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

Ukraine: Mysterious 'Roaming Tank' Reportedly Takes Aim at Smugglers

Ukraine's TV, print media, Facebook abuzz with reports a 'roaming tank' is on the loose, destroying vehicles of those involved in smuggling More

US Wildlife Service Begins Probe of Killing of Cecil the Lion

Minnesota man accused of killing beast is in hiding, has been asked to contact US officials; White House to review extradition petition More

Video Kerry Five-Nation Tour to Cover Security, Iran Nuclear Deal

Secretary of state will visit Egypt, Qatar, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam to discuss security issues, Iran nuclear deal, Trans-Pacific Partnership 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.
Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’i
X
July 29, 2015 9:34 PM
Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video 'Metal Muscles' Flex a New Bionic Hand

Artificial limbs, including the most complex of them – the human hand – are getting more life-like and useful due to constant advances in tiny hydraulic, pneumatic and electric motors called actuators. But now, as VOA’s George Putic reports, scientists in Germany say the future of the prosthetic hand may lie not in motors but in wires that can ‘remember’ their shape.
Video

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video 'Positive Atmosphere' Points Toward TPP Trade Deal in Hawaii

Talks on a major new trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations are said to be nearing completion in Hawaii. Some trade experts say the "positive atmosphere" at the discussions could mean a deal is within reach, but there is still hard bargaining to be done over many issues and products, including U.S. drugs and Japanese rice. VOA's Jim Randle reports.
Video

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Moves to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The last such event was caused by an asteroid 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs and practically everything else. So scientists are in a race against time to classify the estimated 11 million species alive today. So far only 2 million are described by science, and researchers are worried many will disappear before they even have a name. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Scientists: One-Dose Malaria Cure is Possible

Scientists have long been trying to develop an effective protection and cure for malaria - one of the deadliest diseases that affects people in tropical areas, especially children. As the World Health Organization announces plans to begin clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, scientists in South Africa report that they too are at an important threshold. George Putic reports, they are testing a compound that could be a single-dose cure for malaria.
Video

Video 'New York' Magazine Features 35 Cosby Accusers

The latest issue of 'New York' magazine features 35 women who say they were drugged and raped by film and television celebrity Bill Cosby. The women are aged from 44 to 80 and come from different walks of life and races. The magazine interviewed each of them separately, but Zlatica Hoke reports their stories are similar.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.
Video

Video Racially Diverse Spider-Man Takes Center Stage

Whether it’s in a comic book or on the big screen, fans have always known the man behind the Spider-Man mask as Peter Parker. But that is changing, at least in the comic book world. Marvel Comics announced that a character called Miles Morales will replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man in a new comic book series. He is half Latino, half African American, and he is quite popular among comic book fans. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Historic Symbol Is Theme of Vibrant New Show

A new exhibit in Washington is paying tribute to the American flag with a wide and eclectic selection of artwork that uses the historic symbol as its central theme. VOA’s Julie Taboh was at the DC Chamber of Commerce for the show’s opening.

VOA Blogs