His approach to the job was also unusual. After taking office as the region's elected governor in 2005, he ordered a merciless review of Perm's pros and cons. The results were horrifying. The city, with its roughly one million residents, was on the verge of dramatic decline. Its weapons factories were ready for the scrap heap, its public buildings were dilapidated, and there were no good hotels or restaurants.
The city's image as a gulag center and the home of weapons factories was hardly the sort of thing to entice tourists to come to Perm, 1,386 kilometers (866 miles) and two time zones from Moscow. People in the know raved about Perm's idyllic riverside location and the beauty of nearby forests and mountains, but such accolades could hardly improve the city's prospects. "I quickly realized that we had to make some radical changes," says Chirkunov. "Perm needed a new, post-Soviet identity. It needed unique attractions to distinguish itself from Russia's run-of-the-mill collection of large cities. It had to reinvent itself. But how?" The governor jumps up from his chair to fetch a stack of documents -- dozens of plans arranged in clear plastic folders.
"We thought of establishing new, top universities, with professors in a class of their own, as well as state-of-the-art hospitals. All of these things are important and indispensable in the long term, but they are also very expensive. The question was how we could change Perm more quickly and with a more reasonable investment. That was when we decided to turn an aging industrial city into a city of intellectuals and avant-garde artists. Perm was to become a center that would attract Russia's best minds. That's our vision."
The governor and a handful of his closest associates launched into their plans to revamp the city. He convinced a few ultra-rich men to become his patrons, including Moscow Senator and architecture aficionado Sergei Gordeyev and aluminum magnate Viktor Wexelberg. And when the Lukoil Group established its regional headquarters in Perm, the city suddenly had a potentially major taxpayer.
"We are trying to invest as little public money as possible in our culture project," says Chirkunov. He knows that some accuse him of being wasteful, particularly during these troubled economic times. "The main goal is to convert our weaknesses into strengths," he says.
Perm's leaders have already succeeded in some places. The Motovilikha open-air museum was created in the midst of a gray northern suburb, surrounded by the desolation and dreariness of gigantic, rusting arms factories. The museum is essentially a collection of the pride and joy of Soviet military might -- all of which can be touched and played with. Boys climb up onto tanks while little girls pose in front of intercontinental missiles. The museum is a lively Cold War graveyard.
The weapons have even become backdrops for art. Perm's modern dance company wants to stage more of its avant-garde productions at the site while the ballet is planning performances in front of the ballistic missiles. And interviews conducted with former members of the military-industrial complex during the "Novaya Drama" festival in March were turned into a much-noticed documentary play titled "Motovilikha Factory Workers."