while living in the village of Shiryaevo on the Samarskaya Luka. The house he lived in is now the ‘House-Museum of I. E. Repin’.
David Moon teaches history at the University of Durham in England. From 1999 to 2005, he taught at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow (Scotland).
As well as beautiful scenery and a fascinating history, the area is very important from a scientific perspective. The highest point of the Zhiguli mountains is only 375 meters above sea level, but they are proper mountains, just like those in the Caucasus and Crimea. The mountains were lifted up by tectonic activity around seven million years ago. In a later period of the Earth’s history, the glaciers which covered the northern half of Russia during the ice ages did not reach as far south as the Zhiguli mountains. This is very important as it allowed older flora and fauna, that died out to the north under the glaciers, to survive in the Zhiguli mountains. Thus, some of the plants and animals in the area are very rare. Fifteen species of plants and ten of birds, for example, are so rare that they are included in the Russian ‘Red Book of Nature’. The terrain, which combines mountains, forest and steppe, moreover, allows plants that are normally found in very different parts of Russia to live together in a small area. High in the mountains are found pine trees similar to those of the great coniferous12 forests of northern Russia and Siberia. Only a short distance away, on sunny, south-facing slopes of the mountains, grasses that grow on the steppes of southern Russia, such as feather grass (‘kovyl’), are to be found. The Zhiguli mountains also play host to a wide range of animals and birds. A lucky visitor, especially early in the morning, may catch a glimpse13 of an elk14, wild boars15, badgers and lynx. There are many species of rodents16, and one of the largest populations of bats in Russia lives in the caves in the winter. Birds, snakes, insects and spiders also live in the region and contribute to the rich and important wildlife of the nature reserve.
For much of the time since 1927, part of the Zhiguli area has been specially protected by law in a nature reserve. All economic activity is banned from the territory of the reserve to keep human impact17 on the environment to a minimum. The scientists based in the reserve carry out serious research into the area’s important vegetation, wildlife, soil, geology and ecology. Scientific research in such nature reserves is particularly important in the present day because of the growing ecological problems, for example global warming, that are affecting the world. Nevertheless, the area of the park has been affected by human activity since 1927. During the Second World War, when the Soviet Union’s oil fields18 in the Caucasus were threatened by the German invasion19, oil reserves under the Zhiguli mountains were exploited, and roads and pipeline built across the reserve. Oil is still extracted from the area today, but the oil company works closely with the nature reserve. There are other valuable resources in the area of the reserve, for example: trees in the forests and limestone20. These resources were heavily exploited in the period between 1951 and 1966 when, but for one year, the nature reserve was abolished21 by the Soviet government. Limestone continues to be quarried22 just beyond the nature reserve’s boundary, and a huge scar defaces the side of the hill near the village of Shiryaevo. An enormous change occurred in the 1950s with the construction of the Kuibyshev dam23 across the river Volga, between the towns of Togliatti and Zhigulevsk, and a hydro-electric power station. Upstream from the dam, the level of the river was raised by an average of 18 meters, the old banks were drowned, and the historic town of Stavropol’ disappeared beneath the water. The population of Stavropol’ was relocated in a new town, which was renamed Togliatti in the 1960s. The birds and animals that had lived along the old banks of the Volga also had to find new habitats or disappear. The scientists working in the nature reserve have noted significant changes in the wildlife of the area since the dam was built.
Another way in which humans have an impact on nature is tourism, which has developed in recent decades as more and more people from the nearby cities and further afield24 visit the region. As a result of the larger number of visitors, there are more cars, boats, litter25, and pollution. To cater26 for the tourists, and to protect the important scientific sites in the nature reserve, the Samara Luka National Park has been established.
The important task facing scientists, business people and industrialists, local and national politicians, as well as the population at large, is to find ways to live and work, while protecting the natural environment and allowing such special places as the Zhiguli nature reserve and the Samarskaya Luka peninsula to survive for future generations of scientists and visitors.
The author of this article, Dr David Moon, is a specialist on environmental history. He works at the University of Durham in the northeast of England. In August 2005, while on a research visit to Samara, he had the opportunity to visit the Zhiguli nature reserve. He would like to thank the Director of the reserve, Yurii Petrovich Krasnobaev, and his family and colleagues for their hospitality.
1 nature reserve – заповедник 2 scenery – пейзаж; ландшафт 3 vantage – выигрышный 4 seize – захватывать 5 cargo – груз 6 cave – пещера 7 hideout – убежище 8 revolt – бунт, восстание 9 en route – (фр.) по пути 10 back-breaking – непосильный 11 barge-hauler – бурлак 12 coniferous – хвойный 13 catch a glimpse – увидеть мельком 14 elk – лось 15 wild boar – кабан 16 rodent – грызун 17 impact – воздействие 18 oil field – нефтяное месторождение 19 invasion – вторжение 20 limestone – известняк 21 abolish – упразднять 22 quarry –(зд.) добывать 23 dam – плотина 24 afield – (зд.) из более дальних мест 25 litter – мусор 26 cater – обслуживать