Gorky’s Town

This route covers all the key spots associated with the most famous native of Nizhny Novgorod, Maxim Gorky, whose name the city bore for several decades. Not only are many streets and embankments of Nizhny Novgorod closely interwoven with Gorky’s life (the writer lived 25 of his 68 years here); Nizhny Novgorod is an important character in many of his works. Strolling around Gorky’s Town, you become more intimately familiar with the old Nizhny Novgorod and its outskirts as they appear in Gorky’s autobiographic trilogy My Childhood, In the World and My Universities and his play The Lower Depths. You might also wish to stop by the factory neighbourhoods, where the plot of Gorky’s novel The Mother unravels.  

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Many people believe the future great writer was born in this house, the home of his maternal grandfather Vasily Kashirin, who was a dyer. That is not true. Alyosha Peshkov, the future Maxim Gorky, was born in 1868 in the home of his paternal grandfather, the mansion at Ulitsa Kovalikhinskaya 33, a classic specimen of mid-19th-century Nizhny Novgorod architecture. There are whole neighbourhoods of these two-story wooden houses elsewhere in the city. This one is no different, except for the memorial plate.  

However, Kashirin’s house at Pochtovyi Syezd, where Alyosha and his mother came to stay in 1871 from Astrakhan after his father’s funeral, is worth a closer look. It is now a museum of Gorky’s childhood. They also call it a “one novella museum.” Indeed, the entire first part of Gorky’s autobiography, My Childhood, has this house as the backdrop. Many locals have visited this place as kids. They love to host extracurricular literature classes at Kashirin’s House. The original furnishings have been reconstructed from the time where a family of 16 lived in the four rooms of this house. About half of the exhibits actually belonged to the Kashirin family. The creators of this museum, which opened in 1938, relied on Gorky’s autobiographic novella My Childhood, reminiscences of the Kashirins’ descendants, the writer’s own memoirs, and the house plan he drafted in the later years of his life. The dyeing shop, the coach shed, the cobblestone backyard, and even the kerosene lamp out front have been reconstructed.   

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As we know from Gorky’s autobiographical trilogy, his childhood ended with his mother’s death. That’s when Alyosha’s grandfather told him: “You are not some medal to hang here around my neck. Out and into the world you go!” They got Alyosha Peshkov a job as an errand boy in a fancy shoe shop at what was then the edge of Nizhny Novgorod, but is now the edge of the city’s main square, Ploshchad Gorkogo (Ulitsa Gorkogo 74). Alyosha delivered people’s orders, fetched firewood, cleaned the owner’s clothes, and constantly made escape plans. One time he scalded his hands in the kitchen and was taken to a hospital. When he recovered, his grandmother took him to the house of her nephew, who was a draftsman. In this home (now Ulitsa Zvezdinka 5b), the boy once again “performed the duties of a chambermaid,” according to the novella In the World. He washed the floors, cleaned the samovar and the copper cookware, and hauled his masters’ purchases home. Gorky described his living environment as “insufferably boring, unabashedly filthy.” This house is now some administrative institution next to a nice park, where young people go out on their dates by the light of the old-fashioned street lights. Both these houses, where young Alyosha Peshkov suffered so much, are marked with memorial plates. 

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This square was named in honour of Maxim Gorky in the 1950s. The seven-metre statue of the writer, sculpted by Vera Mukhina, was mounted in the little park in the middle of the square at around the same time. Mukhina, the creator of the famous sculpture The Worker and the Kolkhoz Woman at Moscow’s VDNKh, won the all-Union design tender for the monument. Your tour guide will probably tell you that the original idea was to place the monument on the Volga slope. That’s why the writer’s bronze raincoat and his hair are supposedly flying in the breeze. But the truth is, this romantic portrayal of the author of The Song of the Stormy Petrel looks perfectly organic in a central square.  

Scenes from The Song…, set in stone, can be appreciated on the mosaic panels inside the Gorkovskaya Metro station, located in the square. This station, the newest in Nizhny Novgorod, has made Gorky Square an important public transit junction.  

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The Gorky monument faces Nizhny Novgorod’s pedestrian main street, Bolshaya Pokrovskaya, which has several Gorky memorial spots of its own. The international Gorky Readings, bringing together the fans and scholars of Gorky’s oeuvre from all over the world since the 1940s, take place biennially at the Philology Faculty of the Nikolai Lobachevsky State University of Nizhny Novgorod (Bolshaya Pokrovskaya 37). Gorky’s widow Ekaterina Peshkova and some of his friends took part in the readings during the event’s early years, while the recent readings have been attended by Gorky’s granddaughters. Gorky Readings inspire a citywide cultural progra.m.me, including theme nights at museums and Gorky’s plays in the theatres.

The building at B. Pokrovskaya 24 (there are some shops and cafés here now) housed the editorial offices of the Nizhegorodsky Listok newspaper in the late 1800s, where Gorky, at the invitation of the writer Vladimir Korolenko, contributed for several years, writing essays and reviews of the Nizhny Novgorod Fair.  

Yet another Gorky spot is the drama theatre named in his honour (B. Pokrovskaya 13), where all of his plays have been staged at one time or another. It is a cinch that Gorky often dropped in here with his friend, the great opera singer Fyodor Chaliapin. Chaliapin sang a solo part in the opera A Life for the Tsar on the theatre’s opening night, and guest-performed here many times.  

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There is no direct relation between this late Soviet-era stadium (currently the home of the local Dynamo sports club) and the writer Maxim Gorky. However, Gorky was an honorary member of Dynamo. Gorky was 64 when Dynamo members invited their famous townsman to join their club. The writer agreed, although he named fishing, hunting and gorodki as his favourite sports on his membership application form. Later on, in one of his magazine articles, carried by all the major Soviet newspapers, Gorky articulated the mission of Dynamo athletes: “I would like to remind the Dynamo athletes that the Greek word “dina” means strength, the word “dinamica” means motion, and “dynamite” is an explosive. Thus Dynamo is strength in motion…”  

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The existing theatre building was constructed in 1935, replacing the “Folk House,” the public theatre and concert venue built on the cusp of the 19th-20th centuries with money raised by Maksim Gorky and Fyodor Shalyapin. Gorky and Shalyapin first met and became friends in Nizhny Novgorod. Boris Pokrovsky, the future celebrated Russian opera director, was appointed director of the Opera and Ballet Theatre in Nizhny Novgorod (then named Gorky) in 1937. Pokrovsky served as Head Director of Bolshoi Theatre in 1952, 1955-1963 and 1970-1982. In 1972 he founded the Cha.m.er Musical Theatre of Moscow and would remain its art director for the rest of his life. Pokrovsky directed his debut, the opera Carmen, in Nizhny, and would serve here until 1943. In the 1980s, the Pushkin Opera and Ballet Theatre was one of the first opera companies in Russia to perform offstage with Peter Tchaikovsky’s opera The Sorceress, played by the walls of the Nizhny Novgorod Kremlin, and Mikhail Glinka’s opera Ivan Susanin, played at the Ipatiev Monastery in Kostroma, Susanin’s hometown. While staying true to the academic tradition (the operas Ivan Susanin, The Queen of Spades, Aida, the ballets Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and Peer Gynt remain on the repertoire), the company seeks new vistas for its further development. The operatic musical Coco Chanel: Pages from Life, premiered here in 2014. The music for Coco Chanel was written by Eduard Fertelmeister, Rector of the Nizhny Novgorod Conservatory. In 2015, director Ilya Mozhaisky of the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theatre of Moscow staged the opera The Cossacks, by modern Dagestani composer Shirvani Chalaev, at Nizhny Novgorod Opera and Ballet Theatre.   

The theatre has hosted Autumn at Boldino, the national opera and ballet festival, every year for nearly fifty years. In the past five years, the company has ended each season with an operetta and musical comedy festival titled My Favourite Easy Genre. The company’s artists perform in concert at the Evenings by the Fireplace, hosted by the Art Museum at Verkhne-Volzhskaya Embankment.  

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Nizhegorodsky Ostrog, located right opposite the Opera and Ballet Theatre, next to the Ploshchad Svobody park, was the first prison in town. It served as a halfway prison for prisoner convoys on their way to Siberia, as well as holding local convicts. Maxim Gorky was jailed here twice, in 1889 and 1901, for his revolutionary activity. There used to be tours available of the solitary confinement cells where Gorky and his coeval public activists were held (Vladimir Korolenko, Yakov Sverdlov, and others), but the Ostrog was closed for restoration a few years ago.  

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This was the last apartment in Nizhny Novgorod where Gorky and his family lived for a few years before moving permanently to Moscow in 1904. Gorky, by then a famous writer, could afford to rent the whole floor. It was here that he wrote his play The Lower Depths, the poem Man, and made early sketches for his novel The Mother. This apartment was a social hive. Gorky received many guests, including Fyodor Chaliapin, the writers Leonid Andreyev, Nikolai Garin-Mikhailovsky, Anton Chekhov and Ivan Bunin, widely known publishers, theatre directors and actors from Moscow, and other prominent people of the time.    

The museum reconstructs the original furnishings of Gorky’s apartment, featuring thousands of memorial items, including Gorky’s writing desk and his library.  

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Gorky never lived here. The museum is housed in an eclectic historical mansion, once property of the merchants Burmistrov. Incidentally, this house, “small and elegant, like a royal plaything” is the scene of the novel The Accursed Family by Ivan Rukavishnikov. The displays cover the tumultuous life of Nizhny Novgorod’s creative intelligentsia in the late 19th-early 20th centuries, which largely revolved around Gorky and his circle. Three of the museum’s rooms contain the entire biography of Maxim Gorky: his personal items, manuscripts, and much more. Many exhibits were donated personally by Gorky.  

In addition to the Gorky exhibits, there are the personal items, letters and photographs on display of other renowned literati and artists of the time. A whole room is devoted to the writer Pavel Melnikov-Pechersky. There is also a place for the philologist and folklore scholar Vladimir Dahl and the poet Taras Shevchenko, both of whom lived in Nizhny Novgorod at different times. The museum boasts an extensive collection of photographs by the foremost photo chroniclers of the epoch, who lived and worked in Nizhny Novgorod:  Andrei Karelin and Maksim Dmitriev.  

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If you go walking on the Volga slope, where Maxim Gorky loved to stroll, you may find yourself in the vicinity of Rozhdestvenskaya Ulitsa at the foot of the slope. There are a few Gorky spots here, including one monument to his philanthropy: Stolby Teahouse, which was Gorky’s project of a teahouse for homeless people. One merchant donated the space; another, the money. Poor people were offered basic, very affordable food here, and attended free concerts and literary readings. Free medical service for homeless people was set up here later on. Tour guides claim that such attempts to provide a cultural experience for poor people in addition to food and shelter were not typical for other Russian cities, and that this was almost a one of a kind thing, a “Gorky thing.”  The former Stolby Teahouse is now an office centre, but at least the outward appearance of this classical mansion is intact. 

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This was not a random location for the Stolby club for the poor. This neighbourhood was practically slums at the end of the 1800s: seedy bars, ramshackle guesthouses and homeless shelters. One such shelter – the largest one – still exists. Sponsored by the merchants Bugrov, who were among the wealthiest families in Nizhny Novgorod, it was one of the prototypes for the homeless shelter which is the scene of Gorky play The Lower Depths. The sponsor set up a bank deposit to pay for the upkeep of the shelter, but the interest alone proved insufficient. The solution was to build a shopping centre next door, the proceeds of which also went towards the homeless shelter, which was designed to accommodate 700 people. The ground rules of the establishment were prominently displayed on the banners stretched above the ground floor windows: “sober people only,” “no tobacco smoking,” “no vodka drinking,” “no singing,” “be quiet.” Vagrants were issued bread and boiling water.  

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Today’s Sormovsky District of Nizhny Novgorod, which in many ways entered in the picture of the 1905 Revolution, grew out of the settlement of Sormovo in the district of Balakhna. The workers of Russia’s biggest stea.m. engine factory and shipyard lived here, including the prototypes of the novel The Mother. Gorky was living in Nizhny Novgorod when the revolutionary unrest began in Sormovo, and he knew some of the activists personally, including Pyotr Zalomov, the prototype for Pavel Vlasov, the main character in The Mother, and his fellow activists. The description of the May 1 rally, one of the first in Russia, reproduced the actual events in Sormovo in 1902. The rally was advertised in the St. Petersburg underground paper Iskra, which would also cover the trial of the activists arrested in Sormovo that day. The Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin published his articles in Iskra, which were his way of communicating with Zalomov. Gorky firmly stood up for those arrested and their revolutionary cause. He printed propaganda leaflets and continued to work with the Sormovo activists following their acquittal.  

Ulitsa Barrikad is named in honour of the December 1905 insurrection of Sormovo workers. Several buildings from that time still exist in the street. One of them, the former parish school, which was used as the headquarters of the insurrection (Ulitsa Kominterna 175), was in 1977 adorned with a haut-relief entitled “School of Barricades,” cast in Leningrad.  One of the first Lenin statues in the city was installed in this neighbourhood in 1927.

Sormovo’s Burevestnik (Stormy Petrel) cinema and the eponymous Metro station are also named in honour of Maxim Gorky.