NIZHNY NOVGOROD—The Volga River was asleep under a thick blanket of snow, the endless forest on the far side also frosted in silver. On a recent weekend, figures of fishermen, each perched by their holes in the ice, looked like black birds from the top of the river’s right bank. If you travel to Nizhny Novgorod and need a place to meet a friend, don’t think twice: meet next to the George Tower, in the ancient castle originally founded here by prince Yuri II of Vladimir in the 13th century. This year the city celebrates its 800th anniversary.
There are always people here admiring the view, watching the sun setting over the Strelka, or the arrow cape, the crossing point of two of Europe’s giant rivers, the Volga and Oka. The Yellow Cathedral of Alexander Nevsky is the landmark on the tip of the cape, along with a soccer stadium constructed specially for the World Cup’s matches in 2018. Thousands of foreign fans traveled to Nizhny Novgorod that summer from all over the world—some of the best hipster bars still have signs in Latin letters: Hophead, Rebel, Boroda, or Show Me Bar.
The wall of the fortress and its firing ports runs down a steep hill to the embankment, where couples dance tango and salsa on warm evenings. Russian poets and writers including Alexander Pushkin, Maksim Gorky, Vladimir Korolenko, Boris Sadovsky, and Ivan Rukovishnikov admired this view of the river and the Taiga forest that covers the opposite bank, all the way to the horizon. Sadly, many houses and neighborhoods are falling apart these days. Right before the New Year, the city managers found a quick solution to clean up for the 800-year anniversary: demolish the run-down districts. The news broke many hearts of historians, ethnographers, volunteers of the Tom Sawyer movement, which is struggling to preserve and restore the old buildings.
Russian volunteers restore old buildings all across the country. They call their movement Tom Sawyer Fest, after Mark Twain’s character, who turned the difficult task into a game, organized his friends to whitewash his aunt’s fence and had fun. Russian Tom Sawyer goes around the country, fixing valuable wooden houses in 26 regions, including Siberian and Ural cities. Nizhny Novgorod volunteers have fixed seven historical buildings with wooden ornaments, carved decorations.
Nizhny Novgorod’s history is Russia’s history. The Volga was Russia’s main road ever since it was the Vikings’ trade route to Central Asia. In the 16th century, the forces of Ivan the Terrible rolled their heavy cannon to Kazan to fight and free Russia from the Mongol yoke. Some of Tsar Ivan’s heavy cannon sank, together with soldiers, under thin ice just 16 kilometers from Nizhny Novgorod on an unusually warm winter day. In the next century, the city’s nobility and merchants collected money for a volunteer army and expelled Polish-Lithuanian forces from Moscow, putting an end to the Smuta, or the Time of Troubles, a Russian political crisis of an earlier era.
The Marriott hotel on the pedestrian Pokrovka avenue ($60) would be a perfect location for exploring the castle, the local Kremlin, in its current form designed by an Italian architect, Pietro Francesco, in 1500. There is a hip modern art museum, Arsenal, inside the castle. The city is planning to reconstruct the 19th century funicular by this summer—it will take passengers down the hill to another magnet in the old city, Rozhdestvenskaya Avenue.
Starting from 1816, Nizhny Novgorod was a home for Europe’s largest market of goods from China, India, and Persia: the giant Yarmarka, or fair, held on the cape, welcomed merchants, inventors, engineers from all over the world. Luckily, the elegant Yarmarka building, now a department store, and the Yarmarka cathedral by the architect Auguste de Montferrand have survived many generations of demolishing projects.
American engineers from Ford Motor Company came to the city in the 1930s and built a giant automobile factory, the Gorky Automotive Works. There was an American Village, full of foreigners, near the factory. During the war, Nazis bombed the factory for it produced too many strategic weapons and tanks. After the war the ancient city was renamed Gorky, after the writer Maksim Gorky, but the word translates as “bitter.” Soviet authorities closed the city, so no foreigners could spy on its military factories. The KGB sent the Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov on exile to Gorky—his museum is a must-see. In this era, ships on the Volga with foreign tourists passed by this city of 1.5 million only at nighttime, as if the city didn’t exist.
The first post-Perestroika governor Boris Nemtsov opened Gorky to foreign tourists and gave the city back its original name, Nizhny Novgorod. Margaret Thatcher visited the city to praise the work by the young and promising reformer governor. But corrupt officials eventually replaced Nemtsov, who became a leading opponent of Vladimir Putin. Nemtsov was assassinated outside the wall of the Kremlin in Moscow in February 2015. “You can only love the city, if you spent your childhood there, if you kissed a girl for the first time on that corner; then you would never think of demolishing that street,” Nemtsov told me in 2012.
Tourists are not attracted to newly built glassy malls or concrete blocks—they are the same all over the world. Visitors like Nizhny’s old town, where windows and doors of late 18th, early 19th century graceful palaces, display the original beauty of Russian historical architecture. From your meeting point, go across the Minin square, to the pedestrian Pokrovka Avenue towards small islands of old wooden and stone houses that remain, and are now battlefields between historic preservationists, ethnographers, and activists on one side and developers on the other. Sadly, the city administration is rapidly “cleaning up” the city center before the birthday in August.
It is hard to recognize some of the old districts: apartment blocks, giant shiny malls and office buildings have replaced some graceful old streets of original wooden architecture on Sennaya and Liadova squares. The entire 19th century New Soldiers’ Slaboda district will disappear this year.
Local historians call for the government not to destroy history, since this is where Russia’s soul lives. “Time works against us, if not for the anniversary, we would have probably managed to save more buildings from destruction,” a local defender of architecture, Anna Davydova, said in an interview. “The city decided to demolish 140 decrepit buildings. The authorities say some wooden buildings are too old, too rotten, and too expensive to be preserved.” The city defenders argue that there is nothing more valuable than original architecture. The Tom Sawyer volunteers group is finding charity funding to restore the old buildings; they just need time.
The number of young people embracing their cultural heritage is growing. Hopefully vibrant local civil society will manage to find understanding in their dialogue with authorities. Before saying goodbye to Nizhny Novgorod, return to your meeting point, where artists come to paint the most spectacular sunsets over the meeting point of two powerful rivers.
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