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

Beginning in March 1980 Natan Sharansky, who would later become Israel's deputy prime minister, was held for six years -- for "espionage" -- in one of the forced labor camps that surrounded the city like a ring of barbed wire. He mustered admirable strength to survive the cold and loneliness in the isolation cell into which he was repeatedly placed for refusing to surrender his book of psalms.

Perm was closed to all foreign visitors until the end of the Cold War. No one was to see the gulags or gain a firsthand look at the factories that produced thousands of tanks and missiles. And even in the 1990s, when the city -- which was called Molotov for a time, after Stalin's foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov -- was no longer off-limits, most people kept a wide berth of this gray and brutal city, battered by history, in which the demise of the USSR was reflected in all of its horror.

All of that has now changed -- so radically, in fact, that it could almost be called a revolution.

The Russian magazine Afisha recently named Perm its city of the year. Marat Gelman, 48, a well-known Moscow gallery owner, says that Perm will be "the new culture capital within a year, if it isn't already today, having overtaken Moscow and St. Petersburg, which have become sated and are relying solely on their attractions." An art critic with the New York Times, deeply impressed by Perm's avant-garde successes, characterized the city's art scene as an "explosion of colors" and ideas.

Artists Flock to the Urals

Anyone walking through the city on the Kama River today might run into Thomas Krens, the former director the Guggenheim Foundation, scouting for exhibition space and joint venture prospects, or architects from the renowned Dutch firm KCAP, which was hired by local politicians to develop new urban development plans. "To Perm! To Perm!" seems to be the new rallying cry among a growing number of Moscow artists. They are flocking to the Ural Mountains region, as if there were a prize for contradicting the great Chekhov.

But why? What has happened, that this ugly duckling has developed into an attractive swan? Who is behind the miracle of Perm, and what lessons have they been able to pass onto their partner cities around the world, such as Duisburg in Germany's industrial Ruhr region?

The governor's office, on the main square, is recognizably a relic of the old days, coated with a layer of the communist mildew that is so difficult to remove from the monumental buildings of the Soviet era. It smells of floor wax inside. Pale rubber trees are in permanent hibernation, while the ghost of Comrade Brezhnev sweeps through the long corridors and musty rooms.

But the man who greets his guests is clearly not a product of that era. Oleg Chirkunov, the region's governor, is a man of the world. He has just returned from a conference in Avignon, in the south of France, and he enthusiastically recounts his discussions with Western European urban planners. The governor, with his infectious laugh and firm handshake, studied law and has a doctorate in economics, and he is also a graduate of the KGB University. He was the Russian trade representative in Switzerland, as well as having a successful career as a "biznesmen" in the import/export business. Eventually Chirkunov, who drives a Mercedes Sport Coupe, decided to go into politics.

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