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.

You May Like

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

New methods for mapping pain in the brain not only validate sufferers of chronic pain but might someday also lead to better treatment More

Sierra Leone's Stray Dog Population Doubles During Ebola Crisis

Many dog owners fear their pets could infect them with the virus and have abandoned them, leading to the increase and sparking fears of rabies More

Fake, Substandard Medicines Pose Global Challenge

So-called 'fake drugs' include expired medicines, those with manufacturing defects, and bogus tablets More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Paini
X
Shelley Schlender
April 20, 2015 7:03 PM
Pain has a purpose - it can stop you from touching a flame or from walking on a broken leg. As an injury heals, the pain goes away. Usually. But worldwide, one out of every five people suffers from pain that lasts for months and years, leading to lost jobs, depression, and rising despair when medical interventions fail or health experts hint that a pain sufferer is making it up. From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.
Video

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.
Video

Video Hope, Prayer Enter Fight Against S. Africa Xenophobia

South Africa has been swept by disturbing attacks on foreign nationals. Some blame the attacks on a legacy of colonialism, while others say the economy is to blame. Whatever the cause, ordinary South Africans - and South African residents from around the world - say they're praying for the siege of violence to end. Anita Powell reports from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Italy Rescues Migrants After Separate Deadly Capsize Incident

Italy continued its massive search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean Monday for the capsized boat off the coast of Libya that was carrying hundreds of migrants, while at the same time rescuing Syrian migrants from another vessel off the coast of Sicily. Thirteen children were among the 98 Syrian migrants whose boat originated from Turkey on the perilous journey to Europe.
Video

Video New Test Set to Be Game Changer in Eradicating Malaria

The World Health Organization estimates 3.4 billion people are at risk of malaria, with children under the age of five and pregnant women being the most vulnerable. As World Malaria Day approaches (April 25), mortality rates are falling, and a new test -- well into the last stage of trials -- is having positive results in Kenya. Lenny Ruvaga reports for VOA from Nairobi.
Video

Video Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?

Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Overwhelmed by Migrants, Italy Mulls Military Action to Stabilize Libya

Thousands more migrants have arrived on the southern shores of Italy from North Africa in the past two days. Authorities say they expect the total number of arrivals this year to far exceed previous levels, and the government has said military action in Libya might be necessary to stem the flow. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Putin Accuses Kyiv of ‘Cutting Off’ Eastern Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his annual televised call-in program, again denied there were any Russian troops fighting in Ukraine. He also said the West was trying to ‘contain’ Russia with sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports on reactions to the president’s four-hour TV appearance.
Video

Video Eye Contact Secures Dog's Place in Human Heart

Dogs serve in the military, work with police and assist the disabled, and have been by our side for thousands of years serving as companions and loyal friends. We love them. They love us in return. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports on a new study that looks at the bio-chemical bond that cements that human-canine connection.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Search for Bodies of Missing Soldiers

As the cease-fire becomes more fragile in eastern Ukraine, a team of volunteer body collectors travels to the small village of Savur Mohyla in the what pro-Russian separatists call the Donetsk Peoples Republic - to retrieve bodies of fallen Ukrainian servicemen from rebel-held territories. Adam Bailes traveled with the team and has this report.
Video

Video Xenophobic Violence Sweeps South Africa

South Africa, long a haven for African immigrants, has been experiencing the worst xenophobic violence in years, with at least five people killed and hundreds displaced in recent weeks. From Johannesburg, VOA’s Anita Powell brings us this report.
Video

Video Apollo 13, NASA's 'Successful Failure,' Remembered

The Apollo 13 mission in 1970 was supposed to be NASA's third manned trip to the moon, but it became much more. On the flight's 45th anniversary, astronauts and flight directors gathered at Chicago's Adler Planetarium to talk about how the aborted mission changed manned spaceflight and continues to influence space exploration today. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video Badly Burned Ukrainian Boy Bravely Fights Back

A 9-year-old Ukrainian boy has returned to his native country after intensive treatment in the United States for life-threatening burns. Volodia Bubela, burned in a house fire almost a year ago, battled back at a Boston hospital, impressing doctors with his bravery. Faith Lapidus narrates this report from VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko.
Video

Video US Maternity Leave Benefits Much Less Than Many Countries

It was almost 20 years ago that representatives of 189 countries met at a UN conference in Beijing and adopted a plan of action to achieve gender equality around the world. Now, two decades later, the University of California Los Angeles World Policy Analysis Center has issued a report examining what the Beijing Platform for Action has achieved. From Los Angeles, Elizabeth Lee has more.
Video

Video Endangered Hawaiian Birds Get Second Chance

Of the world's nearly 9,900 bird species, 13 percent are threatened with extinction, according to BirdLife International. Among them are two Hawaiian honeycreepers - tiny birds that live in the forest canopy, and, as the name implies, survive on nectar from tropical flowers. Scientists at the San Diego Zoo report they have managed to hatch half a dozen of their chicks in captivity, raising hopes that the birds will flutter back from the brink of extinction. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Exhibit Brings Renaissance Master Out of the Shadows

The National Gallery of Art in Washington has raised the curtain on one of the most intriguing painters of the High Renaissance. Mostly ignored after his death in the early 1500s, Italian master Piero di Cosimo is now claiming his place alongside the best-known artists of the period. VOA’s Ardita Dunellari reports.

VOA Blogs