NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia — At the arrivals region of the freshly opened airport in this historic city on the banks of the Volga River, a group of volunteers in colorful World Cup 2018 uniforms satisfied visitors with big smiles and some basic English: “Hello” and “Welcome.”

Nizhny Novgorod, known as the closed city of Gorky in Soviet times, is now welcoming football squads and fans from England, Croatia, Sweden, South Korea, Argentina, Switzerland, Panama and Costa Rica and, indeed, around the world. When asked if life in their township had improved during the preparations for the the matches, the oldest of the airport volunteers, a jolly girl with a boyish haircut called,” Yes, significantly! By my personal ranking, Nizhny Novgorod is now the world's third best city after Venice and New York .”

Even a year ago, anybody who'd grown up here would have chuckled at such a remark, and rather grimly. People would say, right, perhaps we could compare our city to a Russian version of Detroit, once famous for a automobile factory and managed by a bunch of fraudsters. But New York? Forget about it.

For years Nizhny Novgorod has suffered from political repression, gangs of thugs in power, corrupt officials, and brutal pressure by law enforcement agencies. But last year out of the blue the positive developments rained upon this provincial city that long ago lost hope. New city manager initiated dialogues with opponent activists and independent civil groups even as they mounted an amazing clean-up campaign.

On Monday, thousands of happy Swedish football fans in blue and yellow uniforms marched right by a giant statue of Lenin and along freshly paved Savnarkomovskaya Street. Nobody could have imagined such a scene back in 1970 s or' 80 s.

Under Soviet rule the city's name was changed to Gorky( after native son Maxim Gorky, founder of” socialist realism” in literature ), and for decades it was concealed behind an internal Iron Curtain in addition to the external one.

Soviet authorities made a decision to close Gorky in 1959, after a mere 245 foreigners, mostly from Western countries, had visited the city in 1957. The Soviet special services believed that most of the visitors were snoops, interested in the local technologists working on space, nuclear and military projects.

For three decades the KGB did not let any Western guests visit the city; even passenger barges on the Volga River had to pass at night so nobody could see Gorky's universities, museums, beautiful architecture, and secret industries.

But this week 31,000 British visitors and 45, 000 Argentines will be among those foreigners arriving to watch football matches, make friends, and mingle with local people, who are free to talk about anything they want with Western visitors.

The British paper The Independent ranks Nizhny Novgorod as one of top five venues at this World Cup. And because I might be a bit biased — this is my home town, after all — I'll let them dedicate a little description ­čśŤ TAGEND

” This is a big, rich city, known as Russia's third capital ,” writes The Independent.” Any decent sized Russian city has a Kremlin, or citadel, and Nizhny Novgorod's is one of the finest. The city also has more cathedrals than you could shake a corner flag at . … In words of scenery, Nizhny Novgorod Stadium is likely the best located in Russia. A brand new arena, holding 45,000 people, has been built at the confluence of the Volga and Oka rivers.[ We call this the Strelka, or arrow .] It is near the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, and overlooking the Kremlin, situated on the other side of the Oka. The design is said to be inspired by aspects of nature in the Volga region: water and gust. It even has an elevated walkway winding right around it .”

Wow. After decades of isolation, corrupt practices and forget Nizhny Novgorod has received a unique chance to be modernise, to restore some of its historic landmarks and show itself to the world.

But first, some political sanitation was involved. In December, police apprehended Mayor Oleg Sorokin on accusations of corruption- Nizhny, as locals call their city for short, celebrated that news for weeks. Sorokin and his wife, the official owner of their luxurious villas in Cannes, did not seems to be pointed out that Nizhny Novgorod, a city of 1.2 million, was mired in suffering, poverty and destruction during their tenure.

For somebody like my father, who fought for decades to protect the city's architectural heritage, first from Soviet city planners and then from the big construction companies of the Putin era, it was painful to see historical streets disappearing, bulldozers demolishing beautiful wooden houses of the 19 th century — monuments to our history and our culture.

If you came to Nizhny last summer, you would have ensure long blue metal fences around patches of land, hiding previously demolished houses from the public's eyes. Most of the city center seemed shamefully run down. Homeless people lived in the remaining burned or crumbling old homes, once the pride of the old town, the lost magnet of tourism.

Before Moscow included Nizhny in a listing of 11 Russian cities hosting one of the world's most famous sport events , nobody here is of the opinion that their city would be ready to receive any foreign guests this summer.

Hopes had been raised before, then dashed. The city &# x27; s first post-Perestroika governor, Boris Nemtsov, opened and reformed the city in the early 1990 s, bringing up the first generation of democrats in a city with a strong civil society movement. But then Nemtsov was succeeded by corrupted officials. He became a leading adversary of Vladimir Putin, and was murdered outside the wall of the Kremlin in Moscow in February 2015.

In the past year, infrastructure improvements have been striking. The state has invested more than$ 1 billion in fixing Nizhny's potholed roads, cracked pedestrian walks, and painting the facades of the buildings, at the least along the central streets. And the political environment has improved as well.

” Last year Putin sent us an acting governor, Gleb Nikitin, and mayor, Vladimir Panov, who seem to be genuinely interested in protecting the historical heritage, so we immediately found common speech with both ,” one of Putin's biggest critics in Nizhny Novgorod, Stanislav Dmitriyevsy, told The Daily Beast. That is a remarkably hopeful statement from a political dissident who recently expended several weeks in jail for participating in anti-corruption protests and a marching in memory of assassinated Boris Nemtsov.

These days uniformed security can be seen all over the city center. There is a metal detector at the entryway of the Sheraton Nizhny Novgorod Kremlin hotel and security guards walk around its perimeter.

Some foreign visitors recently discovered themselves followed by suspicious seeming people in civilian clothes. The city has a long history of spying on visitors, independent commentators, and the opponent. The infamous Counter-Extremism” Center E” special serviceregularly conduct searches of private apartments, grab and investigate the opposition activists. A BBC crew encompassing the World Cupwere followed on their trip to the city, which is about to host the national squad of England.

Probably the secret services did not want the BBC to movie the darker side of life here, which still exists. There are many painful issues in Nizhny Novgorod. The suburbium and industrial districts are full of unemployed, impoverished citizens who drink, use drugs, beat and kill each other. Victims often have no shelter , nowhere they can escape. People are so to benefit from sadnes, that even when someone mummified 29 dead women in his apartment, neighbors did not call the police.

Helping the local population to survive violence, to remain sane and safe would be a good role for law enforcement agencies, but that's not the case.

” Historically, since the city was closed to foreigners in the USSR, we have ensure total surveillance, persecutions of political protesters, of anybody who has a different opinion and especially of Western visitors, who are considered Russia's adversaries today ,” Svetlana Kukina, an independent reporter and old friend of Boris Nemtsov told The Daily Beast.” To be honest I don't think that the special services are of interest to the country's reputation .”

Dmitriyevsky, for his part, is convinced that Col. Alexey Trifonov, the head of” Center E” in Nizhny Novgorod, was behind the constant tail put one across the BBC.” I don't think that the new city fathers like Trifonov's pressure on the opposition , nor do they sympathize with the idea of surveillance on foreign guests, but special services make their own decisions .”

Nobody can predict now whether Nizhny Novgorod will continue hearing good news after the World Cup is over next month; but at least now there are signs that the authorities want to be friends with independent civil groups. In February the acting governor, Gleb Nikitin, met with up to 100 representatives of NGOs, independent motions and other groups for a round table called ” What is Wrong ?” Anna Davydova, an activist with the Wooden Grad public motion struggling to protect the city's heritage, was pleased to see that after years of dismissing the most acute issues, the city wanted to work with the opposition.” At least for now it's been decided that authorities will help us to preserve 33 old builds, historical monuments, from demolition; it is unbelievable how accessible both the mayor and acting governor are for any questions we have .”

In a recent informal dialogue, Acting Governor Nikitin told The Daily Beast that there were still many more problems to be solved in Nizhny Novgorod, a lot of work to be done. We aborigines of this old and beautiful city can only hope that Nikitin and his team have enough time to finish their projects.

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