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

Young people are more attracted to the city's festivals, which take place once every two months, and some of which bring a touch of Woodstock to the Ural Mountains. They hang on every word of Vladimir Sorokin, probably Russia's most controversial contemporary writer, whenever he comes to Perm to read passages about the Russia's mafia problems today and in the future, from his latest book, "Day of the Oprichnik." "There are no longer any readings in Moscow," he says. "People there are too arrogant. It's different in Perm."

The term "world class" is much-used in Perm these days, by people like gallery owner Marat Gelman, Boris Milgram, the region's culture minister, and Governor Chirkunov. If they have their way, one day the city will be known for its world-class museum, a world-class ballet and a world-class theater. Anything that stands in the way of this vision is disparaged as nonsense. Critics are seen as troublemakers, which is precisely where the risks to the Perm miracle lie.

Risks to the Perm Miracle

The communists a sharply critical of the city officials, calling their cultural program "pornographic" and "pseudo-liberal." They would prefer to invest the money in social programs. "They should take a look at the enthusiastic museum visitors. The Communist Party is always the last to notice what people really want," says Gelman, who refuses to acknowledge that, even in times of crisis, society needs a carefully gauged balance between current spending on the poor and investment in a cultural future.

And the "Congress of Perm Intellectuals," which opposes what it claims is growing domination by the "Varäger" or "vikings" from Moscow? "They're all narrow-minded and envious," says the gallery owner, who doesn't feel the need to include local sensitivities in his plans.

The canny governor, at least, has realized that a functioning civil society in Perm is necessary if his policies are to succeed in the long term. The cultural breakthrough, says Chirkunov, is only the beginning, and he expects it to be followed by a boom in foreign investment and tourism. "I get along very well with the opposition movements, the non-governmental organizations, the Greens and the critical press," Chirkunov says cautiously.

Unlike most Russian governors, he is not a member of Vladimir Putin's United Russia Party, which is one reason he faces the constant threat of replacement. The overly successful (the "dangerous ones," from Moscow's perspective) are almost as much in jeopardy as politicians who have been disappointments in office. "We strive for open-mindedness in every respect," Chirkunov stresses.

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