Nizhny Novgorod: Mother Volga
September 21, 2011
Dear Friends and Family,
When I was a very young boy, one of the first piano pieces I learned was a simplified version of the Russian folk song, “The Volga Boatmen.” “Yo, heave ho! Yo, heave ho!” Perhaps you also remember it?*
And now, after a short train ride from Vladimir, here I am, strolling down a promenade in Nizhny-Novgorod. Ornate classical buildings across the street on my left, and far below, on my right, the longest river in Europe, the Russian national river, the “main drag,” the broad and mighty Mother Volga! You will excuse me, won’t you, if I admit that I am pleased with myself? Here I am…at the Volga!
My stroll from the Oktyabrskaya (October Hotel - views of the Volga) leads me to the Kremlin, a huge space with government buildings, churches, a war memorial and a display of World War Two trucks and artillery. The red brick walls of the 16th Century Kremlin begin at the riverbank and climb high up the bluff. The thick walls and eleven watch towers protect the city.
As far as I can see, the Volga flows southeast. (Eventually the route is east, then south through Kazan, Volgograd (Stalingrad) and finally to Astrakhan and the Caspian Sea.) On my left, the Oka River meets the Volga. And if I look very hard, I will catch a glimpse of the Moscow River that joins the Oka far to the west.
The scene from my perch on the wall is splendid: the confluence of the Volga and its largest tributary. On the far side of the Oka are the golden domes of the Nevsky Cathedral. Below are more golden spires and onion domes, an electrified commuter rail line, and the streets of this busy city of 1.3 million. My guidebook does not exaggerate when it calls this a “glorious setting.”
My second stroll takes me to Bolshaya Pokrovskaya Street, a wide pedestrian walkway that is dotted with bronze statues, colorful architecture, fashionable shops and cafes.
Nizhny is certainly a pleasant place to linger and explore. And the folks are even friendly here. Even after three days, I considered extending my stay. But, like Mother Volga, I must flow onward…east to Kazan.
*If any tune, any song, or for that matter, any work of art captures the history, the sorrow, the tragedy, and also the spirit of Russia, in my opinion, it is the Song of the Volga Boatmen.
"Volga boatmen", the English name of this song, is also the name of one of the most impressive paintings of the famous Russian painter Ilya Repin: It shows a group of about twenty boatmen, passing by with slow heavy steps. Everybody in Russia knows: They are bondmen, their landowner has hired them out to a rich merchant, and now they have to pull the merchant's heavy barge against the current of the Volga. For their landowner this is a good bargain, but the bondmen get nothing, of course. They are ragged and exhausted, they stem their bare feet into the grass on the shore, and by many ropes they pull the heave barge upstream.
All their power is needed, and the sturdy cudgels of birch-wood at the ends of ropes bend when the men stem their breasts against them: "Ey ukhnyem! Ey ukhnyem!" – "All together! All together!" ... The shout of "Ey ukhnyem!" soon turns into a tune. In it you can hear the doggedness of the men who struggle forward step by step and the force of their united strenuous effort: "Yeshtsho razik, yeshtsho da ras!" – "Once again, one more time!"
And then, when they can breathe a bit more freely, one of them invents a verse – about their united power, about the sun, about Mother Volga ... But also in the airier tune of the verses you feel the slow heavy steps which go through this whole song, always keeping time, keeping speed, without a break between chorus, verse, chorus, verse ... until the group has passed by and the "Ey ukhnyem!" chorus grows softer and softer and finally dies away in the distance.