HSE International Students Explore Russia: Schuchi Agrawal in Nizhny Novgorod and Kazan
Shuchi Agrawal came to Higher School of Economics from Brown University, USA. She studied in the Math in Moscow programme in the spring semester of 2015. The programme is organized by HSE’s Faculty of Mathematics, the Independent University of Moscow, and Moscow Centre for Continous Mathematical Education.
Schuchi has a great passion for travelling. In addition to Moscow, Shuchi had a chance to explore Nizhny Novgorod and Kazan during her time in Russia. She has shared her impressions with Read Square, online magazine edited by HSE students.
Getting acquainted with Nizhny Novgorod
We often walk into a place unaware of how our backgrounds and what we’ve seen before affect our expectations and our experience of it. In India, the 6 largest cities are all highly developed and urbanised metropolises. In Delhi (my hometown), monuments and cultural sites near the city’s centre find themselves embedded among the high-rises, the trendy hotspots, and the rapid pace of the city. So my natural expectation was that Nizhny Novgorod, as Russia’s 5th largest city, would follow suit.
Our train arrived near dawn, which was when the entire city was closed. As my friends and I took a short walk from the train station towards the city centre, I discovered that there was a sharp contrast between expectations and reality. Nizhny Novgorod has retained its old world charm as a beautiful riverside city – split into two by the Volga, with bridges for crossing to the other side. The city’s left side has the station, and seems to house most of the city’s population. Almost all the major historic and cultural sites, which lie on the other side, are visible from near the Yarmarka, that is a short walk from the train station. The Nizhny Novgorod Yarmarka is a country fair that once had tremendous national importance as Russia’s main fair, and is inolved in what led to the coinage ‘St Petersburg is Russia’s head; Moscow its heart; and Nizhny Novgorod its wallet’.
Visiting the sights
The first visit we made was to the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, which sits on the riverside. The interior of the church is beautiful, and features a giant ornate bell outside. Here I saw for the first time a proper orthodox Russian church service. There were many attendants (mostly families), and even children took it seriously.
Then, we walked past the Kremlin to the Chkalov Staircase, which went all the way down to the base of the hill. The staircase was once called the Volga staircase, but was renamed after Valery Chkalov, who was a local hero of Nizhny Novgorod for being the first man to cross the North Pole by flight. A statue of him stands before the staircase, followed by what are estimated by some to be over 1500 steps! Its construction itself is an interesting story, which began in 1939 when Aleksander Shulpin (head of Nizhny Novgorod at the time) managed to get approval and financial backing for the construction of the staircase. Shulpin employed German prisoners for the cause during the years of the Great Patriotic War and the costs of construction (8 million rubles at the time) turned out to be so high for the Soviet government that he was quickly expelled from the party and arrested.
The Chkalov steps afforded beautiful views of the river, and also had high powered telescopes for viewing the other side of it closely. At the base of the staircase, we saw three groups of uniformed people practice marching. One of the locals told us that this was all part of the celebrations for the Victory Day parade. There were also several newly wedded couples taking photographs in this area and around the Kremlin.
After absorbing what we could of the rest of Ploschad Minina, of the view from the steps, and the Volga, we headed towards the Kremlin. The Nizhny Novgorod Kremlin is the most impressive kremlin that I have seen, especially because of the strong resemblance it bears with my mental image of actual medieval kremlins and fortresses. Raised on a motte of a height of several kilometres amidst high red walls, the difference in height of the Kremlin and the base is actually considered one of the largest of any medieval fortress. The base of it below the motte looks like it was once filled with water, and the climb up the hill is laborious but affords a beautiful view.
The view inside the Kremlin is also magnificent – there are many reminscences of wartime in the form of tanks and artillery, and an eternal torch to the soldiers lost to the war. It was an especially interesting time to visit two weeks before Victory Day as we saw the pride that people of the city take in winning the war. The Kremlin also has a white Church of Ascension inside it, which is several centuries old.
The river and the city
The importance and effect that the presence of the Volga and Oka have had on Nizhny Novgorod’s importance and on the history and the lifestyles of its people is undeniable. The separation of the rivers from the lives of Nizhny’s people even today remains inconceivable. Almost every place that we passed or visited had views of the Volga or the Oka in the background, and the rainy weather added to the seaside feeling of the city. The city also has traditional Russian beach restaurants like Robinzon restaurant, which is also a tourist attraction. A particularly attractive incorporation of the Volga into the lives of the residents of Nizhny (among others) is a cable car that crosses the river.
Nizhny may not have much in the name of public transport aside from shuttle buses – it has only a few metro stops on one line, and almost no taxis; but what it does have to its merit are a few lovely river boats and a cable car that is speculated to be the longest in Europe. The Nizhny Novgorod Cable Car from Nizhny to Bor goes all the way over the Volga river, and provides some of the most beautiful scenic views of the river and the two cities. It also provides a view of the 17th century Pechersky Monastery on the other side of the hill.
A surprsing discovery was that in spite of the Volga’s omnipresence in Nizhny, fishing isn’t actually one of the major industries of the city. Rather, Nizhny is regarded as one of the biggest information technology hubs of Russia and the rapidly growing IT and engineering sectors are said to hold many opportunities for young professionals. In a city with a near 800-year history and a vintage seaside charm, the potentially growing juxtaposition of classical beauty with modernization should surely be intriguing. Nizhny Novgorod has made an interesting place to visit, and would surely continue to arouse interest in years to come.
From Nizhny to Kazan
Our journey to Kazan began on a train ride from Nizhny Novgorod. We happened to meet in our coach a woman who introduced herself as an authentic Tatar Muslim. She was very open with us, even about her personal life, and said that Kazan was her city and home, and offered to show it to us. Even though she was Muslim, she didn’t cover her hair. In fact, during our entire time in the city, we hardly encountered any woman who did cover her hair. Knowing that Kazan hosts a big Muslim community (which composes almost half the city!), this surprised me.
When I reached the city, I was surprised at how modern, open, and European it was. I had assumed that a city as replete with history and monuments as Kazan would for the most part retain a very vintage air, so that the European modernity of its canals and high rises was a pleasant surprise. Further, our exploration of the city revealed that this modernization was done rather tastefully, so that the old and the new blend harmoniously.
Churches and not only
Our first experience of the old was in the Kazan Kremlin, which we reached by the Kremlaskaya station on the metro. The Kazan metro is actually very interesting – it shares the Moscow Metro’s tradition of having elaborately designed metro stations, although these are fewer in number and done with a special Tatar style. Stations like the Kazan Kremlin station feature giant dragons on the ceiling along with other artwork, along with instructions in not only English and Russian, but also Tatar.
Unlike other Russian cities that offered to us beautiful Russian Orthodox churches and monasteries, Kazan offered us a refreshing glimpse at Islamic mosques alongside Christian places of worship. Such a mosque, the Qolsärif Mosque, sits harmoniously beside the Annunciation Cathedral in the walls of the Kazan Kremlin. Although the style of it seems to hint that the mosque is very old, it is actually only ten years old. The original Qolsärif Mosque, however, was built in the 16th century, with a traditional Volga-Bulgarian design and four minarets around the dome. Unfortunately, Ivan the Terrible destroyed it during the siege of Kazan and the fall of the Khanate. Many sites of importance to the Muslim community were lost in this process and during fires, wars, and the rise of the Soviet Union. Luckily, since the 21st century, restoration or reconstruction of such sites has begun.
Following our visit to Qolsärif, we went to see the graves of the Khanate, the Church of Ascension, and the Tower of Söyembikä (also Süyümbike). The last of these is perhaps the most interesting, because of the mysterious history that surrounds it. Legend says that Ivan the Terrible built the tower, which is eponymous of Tatar Princess Söyembikä (Süyümbike), after the princess laid down the condition that he must build a tower of seven tiers – with one for each day of the week – if she is to marry him. He supposedly had it constructed within a week in 1552, after which the princess climbed to the top of the tower and jumped, as she could not bear to marry the tsar because of her love for her people. The princess was a khanbika (a Tatar queen), and her name translates to “lovely woman” or “lovely queen”.
Next to the Kremlin was the Museum of the Republic of Tatarstan, which contained an ornate archaeology collection and told us about the history of the Tatar people and the wars that they fought with Russians and others. We learned about how Tatarstan became part of Russia, and about Bulgarian and Turkish influences on it. These influences remain alive in the city today, not only in historical parts but also in the many authentic Turkish restaurants in the city, and the language, which drew its origins from Turkish. We also found out that one of the causes of the name of the river Volga was actually a corruption of the word Bulgar, which denotes the Turkic nomadic warrior tribe that came to live on the shores of the Volga in Tatarstan over a millennium ago!
Getting a taste of Kazan
My friends and I experienced Tatar culture, through aspects like food and clothing as well. We went not only to a Tatar stolovaya, to get common Tatar home food, but also to the traditional Tatar-themed restaurant Tugan Avylym, where the staff wore traditional Tatar clothes. We discovered how meat-intensive the cuisine is, and how significantly its taste seems to differ from Russian cuisine. From its abundance of fish soups, it seems to be quite reminiscent of the Volga, and from its inclusion of a wide variety of cattle meats like horse meat and jerky, it seems to emerge from a farming community, despite the absence of most vegetables in their diet. Their meats look rather raw, and surprisingly turn out to be well cooked and spiced, and are often presented just so – without gravy, sides, or vegetables of any kind. Their food is rather elemental, and seems to present ingredients in their direct form. Even their national pie is clearly wheat pastry with rice and dry fruit stuffing.
For all its differences, Kazan still shares a lot with Russian culture. The people of Kazan too drink compote, kvaas and tea, and enjoy intensive rock culture. They offer the same warmth, openness, and Russian hospitality that the people of more traditionally Russian towns do. They take pride in their unique heritage and like to help foreigners explore it. They also offer traditional Russian snacks, like true country blinis that are hard to find in Moscow. They also share the tradition of puppet theatre – Kazan is known to have one of the best puppet theatres in Russia. Alongside this puppet theatre is a famous art café, known for very unusual architecture, and also the complex containing Tugan Avylym.
The highlight of the trip was the visit to the Temple of All Religions. Although it is far from the main city – about an hour by public transport – it is situated in a beautiful area across the river. The Temple has 12 towers already and after construction it will have 16 – one for each major world religion, including mine (Hinduism). A few of these towers/cupolas will also represent religions that are no longer practice. The complex will interestingly include an astronomical society, a puppet theatre and a school of philosophy. The entrance to the temple, which was closed upon our visit, said in Russian that it is forever under construction. I’ve heard that this means that the world may never stop producing new religions.
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