NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia – It's hard to fathom for 21-year-old Valeria Kashnikova as she delivers pizzas to tables jammed with Swedes, Croats, and Argentines that her Russian city was closed to foreigners for almost 60 years during the Soviet Union era.
"I don't know much about that time," said Kashnikova, a waitress at Pronto Pizza e Pasta. "Right now we have a lot of people coming here for soccer, but they also get interested in our food, our culture and what we think."
And the history.
The venue for six World Cup matches, Nizhny Novgorod was known as Gorky from 1932 until 1990: a so-called "closed city" located 400 kilometers (250 miles) east of Moscow where dissident physicist and 1975 Nobel Prize winner Andrei Sakharov was held under house arrest. The city was entirely closed to foreigners, a place where Sakharov was kept from giving interviews or spreading anti-Soviet ideas.
Sakharov was confined for seven years to a modest apartment around Gagarina Prospekt, an avenue about a 25-minute drive from the new World Cup stadium located at the confluence of the Volga and Oka rivers. The apartment block's uneven brickwork and missing mortar contrast sharply with the gleaming blue and white soccer palace that Russian media say cost about 17.9 billion rubles ($283 million).
Sakharov's apartment is a museum now, and it's hard to find. Only a small sign marks the apartment, and crumbling concrete steps lead to the entrance.
The apartment has been left almost exactly as it was when the 30 KGB agents made sure that Sakharov — the designer of the Soviet hydrogen bomb — had limited contact with other dissidents.
The most compelling artifact is a white, rotary-dial telephone that was installed for just one call — so Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev could phone and tell Sakharov his exile had ended and he was free to move back to Moscow, where he died in 1989. There's also Sakharov's writing table with one leg held in place with what appears to be twisted string — said to be Sakharov's own repair job.
Museum literature and a tour guide explain how Sakharov was stunned by the might of a Soviet H-bomb test in 1955. He became the Soviet Union's most important scientist, and at the same time the shock of his own thermonuclear creation led him to work for causes connected to world peace and human rights.
Eventually that got him placed in exile in Gorky, which was named for Maxim Gorky, a Russian and Soviet writer born in Nizhny Novgorod. His family home is also a museum in town, along with a literature museum dedicated to him.
Kashnikova, the young waitress, blushed and acknowledged that — like many in her generation, born after the Soviet Union was dissolved on Dec. 26, 1991 — she knew almost nothing of Sakharov. She dug into her smartphone to search for the name and his detention in the 1980s. It rang a bell, but just barely.
"It's hard to imagine that time for me," said Anastasia Shutova, a 21-year-old university student working as a volunteer in a Nizhny hotel — giving out tourist information, maps, and history lessons about her city.
Compared to St. Petersburg or Moscow, Nizhny gets few tourists under normal conditions. And it saw even fewer in Soviet times. It's best known as an industrial and scientific center and was the heart of Soviet military production during World War II. It was also a prime target of Hitler's Luftwaffe.
But the World Cup has changed the tourist numbers, putting the focus on a provincial city that locals believe deserves more attention.
Nizhny Novgorod has its own Kremlin that is connected to Gorky Square — site of a towering Gorky statue — by Bolshaya Pokrovskaya, a street that teems on match days with painted faces, flags, and feverish chanting.
"You don't see many people from other countries here, unless there's an event like this," Shutova said. "It's interesting to have people asking questions so we can see how our city is seen, or how we are seen."