Bolshaya Pokrovskaya is a pedestrian street about a half-mile long that cuts through the heart of the historical center of the city. In America-speak, it’s the “main drag.” Many a time, I would meet a friend at Gorky Square, walk the length of Bolshaya Pokrovskaya, wind through the Kremlin, and then take the last stretch of the walk down the Embankment walkway. It is a wonderful circuit. For two years, I lived just a half-block off the street, so taking a nice walk was very convenient. I always felt that I lived where all the action was. As a matter of fact, it’s been the source of action for a long time.
Bolshaya Pokrovskaya, which means “Great Intercession,” was named after the Church of the Virgin Mary located at the beginning of the street in Minin and Pozharsky Square. (the church has since been demolished) The street started to take its existing shape in the late 1700’s. Over the years, merchants, nobles, and government officials contributed to its growth and prosperity. Very early on, it became the premier location for the finest shops, homes, and cultural centers. Though it was renamed Sverdlov Street after an influential Communist official during Soviet times, the street largely escaped the “Sovietization” that scarred so many other parts of the city. Once the Soviet Union fell and Russia emerged, Bolshaya Pokrovskaya was back. It limped along feebly for a time until the 2000’s when it was revived. It still has room for improvement, but there is reason for optimism as the Russian economy gradually improves. With the coming of the World Cup in 2018, the money flow into the city can only help make it shine even more.
Bolshaya Pokrovskaya on a winter night, it’s one of Nizhny Novgorod, Russia’s most special charms. It is the community’s gathering place for all things social and economic. It’s what grounds its citizens to their home. Thousands walk up and down it, no matter the weather. They shop at the Western-branded stores, they attend films, plays, and puppet shows, and they dine at some of the cities’ best restaurants. But most of all, they simply… gather. Truth be told, Bolshaya Pokrovskaya is their oasis amidst a desert of Soviet and neo-Russian decay. The spirit of the city resides here, made up of girls walking arm-in-arm, boys teasing and shoving each other, and grandparents proudly parading their grandchildren.
The cobblestones are blanketed in snow, flattened by the footsteps of its visitors. The Byzantine and Baroque building facades blend together to form a long, imposing corridor. I can see thousands of bodies clad in fur ambling peacefully, usually without a specific destination in mind. They just want to be out, out of their stuffy office buildings, out of their strangling apartments, pushing back against the dark and gloomy weather. Russians like to walk, winter be damned.
Russians know how to illuminate their buildings. Spotlights are smartly placed on the ground, pointing upward to highlight the intricracies of the architecture. Holiday lights are equally placed in all the right places to give the street a festive feeling. All these lights conspire with the white snow to create a magnificent glow that rises above the rooftops and reflects against the misty, snowflaked sky. The white glow becomes orange and red the higher it goes.
The panorama is, indeed, like a painting. It is an impressionist painting meant to be viewed as a whole. Looking any closer will only distract you with its flaws of cracks and broken lines. Enjoy it in total, not in particular. Bolshaya Pokrovskaya is a feeling and a memory of days long ago. It is a bit of magic.
Only a few yards from my home, a musician sings and strums his guitar. He knows not the cold and the frost, his calling lasts all seasons. I watch with others as he plays folk songs and collects kopecks and rubles in his hat. You forget all your difficulties and think of a time when these folk songs were fresh. The backdrop of his informal stage is the National Bank where Russia hid much of its gold during the war. Stage right is an ancient chapel that chimes the time of day. As I step away from the ageless performance, I imagine what life was like a century ago. Through the great arch that I drive through everyday, I imagine a troika of white horses pulling a carriage instead. I hear those same folk songs echoing through the street and I still see that bank. I see Nizhny’s furry ancestors gathering just like they do today, enjoying the moment, and imagining what Bolshaya Pokrovskaya was like a century ago, too.
I come back to reality quickly. Afterall, the bank has an ATM machine and there is a Broadway Pizza shop across the street owned by an American. I can hear Soviet-era pop music blaring from a tinny loudspeaker and the Columbia Sportwear shop is just a block away. Regardless, past or present, Bolshaya Pokrovskaya resembles the Russian soul. She understands beauty, she understands her fellow man, and she gives us a moment of happiness and peace. I continue my walk through the wondrous glow and mark myself as part of history.