The artificial lakes of Russia’s immense Volga River system cover the sunken ruins of hundreds of traditional villages and irreplaceable Russian architecture. But most of those who cross the waterways are unaware of what lies beneath.

They first drew the attention of Anor Tukaeva when she saw the decaying hulk of the 18th-century Church of the Nativity, once the pride of the village of Krokhino, which now lies beneath the waters of Lake Beloye.

“When I tried to find out about it, what shocked me was that there was almost no information at all about those flooded territories,” says Ms. Tukaeva. She organized an expedition to the place. “As we began to gather information about it, we realized this is a real historical vacuum.”

Now, the Krokhino Cultural Heritage Revival Center, which Ms. Tukaeva helped to found, has organized over 50 expeditions to the area in the past 10 years. It began with efforts to shore up the collapsing church, but moved on to gathering photos and artifacts saved from the flooding, and documenting the stories of people who had lived in the lost village. The center has since produced a video titled “Unflooded Stories,” with the voices of surviving inhabitants of Krokhino.

Moscow

Every summer, the immense Volga River system is heavily trafficked by steamers, tour boats, and recreation-seekers. But most who pass by the huge artificial lakes that dot the Volga and its tributaries are oblivious to what lies just a few feet below the waves.

The lakes cover the sunken ruins of hundreds of traditional villages, including scores of ancient churches, monasteries, and other irreplaceable gems of old Russian architecture.

Anor Tukaeva, a young engineer and urban studies expert at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, is bringing that drowned history back into the light in a way that is rare in Russia.

A dozen years ago, she was drawn by a view of the decaying, flooded hulk of the 18th-century Church of the Nativity, once the pride of the village of Krokhino, which now lies beneath the waters of Lake Beloye in northwestern Russia.

“When I tried to find out about it, what shocked me was that there was almost no information at all about those flooded territories,” says Ms. Tukaeva. She organized an expedition to the place, along with other interested people. “As we began to gather information about it, we realized this is a real historical vacuum. It was a trauma that affected many, many people and is not talked about at all.”

Finding the human stories

Vast Volga territories were submerged during the titanic transformation known as the “Soviet industrialization,” a forced modernization drive that began in the 1930s and, within a few decades, wrenched what had been a peasant society into the 20th century. It’s a story that Russian schoolchildren still learn in heroic, Promethean terms, a tale of overcoming backwardness and creating a modern, industrial superpower.

During those decades of industrialization, the once free-flowing Volga River was blocked by numerous hydroelectric dams, backing up waters over the low-lying farmlands that had been the cradle of modern Russia in order to create the voluminous water reservoirs and the electric power needed to fuel Soviet urbanization. The populations of those doomed territories, estimated to have been several hundred thousand people, were evacuated and scattered to the four winds, their stories seemingly lost forever.

Krokhino, an ancient town on the banks of the Sheksna River, a Volga tributary, was flooded in 1961. The Krokhino Cultural Heritage Revival Center, which Ms. Tukaeva helped to found, has organized over 50 expeditions to the area in the past 10 years. It began with efforts to shore up the collapsing church, but moved on to gathering photos and artifacts saved from the flooding, and searching for people who had lived in the lost village to recover their stories.