1.500 steps to the Volga

Nizhny Novgorod, usually colloquially shortened to Nizhny, is located about 400 km east of Moscow, where the Oka empties into the Volga and it is one of those places where I once knew I could never go.

The city was founded in 1221 by Prince Yuri II of Vladimir. From 1932 to 1990, it was known as Gorky, after the writer Maxim Gorky, who was born there. During the Soviet period, the city turned into an important industrial center, in particular thanks to the Gorky Automobile Plant. Because of it, the city was given the nickname “Russian Detroit“. During the World War II Gorky became the biggest provider of military equipment to the front. Due to this, the Luftwaffe constantly bombed the city from the air. Although almost all the production sites of the Gorky Automobile Plant were completely destroyed, the citizens of Gorky reconstructed the factory after 100 days. After the war, Gorky became a “closed city and remained one until after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1990. At that time the city was renamed Nizhny Novgorod once again.

The dominating feature of the city skyline is the grand Kremlin (built in 1500–1511), with its red-brick towers overlooking the Volga and Oka confluence. After Bolshevik devastation, unfortunately, the only ancient edifice left within the Kremlin walls is the tent-like Archangel Cathedral (1624–31), first built in stone in the 13th century.  In 1939 the head of the Communist Party in Nizhny Novgorod, Aleksander Shulpin, decided to create a monumental staircase connecting the Kremlin with the riverbank of the Volga. He managed to do something practically impossible: to develop, approve, and achieve the financial backing for such an enormous and costly endeavor, in spite of the absolute devotion of all resources to the Great Patriotic War (how Russians refer to WWII). The staircase, designed by architects A. A. Yakovlev, V. O. Mints and the same Lev Rudnev who created the Moscow State University Skyscraper, was laid down in in 1943 in honour of the victory of the battle of Stalingrad. It is known for a fact that German war prisoners were employed in the construction Staircase during the years of the war. In spite of that, by the time it was completed in 1949, the budget of the project totalled at almost 8 million roubles, a huge sum for the time (roughly 150 Million USDs in today’s money). This somehow came as a surprise to the Soviet government and when they saw the bill they expelled Shulpin from the party and arrested him.

Originally the staircase, which is has over 1.500 steps, was simply “Volga Staircase” but it was soon renamed Chkalov Staircase, after the world-famous test pilot and hero of the Soviet Union Valery Chkalov, the first man to fly from Moscow, to Vancouver, Washington, in the United States via the North Pole on an Tupolev ANT-25 plane, a non-stop distance of 8,811 kilometres (5,475 mi). The flight took a whopping 63 hours (June 18–20, 1937). If you would like to read more about this historic feat of airmanship, I suggest this wonderful article celebrating the first transpolar flight by the US National Park Service. The village of Vasilyevo where Chkalov was born is now the town of Chkalovsk (Nizhny Novgorod Oblast) and Nizhny Novgorod both dedicated the staircase to him and built a monument portraying the aviator in the square atop the staircase.

A second, historically significant monument can be found at the bottom of the staircase, by the Volga riverbank. You can see it at the very center of the picture, standing proud in front of the frozen and snow-covered river. A river boat, aptly named Hero, rests on top of a huge granite pedestal, in honour of the sailors of the Volga military flotilla. This very boat started its history over 100 years ago and fought in two of Russia’s most important wars. First it fought with the Bolsheviks and took part in the defeat of the Whites Guards on Volga River in 1918-19. Then it also confronted the Nazi invaders at Stalingrad in the battle of Stalingrad. After such a long and significant service, in 1967 the veteran cruiser became a floating museum, which navigated from port to port on the Volga river. Finally on the eve of the celebration of the Victory anniversary in May 1985 it was erected over a granite basement in the most picturesque part of the Nizhny Novgorod embankment. Today it is a popular destination for all the locals and it has become is an obligatory stop in the route of wedding walks.

Would you like to discover Russia with an English (and Italian, Spanish and French) speaking guide (me and my wife) showing you the sights and telling you a bit about the history and traditions of the largest country on Earth? If so, do get in touch and we’ll be delighted to organize an unforgettable trip for you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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