Russian history can not be thought of without its ancient towns like Nizhni Novgorod. Though not necessarily in the avant-garde of political or social events, it represents, nevertheless, a specific interest because of its provincially patriarchal1 aspect. The Time itself seems to have come to a standstill2 on the hills where the town lays.
Today we are proud of living in one of the most dynamically developing regions, especially when after the new repartition3 of Russia the city became the capital of the Volzhsky Federal District. Still many a year had to pass by before we reached a certain effervescence4: the city has known a history embracing5 almost one millennium.
Nizhni Novgorod was founded by the Great Duke Yuri Vsevolodovitch (1212-1238), son to Vsevolod the Great Nest (1176-1212), in 1221, as an outpost to defend the Russian frontiers against the Mordvinians, Cheremisses and Tatars, on the junction6 of two important water arteries: the Oka and the Volga. The city has quickly manifested itself as one of the political, economic, and religious centres of the country.
The region experiences a considerable7 development at the time of the Great Princedom of Nizhni Novgorod and Suzdal (with Nizhni Novgorod as its capital). It becomes Moscow’s political adversary and asylum8 to its implacable enemies. The political conjuncture, however, did not favour further development. Internal wars between Russians, as well as Mongols’ raids, result in a complete loss of its independence by 1392 and in its annexation by the Princedom of Moscow.
To protect against nomads, the Nizhni Novgorod Kremlin is founded in 1509, when Ivan III and his son Vassily III create the national defense system. It remained invincible9 during the entire period of its existence.
At the beginning of the 17th century, when the country was suffering from a dynastic crisis, Nizhni Novgorod plays an outstanding role in the entire Russian history. On the very square, which now bears his name, the citizen Minin, in 1611, makes his famous appeal to compatriots to organize the popular militia to free Moscow.
Under Peter the Great the city is politically excluded from the tempestuous10 events of its time. We’ll have to wait until the beginning of the 19th century, when the Makarievskaya Fair is transferred here. The Fair becomes immediately a “price legislator” on the internal market for the year following the Fair (normally, in autumn, after harvest time). For that reason, Nizhni Novgorod has been named “the Russian Pocket”.
In the thirties of the 20th century the city was given a new name of Gorky, in honour of the proletarian writer Maxim Gorky (Peshkov). Names usually define the existence of things, and this case was no exception. The city, named literally “Bitter” has really had a sadly bitter history. It has been declared “closed”, that is, access to it was restricted or prohibited not only to foreigners, but to Soviet citizens. After the boom period it enters a slow dilapidation11 process.
Still, despite this geo-social ostracism12, the industry is bubbling13 with life. An automobile factory is open on the 1st of January, 1932. The routes are still flooded with the famous GAZ-51, GAZ-63, GAZ-66, “Pobedas” and “Volgas” from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok even today. The Sormovo factory, founded in 1849 as a dockyard14, is expanding its production. In the fifties, a group of constructors under the management of Alekseev creates a new type of maritime and river ships, called “Raketa” and “Meteor”.
The city’s original name has been restored after the putsch (coup15) in 1991. Today Nizhegorodians revive together with the city after a considerable stagnation. The city welcomes more and more foreign tourists; Nizhni Novgorod Fair, after several decades of closure, organizes forums and seminars, among the most significant is Great Rivers, and plenty of automobile seminars.
Seen from above, the city represents an almost perfect symmetry as to its urban16 development: city parts are spread almost equally on each of the two borders of the Oka. The Volzhsky Slant (Volzhski Otkos), with the Kremlin dominating it, might be regarded as the architectural centre. The most important streets are laid in a radial way: Minin, Bolshaya Pokrovskaya, Varvarskaya and Alekseevskaya Streets seem to be bouncing17 off the Kremlin walls like sunrays.
Nizhni Novgorod, formerly very rich in small wooden churches, is quite poor in religious architecture today. Still it remains attracting and charming. To see the city unvarnished18, go and see the small wooden houses that are not very meticulously19 cared of, along the Bolshaya Petcherskaya and Belinski streets. If you want to feel the spirit of a provincial postmodernism, appreciate the constructions scattered20 sporadically21 all over the city. These are mostly functional buildings erected in recent years and provoking a certain aesthetic controversy.
Bolshaya Pokrovskaya (in its part connecting Gorky and Minin squares) and Rozhdestvenskaya Streets, with their purely Russian-style architecture, will reveal the city the way it was in the 19th century. Although there is an abundance22 of evidently eclectic23 buildings (State Bank, 1913), you will feel the spirit of a very pretentious city.
One of the most challenging views opens from the Feodorovsky Quay. It is a magic and imperial confluence24, with water as far as the eye can see, dominated by the Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and the Fair, it is the Kanavinsky Bridge with cars rushing across it night and day, it is the Stroganoff Church on the hillside, recent sky-scrapers in the distance, and, of course, the majestic sun setting down.
The Avtozavod, a district specially projected so that the GAZ employees could work, live and rest in the same place, is a very strictly and logically projected part, very progressive for its epoque.
To plunge into cultural life, visit the Kremlin Museum of Fine Arts. It is a permanent exposition of Russian and Western painters, as well as a rich collection of regional craft arts from Khokhloma, Gorodets and Polkhov-Maydan. More than that, the Museum regularly houses temporary expositions.
Most of the tourists head towards a small construction in the Ilyinka Street. Named Kashirin House, it is famous due to Maxim Gorky, who spent his childhood there. Among the most recent museums it is necessary to name Sakharov’s apartment, where he lived during his exile in the eighties of the 20th century.
And now the city is preparing to celebrate a very important event: its 785th Anniversary in 2006.