Nizhni Novgorod was the furthermost point of my Russian trip before I turned for home. Four hours by train from Moscow, which to Russian minds is a mere hop and a jump. I had no literary agenda there, though from 1932 until the collapse of the Soviet Union the city was renamed Gorky, after its most famous son. But I’m no great fan of Gorky’s writing. My purpose was to see the mighty Volga and to attend a birthday lunch.
Nizhni is a well-favoured city. Part of it, including its impressive Kremlin, stands high on a bluff above the point where the Oka river empties into the Volga. It has a prosperous, well-heeled feel. Back in the day it was one of Russia’s many closed cities, off-limits to outsiders because of its top-secret arms factories. Now, although it still has an anti-aircraft defence plant, it’s open to the world. In fact it’s one of the venues for this year’s World Cup for which it has built a super-duper new stadium.
Boris Nemtsov is another name associated with Nizhni. He was its governor from 91-97 and later became an outspoken critic of Putin, which courage earned him death by lead poisoning in February 2015. When I was in Moscow I walked across the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge to see the flowers that are laid at the spot where he was gunned down. Nemtsov is not forgotten.
But back to Nizhni Novgorod. I was in town the week before the May 9 Victory Parade and had a grandstand view of a dress rehearsal. I was actually inside the Kremlin when I heard the sound of the Preobrazhensky March and ran to see what was occurring. I am a sucker for a brass band. You may be as impressed as I was to learn that Russian policewomen march in high heels. It takes me all my time to stand around in them at a party doing nothing more complicated than eating peanuts.
And speaking of parties: Danil Kirillovich, for whose celebration I had travelled to Nizhni, was one year old that very day. He wasn’t hugely interested in the pizza but he did taste test all the wooden farmyard animal jigsaw pieces I had brought from Dublin.
Is Nizhni ready for its World Cup invasion? I have some doubts. They’ve recruited extra taxi drivers but my confidence in the selection process was slightly undermined when I found myself having to navigate for one flummoxed driver.
And the Volga? It did not disappoint. Now I’ve seen it I’d rather like to sail along it. But that’s an adventure that will have to wait. Next stop, the Ilminster Literary Festival, where Dot Allbones is becoming quite the diva with her demands. Quieting Syrup and Hair Invigorator indeed!