Transformed City of Perm Could Be Russia's New Cultural Capital

The sky hangs oppressively over the city like an enormous, rain-soaked towel. It is hard not to shiver in this Gulag Museum, the only one of its kind on Russian soil. And it's impossible not to feel pursued by the eerie shadows behind each cell wall, and by the flickering light in the dingy group toilet, which is little more than a hole in the ground surrounded by blowflies. The wind howls in the corridors. The penal camp, with its dungeons, watchtowers and restored guard quarters, seems as if it had never been closed.

Ghostly voices can be heard moaning, alternating between piercing and muffled. They are the sounds of another world, as if they had sprung from the pages of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel "Notes from the House of the Dead. " "Russkoye bednoye, Russkoye bednoye," the voices say -- "Russian misery."

The voices are not a delusion. There is a mental hospital not far from the former gulag. Although the inmates are officially not permitted to enter the museum grounds, they know where there are holes in the barbed-wire fence, and they like to play in the cells. Sometimes they stay there all night, creating the impression that a theater group is reenacting what actually happened in the gulag, where prisoners lost their minds.

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It often continues until dawn, when the sun creeps over the horizon in the nearby city of Perm, earlier than almost any place else in Europe. It is then that Perm, this city near the Ural Mountains, the easternmost large city on the western continent, named after a geological period that began 299 million years ago and ended 251 million years ago, begins to shine. It is then that Perm, a city that is preparing to leave behind the darker chapters of its history, awakens and another day begins in its quest to become an international cultural center.

The Gulag Museum, as sinister as it is fascinating, is only one element of that quest. The city also boasts impressive art galleries, Stalinist-era buildings that have been converted into museums, and a world-class ballet and avant-garde theater built against the backdrop of crumbling weapons factories. Perm is a city with a remarkable past and will probably have an even more astonishing future. Three witnesses, three names are tied to its history: that of a great Russian writer, a brother of the last czar and a Russian Jewish civil rights activist. For all three men, Perm was a horrible nightmare synonymous with everything that can go wrong in a country. They suffered physically in this wretched city, the last bastion before Siberia.

Anton Chekhov went there in 1890, shuddering as he looked around, and 10 years later he used Perm as his inspiration for the bleak provincial town in his play "Three Sisters," a place from which the protagonists are desperate to flee, "To Moscow! To Moscow!"

Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich, a member of the Romanov dynasty and an heir to the throne, did not come to the region voluntarily. He was banished to Perm after the Russian Revolution and was shot on a June night in 1918 by Bolshevik thugs during an "attempted escape." After that, the party ordered the execution of the entire extended Romanov family.

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