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

City of Perm transforms from a Cold War graveyard to an avant-garde mecca.

October 26, 2009 — -- 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.

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.

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.

Cold Ware Graveyard A Venue for Art

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."

Another eyesore has since been turned into a cultural attraction and, even more than the military museum, has become a popular gathering place for Perm residents: the Stalin-era piers on the Kama River. Not too long ago, the crumbling walls were still vermin-infested, and the old dock along the river, with its classical columns, was closed to the public. Now that the piers have been restored, the Museum of Contemporary Art, managed by Marat Gelman, has moved into the new space. Gallery owner Gelman sold half of his shares in his Moscow celebrity gallery and moved to Perm. "It's more exciting here," he says. "Perm isn't provincial. Perm is a new beginning."

His first exhibition was a triumph, and its motto became the buzzword of the economic crisis, and the favorite rhyme of the intelligentsia and the mentally confused alike: "Russkoye bednoye." Thirty-six artists displayed 120 works, made of materials like garbage, old metal and scrap. After the opening exhibition in Perm, the works were shown in St. Petersburg and Moscow and will soon be on display in Milan and New York.

The second exhibition, which is currently underway, is no less thrilling to the senses. A shiny, futuristic Robocop is standing outside, next to sandstone sculptures. Inside the museum is an exhibit of photographs of naked people. A basketball basket is attached to the forehead of a huge portrait of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. In front of the portrait are balls and the instruction to throw them. Some of the works on display in the high-ceilinged rooms with a view of the river seem abundantly eccentric, while others are trying too hard to be original. But none of it is boring.

Perm residents, who have been visiting their new museum in large numbers, apparently agree. Locals and the few tourists long viewed the riverfront promenade, with its rotting docks, as a dangerous no-go area used by gangs as a hideout. But now, as a desirable side effect of the city's cultural revitalization, a peaceful urban scene has taken shape around the museum. Street vendors sell kebabs to retirees, while a DJ attracts young people.

Perhaps the city's traditions explain why so many people here welcome all types of art with so little prejudice. Even under Ivan the Terrible, art blossomed in Perm. In the mid-16th century, the czar gave free rein in Siberia to the Stroganov family, legendary for its patronage of the arts. And even though some things were buried in the communist era, the ballet in Perm shone during World War II, when the Kirov ensemble was evacuated to Perm from Leningrad, boosting the reputation of the local Tchaikovsky Theater, which is still standing today.

According to the will of the city fathers, the avant-garde and the classical go hand in hand here. The opera is producing both "Swan Lake" and a musical version of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's famous gulag work, "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich." In the rebuilt cathedral, old masters are hanging on the walls and the roof trusses are decorated with a collection of carved saints. Perm has even more nostalgia to offer: Near the restored Dr. Zhivago house, which is believed to have served as a model for Nobel Literature Laureate Boris Pasternak, stands Russia's first statue of the long ostracized writer.

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.

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.