NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia (Reuters) - 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.
Locals hope fans will explore the city’s heritage - including the 16th century “Kremlin” hillside fortress - as well as drink, sing and watch sport.
While excitement is palpable, there is also some disquiet at the uncertain future of the stadium, patchy restoration of monuments, destruction of old wooden houses in parts of the city and the possibility of English hooligans.
“It is double-sided. Of course, there is interest in our city from all around the world now. And for businesses, there are lots of new possibilities to earn money,” said a prominent local artist, Artem Filatov, 27.
“But not everyone is happy ... I really hope the foreigners don’t just come for the football, but see other things in the city: the museums, the contemporary art center.”
When English fans arrive, they may not be aware of a famous compatriot who visited Nizhny Novgorod in 1993 - former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who admired the reformist Nemtsov.
Formerly known as Gorky after writer Maxim Gorky, Nizhny Novgorod was off-limits both for foreigners and Russian non-residents during the Soviet era.
Sakharov, the physicist and human rights activist who won the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize, was banished to Gorky in the 1980s after opposing the invasion of Afghanistan, to minimize his contact with the outside world.
“Whatever went on here in the past, it looks a beautiful and friendly place to me now,” Gustavsson said, before hailing a taxi to go and explore the local “Kremlin”.
Additional reporting by Denis Pinchuk in Moscow; editing by Christian Lowe, Larry King