Historical landmarks

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“Where the Oka and the Volga throw their arms around each other, the expanse is limitless and you can touch the sky,” goes the popular song considered the unofficial anthem of Nizhny Novgorod. This is about the Strelka (or “Spit”), historically known as Strelitsa, the prime symbol of Nizhny Novgorod and one of the most scenic natural “observation decks” in town. It’s the place where the River Oka flows into the Volga. On a clear day, you can distinctly see that the water of the two rivers is different colour: the Volga’s is darker and thicker.

The Strelka was never built on much until the mid-19th century, when a fairground moved here after a fire in the neighbouring village of Makaryevo.   The construction on the new fairground was overseen by Augustin de Betancourt, the architect of Moscow’s Manege, who wrote: “The most surprising advantage of this location is that you can send goods to both capitals and, in fact, send goods abroad the same year, all within the limited time-span of the domestic navigation season.” The fairground was gigantic, covering an area of nearly 500,000 square metres. It had eight squares and thirty streets. The Strelka was practically its own town inside Nizhny Novgorod.

In Soviet decades, the neighbourhood was built over with residential apartment blocks. The Strelka became a cargo port. Until recently, the only landmark in this whole neighbourhood – once a marquee part of town – was the bright-yellow St. Alexander Nevsky Church. The Strelka got a new lease on life when it was picked for the construction of the arena that will be hosting several matches of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia. A new Metro station is being built next to the stadium. The name of the station will be “Strelka.”   

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The Kremlin, the cradle of Nizhny Novgorod, is the single most important and biggest landmark in the city. Some local historians have a simple explanation for why the founder of Nizhny Novgorod Yury (or Georgy) Vsevolodovich, the grandson of the founder of Moscow, Yury Dolgorukiy, built the Kremlin on the high bank of the Volga: he was enchanted by the view of the Strelka and beyond, opening up from the hills. The view is indeed tantalizing, but security must have been his other consideration. Even when the fortress was all wooden, it offered solid protection from the enemies, while the river on the other side served as a natural barrier. The Kremlin was rebuilt in stone in the 16th century. The tea.m. of architects and builders from Pskov was joined by the Italian architect Pietro Francesco, who was known in Russia as Piotr Fryazin.  

The Kremlin has 13 towers. Some of them have survived intact, others have been restored. No two towers are alike architecturally and each has its own cache of legends.  

Now, as centuries ago, the main entrance to the Kremlin is through St. Demetrios Tower, the largest Kremlin tower. It was named in honour of the Church of St. Demetrios of Thessaloniki, which had once stood in front of it. That church was later replaced by the Church of the Annunciation, which, similarly to three other churches on Kremlin grounds, would not survive the years of Soviet rule.  

The 18th-century buildings inside the Kremlin currently house the Legislative Assembly, the Philharmonic and the Arbitration Court. The Soviet-era architectural landmarks next door are home to the regional government, the office of the envoy plenipotentiary of the President of Russia in the Volga Federal District, the city Mayor’s Office and the local Duma. The Modern Art Museum occupies the Czarist-era military arsenal building. The Art Museum is based in the former Governor’s Mansion, and the Military Technology Museum is deployed outdoors. All the military equipment on display was manufactured in Nizhny Novgorod, and all is in good working order. Perhaps the most monumental piece of machinery on show is the T-34 tank, manufactured by Krasnoe Sormovo Factory, standing next to the Eternal Flame and the sculptural memorial commemorating the soldiers of the Great Patriotic War.   

Apart from its incontestable historical value, the Kremlin is dear to every Nizhny Novgorod resident on a personal level. Prom parties and lovers hang out on the sloping edge of Kremlin Boulevard till dawn, newlyweds bring flowers to the Eternal Flame on their wedding day, and parents bring their children here for New Year’s Eve parties at the Philharmonic inside the Kremlin walls. 

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The best way to observe this winding 8-shaped stairway is from a boat on the Volga. Its 560 plus stairs, tracing two humongous circumferences, link the city’s two main embankments: Verkhnevolzhskaya and Nizhnevolzhskaya. This stairway was the idea of Aleksander Shulpin, who was mayor of Nizhny Novgorod during the 1941-1945 Great Patriotic War. Moscow gave the project its go-ahead and earmarked a budget in 1943. The same year, marking the victorious Battle of Stalingrad, ground was broken for the stairway. It was named in honour of Valery Chkalov, the legendary Soviet pilot who was first to fly from Moscow to Vancouver nonstop across the North Pole. Chkalov, a native of Nizhny Novgorod, is commemorated with a monument in Minin and Pozharsky Square, to which the stairway exits. The Hero combat boat, placed at the foot of the staircase in 1985, used to be part of the Volga Navy fleet. Manned by a crew of three and armed with a surface-to-air machine gun, the Hero fought in the Civil War and the Great Patriotic War, including the Battle of Stalingrad. These days the Hero sees a lot of music gigs, played on the floating Fish stage, when the Chkalov Stairway becomes one enormous auditorium. The boat also witnesses the annual upstairs running races. 

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Rozhdestvenskaya Ulitsa (Rozhdestvenskaya Street) leads to Kanavinsky Bridge, which will take you over to Strelka District where the Oka and Volga rivers merge together. At the end of the 19th century this was a city within a city, and home of the largest fair anywhere in the country or the world: the Nizhny Novgorod Fair. It was so important to Russia that Tsar Alexander I delayed reconstruction of the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg in order to send the money to Nizhny Novgorod. The trade fair was called "the exchange of Europe and Asia." Prices for the principal goods – tea, salt, grain, furs and metals – were set here. Back then, people used to say that "Saint Petersburg is Russia's head, Moscow is its heart and Nizhny [Novgorod] is its pocket." The trade fair was where the first Russian-made automobile and the world's first radio set were presented. The radio's inventor, Alexander Popov, managed the power station at the Nizhny Novgorod Fair.

Today the only reminder of its former architectural glory is the Main Exhibition Hall, which hosts modern-day shows and forums.

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Tour guides compare the riverboat station of Nizhny Novgorod, designed by a team of Leningrad architects and built in 1964, to a white boat. The roomy building is shot through with sunlight, and the steeple on top looks like a mast. In addition to the ticket office and waiting room, the station houses the city’s most recent museum, opened in 2003: the Volga Shipping Company Museum with a representative exposition worthy of a city with a long history of shipbuilding and navigation, such as Nizhny Novgorod. The Volga and the Oka emerged as the key supply arteries for the local industry in the 19th century. Nizhny Novgorod became the home of numerous shipping companies and the oldest shipyard on the Volga: Sormovo, which initially built mixed-use passenger and freight boats, but in the 20th century transformed into one of the largest naval engineering complexes in the Soviet Union, Krasnoe Sormovo Shipbuilding Plant, which built some of the best submarines in the world. Russia’s first river navigation school opened in Nizhny Novgorod in 1887.

During the Great Patriotic War, Nizhny Novgorod put together the Volga Navy Fleet, which went into battle on rivers and seas. Post-war, Nizhny Novgorod engineer Rostislav Alekseev made a sensation by inventing the hydrofoil. The Rocket and Meteor series hydrofoils gave a powerful boost to inland navigation in the Soviet Union. On display at the Volga Shipping Company Museum is a wealth of documentary evidence from that time and beyond: ship’s logs, piloting charts, a collection of photographs of historical ships and their interiors, unique ship models, and even a fully equipped captain’s bridge.  

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In addition to being a crucial inland waterway harbour, Nizhny Novgorod was and remains a railway hub of national significance. The first railway going from Moscow eastward was the one linking it with Nizhny Novgorod, built in 1862 to connect European Russia with the provinces along the Volga, in order to facilitate new economic opportunities. Romodanovsky Station on the right bank of the Oka was built in the early 1900s with a view to extending the railway further south. Originally the station served primarily merchants, making it easier for them to ship goods to the Nizhny Novgorod Fair, but it would play a critical strategic role during the two world wars.

The station was closed down after a major landslide in 1974. At first they tried to put the building to use as an institute of railway engineering and to accommodate some repair shops. However, wear and tear finally took its toll on the building as the neighbourhood lost its transport accessibility. Eventually the station fell into the hands of a private owner, and today the fully restored Romodanovsky Station makes the city proud and offers an instructive lesson on how a historical landmark can gain a new lease on life. The former station is now a plastic card factory.

Gorky Railways (which, unlike the city, was never renamed back) went on without Romodanovsky Station, and is now one of the largest railway systems in Russia, encompassing 15 regions. The 2018 FIFA World Cup will give it a new impetus for development. The high-speed Moscow-Kazan railway will traverse the Gorky Railways jurisdiction in 2018.

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There are eight bridges in Nizhny Novgorod: six across the Oka and two across the Volga. The two Volga neighbour-bridges (they are only several dozen metres apart) link Nizhny Novgorod with its suburb Bor. The inner city neighbourhoods gravitate more towards the Oka bridges. They are all open for traffic. Unlike their St. Petersburg counterparts, these bridges are hardly fit for leisurely walking, although some of them do have sidewalks. The bridges are pretty long – close to one kilometre - and there’s too much traffic. They look pretty impressive, though.  

The oldest in town, the arched Kanavino Bridge was completed in 1933 when Nizhny Novgorod marked its 712th anniversary. The city had by then developed a system of out-of-town industrial enterprises, including a constellation of factories being built around the auto factory. The new bridge provided a vital transport link to the emerging industrial neighbourhoods. Before this bridge was built, the parts of town on either side of the Oka, named Nagornaya and Zarechnaya to this day, were insulated from each other by the natural barrier of the river, which once protected the inner city from enemies. For centuries, there was nothing but a ferry boat line between the two banks. When the Nizhny Novgorod Fair flourished on the Strelka in the 19th century, the city built the longest pontoon bridge in Russia across the Oka. The Kanavino Bridge was built to replace it. It is regarded as the city’s finest, most elegant bridge as well as its oldest. This despite the fact that the Kanavino Bridge is the only “humpbacked” bridge in Nizhny Novgorod. The other bridges are flat, but this one goes in a six-arch bow across the river.  

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The most recent bridge in Nizhny Novgorod, the Metro Bridge was built in 2009. The unveiling of the bridge was a truly historic event. The two-tier bridge over a kilometre long, combining a motorway and Metro train tracks, allowed the city to extend its Metro system from one bank of the Oka to the other, and the historical old town finally got its first Metro station: Gorkovskaya. The Nizhny Novgorod Metro system saw its passenger flow double the first year after the new station was launched.  

As you approach the Metro Bridge in the Nagornaya part of town, you find yourself in plain view of the plaza popularly known as Three Temples Square. The Armenian Church of Christ Our Saviour stands next door to a temple of the 7th Day Adventists and the Russian Orthodox Church of the Resurrection. The Armenian Church, consecrated in 2014, happens to be the youngest of the three. The Russian Orthodox Church and the 7th Day Adventist temple have coexisted for over 100 years.  

There is something of interest under the bridge. It’s a mill complex that used to belong to one of the wealthiest Nizhny Novgorod merchant fambilies in the 19th century: the Bashkirovs. The complex consisting of the mill proper, some warehouses, pasta factory and workers’ dormitory, is under federal protection and awaiting restoration. These riparian neighbourhoods along the Oka are named Blagoveshchenskaya Sloboda, being adjacent to the Blagoveshchensky (Annunciation) Monastery further down the river. Due its many picturesque sights of dereliction and dilapidation, the neighbourhood is beloved of film-makers. Certain kinds of scenes are often filmed here for movies and TV series.