Russia’s rivers are far from ideal. They flow away from Russia’s arable lands rather than through them. Most have relatively sharp elevation changes inhibiting navigation. Worst of all, they flow north, so during spring thaw, recently broken ice floes flow north into portions of the river that still are frozen. The results are massive ice dams that block the spring melt, creating disastrous floods of freezing water.
The one exception to this rule is the Volga, which flows south, not north. It also runs through relatively good lands before terminating at the Caspian Sea.
The most strategic location on the Volga is Nizhny Novgorod, where the Volga absorbs the waters of the Oka. The two rivers bracket the Moscow region – the Volga to the north and the Oga to the south. By global standards, it is a mediocre river. But by Russian standards, it is a superhighway for everything from iron ore to wheat and oil.
For more on the importance of rivers, and on the Volga and its impact on Russia’s future, see The Accidental Superpower, Chapters 2 and 15.