Hopeful at Last, a Soviet ‘Closed City’ Is Now Wide Open For Putin’s World Cup

Unaccustomed optimism has arrived in Russia’s ‘third capital,’ Nizhny Novgorod, picked as one of the World Cup venues. But the clumsy secret police aren’t helping.

Clive Rose

NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia — At the arrivals area of the newly opened airport in this historic city on the banks of the Volga River, a group of volunteers in colorful World Cup 2018 uniforms met visitors with big smiles and some basic English: “Hello” and “Welcome.”

Nizhny Novgorod, known as the closed city of Gorky in Soviet times, is now welcoming soccer teams and fans from England, Croatia, Sweden, South Korea, Argentina, Switzerland, Panama and Costa Rica and, indeed, around the world. When asked if life in their town had improved during the preparations for the the matches, the oldest of the airport volunteers, a jolly woman with a boyish hairstyle exclaimed, “Yes, significantly! By my personal ranking, Nizhny Novgorod is now the world’s third best city after Venice and New York.”

Even a year ago, anybody who’d grown up here would have laughed at such a remark, and rather grimly. People would say, right, maybe we could compare our city to a Russian version of Detroit, once famous for a car factory and managed by a bunch of fraudsters. But New York? Forget about it.

For years Nizhny Novgorod has suffered from political repression, gangs of thugs in power, corrupt officials, and brutal pressure by law enforcement agencies. But last year out of the blue positive changes rained upon this provincial city that long ago lost hope. New city managers initiated dialogues with opposition activists and independent civil groups even as they mounted an amazing clean-up campaign.

On Monday, thousands of happy Swedish football fans in blue and yellow uniforms marched right by a giant statue of Lenin and along freshly paved Savnarkomovskaya Street. Nobody could have imagined such a scene back in 1970s or ‘80s.

Under Soviet rule the city’s name was changed to Gorky (after native son Maxim Gorky, founder of “socialist realism” in literature), and for decades it was hidden behind an internal Iron Curtain in addition to the external one.  

Soviet authorities made a decision to close Gorky in 1959, after a mere 245 foreigners, mostly from Western countries, had visited the city in 1957. The Soviet special services believed that most of the visitors were spies, interested in the local engineers working on space, nuclear and military projects.

For three decades the KGB did not let any Western guests visit the city; even passenger boats on the Volga River had to pass at night so nobody could see Gorky’s universities, museums, beautiful architecture, and secret industries.

But this week  31,000 British visitors and 45, 000 Argentines will be among those foreigners arriving to watch football matches, make friends, and mingle with local people, who are free to talk about anything they want with Western visitors.

The British paper The Independent ranks Nizhny Novgorod as one of top five venues at this World Cup. And because I might be a bit biased — this is my home town, after all — I’ll let them give a little description:

“This is a big, rich city, known as Russia’s third capital,” writes The Independent. “Any decent sized Russian city has a Kremlin, or citadel, and Nizhny Novgorod’s is one of the finest. The city also has more cathedrals than you could shake a corner flag at. … In terms of scenery, Nizhny Novgorod Stadium is probably the best located in Russia. A brand new arena, holding 45,000 people, has been built at the confluence of the Volga and Oka rivers. [We call this the Strelka, or arrow.]  It is near the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, and overlooking the Kremlin, situated on the other side of the Oka. The design is said to be inspired by aspects of nature in the Volga region: water and wind. It even has an elevated walkway winding right around it.”

Wow. After decades of isolation, corruption and neglect Nizhny Novgorod has received a unique chance to be modernized, to restore some of its historic landmarks and show itself to the world.

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But first, some political sanitation was required.  In December, police arrested Mayor Oleg Sorokin on accusations of corruption – Nizhny, as locals call their city for short, celebrated that news for weeks. Sorokin and his wife, the official owner of their luxurious villas in Cannes, did not seem to notice that Nizhny Novgorod, a city of 1.2 million, was mired in misery, poverty and destruction during their tenure.

For somebody like my father, who fought for decades to protect the city’s architectural heritage, first from Soviet city planners and then from the big construction companies of the Putin era, it was painful to see historical streets disappearing, bulldozers demolishing beautiful wooden houses of the 19th century — monuments to our history and our culture.

If you came to Nizhny last summer, you would have seen long blue metal fences around patches of land, hiding previously demolished buildings from the public’s eyes.  Most of the city center looked shamefully run down. Homeless people lived in the remains of burned or crumbling old houses, once the pride of the old town, the lost magnet of tourism.

Before Moscow included Nizhny in a list of 11 Russian cities hosting one of the world’s most famous sport events, nobody here believed that their city would be ready to receive any foreign guests this summer.

Hopes had been raised before, then dashed. The city's first post-Perestroika governor, Boris Nemtsov, opened and reformed the city in the early 1990s, bringing up the first generation of democrats in a city with a strong civil society movement. But then Nemtsov was succeeded by corrupt officials. He became a leading opponent of Vladimir Putin, and was murdered outside the wall of the Kremlin in Moscow in February 2015.

In the past year, infrastructure improvements have been striking. The state has invested more than $1 billion in fixing Nizhny’s potholed roads, cracked pedestrian walks, and painting the facades of the buildings, at least along the central streets. And the political environment has improved as well.

“Last year Putin sent us an acting governor, Gleb Nikitin, and mayor, Vladimir Panov, who seem to be genuinely interested in protecting the historical heritage, so we immediately found common language with both,” one of Putin’s biggest critics in Nizhny Novgorod, Stanislav Dmitriyevsy, told The Daily Beast. That is a remarkably hopeful statement from a political dissident who recently spent several weeks in jail for participating in anti-corruption protests and a march in memory of assassinated Boris Nemtsov.

These days uniformed security can be seen all over the city center. There is a metal detector at the entrance of the Sheraton Nizhny Novgorod Kremlin hotel and security guards walk around its perimeter.

Some foreign visitors recently found themselves followed by suspicious looking people in civilian clothes. The city has a long history of spying on visitors, independent observers, and the opposition. The infamous Counter-Extremism “Center E” special service regularly conduct searches of private apartments, grab and investigate the opposition activists. A BBC crew covering the World Cup were followed on their trip to the city, which is about to host the national team of England.

Probably the secret services did not want the BBC to film the darker side of life here, which still exists. There are many painful issues in Nizhny Novgorod. The suburbs and industrial districts are full of unemployed, impoverished citizens who drink, use drugs, beat and  kill each other. Victims often have no shelter, nowhere they can escape. People are so used to misery, that even when somebody mummified 29 dead women in his apartment, neighbors did not call the police.

Helping the local population to survive violence, to stay sane and safe would be a good role for law enforcement agencies, but that’s not the case.

“Historically, since the city was closed to foreigners in the USSR, we have seen total surveillance, persecutions of political dissidents, of anybody who has a different opinion and especially of Western visitors, who are considered Russia’s enemies today,” Svetlana Kukina, an independent reporter and old friend of Boris Nemtsov told The Daily Beast. “To be honest I don’t think that the special services care about the country’s reputation.”

Dmitriyevsky, for his part, is convinced that Col. Alexey Trifonov, the head of “Center E” in Nizhny Novgorod, was behind the constant tail put on the BBC.  “I don’t think that the new city fathers like Trifonov’s pressure on the opposition, nor do they sympathize with the idea of surveillance on foreign guests, but special services make their own decisions.”

Nobody can predict now whether Nizhny Novgorod will continue hearing good news after the World Cup is over next month; but at least now there are signs that the authorities want to be friends with independent civil groups. In February the acting governor, Gleb Nikitin, met with up to 100 representatives of NGOs, independent movements and other groups for a round table called “What is Wrong?”  Anna Davydova, an activist with the Wooden Grad public movement struggling to protect the city’s heritage, was pleased to see that after years of ignoring the most acute issues, the city wanted to work with the opposition. “At least for now it’s been decided that authorities will help us to preserve 33 old buildings, historical monuments, from destruction; it is unbelievable how accessible both the mayor and acting governor are for any questions we have.”  

In a recent informal conversation, Acting Governor Nikitin told The Daily Beast that there were still many more problems to be solved in Nizhny Novgorod, a lot of work to be done. We natives of this old and beautiful city can only hope that Nikitin and his team have enough time to finish their projects.