News / Europe

Russian City Moving from Tanks to Culture

In the Soviet era, Perm was a closed city, lost in the gulag archipelago. For years, the city was called Molotov, after Stalin's foreign minister.

In the Perm region, thousands of prisoners worked and died in labor camps never marked on maps.

In Perm city, factories churned out tanks, cannons and rockets, arming Soviet allies in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe.

But, when the Soviet empire collapsed 20 years ago, weapons orders started to dry up.

And when this gray, industrial city opened to the world, city officials quickly discovered that no one wanted to come. Instead, about 10 percent of the population left. The population decline would have been deeper, but it was offset by people abandoning villages and towns for Perm city.

Seven years ago, the job of turning around Perm fell to a former KGB officer.

When the Soviet Union fell apart, Oleg Chirkunov, like many Russians, had to be fast on his feet. He switched from intelligence to business, working here and in Switzerland. Then, President Vladimir Putin, also a former KGB officer, drew on old-school ties and named him Governor of Perm Region.

To turn around Perm, Chirkunov made a seemingly odd choice: culture.

"The question shouldn't just be whether or not Perm should become a post-industrial city," Chirkunov said in an interview in his office, a Brezhnev-era, shoe-box of a building, newly topped with sculptures of red men, their legs dangling off the roof. "Is there really a chance for any city to remain industrial, with the exception of Asia where labor is so cheap? What European city can say with confidence that it can survive on industry alone? It doesn't exist. Perm isn't an exception. We are not a country with a cheap labor force. We have to win out in other ways. And that's why we have to become a post-industrial city."

The statues outside his office highlight the Chirkunov's bold goal: to turn a Soviet industrial city into a European cultural center.

The key was to lure Marat Guelman, a cutting edge Moscow gallery owner, who admits he took up the challenge partly because he was going through a mid-life crisis. Guelman flew 1,400 kilometers and two time zones east, to this city on the edge of Siberia.

"When I first moved here, people said I was the only person who moved here of my own free will," Guelman said in an interview at PERMM, the city's new modern art museum. In the kind of re-use of old industrial space that is only starting in Russia, Guelman converted a Stalin-era river boat passenger terminal into an avant garde museum that draws exhibitors from all over Russia.

"Now, some of my friends here are businessmen, and they tell me it's very easy to get people to come and work here," Guelman said. "Everyone wants to come to Perm."

Artists have embellished bus stations. A green dotted line painted on sidewalks now leads visitors on a downtown public art tour.

Nikolay Pollitsky came from Moscow and built a massive birch log arch to welcome passengers on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. The arch is in the shape of the Cyrillic letter for P, as in Perm. The logs represent the region's timber industry, once largely manned by prison labor.

"Maybe here is the most active art scene in Russia," Pollitsky said on a night that saw openings of a residence for visiting artists and an art show on Russian themes at the modern art museum. "Marat has stimulated the arts scene here so much that everyone he invites comes with pleasure. There are unique opportunities here for Russian artists."

By converting Perm from closed to cool, Guelman and the governor believe they are stopping the city's brain drain.

"There was a hypothesis that people weren't just leaving to find better opportunities to use their talent, but just because they wanted more interesting lives," Guelman said against a backdrop of an art opening crowd that was largely in their 20s and 30s.

Governor Chirkunov's Soviet predecessors forced people to live here, either to work in Gulag camps or in weapons factories. In one chilling reminder of this past, Perm-36, a Gulag camp a two-hour drive from the city, has been re-opened as Russia's only labor camp museum.

Now, Perm's Governor says, Russian cities and regions have to compete for people. And in most of Russia, coffins are outnumbering cradles.

"Our goal in Perm is to offer people options," Chirkunov says of his strategy. "Whether or not they want to go to the Museum of Modern art or the opera or ballet is their choice. But it's important that they have these options. And that's why we're developing so many city events, like the White Nights festival."

In one indicator of success, Perm's birth rate is up.  

But, not everyone is happy.  On a recent morning, Elvira Alexandrevna took her grandchildren to play in an open-air museum of cannons and rockets, all products of an adjacent Soviet-era weapons factory.

"I don't like some of the aesthetic choices, like the red people," says Alexandrevna, a retired librarian. "I prefer classical art as opposed to the avant-guardism."

More criticism comes from Igor Averkiyev, an opposition activist. He says culture is nice, but industrial investment is needed to really perk up Perm.

"People are looking for good jobs more than anything else," he says. "That's the way it is in Perm and in other cities. Thanks for the entertainment, but it's not helping to keep people here."

Some industrial investment has come. But vast, well-built industrial spaces still stand vacant.

Now, Guelman and the Governor are working on a new project: "Cheap City."

Taking a page from urban renewal projects in New York and London, artists would rent studio space in buildings of the old rocket factory complex, once the city's industrial centerpiece. Painters, sculptors and installation artists would pay only their share of heating and lighting bills.

"Industry is giving up space all over the world - train stations, garages, warehouses - and that vacuum is being filled by culture. Not because culture pays more, but because the spaces aren't being used, and culture comes along," Guelman explained.

Without a road map, Guelman and the Governor are trying to reinvent Perm, seeking a new brand and a new vocation for this city on the banks of the Kama River, a Russian settlement that for 300 years has served as a gateway to Siberia.

With a former gulag labor camp drawing tourists, a rocket factory leasing studios to artists, and a former KGB officer leading a cultural makeover, Perm represents much of Russia today - struggling to find its post-Soviet, post-industrial future.

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