Bolshaya Pokrovskaya Ulitsa

Nizhny Novgorod’s pedestrian main street, Bolshaya Pokrovskaya or Pokrovka, is the liveliest street in town, connecting the two main squares: Ploshchad Minina i Pozharskogo and Ploshchad Gorkogo. Pokrovka is always crowded. Tourists milling about in the gift shops, checking out Semyonovo stacking dolls and Gorodets gingerbreads... Students sitting in the cafés, skipping classes… Theatre lovers scurrying along, anxious not to miss a premiere… If you wish to feel the quiet charm of the old town, take a side street or dive into one of the Pokrovka backyards. 

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Across from the park in the middle of Ploshchad Minina i Pozharskogo, where Bolshaya Pokrovskaya Ulitsa begins, there stands a bronze statue of a 19th-century policeman, wearing a big moustache and the appropriate uniform. This is not the only bronze inhabitant of Pokrovka from the past. Further on down the street you will encounter a shoe-shiner, a photographer with a dog, two lovers, a postman, a butler, and a little violinist. His bow gets stolen on a regular basis. If the scuff marks from hugging are any indication, the statue of the actor Evgeny Yevstigneyev enjoys particular popularity with tourists. Yevstigneyev was an alumnus of the local theatre arts school. His statue looks like he has just sat down on the edge of a bench by the drama theatre, and is about to make himself comfortable. The second runner-up is the statue of the merry nanny goat, so named after the eponymous theatre variety review festival. 

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House No. 1, facing Ploshchad Minina, was built in the early 1900s with the money donated by local merchant Nikolai Bugrov. The sponsor then gave this luxury mansion to the City Duma on the proviso that there will be no drinking establishments in it (Bugrov was a devout Old Rite Orthodox Christian). Labour Palace is the name given to the building in Soviet time. Trade union offices were based here up until the early 2000s, whereupon the building became the seat of the regional court.  

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This eclectic mansion with two bay-windows, abundantly decorated with stucco mouldings, used to belong to the Nizhny Novgorod merchant family of Frolov before the 1917 Revolution. The Frolovs owned a vodka distillery and some wine warehouses in the city. This building was intended as a boarding house. There have always been some shops on the ground floor. One shop, the one that sells fish and seafood, is something of a legend. It’s been here since the early 1900s, and never sold anything else.  

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The little house with columns across the street is the oldest building on Bolshaya Pokrovskaya. The merchant Mikhail Kostromin, who owned the building in the 18th century, commissioned a watch shaped like a duck’s egg from the local inventor Ivan Kulibin, meaning to give it as a gift to Empress Catherine the Great. The building is now a practice theatre, where students of the local Evgeny Yevstigneyev Theatre Arts School try their hand at acting and directing. The sculpture of a bronze cat hunting pigeons is a recent addition to façade decorations. 

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This inconspicuous little house with an oversize window and an old shop sign on the left-hand side of the street used to belong to one Mikhail Sverdlov, an engraver and the father of Lenin’s comrade-in-arms Yakov Sverdlov, a native of Nizhny Novgorod. Pokrovka was named after Sverdlov in the Soviet years. This is now a museum of engine-printing and engraving. Everything is exactly as it was in Sverdlov’s time, and this fact can be ascertained when you look in from the outside.  

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This plaza outside the cheerful-looking Maxim Gorky Drama Theatre is the traditional venue of free concerts and festivals in summer. It’s nice to enjoy live music while sitting on the outdoor veranda of one of the numerous street-side cafés adjoining the square. Looking down the vista of Ulitsa Piskunova from the drama theatre, you see receding rows of historical late 19th-early 20th-century mansions. One of them is a museum of photography.

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Right behind the drama theatre begins the tranquil neighbourhood of Lykova Damba. If you are tired of the tumultuous Pokrovka, head here and walk to the edge of the gulley that leads to Zelensky Syezd. There is a “classified ad memento” on one of the mansions here. It’s a small billboard with tear-off ads. One ad offers to swap an “English childhood” for a childhood in Russia. If you are ready to return to Pokrovka, make your way past the memorial home of Nikolai Dobroliubov, a prominent 19th-century literary critic.  

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While exploring Lykova Damba, you cannot miss this large classical mansion with columns. It is now a Yakov Sverdlov House of Culture, offering many different classes and interest groups for children. Back in the 19th century, this was the Nobility Assembly Hall, where balls were given and eminent guests received. The poet Alexander Pushkin once was among the guests. He only visited Nizhny Novgorod once in 1833 on the invitation of the city governor. 

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As Pokrovka slopes farther up, you approach the National Bank building, designed by the court architect Vladimir Pokrovsky in the style of a traditional Russian palace (terem). The building was completed for the 300th anniversary of the House of Romanovs in 1913. Nicholas II attended the opening. It is currently the seat of the local directorate of the Russian Central Bank, which organizes an “open house” a few times a year, when anyone is welcome to appreciate the surviving historical interiors (for exa.m.ple, the tiled fireplace in the manager’s waiting room, which is still in use) and the murals based on Ivan Bilibin’s sketches under the vaulted ceilings. The clock-tower to the right of the bank’s front door was also installed in 1913. Employees of the bank wind the clock up manually.  

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As you continue up Pokrovka, there are some gift outlets on your right and a street-side vernissage of artists, making Pokrovka look like Ulitsa Arbat in Moscow. You can buy any of the paintings on display or you can order your own portrait painted.  
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On the other side of the fence, in front of which the street artists have their displays, is the building that houses the departments of social sciences, philology and finance of Nizhny Novgorod University. Originally it was the Vladimir non-classical school, one of the best secondary schools in Russia at the end of the 19th century, named in honour of Grand Duke Vladimir, the brother of Alexander III, who attended the opening. There is always a noisy crowd of students by the statue of the Soviet academic Nikolai Bogoliubov, a Nizhny Novgorod native, in front of the university building. The university’s old assembly hall, known for its great acoustics, often hosts cha.m.er music concerts.  

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Orlyonok was built to replace the oldest local cinema, Palace Cinema, which showed its first films in 1912. Now this is the only cinema in town that screens films not made for the mass viewer, e.g. festival films or short films, and foreign films without dubbing or subtitles. Orlyonok has specialized as a children’s cinema since Soviet times. Teachers bring whole classes of kids here for cartoon festivals or customized viewings during school breaks.  

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Despite the numerous gift shops that have recently sprung up all over town, Khudozhestvennye Promysly (Folk Arts and Crafts) has retained its status as the number one gift shopping destination for tourists. There is no self-service here. The windows with lacquer boxes, painted Matryoshka dolls, chubby colourful tableware sets and embroidered linen tablecloths can be perused for hours, like museum exhibits. The shop goes far beyond local craftsmen (Gorodets gingerbreads, Kazakovo filigree jewellery, Khokhloma tableware, etc.) for its supplies. Also present in the dedicated sections of the shop are things like Dymkovo toys from around Kirov, ceramics from Rostov, porcelain from Gzhel, headscarves from Pavlovsky Posad. In the run-up to the Christmas Season they set up a festival of handmade Christmas tree decorations at Promysly, supplied by the craftsmen of Nizhny Novgorod’s Ariel factory. Then this shop becomes one huge Christmas present. The second floor is occupied by a Folk Arts and Crafts Museum. The third floor is reserved for a museum of historical tools and machines. 

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Communications House is a notable building at the intersection of Pokrovka and Zvezdinka, facing Ploshchad Gorkogo. To the people of Nizhny Novgorod, this Soviet post-Constructivist building with a generous amount of bas-relief art is the reminder of a time when telephony was not easily or generally available. This was a time when you had to come to this building to make a long-distance phone call, after giving the person at the other end the heads-up via telegram. The building has retained its specialization in telecommunications, housing the local Rostelecom office. The park across the street is the place where one of Nizhny Novgorod’s central Christmas trees goes up during the Season.