History of the arsenal
Left avant-corps of the Arsenal. 2011. Photo by V. Yefimov

The Arsenal, with its total area of the premises of almost 7,000 square metres, is one of the largest buildings of the Nizhny Novgorod Kremlin. It was built in 1837 in the late Classical style. Together with the House of the Governor and the Cathedral of Our Savior’s Transfiguration, the Arsenal played a key role in creating the 19th century’s festive ensemble of the Kremlin.

In 2003 the Arsenal switched from being a military object to a cultural one, and work was initiated to turn it into a centre of modern art. From 2006 through 2015 the architectural monument was restored and redesigned to serve as a museum upon the project of architect Eugene Asse and conservation architect Alexander Yepifanov. Within the renovation project the walls and foundations were reinforced, interior decoration elements restored, brick walls cleaned, and the enfilades, archways, halls with open wooden rafters, floors covered with cast-iron plates, and red-brick arches of the avant-corps opened up again.

This work has been highly praised by the fellow professionals and awarded with the grand prix of the International Festival of Architecture “Zodchestvo 2015” (October 2015), the Nizhny Novgorod Award (May 2015), the yearly prize of The Art Newspaper Russia in the Restoration of the Year nomination, and an award for the design of the external and internal lighting of the Arsenal in the Light Architecture Festival (April 2015).

Notwithstanding its respectable age, the Arsenal has no history of its own. In the numerous photographs of the Kremlin and the central square of the city coming from all sorts of times the building only gets in the frame as a chance passer-by, always out of the focus of the concentrated gaze of the photographer.

The building of the Arsenal was doomed to this position, not unlike that of a stage flat, straight from the moment of its construction in 1843. After the 1834 visit of Czar Nicholas I to Nizhny Novgorod a new architectural ensemble was contrived. Here, in the elevated flat from where a steep path ran down to the Volga, the czar sketched the place of the governor general’s residence in his own hand. The governor general’s palace along with the cathedral, belfry, guardhouse, and the arsenal were composed into an integral arrangement.

The re-planning of the Kremlin territory started as early as the end of the 18th century when the chaotic town space was subjected to attempts of rectification along the lines of a Classical-period pattern.

The building of the Arsenal embodies the features of that style being designed without elements of a Classical order as a symmetrical building with its recurring same-type fragments, universal corridor layout, and archways.

Another feature of the Arsenal typical of the Classical period was its functional meaninglessness. The Nizhny Novgorod Kremlin lost its significance as a fortification as early as the times of Peter I. The town had need for neither garrisons nor armouries full of munitions. That is why the Arsenal erected close to the former chief armoury, the Porokhovaya (‘Gunpowder’) Tower of the Kremlin where once indeed, to quote an old source, “diverse cannon supplies” were stored, shortly became a provision storehouse.

However, the conception was not to make a functional military utility, but to embody the patriotic ideology with its glorification of the 1812 Napoleonic war heroism. The Arsenal, just as the entire architectural ensemble, belongs to a different epoch the basic idea of which was expressed through the famous formula Autocracy, Orthodoxy, and Nationality (the triad of the imperialist doctrine of the times of Nicholas I invented by Count Sergei Uvarov). Romanticist emotions of the time, including the love for theatrical effects both in home life and urban environment, were the reason for emergence of the Arsenal in the Kremlin ensemble and the perception of its role.

The central part of the composition was that of the Our Savior’s Transfiguration Cathedral, of which there were three succeeding buildings, of the 13th, 17th, and the 19th centuries. The latest one did not look like a building of the Classical period as would be natural to expect. Instead, it endeavoured to reproduce the national ecclesiastical architecture of the 17th century, but without understanding of its structural logic. This was why the cathedral came out to look oversize and ridiculous, with huge dome drums of wood supposed to make the structure lighter, and was largely criticized over time.

The Romanticist spirit of the place also was kept up by the preserved belfry from the 17th century with its tented roof. New trends find their reflection in the history of construction of the Governor’s House and the Arsenal, when during the process a lot of elements of the Classical period’s style were abandoned. These buildings came to being in smooth ascetic outlines, and in the composition of the ensemble they retreated into the background to make way for the overall harmonious impression.

The message of the composition was heard most strongly if a viewer was going uphill from the Ivanovskaya Tower below to the arched gate between the Georgievskaya and Porokhovaya Towers, when the Arsenal much like a shadowy scenery detail added to the general effect. The effect was diminished after the gate of the Dmitrievskaya Tower was open for the public to come through from the Kremlin to the Square of Annunciation (today’s Minin Square). The ensemble finally broke apart under the Soviets when the cathedral was torn down and in its place a governmental building was built, the House of Soviets.