In Nizhny Novgorod, I felt I'd finally been in a real Russian city. Nizhny is the third largest city in Russia, yet far from being anything like Moscow or St. Petersburg. Four hours drive northeast of Moscow, it is a picturesque city hanging on the green rolling hills above the southwestern banks of the Volga, at the confluence with the Oka River.
The long views toward the north, east and west are of the flat green hills of Central Russia. Riverboats inch up and down the great Volga reminding one of the Ilya Repin painting of the Barge Haulers. In this season of long days, the setting sun lingers for an hour across the western horizon; a brilliant rose and pink sky mirroring on the placid river surface.
The gentle hills on which the city is built gives Nizhny a charming aspect, which is missing from the flatness of so many other Russian cities. The 15th century walls of the Nizhny Kremlin are thirty feet high and twelve feet thick. It sits high on the bank, formidably looking down from the top of a long steep slope. Its turrets command a protective view in all directions for miles around.
Nizhny is a river port with a colorful history going back to the early 13th century. The merchant mansions on the river embankment high above the Volga evidence the wealth and dominance of the Nizhny merchants and nobility which lasted right up until the Revolution. Across the river is the Fair.
In 1896, the All Russia Trade, Merchant and Artist’s Fair was held in the most fantastic of exposition settings, with over 2,000 trading stalls. Over a million people came to this Volga River Port from all over Europe and Asia to buy, sell and trade. Because of its water access from the Black Sea and the Mediterranean to the south and from St. Petersburg and the Baltic and Northern Europe to the north and west, it is easy to see why Nizhny Novgorod, before the railroads, was once the trading capital of Central Russia.
The quiet tree-shaded streets of the city are lined with rows of old wooden Russian houses dating back to the 18th century and perhaps beyond.Their ornate carved doors, windows, and roofs have withstood the eroding winds of hundreds of Russian winters. Although decrepit looking and without repair for years, a glance inside a window at night reveals warm and charming homes, brightened with the memorabilia of the family and the past. Nizhny Novgorod was never bombarded by the Nazis or Napoleon like Moscow, so much of its truly Russian history has survived and it is a charming sight for Western eyes.
There are real birds in Nizhny, not the tiresome and raucous giant ravens and lowly sparrows of Moscow. In the quiet early morning and long twilight, people walk along the promenade in silence listening to only the sounds of songbirds.
Nizhny is striving to present itself as a modern city, for it suffers from none of the heavy Communist era architecture of Moscow. Neither are there the transplanted European styles of St. Petersburg. The major statues are of poets and aviators. Unlike modern Moscow, it does not yet have yet overcrowded streets, tough guys in black BMWs, or fast food restaurants. But you can feel it coming. (It does have a McDonalds today.) There is strong momentum and local support for modern development while preserving the greatness of the past.
In the old merchant city along the waterfront along Rozhdestvenskaya Street, there is a church, in high Russian baroque style. Its five golden domes, the center one studded with "jewels," and its three heavy gold crosses looked as if they were divinely ablaze in the golden setting sun. I walked in the open door and found myself part of a Russian Orthodox service. It was crowded inside, and the beautiful droning of a choir made it feel the more confining. The priest came out through the iconostasis with his swinging incense censor and blessed my friend and me as he passed. I felt deeply privileged and gave a handful of rubles to each of the beggars outside.
As ancient and important a trading center as Nizhny was in the past, it is today a highly regarded technical and defense city. Its university ranks with the best in Russia. It was a closed city in Soviet times and called Gorky. For six years it was the exiled home of the great Russian physicist and champion for peace Andrei Sakharov. I visited his apartment, now sort of a shrine. This apartment is also the place where the famous Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenburg was reportedly last seen alive. His disappearance remains an unsolved mystery after his arrest in 1945 by the Soviets in Budapest. He saved the lives of 100,000 Hungarian Jews from the German ovens.
Nizhny Novgorod is today developing with an enthusiasm balancing a deep respect for a colorful past with the demands of a modernizing and reforming Russia.
The column is about the ideas and stories generated from the 20 years the author spent living and doing business in Russia. Often about conflict and resolution, these tales at times reveal the “third side of the Russian coin.” Based on direct involvement and from observations at a safe distance, the author relates his experiences with respect, satire and humor.
Frederick Andresen is an international businessman and writer with a lifetime of intercultural experience in Asia and for the last twenty years in Russia. He now lives in California and is President of the Los Angeles/St. Petersburg Sister City. While still involved in Russian business, he also devotes time to the arts and his writing, being author of “Walking on Ice, An American Businessman in Russia” and historical novellas.