I decided to take up couchsurfing again this trip. Don’t ask me why now instead of at any other point. I suppose it is just a quicker and slightly more formalised version of the home-hopping that I’ve been invited to partake in elsewhere. Russia, it turns out, is a top place to indulge.
The train from Vladimir – poshed up in a compartment for a change – was swift and very comfortable. A commute express whooshes between Moscow and Nizhniy Novgorod so I hopped aboard in Vladimir and was at my destination in two short hours. It passed several submerged fields and swollen rivers on the way, which it turns out is all the ice and snow melt still filtering through. Or Russia’s version of a hosepipe ban.
Nizhniy (pronounced Nijnee) sits on the confluence of two large rivers, the Oka and the Volga. My host for the duration of my stay was Ksenia, the editor of a local newspaper, studying English and teaching nippers to speak the lingo in her spare time. One busy bee. She and her pals picked me up from the train station late one Sunday night and whisked me to her home in a towerblock in the suburbs for a midnight feast of caviar pancakes and vodka shots. This after she had run me a piping hot bubble bath. I liked her immediately.
Keen to make sure that I saw everything I wanted to of Nizhniy (hereafter referred to as NN cos typing it is a royal pain in da ass), she constructed a careful programme. The first morning I was left to woozily wake and enjoy the breakfast laid out for me before the lovely Olga picked me up to take me into town for a stroll around the old city, a look at her university, a peek at the photography museum and a hearty slice of apple cake. The bank that stands on the main high street was used as a depository for more than half the empire’s gold during the First World War.
Many Russians love the Soviet chintz as much as we in the West do so there are a sprinkling of cafes and bars dedicated to the design era.
Later that evening, Ksenia had enlisted another friend, Ina, a guide, to take me on a historical tour of the city. There is a lot to it, since the city was founded in 1220. After a hot sunny day, the evening in continental Russia draws in quickly and bitterly so we conducted a speed tour around the Kremlin. Cold, it may have been, but it was also beautiful as the sun set over the Volga from our lofty vantage point.
In the square below the Kremlin stands a statue, a copy of the one that stands in front of St Basil’s cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square. It was put in Moscow when finally ready (after Napoleon had finished getting defeated). It represents the victory that Pozharsky had in winning Moscow back from a Polish-Lithuanian invasion in 1612. Pozharsky mustered a modest army and marched out through the Kremlin’s gates to seize Moscow back. Not an insubstantial task since it is 400km away. The army swelled in ranks as they went and by the time they reached the capital, they could easily crush the usurpers. Hoorah!
Within the walls themselves stands the tank that was used to liberate Vienna from the Nazis (they were built here) and the requisite Eternal Flame, devoted to the war heros. Ina shed a few tears at the monument, warning us that she always does. ‘Why does war make Ina cry?’ I quietly asked Knesia some time later. ‘I think it is because everyone was touched by it. Times were very, very hard. Everyone lost someone. It became normal to see corpses half blown away in the street. Some mothers, because their children were so hungry, would cut off a finger to make them some soup.’
If Moscow is the heart of Russia and St Petersburg is the soul, NN has traditionally been known as the pocket. It was a hub of manufacturing activity back in the day. Many manufacturing plants were located here and they seemed to churn out tanks and cars at alarming rates. Each year throughout the 1800s until 1929 there was an important international trade fair held annually which lasted for several months and saw the town’s population more than double. Representatives came from more than 60 countries and the trade fair only started to die down when technology and faster communications rendered it obsolete.
As sunset drew in, we headed for the monastery. Why? For tea with an orthodox monk, of course! The lovely Brother (is that how you address them?) Theodossi hails originally from Kyrgyzstan but has been in the service of God for many years, six years at this particular Monastery. Religion seems to be resurging in Russia. The Soviets had banned it and turned this particular monastery into a cinema and the graveyard into a football pitch (naughty), but people, like teenagers, always want what they can’t have. Baptisms continued on the sly and now that it’s allowed again, they all seem to be out of the woodwork.
Anyway, asides from being a pious man, Theodossi is also a cracking baker and loves animals. He served us a late supper of tea with fresh honey from the hive and delicious breads that he had baked himself. I was invited to come back again and stay for a month and sent away with a bottle of holy oil from Jerusalem pressed into my hand. Smiles!
The day was not over yet, oh no. Now to Ina’s place for vodkas and a salad dinner which directly translated means ‘herring under a fur coat’, another of Ksenia’s delicious offerings made by piling herring under a mound of grated potato, beetroot, cheese and egg. And, as is mandatory for any Russian salad, lashings of mayonnaise. Ina and Ksenia both love the Beatles: everyone in Russia does. I think they’re the ones keeping McCartney in alimony. They also love Franz Ferdinand. It would be lost on most, but the Scots have penned a song about Margarita from the famous book by Mikael Bulgakov and use a lot of Soviet iconography in their videos. Eagle-eyed Ruskis don’t miss a trick.
Russian homes are often studio-style apartments in suburban districts. Many of the Soviet buildings that Stalin built are still creaking along, for better or worse, and although people value their privacy more than before, the communal style of living is a continual theme. Apartments are limited in size and personal gardens almost non-existent in the city: most people yearn for one and many people ask me wide-eyed if my house in England has a garden. ‘The English are obsessed with gardens’ I humbly tell them.
Many Russians instead have a little allotment out in the countryside which they tend to each summer. Some of them even transplace themselves temporarily to small dwells on their patches so they can soak up the wholesome goodness. The soil isn’t always great quality but the amount of kitchen garden produce available for sale everywhere is remarkable. They do it for fun, as much as to sell it.
K’s full programme waits for no man, and certainly not for lie-ins. The next day it was up bright and early for tea with her lovely Mum (who told me I looked like a ballerina and she like Winnie the Pooh – not so, but chuckles regardless) and then a day trip to Gorodets. This is a cute little town in the countryside centred on crafts. The bus journey there took us through fields and forest before finally depositing us on the Volga riverside. We took in the toy museum, gingerbread (pranyik) museum and craft centre, fitting some street amblings and a park picnic in amongst it.
Back in NN it was time, at my request, for a tour of the city’s Soviet architecture. Celebrated architects were brought in from all over Europe to start constructing Stalin’s version of a utopia, districts of large communal flats, community facilities and plenty of activities for children built around prolific manufacturing hubs. Check out the pic below – it was built solely as the base for a giant train track for kiddies!
I’d just read 1984 (seemed appropriate) which decries the evils of communism sounds a lot like North Korea so I was cynical about Stalin’s vision but Ksenia was keen to balance my views with the positives that socialism brought the Russian people. It was a time, she told me, when parents didn’t have to worry about whether they could afford to educate their children – it was provided free by the State. Society was meritocratic. Healthcare was free. People knew their neighbours and talked more freely (really? For all of Stalin’s tenure?). She’s right, of course. There are benefits and the ideal of a community-spirited country surely appeals to everyone of every political ideology. It’s something that should justly be encouraged everywhere. Love thy neighbour!
We wound up our day with dinner, beers and vobla (strong, salty dried fish) at Olga’s deliciously Soviet-styled flat. Her landlord has inherited a flat from an elderly relative and rented it out without touching it, meaning all the furniture, crockery and fittings are just wonderfully, nostalgically 50s. I loved it!
I left under a shower of gifts and food, which I could only lamely attempt to balance with some Jubilee and London trinkets from the rucksack. Mind, who doesn’t want a Jubilee keyring?