Day or weekend trip from Moscow
Budget for train tickets there and back: $30 or less
About four hours by train from Moscow
Budget for a hostel: about $10-20
In Nizhny, I feel I’ve finally been in a real Russian city. Nizhny Novgorod is the 3rd largest city in Russia with approximately 2.9 million people, yet is 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 Repin painting of the “Barge Haulers on the Volga.” 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 give 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.
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 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 2000 trading stalls. Over a million people came 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. To the Westerner the city may look run down, and it is, but things are changing. 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 presence of the raucous giant ravens and lowly sparrows prevalent in Moscow. In the quiet early morning and long twilight, people walk along the promenade in silence listening to only the sounds of songbirds.
Nizhny may not yet present itself as a modern city, but 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. I only saw one of Lenin. Unlike modern Moscow, it does not yet have yet overcrowded streets, tough guys in black BMWs, hard currency food stores, or fast food restaurants. But you can feel it coming. Activity is increasing and there is strong momentum and local support for modern development while preserving the greatness of the past.
Nizhny is five, maybe seven, years behind Moscow in its development. An excellent meal in the best Russian restaurants can be had for under twelve dollars. There are no classy foreign restaurants―yet. There are a few pizza parlors, but thankfully no McDonald’s. All this will undoubtedly change.
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 small inside, and the droning of a small 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 thousand rubles to each of the beggars outside.
An important a trading center in the past, it is today a highly regarded technical and defense city. Its state university ranks with the best in Russia. 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 will now develop, I hope, with an enthusiasm balancing a deep respect for a colorful past with the demands of a modernizing and reforming Russia.
The preceding was contributed by Fred Andresen, a “veteran” of Russian business (since 1991). The text was written in 1995, the same year the pictures featured here were taken by Mr. Andresen. However, the wistful and nostalgic description is still largely accurate – although Nizhny Novgorod has grown economically to house a Columbia Sportswear store and two McDonald’s locations, the city retains that “trapped in time” feel, as though history were still breathing through its windows and unrenovated streets…
Mr. Andresen, with over thirty years in international business, has fifteen years experience in Russia with six years residence, and is presently co-founder and president of Prioritel, a Russian-based next-generation telecom company focused on the Russian, Central European and CIS markets.