Nizhnii Novgorod (not to be confused with the older city of Novgorod, from which it acquired its name) was founded in 1221 as a means of protecting the region between the Volga River and Ural Mountains from the frequent incursions made by Bulgar tribes. From 1230 (until the gradual slackening of authority in the mid-14th century) it was held by the Mongol Khans who gained the same benefits from its fortification. The Mongol pogrom is widely believed to have held back the development of the city, at least to standards which might earn it the distinction of being an economic centre. It is, however, evident that the Mongols had an effective communication system and this linked the occupied cities to the Far East and the trade goods of Asia. At any rate, recent scholarship has suggested that there was little physical destruction of buildings or agricultural infrastructure and once the Mongol yoke was thrown off (and the city recaptured by Vasilii Dmitriyevich), the cities recovered very swiftly as trade links to Bulgarian and Serbian peoples were established.
Much commerce was conducted during fairs held periodically in the larger cities; Nizhnii Novgorod, located at the river junction, had access to markets from the Baltic to the Middle East. Nizhnii Novgorod was also one of those larger cities blessed with a gostinye dvory (‘guest court’) - rows of stalls segregated by specialisation and devoted solely to commerce. The great fairs soon became more important than external dealings (save for the Hanseatic League) and this can be directly linked to the long period of insularity and aloofness in Russian history. In the late 15th century AD, Tsar Ivan III created the iam, a series of postal relay stations and accommodations (inspired by the Mongol communication system of the same name), with the intent to bring the disparate regions of Russia together. Indeed, this institution gave many merchants reason to travel to the Oka-Volga waterway region.
Some of the primary sources of income for such merchants included boat building (as there was a ready supply of both timber and water), beekeeping (the largest concentration of wax and honey in the nation, according to 16th century merchant Anthony Jenkinson), salt mining and fish processing as well as (in the 18th century, when Russia struggled towards modernisation) tanning and metal-working. The latter industry was particularly concerned with the creation of religious icons: Nizhnii Novgorod produced more of these than any other city, with Moscow coming a close second (and the former sold these year-round). Domestic trade came primarily from similarly-developed cities such as Moscow, Tver, Novgorod, Iaroslavl and Riazan.
Nizhnii Novgorod was also integral to several political skirmishes: in September of 1611, the merchant Kuzma Minin proclaimed the establishment of a militia in order to “be together of one accord… Orthodox Christians in love and unity,” in order to “purge the state of Muscovy from our hated enemies, the Poles and Lithuanians.” The country had long been in conflict over the spread of Catholicism (associated with the former two nationalities) and the significance of Nizhnii Novgorod as the site of nationalistic revival was chiefly in the fact that it had never acknowledged the Roman Catholic ruler of the time (denouncing him as a mere brigand) and secondarily in its wealth (being the collecting-point for resources gathered from the northern lakes and forests) and communications system. Prince Dmitrii Pozharskii was elected to lead the militia and in February 1613 (after many skirmishes in the region of Iaroslavl), Mikhail Romanov was elected to be Tsar.
In the 1660s, a Don Cossack named Stepan Razin led an insurgent series of raids against cities on the lower Volga. He was forced to surrender and acquired a pardon, but he later exploited growing dissent amongst Tatars, Chuvash, Mari and Mordvins (in relation to taxation and increasing pressure to convert to Orthodox Christianity) in order to march up the Volga to depose Tsar Fedor Alekseevich. The insurgency raged between Nizhnii Novgorod and Moscow; during this time of upheaval, monasteries and estates were ransacked for clothes, jewellery and wine. The city’s wealth became a magnet for the disenchanted. Eventually, the Tsar’s better-organised forces defeated his motley band and brutally executed him, restoring order (if not peace) to the area.
In modern times, Nizhnii Novgorod is Russia’s third largest city, with some 1,341,000 inhabitants. Prior to the October Revolution of 1917, Nizhnii Novgorod was Russia’s largest commercial centre - the Soviets harnessed its production capacities for purely military ends. Indeed, its military importance saw the city closed to foreign eyes in 1930 and only re-opened in 1991.
Russia and the Russians: from Earliest Times to 2001, Geoffrey Hosking.
http://depts.washington.edu/uwch/silkroad/texts/jenkinson/bukhara.html - a 16th century illustration of Nizhnii Novgorod can be found here.