The Life and Death of a Great Russian City

The tragic plot to destroy Nizhny Novgorod's centuries-old historic city center.

NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia — In the early 1980s, a reporter for Pravda based in the city then known as Gorky learned of a new general plan from the Soviet government for his hometown. The plan was to abolish the entire historical center of the picturesque city, which was founded in the 13th century at the point where the Volga and Oka rivers cross. In place of the old city's gracefully carved wooden and stone mansions, Soviet architects proposed the construction of monstrous concrete housing blocks. Remarkably, the critical article the reporter wrote describing the historical and cultural importance of the city's architecture slipped past the grabby hands of the paper's censors and came out in print.

Shortly afterward, a commission of important bureaucrats arrived from Moscow and invited the Pravda reporter to an official meeting at the local Kremlin, as the fortified castles at the center of most Russian cities are known. "What part of the city would you like to preserve?" one official asked in a dry tone, pointing at the city's map on his table. The reporter rose on his tiptoes and then lay down on across the map, trying to cover most of his favorite historical streets, the ones with delicate, ornamented houses, with his body. The master plan was eventually canceled and for a few more decades Gorky, which in the Perestroika years was given back its original name, Nizhny Novgorod, continued to charm its inhabitants.

Rare in Soviet times, that sort of victory of culture and history over business and development is nearly unheard of today. The reporter was my father. He now works for a local state television company producing documentaries. His programs urge authorities to put an end to daily destruction of the old town, which played a key role in Russian history as the site where a volunteer movement began that once saved Moscow from Polish invaders in 1611.

Sadly, his efforts have been in vain. Small pockets of the original city, where every door and every window display a fading but original beauty, are being squeezed out by an explosion of cheap construction. No newspaper articles, television shows, human barricades -- or even living people refusing to leave their condemned old homes -- are able to stop the bulldozers as they bring down entire blocks of the 790-year-old city. To force people out of their homes, the state turns off their gas and electricity; the police detain those who refuse to move. Mysterious fires often break out, clearing lots slated for demolition.

Earlier this year, 12 houses that happened to stand on the way of an expanding metro line heard their final verdict. The deputy head of the city administration, Sergey Gladyshev, declared the need to "clean the space" for a new construction project consisting of a metro center, a shopping center, and new office and residential buildings. It was deemed much more important to have subway access than to preserve the original face of one of Russia's oldest towns, with its irreplaceable Russian wooden architecture. The decision was announced after the regional authorities, without much explanation, removed another 76 wooden buildings from the official historical protection register. It was as if the famed Victorian sections of San Francisco were condemned simply for being made of wood.

Nizhny Novgorod's old city is known as one of the world's best examples of Russian Byzantine design, a distinctive style of brick and wood buildings popular in the 1830s. Why would authorities allow the country's history to vanish without a trace? Nizhny Novgorod's citizens know the answer: The kickbacks city planners receive from the construction of malls, subway bridges and highways is a major motivation, while the restoration of crumbling, 18th-century wooden buildings with round towers, thick verandas and multiple layers of carved ornaments, is no way for an enterprising local official to line his pockets.

The chair of the local branch of Russia's public committee for the preservation of monuments, Yuriy Filipov, doubts that anything could stop the bulldozers this time, saying, "I would never go to street protests to defend old buildings."

"Once I made an attempt, but my boss at work warned me about potential problems that could cause. We live in a police state, going back to 1937," he says, referring to the start of Stalin's great purges.

The majority felt the same way, for a long time, but that may be changing. It has taken nearly two years of constant bulldozer attacks to wake up some awareness in my hometown, a city of 1.2 million people. During a recent visit, I watched pedestrians, some indifferent, others too pessimistic about any significance of their voice in the city life, hurried past ruined blocks of once proudly sophisticated 17th- and 18th-century homes. Sad graffiti of crying faces, sketches of skeletons, and emotional outcries like "We are not rats!" appear on the walls of abandoned houses.

Adjacent to the old city, the part of town built during the Soviet period reminds tourists of the years when the academic Andrei Sakharov was exiled here, when Gorky was the site of secret military-industrial production and closed to foreign visitors. It is a sprawl of apartment blocks, comfortable enough but without character. Young lovers traditionally preferred to date in the cafes around the Kremlin, or wander the hilly, narrow streets of the old city and admire the view over the broad Volga and Oka rivers washing the forested banks on the opposite side. Soon, this postcard card view will be taken from them, too: In their infinite wisdom, Nizhny's city planners have decided to place an enormous concrete mouth, a hulking soccer stadium right on the Strelka Peninsula -- the point where the two rivers meet.

The tipping point for Nizhny Novgorod's civil society came last June, when locals saved a severely injured man from a burning house on the corner of Pokrovka and Arzamasskaya streets. Eager to free space for a modern glass and concrete skyscraper, someone may have set the old abandoned house on fire without checking if any living people were inside.

The small uprising that resulted began from within a group on Russia's biggest social network, Vkontakte.ru, called "Alive in Nizhny Novgorod." Within days, 95 people upset about authorities stripping their city of all its beauty had joined the group and worked out a strategy to either barricade the doors and stay inside their condemned houses or form a living fence to prevent the bulldozers from approaching their favorite buildings. Earlier this month, 20 activists gathered to block a bulldozer on its way to demolish a two-story 19th century merchant's mansion with a beautifully ornamented façade on Gorkogo Avenue. Several dozen police officers quickly arrived and arrested the group's leaders. Three of them were sentenced to 15 days in jail. Within a few hours, the house was demolished.

"This is a war! Our city does not belong to the people but to a group of corrupt, money-thirsty businessmen, who have no idea that they are demolishing historical monuments of great importance and beauty," one of the arrested activists, Alyona Ksenofontova, told me. She promised to gather a movement of at least 2,000 activists. "That would definitely stop the destruction."

Senior officials express doubts. "I have never analyzed the reason for the lack of public activity in Nizhny Novgorod, but my prediction is that there will never be more than 100 people coming to stop the bulldozers," local minister of social politics Olga Noskova assured me.

However the showdown between the activists and the city authorities turns out, most of the damage is already done, with only tiny slivers of the city's once proud heritage left standing. It's almost enough to make one nostalgic for the Soviet days, when one newspaper article was enough to shame authorities into halting their plans.

Harry Engels/Getty Images


The Air War in Aleppo

The battle for Syria's north is not a fair fight. But the rebels are winning anyway.

ALEPPO, Syria — For insurgents that are outgunned and lacking support, Syria's rebels are a consistently cheerful lot. It's not hard to see why: Here in the country's northern Aleppo province, they have largely driven Syrian troops out of the countryside, and are forcefully challenging President Bashar al-Assad's grip on the city of Aleppo.

The green, white, and black flag of the Syrian opposition flies at the Bab Salama border crossing with Turkey, which the rebels captured on July 22. A few weeks after it was taken, the Turkish government agreed to reopen the crossing as if the rebels were the recognized government. Even now, though, it is possible to walk through the border gates between Turkey and Syria, get your passport stamped by a grinning rebel at an immigration post, and hitch a ride south in the back of a truck. It may not be luxurious, but it is a far cry from the illegal and dangerous hike across the Turkish frontier that many reporters and activists were previously forced to take to enter Syria.

Syrian rebels have largely cleared regime troops from the area between the Turkish border and Aleppo, the country's economic hub and largest city. Abdul Nasser al-Khatib, a rebel commander in the newly formed al-Tawhid ("Unity") Brigade, an organization of rebel groups around Aleppo, claimed that opposition forces hold an approximately 125- by 25-mile area in the north.

"We have made our buffer zone," said Khatib, a burly former interior decorator. Roads snaking through the rich, dark brown farmland of northern Syria are devoid of regime checkpoints. There are even a few Free Syrian Army (FSA) checkpoints. Free from a threat in the countryside, the rebels have moved almost all their fighters to the city of Aleppo, where battles are still raging.

Al-Tawhid, which consists of about 8,000 fighters, was formed in July, before rebel forces entered Aleppo. It is an umbrella brigade for all the different battalions that have driven regime forces from the towns and villages of the Aleppo countryside and have come to fight in the city. While it is the main force in the area at the moment, Khatib said that the group would not continue after the fall of the regime and would do its best to help foster civil structures. The brigade is dominated by conservative Muslims -- not unusual for a force from the rural countryside -- but Khatib maintained that Islamist extremists would have no power in the future Syria.

"It is good for Aleppo," said an activist named Yasser Haji, speaking about al-Tawhid. But he laments that the rebels haven't organized and created other alternative structures beyond the regime anywhere near fast enough. "We have been too slow," he said.

Freedom is in the air. But the Assad regime still possesses tools to terrorize residents and thwart the rebels' designs: Calm countryside mornings are shattered by the afternoon, as airplanes and shelling strike towns and villages in attacks that continue throughout the night. For the rebels, it is impossible to feel fully liberated -- or confident about their success -- when death could come from above at any moment.

"[W]hat we need is not a buffer zone. We need a no-fly zone," Khatib told me. "Without a no-fly zone we will be finished."

I experienced this only too closely on Aug. 15 in the city of Aleppo, when I accompanied a group of rebel fighters on a mission to help take back a captured roundabout from regime forces.

Earlier in the day, regime troops and tanks had emerged from a military base just outside of Aleppo -- one of the regime's last strongholds in the countryside. Most of the time, the soldiers stayed inside the base and were resupplied by helicopter. But on Aug. 15, they attacked the rebels at a roundabout along the road ringing the city, in the suburb of al-Jandou, and took control of it.

A rebel named Abdullah, a former English literature student at Aleppo University, said this was the first attack from the north of the city in about 13 days. By mid-morning, rebel forces had launched a counterattack, but fighter jets and helicopters thwarted their advance. The rebels did not have the weapons to repel the aerial assault, and a sustained fight broke out amid the stalemate.

The squad of rebels I was with, who were based in Aleppo's Sha'ar neighborhood, about a 20-minute drive from the roundabout, wanted to join the battle. But they lacked ammunition. They spent the morning on their radios trying to find bullets, but by the time they found some were instructed to stand down, as the situation looked like it was under control for the moment. They sat on the floor and listened to the reports of fighting on their radios. The sound of shelling in other parts of the city could be heard nearby. Their base had been bombed only a few nights before. At one point, they tensed. "A fighter has been killed," said one of the rebels.

It was not until mid-afternoon that the squad was called up to act as reinforcements by Hajji Marea, one of the main leaders of al-Tawhid. The floor of the covered truck in which we drove to al-Jandou was covered in gasoline -- a fact that didn't stop one of the fighters from smoking. Parking away from the fighting so as to not announce their arrival, the rebels dismounted from their vehicles and walked into the neighborhood.

They walked spread out, not bunched together as amateur fighters might. Every man had an assault rifle. Of the approximately 20 men, two had rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Extra rockets rested in holders on their backs. One man held a heavy machine gun, bullets draped around his neck and metal handcuffs on his side, in case prisoners were taken. Two rebels carried extra boxes of ammunition for the group.

The sounds of fighting were still in the distance and neighborhood residents stood outside their houses. As we approached the battle, residents began offering assistance: They directed the rebels, most of who were from the countryside and did not know the area, to navigate the winding back roads. "Hey, guys, this way," they said, pointing the rebels through the streets. As they went, the rebels stopped to consult with people about what was happening and the best way to approach the scene of the battle. It was hot, and some of the neighborhood's residents offered them water from inside their homes.

Suddenly, we were there. A regime jet, probably an L-39 Albatros, screamed low overhead as rebels who were already engaged in battle fired on it with two truck-mounted Dushka guns. A fighter firing one of the weapons, a Soviet-era heavy machine gun, watched open-mouthed as the plane darted overhead. His truck sped down the street after it, but it was already out of range. Absent extraordinary luck, the rebels' weapons were simply incapable of downing the jet.

Before the rebels from Sha'ar neighborhood reached the roundabout, the Albatros came back around and seemed to locate them. They ducked into a house just before it fired a rocket. The explosion reverberated down the street, hitting about three houses down.

The rebels pushed into a stairwell in the house and listened to instructions from a commander. The neighborhood had been abandoned. The plane was hitting the streets around us with machine guns and rockets. The rebels seemed to be only too happy under direct attack from the plane. I was not. German photographer Daniel Etter and I -- after some yelling at a rebel who clearly preferred to stay and, somehow, continue forward -- ran back out into the street with two rebels and began to retreat, leaving the others behind.

It was in this slow procession up the dirt street -- the fighter plane swooping overhead and a buzzing helicopter apparently acting as its target spotter -- that I fully understood the frustration faced by Syria's rebels. Was Assad not an international criminal? Was it not clear, from everything the rebels had accomplished with so little international support, that the regime would not last? The status quo the Assad regime had long upheld in the Middle East was over. With more advanced weaponry, the rebels could better protect innocent lives. Including mine.

One of the two rebels with me refused to run, apparently out of defiance. "No, no," he kept saying. "Allahu Akbar!" Then he made me yell "Allahu Akbar!" -- twice, as if the phrase could keep the plane away. Then he kissed me hard on the cheek and finally ran a short way. We passed the smoke, a twisted car chassis, and other debris left by a rocket running until we were forced to flatten ourselves against a wall as the jet swooped down again, trying to kill us, blowing people's empty homes to bits in the process.

Eventually, a man let us clamor into the back of his truck and drove us out of the neighborhood. The back of the building where we had arranged to meet our driver had also been bombed. With Assad's air force circling overhead, nowhere was truly safe: "This building will be bombed today," the tense activists at a nearby media center predicted.

The attack on the roundabout was just one sign that the regime was expanding the fight around Aleppo. After eventually making it out of the city, we learned that a town called Azaz, only about four miles from the Turkish border, had been hit by airstrikes and about 40 people killed.

But while the Syrian military's use of air power temporarily delayed the rebels' advance in the city of Aleppo, jets and helicopters alone are not capable of reversing the regime's losses. It would take more than 24 hours, but the rebels would seize back the roundabout, after an all-night battle against tanks. The next day, planes, which did not attack at night, once again returned to harass the rebels. But they were not accompanied by regime troops.

"I think what [the rebels' success] shows is a degree of tactical proficiency, effective command and control at least tactically or locally, and a reasonable state of supply for ammunition," said Jeffrey White of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy via email. "Very important was the state of morale, i.e. willingness to fight and no real fear of combat aircraft."

Khatib, the rebel commander from al-Tawhid, said that that even if they did not procure better anti-aircraft weapons, the rebels would continue the same strategy against the regime.

"Bashar al-Assad, he will give up Syria. Before he gives up Syria, he will destroy Syria," he said. "He knows the FSA will destroy most of his army. But he can kill people ... sleeping at home, by fighter jets."