A tale of two cities: Kirill Kobrin on the changing names and faces of Nizhny/Gorky

Nizhny Novgorod has played many roles in Russian history — from a centre of tsarist trade to the heavy industry of Soviet Gorky

14 June 2018

In 1932, the city of Nizhny Novgorod became the city of Gorky. The new name, honouring one of the city’s most famous sons, the writer Maxim Gorky, would survive for little more than half a century. The original, topographical name, given to the city upon its foundation in 1221, was reinstated as part of a wave of enthusiasm for the rediscovery of “historical names” which swept over Russia during the twilight years of communism. The alternation of these names can be seen as an inexhaustible metaphor for the social, cultural, economic and even architectural changes the city has undergone. Nizhny Novgorod is still very much alive. And yet the city today bears the indelible stamp of the numerous processes which have accompanied the change in toponyms.

Nizhny Novgorod was founded in 1221 by the Prince of Vladimir, Yuri Vsevoldovich, to serve as a launching ground for the further colonisation of the lands around the Volga River. A small wooden outpost was built on a tall hill overlooking the confluence of the Volga and Oka rivers, allowing the Russian colonisers to observe the comings and goings of the Finno-Ugric tribes indigenous to the area. The wooden outpost was replaced by the stone Kremlin we see today in the first half of the 16th century. While these fortifications were often tested in the century’s second half, in later years the Kremlin served an administrative rather than defensive purpose. Given the topographical difference between the cities of Nizhny Novgorod and Moscow, the choice of the Kremlin as the centre of administrative power was a much more logical choice in the former than in the latter. The Moscow Kremlin stands at no greater elevation than the surrounding landscape; yet the seat of power in Nizhny Novgorod, free from the necessity of struggling against these deficiencies, is a more modest construction squatting modestly but imposingly on its high hill.

By the end of the 17th century, Nizhny Novgorod (herein simply “Nizhny”, as its inhabitants call their city) no longer served as an outpost of colonisation. By this time the boundaries of the Russian state had been pushed far into Siberia and even beyond: Nizhny’s “colonial” phase had come to an end. At the same time, “the Kremlin” in Nizhny (in modern Russian a catch-all term for those in power) did not long suffer from a lack of enemies. The city and citizens of Nizhny found themselves unexpectedly at the centre of the political life of the young state when it was plunged into civil war in the early 17th century. It was in Nizhny that the Russian heroes Minin and Pozharsky fomented the “Second Uprising” that would expel the Poles from Moscow and install the Romanov dynasty onto the Russian throne in 1612.

Here were two Russias, the pre-capitalist and the early-capitalist, divided by a river and regarding each other

By the mid-19th century, following the uneventful 100-120 years which succeeded the transformation of the Muscovite State into the Russian Empire, Nizhny was an area for fierce religious disputes no longer, but rather a busy trade hub and the home to a growing and wealthy merchant class. In 1817, central Russia’s largest market — known as the Fair — moved to Nizhny from the nearby Makarevsky Monastery. For the next hundred years the fair would dominate the life and development of the city, to such an extent that it not only became a new city centre, but even superseded in importance the Nizhny Kremlin. Thus was manifested a long established and familiar symbol of power relations in Russia: the authorities “above”, scheming and plotting behind the Kremlin walls, and the people, real life, the economy and society, “below” (and, in Nizhny, on the other side of the river). As the value of goods sold at the fair increased it grew, and new, permanent structures appeared: the Exhibition Complex, the Old Fair Cathedral and multiple smaller buildings for warehouses, docks, and other ancillary needs. If the symbol of premodern Nizhny had been the Kremlin, in the new period this symbolic role was played by the Exhibition Complex. Here were two Russias, the pre-capitalist and the early-capitalist, divided by a river and regarding each other.

Until 1917, everything of interest happened “below”, in the Nizhny on the other side of the Oka. This is where goods and people from all around Russia and even from the wider world mixed and mingled (Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man under Socialism could be purchased at the Nizhny Novgorod Fair mere months after its publication in Britain); this, in the village of Sormovo, is where the city’s first industrial factory was built. The revolution of 1905-1907 in Nizhny was focused not on the centre of political power, the Kremlin, about which the revolutionaries could not have cared less, but in Sormovo, the outpost of heavy industry, where the workers threw up barricades. And it is Sormovo that is the principal setting of Nizhny’s most famous pre-revolutionary novel, Maxim Gorky’s Mother.

All that was good in the Soviet social experiment was represented by the likes of Maxim Gorky

Gorky (real name Aleksey Peshkov), who was born to a family of minor merchants, grew up in a series of small wooden houses and spent his youth travelling the country and speaking to the poor. Gorky’s socialism was not that acquired from reading Marx and Engels, but one of a more practical, existential and organic kind. Gorky wished to use socialism to take his compatriots out of the misery and boredom of the suburban shanty towns in which the Russian working class laboured and into an enlightened and rational future of social justice. His socialism was closer in spirit to that of the British Labour Party in the first half of the 20th century than to the revolutionary socialism advocated by his friend Lenin. All that was good in the Soviet social experiment was represented by the likes of Maxim Gorky, who, in turn, contributed much that was good to the project. This symbolism adds a tragic note to the reversion of the old name of Nizhny Novgorod in 1990.

In the 1930s, Nizhny endured the first wave of socialist industrialisation, roughly 30 years after the previous, pre-revolutionary wave had subsided. The Fair was closed down, together, indeed, with the entire market economy. The socialist planners working on “Gorky” now strove to realise the ideals implied in its name — the city was to be a cradle of industry and higher education, populated not by the bearded merchants of Maxim Gorky’s pre-revolutionary novels but by a society of socially-conscious proletarian workers. The division between the “above” and “below” halves of the new-old city, marked by the flowing Oka, became absolute. The area around the Kremlin became the seat of political power and the centre of ideological control, the site of the new institutions of higher education and the arena for cultural events and entertainment. The other bank of the river was given over to the production of automobiles, airplanes and ships.

It was here that the driving idea behind Gorky’s existence was completely transformed, when a group of engineers and architects employed by Henry Ford were hired by the Soviet government to begin construction on the gigantic Gorky Automobile Factory (Gorkovsky Avtomobilny Zavod, GAZ). The project employed American knowhow but was built by Soviet hands, including a considerable number of peasants who had come to the city after fleeing the destruction wrought by Stalin’s programme of collectivisation. Except for a tiny village, the site around GAZ was entirely empty. The area was renamed the Avtozavodsky Quarter, and became one of the first in a long series of utopian experiments in Soviet urban planning. The “Stalin houses” built to provide accommodation for the new factory’s workers bear visible signs of age, yet remain standing. As does GAZ, which may well be the last remaining example of the industrial architecture associated with Henry Ford. This vast factory, which, in its better years, employed more than 100,000 workers, has since fallen into complete disrepair, a victim of the economic politics of the post-Soviet period. The roaring engine of Soviet industrialisation has turned into a memorial for the industrial epoch, appreciated only by students of historical architecture and aged veterans of the Soviet car industry.

The second wave of socialist industrialisation took place primarily in the 1960s. It did little to change Gorky’s overall character and appearance, but it did lead to a radical overhaul of the city’s infrastructure. The extent to which the progressive and even utopian atmosphere of the Khrushchev thaw and early Brezhnev years ended up imitating the rhetoric and drama of the 1920s and early 1930s is remarkable. The process began by the construction of GAZ and the other giant industrial enterprises was rounded off with the erection of bridges over the Oka, massive residential construction in Sormovo and the Avtozavodksy Quarter, and, of course, the sprouting of new residential areas in the white spots on the map of Gorky that had previously contained only waste ground. In one sense, the transport infrastructure, apartment buildings, and sport and leisure facilities built in this period continue to make up the backbone that holds modern Nizhny together. Only today that backbone is showing the signs of its age, and struggles to keep the formless body of the new, post-Soviet city together.

In 1990, on the eve of the collapse of the Soviet project, Gorky once again became Nizhny. None of the various attempts at forging a new urban narrative for the city that have taken place in the 28 years since that day have succeeded. This lack of ideas has led inevitably to a grasping for a nostalgic historical revisionism, of which the “democrats” (such as the governor of the early 1990s, Boris Nemstov) and the “non-democrats” (all of those who succeeded him) have been equally guilty. Nemstov’s big idea was to recreate the Nizhny Novgorod Fair, and it was one of his PR men who coined the idea, still popular today, that if St Petersburg was her head, and Moscow her heart, Nizhny was “Russia’s pocket”. Yet the market failed to rise from the ashes, and the pocket remained pinched.

It is as if the three waves of industrialisation — the pre-revolutionary, first Soviet (1930s) and second Soviet (1960s-70s) — have been airbrushed from Nizhny’s history together with the name “Gorky”. The result is an astounding mixture of a timorous, romantic and retrograde nostalgia with the most rapacious and cynical practices of neoliberalism; deprived of its modern history, the city has stumbled into a blind and untutored version of postmodernity. This is the essence of its contemporary urban narrative, from which only the ridiculous shopping centers will remain to replace the former symbols of the Kremlin, the Fair, GAZ and the bridges over the Oka and Volga. And yet these warehouses of consumerism, in contrast to the pivotal edifices of the premodern and modern epochs, will not stand for long. Their fate, and that of “Nizhny/Gorky”, is likely to be very different. I think it likely that within 20 years our city will be no more than a nameless outer suburb of Moscow, with sleepy tower blocks, malls, prisons and, for those that cannot afford four years of education in the capital, the provincial franchises of two or three of Moscow’s universities. Then, sooner or later, someone will have the bright idea of converting the warehouses of the old shopping centres into lecture halls, where students will be able to prepare for their careers as middle managers, lawyers and party functionaries.

Text: Kirill Kobrin

Image: Anastasia Tsayder