During the Soviet era, foreigners were prohibited from entering the closed city of Nizhny Novgorod, the site of secret weapons programs and the city where the famous dissident Andrei Sakharov was sent into internal exile.
Now the ancient Russian city of 1.2 million people has come full circle, welcoming an unprecedented influx of outsiders from at least three continents for half a dozen World Cup matches at its spectacular new riverside stadium.
Where once they could not set foot before the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union, now foreign fans are streaming in for Nizhny Novgorod’s first game on Monday: Sweden v South Korea.
“I read about the city’s history, it sounded a scary place during the Cold War! But look at it now – times have changed obviously,” said Swedish fan Axel Gustavsson, proving his point by asking a friendly local to take a selfie of him at the stadium on the confluence of the Volga and Oka rivers.
Contrasting with that dour past chapter, the city became one of Russia’s most open in the 1990s under then-governor Boris Nemtsov. Now for the World Cup, authorities have bent over backwards to welcome fans: volunteers swarm the airport and roads are festooned with welcome signs.
Nizhny Novgorod will host three more group games, Argentina v Croatia, England v Panama, and Switzerland v Costa Rica. Then come a last-16 and quarter-final showdown at the 45,000-capacity stadium.