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

But with such statements Chirkunov is thoroughly ignoring reality, say his critics. "For a long time, Perm had the reputation, and justifiably so, of being the capital of the Russian democracy movement," says Alexander Kalich of the human rights organization Memorial. "Today that reputation is at least somewhat tarnished." Granted, the opposition newspaper Permski Obozrevatel, which sharply satirizes the powerful in Perm, is still being published. And local journalists are far removed from the physical and mortal dangers their counterparts face in Moscow or the Chechen capital Grozny. But even in Perm, government officials have shown that freedom of the press is by no means unlimited. For example, the city's public prosecutor's office used flimsy charges to have critical photographer Vladimir Korolyov arrested and thrown in prison for several months.

But at least public discussions in the city seem relaxed: in the cafés on Sibirskaya Street, where the first Western designers, like Ermenegildo Zegna, have opened boutiques; in the Irish pub or one of the half-dozen pizzerias that have popped up in downtown Perm; or in the "Extra" tattoo parlor or the lawn in front of the university entrance, where the statues of Lenin and Stalin are still smiling at each other. Nevertheless, the members of the opposition in Perm are not the only ones who fear that the authorities are pursuing their model projects too rigidly, while marginalizing anyone who disagrees with them.

There is perhaps nowhere that better illustrates where intolerance, ideology and the brutal repression of civil rights activists have led in the past than Perm.

The Gulag Museum is just a 90-minute drive from the city. From the 1930s to 1988, dozens of these prisons existed in the steppes surrounding Perm. The dissident Sharansky was incarcerated in one of these camps. To keep from losing his mind in the bitter cold of his isolation cell, he dreamed up chess problems, which he would solve in his head. "And yet I began to hear voices and at some point I lost consciousness." He was removed from the cell, taken to the gulag hospital, and then returned to the cell. When the guards took away his psalm book, Sharanski went on hunger strike, and he was returned to isolation again. The cycle continued for six long years.

"My God, you're going to Perm. If I had time I would go with you," says Sharansky, 61, who was elected head of the Jerusalem-based Jewish Agency, Israel's official immigration organization, at the end of June. "I often think of the black-and-white world of the gulag, when I knew exactly what was right and what was wrong."

Sharansky's autobiography is imbued with a strange yearning for the old Perm. "In my prison cell, I was inwardly a free man. Things are much more complicated outside. There are thousands of options. In a certain sense, I am no longer free, because I can only be free with those I left behind."

But the Perm he remembers ceased to exist long ago.

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