Zahar Prilepin Reflects on His Hometown Nizhny Novgorod

In Soviet times, Nizhny (renamed Gorky) was busy forging WWIII. Justin Jin / Panos

Nizhny Novgorod could have become one of the most visited cities in the world, simply because it is one of the most beautiful. Everything we have here, yes, everything, is in our own way. This squat, solid architecture, these hills—most of the city stands on high hills—these steep riverbanks and views over natural, undeveloped, vast land and the merging Volga and Oka rivers. In Nizhny, that confluence is called Strelka. The traffic-police headquarters sits right on Strelka—presumably to watch the great Russian rivers, to make sure they do not break the speed limit.

Our local authorities promised to develop a tourist mecca in our town; they gobbled up the allocated federal funds and ... that was the end of it. We do not know where the funds disappeared; we do not even ask.

In the meantime, UNESCO listed Nizhny among the top cities with global cultural value. It has 600 cultural monuments. Just think about it. What else could you want? It offers a two-kilometer-long Kremlin fortress with 13 towers, as many as 30 Orthodox churches, monasteries, museums, universities ...

It seems the city could make visitors happy, but things are a little sadder than we wish they were. Nizhny looks as if it has lost its soul: no cultural programs, no industrial goals, no political orientation. Here, look—in Soviet times, it was re-named for the writer Gorky (“bitter”). The name stamped both bitter and peculiar features on the city. In my youth, it was definitely not Nizhny Novgorod, but exactly Gorky. Sakharov, the Soviet nuclear scientist, became a dissident and was sent here in exile. The crown jewel of the Soviet car industry, Gorky Automobile Plant, operated here. A factory produced nuclear submarines. In short, it was a closed town. Tourists were not allowed to visit. Gorky was busy forging the Third World War. Dusty, cruel, Soviet—that was the face Nizhny had then.

Then a different time came. One of Russia’s best-known democrats, the first governor of Nizhny, Boris Nemtsov, tried to shake up the city. He wanted to bring back the Nizhny we used to have before Gorky. He reopened the Nizhny Novgorod Fair; at one time it had been the biggest annual event for merchants from all over Russia and abroad. The governor brought Margaret Thatcher to the fair. Nemtsov was only 32 when he became governor. As he says now: “I governed in my childhood.” To put it nicely, not everything worked out for him. But he infected us with his impetuous sense of life, of freedom and the changes coupled with that freedom. A few years later, Nemtsov unexpectedly left for Moscow to occupy high Kremlin positions.

Soon, in some mysterious way, Nizhny turned from one of Russia’s most innovative, democratic regions into a “red belt” city. The next governor was a communist. Defense-industry contracts fell off. Today the auto plant is barely breathing and other industries have fallen almost into ashes. All that Nemtsov began, including the fair, slowly turned to nothing. The city did not become a merchant center. It soured in melancholy and inactivity. The number of crimes has increased sixfold since Soviet times, and the birthrate has decreased sixfold. There’s a feeling that the city stopped being a friend to its inhabitants. New authorities moved in and began to remake it into a bourgeois place, in the ugliest sense of that word.

Why keep the old Nizhny, with its merchant houses and 19th-century buildings? We could demolish these crumbling houses and build skyscrapers instead, where the price per square meter would not be much cheaper than in Paris. But the struggle against the construction became a matter of honor for those who still love the city and want to preserve it. There was a period when authorities had the idea of building a city center. It would have hidden a sight loved by true Nizhny citizens: the view across the Volga from the steep right bank. I mean, you would come out to the Volga and not see the vast land and high skies. Instead you would see skyscrapers. Luckily, the global economic crisis happened and the authorities’ dreams decayed. We hope that next time they desire to build something large, the sun will eclipse and it will stay dark until they take away their cranes and excavators.

Today Nizhny is paused, as if quietly waiting for what will happen next. But I have noticed that the number of very good poets has increased lately. So many beautiful lyrics are written by Nizhny citizens! We are definitely not an industrial capital any longer and surely not a merchant one; instead we pretend to be a lyrical capital. Maybe the poets can hear the buzz of the Soviet industrial giant and the pre-revolutionary Nizhny. What if that buzz marks the birth of a new city? It seems to me that more poetry is a good sign. It promises something new.