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The Imperiia Project: a spatial history of the Russian Empire

A Fair Place for Industry: The National Trade Fair of Nizhnii Novgorod and Industry

Trade and the Russian Nizhnii Novgorod Fair:

Nizhnii Novgorod from its inception was a hub of commerce, and later as Russia industrialized, the city was on the forefront of industry, steelmaking, and industry. Much of this can be attributed to the location of the city. Trade in the Russian Empire depended heavily on river transport, and needed a central point where goods from foreign and distant lands could be traded for Russian products, “and nature herself has dictated that this central point be Nizhnii Novgorod” (Burbank 231). “Nature” here refers to Nizhnii Novgorod’s strategic location at the river route from the Baltic to Central Asia, at the river crossroads of the Oka River, which connect the city to Vladimir and Moscow, and the Volga, which has as one of its tributaries the Kama River which connected the city to the area of the Ural Mountains and Siberia (Britannica). The Volga especially was a conduit of goods throughout the empire, as the “Song of the Volga Boatmen” universal recognition attests, and as Nizhnii Novgorod served as the main point of departure for the Volga boatmen as well as traders traveling overland, the city reaped the rewards (Dunning 193). A saying from the 19th century pithily observed that “Saint Petersburg is Russia’s head, Moscow is its heart, and Nizhny Novgorod is its purse.”
Nizhnii Novgorod became an officially recognized center of commerce with the establishment of the Russian trade fair in 1817. The previous location was about four hours away from Nizhnii Novgorod, and when traveling along the river one can see the white buildings of the Monastery of St. Marcius where the Russian trade fair was held before its current spot at Nizhnii Novgorod. The fair was moved to Nizhnii Novgorod in 1817 due to a fire which destroyed most of the city, a fate that the administrators of Nizhnii Novgorod were careful to avoid through judicious use of firefighting boats and teams of fire fighters on the mainland equipped with twelve horse water hose carriage (Johnstone 100).

To Illustrate the breadth of the fair, which in its height during the 18th century was perhaps the largest in Europe and certainly the largest in Russia, the 1876 travel journal of British politician Henry Johnstone provides an insightful look into how someone looking upon the fair for the first time would perceive its overwhelming scope. Upon reaching the city, a picturesque scene greets the traveler or merchant. “Two white buildings, the Pajorski Monastery and St. Mary’s Institute for Girls” make their conspicuous appearance among the sea of trees, and “the gilded cupolas of the cathedral glitter in the sun, and the white crenellated walls of the ancient kremlin creep up the precipitous slopes of the hill… looking down serenely on the busy scene below.” There is not, however, a great sea of masts as might be seen in London or any other great shipping center, due to the use of barges to transport the majority of goods (Johnstone 104).

            From any of the great towers in the city, a spectacular view of the fair greets the traveler. The plains flanked by the river are covered with hundreds of thousands of people “buying, selling, trafficking, pushing, jolting, hurrying in every direction” among the colorful red and yellow houses, with the cupolas of churches rising from the midst of the din. A mosque can be seen between a church and a theatre, as horses and cattle pass by on their way to be sold or transported farther afield. The amounts of goods are visually impressive: on the wharf during the height of the fair can be seen “miles of bales of cotton” heaped on top of one another, and “pyramids of cow hide” and tea boxes. At the Bourse, known as the Corn Exchange, “every conceivable commodity except corn” is bought and sold. The misnomer is due to the rise of another town as the center of trade for grains, whereas before Nizhnii Novgorod sold as much corn as it does everything else. Near the Bourse is a chapel full of prayerful worshippers chanting hymns and silently paying homage to the local saints, a scene which is recreated throughout the city on every corner. Some of the worshippers can be seen falling and striking their heads thrice upon the ground in a ritual act. Besides these scenes of supplication are charlatans selling their elixirs and cures, including potions which will cure a toothache or eliminate the vice of habitual drunkenness. The overwhelming atmosphere of the affair, however, was not always entirely pleasant. Rain, which was often an institution of Nizhnii Novgorod, left merchants walking “not in ankle deep or knee deep, but hip deep slushing mud” (Johnstone 113).

            The poorer of the 200,000 people who travelled to Nizhnii Novgorod to ply their wares ate their meals at establishments which served the “universal” cabbage soup, black bread, grit porridge, and tea. Liquor, as might be expected, was available in abundant amounts as well. The “national drink,” however, was tea. “The moment a Russian awakes he swallows tea, and every act of daily routine is prefaced by libations of tea,” in the words of one British visitor to the fair. Tea-houses occupy many corners, and to the sound of street organs playing a popular tune, Russians will sit and drink their tea throughout the day. The innumerable quantities of tea needed to satiate this national thirst – 13 million pounds in 1856 - all pass through Nizhnii Novgorod at the fair after first being transported from the town of Kiakhta near Lake Baikal.

Besides being a national drink, tea was the salient factor in determining the relative price of almost all other goods at the fair. Because the Russian tea merchants were the largest purchasers at the fair and paid for the tea with wools, cloths, cotton, and all other goods, the price at which they bought the tea indirectly influenced the price of everything else.   

The center of the fair, the “inner temple,” was located inside a horseshoe shaped canal on the west side of the Oka river, opposite the old city and the kremlin. Here were orderly rows of yellow houses, which contained a total of 576 shops according to Johnstone account. However, the fair has “grown out of its swaddling clothes” by the mid-late 1800s, and the most valuable of the traded items – the tea from Kiakhta, cotton from Khiva, and iron from the Urals – were traded outside the central area of the fair. The most valuable product, iron, is loaded onto the long sand island situated just off the Oka, where barges moor and unload the metal, conveyed on a tramway to the nearest railway station. Today, this long stretch of sandy land is now a nature preserve covered with trees and greenery.
Early Industry:
Along with the longstanding tradition of merchanting enterprises in Nizhnii Novgorod, the 19th century witnessed a drastic rise in industrial production. This was catalyzing in part by the exploitation of serf labor in manufacturing, causing an earlier onset of factory industrialization than in much of Russia, especially in the heavy industries such as shipbuilding (Britannica). One of the largest factories, originally called the Nizhny Novgorod Machine Factory (now referred to as Sormovo) began its construction of metal steamers in 1851, and continued to be a powerhouse of war and domestic production. The Sormovo plant by the turn of the 20th century employed 11,000 workers, and hosted over 30,000 people in this district of Nizhnii Novgorod including the families of workers, making the factory one of Russia’s largest, on a comparable “scale of the Putilov works in St. Petersburg” (Evtuhov 72).
            Becoming a Center of Soviet Industrial Production:
During the 1930s, Nizhnii Novgorod was renamed Gorky in honor of a famous writer born in the city. During the same time period, the city also became known for producing the majority of the vehicles in the Soviet Union at the Gorky Automobile Plant, where cars, trucks, and tanks were assembled or produced en masse, earning Nizhnii Novgorod the moniker “Communist ‘Detroit,’” a “Detroit but without Ford,” as one soviet newspaper reported. The original plans called for a 50,000 person industrial town, which ultimately grew to twice that number over time.
Bors Agapov, a special correspondent on the constructing of the auto factory, documented the labor shortage, poor craftsmanship and construction, and ignorant management which made the city a microcosm of the 1920s and 1930s Soviet Russia and the manic march toward industrialization – “the tempo, the chaos, the shortages, and the dreams of a more orderly ‘planned in rows’ sort of existence” (Siegelbaum 46).  Agapov criticized the “men in ties, the most powerful people in Nizhni Novgorod” for their inability to identify the problems or act to rectify the situation. But their managerial weaknesses were not for want of a grand vision, which could be “glimpsed in the blueprints” of the auto plant: “I see one hundred and dorty thousand machines … four in a row … coming from the assembly shop, the biggest shop in Europe, one and a hald kilometers long… warehouses and garages planned in rows, collecting and reflecting the suns rays in their glass walls.”
            By the time the plant was up and running and early delays and supply chain disorganization had been rectified which saw only six vehicles constructed in Feburary 1931, the Nizhnii Novgorod Auto Plant was “a Soviet giant.” Production capacity by 1948 was steaming along at 140,00 trucks and cars per year, six times larger than the next largest plant in the Soviet Union, manufacturing the majority of the 211,000 vehicles produced in 1938 in the Soviet Union. Even by the end of the second World War, the Nizhnii Novgorod auto plant produced 100,000 of the 245,000 vehicles produced by the Soviet Union. By the time the rubble of World War II had cleared, the great auto district in Nizhny Novgorod was home to 130,000 workers and their families (Sigelbaum 86).

The Legacy of the “Largest Fair in Russia”:
Today, the grand building of the yarmarka, the center of the Nizhnii Novgorod fair, is the only building that stands left, still hosting Russian trade exhibitions and shows. In 2018, the building will host multiple forums highlighting and discussing new trends in architecture and construction, a far cry from its previous existence as the heart pumping goods through the arteries of the Russian Empire.  


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