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The jubilee celebrations in downtown Nizhny Novgorod. August 21, 2021.

‘An urban miracle’ The Russian government spent billions renovating Nizhny Novgorod for its 800th anniversary. But no one asked the locals what they needed.

Source: Meduza
The jubilee celebrations in downtown Nizhny Novgorod. August 21, 2021.
The jubilee celebrations in downtown Nizhny Novgorod. August 21, 2021.
Vladimir Smirnov / TASS/ Scanpix / LETA

From August 19 to 21, the Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod celebrated its much anticipated 800-year jubilee. President Vladimir Putin paid a special visit for the occasion, attending a gala with performances by famous Russian rappers and rock stars and getting a grand tour of the ongoing renovations in the city’s historic center. In the lead up to the celebrations, the Russian government allocated more than 32 billion rubles ($434 million) to the city renewal project. But local residents aren’t necessarily pleased with the refurbishments. Meduza looks into how the anniversary preparations changed Nizhny Novgorod’s streets and local politics. 

Please note. This article was first published in Russian on August 21, 2021. 

A couple days before its 800th anniversary, Nizhny Novgorod looked like one big mining site. In the historic center, work was going on day and night to regrout tiles, put down new asphalt and sidewalks, and cover up the facades of old mansions with draperies. Work on the Nizhny Novgorod Kremlin wasn’t completed by the start of the celebrations on August 19, and its grand re-opening was pushed until August 22. But as regional Governor Gleb Nikitin underscored, the city renovations for the 800-year jubilee were just the beginning. 

Nikitin’s time to shine

In 2010, Nizhny Novgorod Mayor Oleg Sorokin promised that under him, local residents “wouldn’t recognize their city.” However, Sorokin didn’t make any significant changes for the better during his five years in office. Then in 2017, he was arrested on charges of accepting bribes while serving as mayor and sentenced to 10 years in a maximum security prison colony. 

Sorokin’s successors were more modest and didn’t take a swing at any radical renovations. Indeed, revamping Nizhny Novgorod was the brainchild of regional Governor Gleb Nikitin — one of the “young technocrats” who became regional heads in 2017. Nikitin got so carried away with the renovations that he earned himself the nickname “Governor of Nizhny Novgorod.” The city renewal program for the 800th anniversary — for which a total of more than 32 billion rubles ($434 million) were allocated — was his time to shine.

From left to right: Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Chernyshenko, Putin’s First Deputy Chief of Staff Sergey Kiriyenko, and Nizhny Novgorod Region Governor Gleb Nikitin during the opening ceremony of the countdown clock for Nizhny Novgorod’s 800th anniversary
June 21, 2021. Sergey Bobylev / TASS

Nikitin’s time in office has also coincided with Nizhny Novgorod earning a reputation as one of the least tolerant cities in Russia for oppositionists and independent media. During the pandemic, local resident Alexander Pichugin became the first Russian journalist to be convicted of spreading “fake news” about COVID-19. Local businessman Mikhail Iosilevich spent six months in a pre-trial detention center after being jailed on charges of cooperating with an “undesirable organization” (he was released ahead of the anniversary celebrations, on August 17). In October 2020, local independent journalist Irina Slavina — who faced constant harassment by security officials — self-immolated outside of the Nizhny Novgorod police headquarters. Prior to her suicide, Slavina wrote on Facebook: “For my death, please blame the Russian Federation.”

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At the same time, the local authorities have struggled to cope with the coronavirus pandemic. The Nizhny Novgorod region remains one of Russia’s leaders in terms of infection rates — only Moscow, St. Petersburg, and the Moscow region have more cases

The regional and city authorities prepared for the 800-year anniversary celebrations against this backdrop — and under the patronage of the Russian Presidential Administration. Putin’s Deputy Chief of Staff Sergey Kiriyenko, who lived in Nizhny Novgorod for more than 20 years, even came in to inspect the refurbishment of the city.

The large-scale spending on the celebrations also appears to be aimed at raising both Nikitin and United Russia’s ratings in the region ahead of the parliamentary elections scheduled for September. 

A solitary picket opposing the actions of Nizhny Novgorod Region Governor Gleb Nikitin. The protester’s poster includes a portrait of the late journalist Irina Slavina. November 24, 2020.
Andrey Repin / Kommersant

A celebration for some

“Small businesses were waiting for an influx of tourists into the city, in order to somehow pick up after the lockdowns,” said community activist Igor Preobrazhensky in conversation with Meduza.

The local authorities spoke about this, as well. Lamenting the fact that even in Moscow many don’t consider Nizhny Novgorod a tourist designation, regional Governor Gleb Nikitin called for finding new ways to attract “Muscovites for the weekends.” The 800th anniversary celebrations did the trick — local hotels were practically all booked up a month ahead of time. 

The program for the celebrations included a gala show directed by Russian ice dancer Ilya Averbukh, with performances by the band Uma2rman, rappers Basta and Levan Gorozia (L’One), singers Alexander Panayotov, Sergey Mazayev, and Alexey Vorobyov, and the rock band Lyube. The show cost 200 million rubles ($2.7 million) to put on; about 10 percent of these funds were allocated to pay for celebrity appearances. The only one who turned down the money was supermodel Natalia Vodianova, a Nizhny Novgorod native.

A drone show in honor of Nizhny Novgorod’s 800th anniversary. August 20, 2021.
Marina Lystseva / TASS

Those who wished to attend the event had to register in advance online (on a special website that “went down” as soon as the best seats for the final concert became available). And registration was open only to those who were vaccinated against the coronavirus, had recently recovered from the disease, or could provide negative PCR test results.

Those who didn’t manage to get tickets to the main event could still stroll through Nizhny Novgorod’s refurbished squares and streets. Blogger and City Projects Foundation founder Ilya Varlamov praised the changes as an “urban miracle” — but local urbanists disagreed. The head of the City Project Foundation’s Nizhny Novgorod branch Alexey Sadmovsky went so far as to resign following Varlamov’s review. “Walking with the authorities and enthusiastically writing about only what they showed you is a load of crap. I love Nizhny [Novgorod], good things are being done, but [this] post is just a disgrace,” he wrote on Twitter. 

Local residents point out that in addition to the examples of successful restorations (and there are quite a few), several historic buildings were demolished during the renovation process. Others were “repaired” in such a way that, according to historic preservation activists, only “life-sized mock-ups” remained in place of the buildings. 

The city’s largest park has been the source of the most controversy. Park Shveytsariya was closed to the public in July 2020. There have been weekly protests in Nizhny Novgorod ever since, where local residents draw attention to various violations amid the work on the park. According to the locals, the workers were in such a rush to open the park in time for the city’s 800th jubilee that they failed to comply with even the most basic requirements and caused long-term damage to the park’s ecosystem. (Work on Park Shveytsariya was scheduled to resume immediately after the celebrations, on August 22).

A protest opposing the reconstruction work at Park Shveytsariya. August 11, 2020.
Roman Yarovitsyn / Kommersant

What’s more, despite protests from historic preservation activists (and articles by local journalists about the illegality of the work) a number of cement foundations for restaurants, co-working spaces, and other facilities have already appeared on the grounds of the park. 

“The main issue is that no one really asked Nizhny Novgorod residents how unprecedented federal funds would be spent on their own holiday. And I’m sure the residents of Nizhny Novgorod would have chosen to extend the metro lines first — there’s trouble with public transport in the city,” community activist Igor Preobrazhensky told Meduza. “As it turned out, a fat financial boomerang launched from the capital whistled over the heads of Nizhny Novgorod residents and safely returned to approximately where it came from.”

Story by Oksana Nikolskaya

Abridged translation by Eilish Hart