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

Multimedia Baltimore 'Victory Rally' Follows Charges in Detainee Death

Saturday's rally is largest organized gathering since state's attonrey filed felony charges in police-custody death of Freddie Gray More

UN Denies Child Sex Abuse Cover Up in CAR

UNHCR says senior official suspected of leaking report suspended for breaching rules More

Nepal Officials Slammed Over Aid Response

VOA News has compiled from various organizations complaints from across Nepal of bottlenecks at customs, repeated harassing inspections of aid convoys and seizure of goods 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.
From Aleppo To Berlin: Band of Brothers Escapes Civil Wari
X
Henry Ridgwell
May 03, 2015 1:12 AM
Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled the civil war in their country and journeyed to Europe by boat across the Mediterranean. It is a terrifying ordeal with dangers at every turn. A group of Syrian brothers and their friends describe their ordeal as they try to reach Germany. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports. ...
Video

Video From Aleppo To Berlin: Band of Brothers Escapes Civil War

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled the civil war in their country and journeyed to Europe by boat across the Mediterranean. It is a terrifying ordeal with dangers at every turn. A group of Syrian brothers and their friends describe their ordeal as they try to reach Germany. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports. ...
Video

Video Rural Nepal Suffers Brunt of Quake’s Devastation

Nepal is still coming to grips with the full extent of the devastation and misery caused by last Saturday’s magnitude 7.8 earthquake. Some of the hardest-hit communities have been cut off by landslides making it difficult to assess the precise toll. A VOA News crew has been among the first to reach a few of the smaller, remote communities. Correspondent Steve Herman reports from the Sindhupolchak district, east of Kathmandu, which suffered greatly in Nepal’s worst quake in more than 80 years.
Video

Video Black Families Use Baltimore Case to Revisit 'Police Talk'

Following Freddie Gray’s death in police custody this month, VOA interviewed black families throughout the eastern U.S. city of Baltimore about how they discuss the case. Over and over, parents pointed to a crucial talk they say every black mother or father has with their children. Victoria Macchi has more on how this conversation is passed down through generations.
Video

Video Middle East Atheist Channel Defies Taboo

In Egypt, a deeply religious country in a deeply religious region, atheism is not only taboo, it is dangerous. It is sometimes even criminal to publicly declare nonbelief. Despite the danger, one group of activists is pushing back with a new online channel that defends the right not to believe. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.
Video

Video Nepal Quake Survivors Tell Their Stories

Against all hope, rescuers have found a few more survivors of the devastating earthquake that hit Nepal last Saturday. Mountain climbers and hikers trapped in remote places also have been airlifted to safety, and aid is finally reaching people in the areas closest to the quake's epicenter. Survivors and rescuers are now recounting their experience. Zlatica Hoke has this story.
Video

Video Lessons for Germany, Europe Remain on Anniversary of WWII's End

The 70th anniversary of the end of World War II will be marked May 8-9 in all European countries except Germany, which lost the war. How is the war viewed there, and what impact is it still having? From Berlin, VOA’s Al Pessin reports.
Video

Video 'Woman in Gold' Uses Artwork as Symbol of Cultural Identity

Simon Curtis’ legal drama, "Woman in Gold," is based on the true story of an American Jewish refugee from Austria who fights to reclaim a famous Gustav Klimt painting stolen from her family by the Nazis during World War II. It's a haunting film that speaks to the hearts of millions who have sought to reclaim their past, stripped from them 70 years ago. VOA's Penelope Poulou reports.
Video

Video Nepal Town Destroyed By Quake Counts Itself Lucky

Foreign search teams on Wednesday began reaching some of the communities outside Kathmandu that suffered worse damage than Nepal’s capital from last Saturday’s massive earthquake. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman is in Sankhu - a town of about 10,000 people - where there is relief the death toll is not higher despite widespread destruction.
Video

Video First Surgical Glue Approved for Use Inside Body

While medical adhesives are becoming more common, none had been approved for use inside the body until now. Earlier this year, the first ever biodegradable surgical glue won that approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports on the innovation and its journey from academia to market.
Video

Video Somali Hotel Chain Owner Strives to Make a Difference

Many in the Somali diaspora are returning home to make a new life despite the continuing risks. Since 2011 when a military campaign against Al-Shabab militants began making progress, members of the diaspora community have come back to open hospitals, schools, hotels, restaurants and other businesses. Abdulaziz Billow in Mogadishu profiles the owner of a chain of hotels and restaurants who is helping to bring change to the once-deadly Somali capital.
Video

Video Study: One in Six Species Threatened with Extinction

Climate change is transforming the planet. Unless steps are taken to reduce global warming, scientists predict rising seas, stronger and more frequent storms, drought, fire and floods. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, a new study on species extinction underscores the need to take action to avoid the most catastrophic effects of rising temperatures.
Video

Video Taviani Brothers' 'Wondrous Boccaccio' Offers Tales of Love, Humor

The Italian duo of Paolo and Vittorio Taviani have been making movies for half a century: "The Night of the Shooting Stars," "Padre Padrone," "Good Morning, Babylon." Now in their 80s, the brothers have turned to one of the treasures of Italian culture for their latest film. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver reports.
Video

Video Child Migrants Cross Mediterranean Alone, Face Unknown Future

Among the thousands of migrants making the deadly journey by boat to Europe, there are unaccompanied girls and boys. Some have been sent by relatives to earn money; others are orphaned or fleeing war. From a shelter for young migrants in the Sicilian town of Caltagirone, VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Baltimore Riots Shed Light on City’s Troubled Past

National Guard troops took up positions Tuesday in Baltimore, Maryland, as authorities tried to restore order after rioting broke out a day earlier. It followed Monday's funeral of a 25-year-old black man who died while in police custody earlier this month. VOA's Chris Simkins reports.
Video

Video Challenges Await Aid Organizations on the Ground in Nepal

A major earthquake rocked Nepal on Saturday and killed thousands, injured thousands more and sent countless Nepalese outside to live in makeshift tent villages. The challenges to Nepal are enormous, with some reconstruction estimates at around $5 billion. Aid workers from around the world face challenges getting into Nepal, which likely makes for a difficult recovery. Arash Arabasadi has the story from Washington.

Poll: Baltimore Police Charged

Poll archive

VOA Blogs