A technological center, a treasure trove of cultural sites, and the one-time rival to Moscow as the leading city of Russia, Nizhny Novgorod retains a unique atmosphere even in the modern Russian Federation. This “Eurasian Detroit” is today the fifth largest city in all the country, with a population of 1.2 million.
As with many of the country’s greatest cities, its history extends back across the breadth of Russian history. Nizhny Novgorod was founded by the last generation of Rus to rule before the Mongol invasion. Indeed, Yuri II, the Grand Prince of Vladimir, built the Volga River city after overwhelming a nearby Mordvinian hill fortress. Clients of the Muslim Volga Bolgars, the Mordvinians were slowly driven from the area by the eastward expanding Russians. However, two years after this “Lesser Novgorod” was founded, the Russians experienced their first clash with their future nemesis, led by Subedai Khan, at the Battle of the Kalka River. In 1238, rather than face destruction, the relatively insignificant stronghold surrendered to the second and more substantial invasion of the Golden Horde, and was spared to fight another day.
Nizhny Novgorod played a significant role in throwing off the Tatar Yoke. After a brief late 14th century rivalry with Moscow, where Dmitry of Suzdal sought to build a new capital in this growing river city, the two cities united together by the 15th century, driving the Kazan Tatars well east of the all-important Volga. By 1511, the city had an enormous red brick Kremlin, much like that which was also built in Moscow. A century later, the city served as the launching point for Russia to retake its capital, then held by the Polish army during the Times of Troubles. After the victory over the invaders, Nizhny Novgorod’s importance in the Russian Empire was assured.
In 1816, a misfortunate fire at the Makaryev Monastery just downstream from Nizhny Novgorod turned out to be the city’s great fortune, as the commercially important Makaryev Fair was moved there in the following year. Drawing traders from India and Persia to the city, the fair’s arrival proved to be a huge boom to the city during the last century of the Russian Empire. As a result, the All Russia Industry and Art Exhibition of 1896, which showcased not only the first radio receiver in the world, but also the first Russian automobile, foreshadowing the eventual establishment of such industrial giants as the Gorky Avtozavod (GAZ), the makers of the Volga and other Soviet automobile icons.
Meanwhile, a large number of Russian celebrities considered the city their home. Indeed, Nikolay Ivanovich Lobachevsky is one name you’ll see from here. The so-called “Copernicus of Geometry,” Lobachevsky changed the rules for math such that new structures could be conceived, including the “hyperboloid” structures that featured so prominently in the 1896 exhibition. Writer Maxim Gorky (born Alexei Peshkov) was also born in the city, but left after becoming an orphan at age 9. His prominence among Revolutionary writers led to the city adopting his name during the Stalin era (starting 1932). When the Soviet Union fell, the name again reverted to Nizhny Novgorod.
During the Soviet era, the city was closed to foreign visitors in order to protect the military manufacturers located there. Nonetheless, the river port still received tourists from all over the world, making it perhaps the most open of the so-called “closed cities.” Today, in addition to tourist sites (art galleries and museums), the city also hosts Russia’s high tech sector, many of its vehicle manufacturers (both automobile and aircraft figure prominently), and its machinery industries. There are more than 600 historical, architectural, and cultural monuments in the city, elevating it to one of the top 100 cities for historical and cultural value, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
The city’s importance is only emphasized by the planned expansion of the Sapsan train network from Moscow to this city. This high-speed rail connection will certainly make the Volga port more accessible to those who can afford to travel in style. But whether they arrive by luxury train, river boat, or by air, guests from around the world are always happily welcomed to today’s Nizhny Novgorod.