A Bilbao on Siberia’s Edge?
By FINN-OLAF JONES
I WAS wandering though a dozen curtained-off video galleries on the second floor of one of Russia’s newest cultural hot spots, the Perm Museum of Modern Art (Permm), watching provocative art videos by a Siberian performance group named Blue Noses, when I came across a plain cardboard box. Peering inside, I was startled to see a film loop projected from the ceiling of one of the Blue Noses dressed as Lenin manically twitching in his coffin.
Perhaps Lenin, who famously disdained abstract art, really would be turning in his grave if he saw the sort of creations that this city, where his parents met, is attracting in its quest to become Russia’s center for contemporary art.
The gateway to Siberia and some 900 miles from Moscow, Perm used to be the last stop to nowhere, the transient point where criminals, political prisoners and other people deemed undesirable by the czars and the Soviet regime passed through on their way to forced exile and later the gulags, often never to be heard from again. During the cold war, Perm itself disappeared from Soviet maps when it became a “closed city,” off limits to outsiders thanks to its military production facilities.
But now, driving from the smokestack-ringed suburbs into the city center where candy-colored czarist buildings huddle with Siberian log cabins and Soviet concrete monstrosities, distinct flavors are emerging. Giant figurines of red Lego-like men lounge in the plaza of the former Soviet administrative headquarters and lurk from a nearby rooftop, the work of an art collective called the Professors.
Other eye-catching street art, like a bronze sculpture of a photographer shooting a giant set of ears, a 10-foot half-eaten apple, a tubular St. Stephen, appear, often incongruously, along the sidewalks.
For the past three years, this town of barely a million inhabitants has been aiming to establish itself as a key stop on Russia’s cultural map, opening gallery and performance spaces the way it once produced nuclear ballistic missiles. Perm has a dozen (and counting) theaters featuring productions that are attracting audiences from faraway St. Petersburg and Moscow. The broad esplanade running from the city’s main square has become the site of almost continuous international art, theater and music fairs during the summer. Even the grim-walled former prison camp outside town, Perm-36, billed as Russia’s only gulag museum, was converted into a theater last July for a well-reviewed production of “Fidelio,” Beethoven’s opera about political repression.
Though its ambitions might seem a bit far-fetched, Perm has gained some outspoken adherents. “Perm has overtaken both St. Petersburg and Moscow as the most exciting place to be for cutting-edge culture,” said Marat Guelman, a prominent art impresario based in Moscow, and a national television personality. In 2008, Mr. Guelman opened Permm in a renovated Stalinist ferry building. Featuring avant-garde works by artists like Valery Koshlyakov and Misha Most, Permm was hailed by The Financial Times as “one of the most spectacular galleries of modern art in Russia.”
What is going on?
“A city must have a dream,” said Oleg Chirkunov, 52, who was appointed governor of Perm Province in 2004. A local supermarket magnate fond of blogging about art and culture, Mr. Chirkunov works in a drab, Soviet-era government building that looms over Perm’s central square like a guillotine. “When I got appointed, Perm was losing a large portion of its young people: 160,000 in eight years. Something needed to be done to make this an attractive place to live.” Options considered included making Perm a center for medical care or higher education. “We wanted something that would bring quicker results,” Mr. Chirkunov said.
He brought in a team to “rebrand” the city, appointing as the minister of culture not a politician but Boris Milgram, a former university classmate who had left Perm to become an avant-garde theater director in Moscow. He also hired city planners and Dutch-based KCAP architects to oversee a 50-year master plan for citywide construction and the development of the Kama River waterfront. According to Mr. Chirkunov, almost 3 percent of the region’s budget, 1.5 billion rubles ($53 million), has been set aside this year for cultural development.
The governor, whose appearance and energetic manner are those of someone a decade younger, has traveled the world in search of artists and ideas, meeting, for example, with officials from Avignon, France, and Brasília, two cities also trying to increase their cultural cachet. Although the emphasis in Perm is on developing local and national artists, international artists are also finding a home for their work here.
“We were in Frankfurt when the governor sent a private jet to pick us up,” recalled Emilia Kabakov, who, with her husband, Ilya, makes up a well-known Russian conceptual art team now based on Long Island, in New York. “He was very persuasive with his ideas and personally showed us around the city. We ended up donating a piece to their new art gallery.”
This summer, the city invited graffiti artists from as far away as Mexico and New York to convert highway overpasses, construction sites and industrial areas into colorful and highly personal murals.
Three years into the master plan, the result is a city that, while still unable to hide the shabby concrete apartment buildings and dreary stores that contribute to its aesthetic, also reveals a colorful flamboyance. The combination makes Perm an ideal spot for urban explorers with a yen for Russian history and a fascination with that peculiarly Russian habit of charging into the future with wildly optimistic (and sometimes wildly reckless) crusades.
During a spring visit to the city, I made my base for a four-day weekend at the Amaks Premier Hotel, a blandly comfortable and modern spot centrally located across the street from the leafy riverfront currently being liberated from years of urban isolation with new promenades, parks and pavilions.
Unlike any other secondary city I’ve been to in Russia, Perm gave me many options; some half-dozen hotels — there’s even a new Hilton — have been built to accommodate the 750,000 tourists projected to come to Perm this year. But none of them had the Amaks’s disco-cum-bowling alley off the lobby, one of those baroque interpretations of Western amenities I often find in Russia. And although the breakfast buffet was a short, sad affair of mystery meats and watery coffee, I developed a soft spot for the Amaks when a casual midnight query at the reception about a lost iPhone resulted in an immediate half-hour-long hotelwide hunt by the staff until the doorman produced it from the breakfast lounge where it had been forgotten.
On my first day in Perm, strolling toward the city’s central square after the hotel’s negligible buffet, I confronted a number of bland pizza and over-lighted fry joints typical of provincial Russia and braced myself for a few days of hunger. But then I came across the glass-and-stone constructionist Pasternak-Zhivago cafe and restaurant complex where I sat down to a delicious meal of Russo-French fusion cuisine. Nearby was a table with expensively dressed young women, who, I gleaned from a bit of eavesdropping, had come in from Moscow for the weekend. (Moscow is a two-hour, $180 flight away, St. Petersburg a two-and-a-half-hour, $250 flight away.)
On Lenina Street, in front of the cafe, the Perm tourist board has established a Green Line, a full-day, self-guided leisurely walking tour of the city with well-written signs in English and Russian along the way. I found it to be a riveting stroll, though I broke it up into two days. These are the streets that the Nobel Prize-winning author Boris Pasternak knew when he wrote his most famous novel, “Doctor Zhivago,” which was published in 1957.
Yuriatin, the town where Zhivago and his family escape from the privations of the Russian Revolution, is thought to be modeled on Perm, and I instantly recognized prominent buildings from the novel, like “The House With Figures,” an important landmark for Zhivago, which now belongs to the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Around the corner, the reading room where Pasternak worked and based his fateful reunion between Zhivago and his great love, Lara, is still on the second floor of the bright yellow public Pushkin Library where a cheery librarian led me to a small wall exhibit about the once-banned writer. The library staff seemed amused to see an American saunter in, and I posed with them for a snapshot as a few of the lone readers looked up from their desks. Typical for this part of the world, a couple of the faces peering up from their books were Vogue-cover beautiful, and it didn’t take a leap of the imagination to conjure up Lara catching Zhivago’s eye here.
Next to the library, another Green Line sign marks a neo-Renaissance building where Czar Nicholas II’s brother, Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich, who had been named czar for a few hours after his brother abdicated in 1917, was seized and then assassinated one night in 1918 by local Bolsheviks.
Despite such chilling history, I found a pervasive neighborly vibe to Perm reminiscent of my hometown of Minneapolis, another creative center once considered a cultural Siberia. Passers-by regularly stopped to help me whenever I unfolded a city map. While I was trying to use my broken Russian to buy cough syrup at a local pharmacy, a mobile phone was suddenly proffered by an elderly woman waiting in line, “Please, my daughter speaks English, she’ll help you translate.” These sorts of things have never happened to me in Moscow.
While some compare Perm’s position on the international culture map to Bilbao, the grubby Spanish city given instant cultural cachet by a spectacular Frank Gehry-designed museum, I would place Perm in the company of more established cultural centers like Melbourne, and Edinburgh, where festivals and other splashy contemporary-art efforts complement rather than overwhelm an already rich cultural heritage. After all, Perm didn’t just buy a spot for itself in the international art scene; it has long been an incubator for artists, whether they chose to come here or not.
“Thanks to all the political prisoners who lived in Perm, and the fact that so many artists and ballet and theatrical companies from St. Petersburg and Moscow retreated here during World War II, Perm has been receptive to new and interesting ideas long before any of us showed up,” Mr. Guelman said. “This is a town already steeped in the arts.”
And in striking contrasts.
The czarist-era Ballet and Opera Theater, built in the late 1870s, features Russian standards and world class ballet. I had purchased orchestra seats for “Giselle” directly at the box office for $11 each the morning before, which was a good thing, because even though it was not yet tourist season, it was sold out to a highly appreciative, multigenerational local audience wearing their Saturday best. (I was distinctly underdressed in my T-shirt and blazer.) The performance ranked with productions I have seen in St. Petersburg and New York, and reminded me that Perm was the hometown of the great ballet impresario and founder of Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev (his house is now a local museum). Yet just a mile down Lenina Street, the provocatively named Theater-Theater was staging cutting-edge performances like the recent productions of “Communicators,” a play about political intrigue set in a Russian bathhouse. All the principals performed in the nude.
If the Perm Museum of Modern Art’s Blue Noses videos and Russian realist and Abstract Expressionist paintings provoked shock and awe, I found the perfect antidote to be a five-minute walk along the verdant riverfront to the Perm State Art Gallery, which was founded in 1922.
Housed in the former 18th-century Transfiguration of Our Savior Cathedral, the gallery has one of the country’s foremost collections of icons and Russian old-master paintings, and was dotted with remarkably well-mannered children on school outings and the sort of chic, darkly dressed couples one might see in SoHo art galleries on weekends. Everyone seemed to be here for the upstairs gallery directly beneath the cathedral dome. There, I was confronted by fantastical 17th-to-19th-century religious sculptures, which are apparently quite famous within Russia, carved in complex detail by local peasants. The figures of Jesus and Russian saints were posed in remarkably naturalistic stances while their expressive eyes and painted robes glimmered in the sunlight coming through the dome windows. One life-size carving of a seated Jesus looked so real in his seemingly existential angst that I was half-expecting him to be smoking.
The figures, unique to Perm, are not expected to stay here much longer. Prominently displayed in the museum’s gallery is a model of a new, expanded Perm Museum designed by the Russian architect Boris Bernaskoni. The model shows a giant multicolored cube of steel and glass emerging from the river embankment. Evidently, the master plan seeks not just to bring in the new, but also to celebrate Perm’s longstanding cultural treasures.
During summer weekends, locals picnic and play soccer on Perm’s broad esplanade, but when I strolled from the main square to Theater-Theater’s concrete neo-classical hulk on a chilly spring Sunday afternoon, I had the place almost to myself, save for a couple of families bundled up like mummies taking in the frosty air. This vast promenade surrounded by lawns is the epicenter of the extravagant array of festivals that attract so many out-of-towners during the summer. The highlight, White Nights, modeled after the Edinburgh Festival, is held here every June and features 2,000 performers in an international potpourri of cinema, art, theater and music. Other coming events: the Ethno-Futuristic Festival featuring multicultural dance, food and music (July 29 to Aug. 2), a Chekhov Theater Festival (Aug. 20 to 25) and Shalom, Perm! a celebration of Jewish culture (starting Oct. 29).
To accommodate the growing festivals (Mr. Milgram, the minister of culture, speculates that soon there are going to be more than 50 a year), the esplanade is being expanded, Mr. Chirkunov, the governor, said, to be “as big as the Washington Mall.”
It would be a large exaggeration to say that Perm’s experiment has gotten full support from the locals. I noted blank, bemused or even outraged responses to some abstract canvases and anorexic-looking steel saints. But everyone I spoke to agreed that something big and eye-catching is going on out here in the Urals. A formidable-looking middle-age Russian Valkyrie paused to watch me photograph a stylized metal mermaid that seemed to leap out of the sidewalk. I asked her what she thought of the city’s street art, and she shrugged her broad shoulders. “I don’t know what to make of it,” she said, “but it brought you here, didn’t it? It’s nice to see foreigners in Perm.”
“I’m not sure that this was the best use of our taxes,” said another local, Igor Tetuev, 31, a computer programmer, as we were sipping lattes in Coffee Expert, a cozy spot for a shot of caffeine just off the Green Line. “But it has gotten a lively debate going. Perm has gotten interesting.”
The governor and his team intend Perm to get even more interesting. Plans for newer and bigger attractions for the world’s cultural tourists seem to emerge from the city with a regularity reminiscent of the Communist Party purges that used to bring more reluctant visitors here. The big news around town when I was there was that the English architect David Chipperfield, acclaimed for his reconstruction of the Neues Museum in Berlin, had been hired to refurbish the Opera and Ballet Theater while adding yet another auditorium — this time a 1,100-seater — to Perm’s burgeoning stage scene.
Time will tell whether Mr. Chirkunov’s vision is an expensive folly or a brilliant change of course for Perm, but there is something undeniably fun and dramatic in traveling to the edge of Siberia to find that a city once so forbidding has suddenly become a vibrant sanctuary for artists. Lenin, or one of the Blue Noses dressed as Lenin, might be turning in his grave, but I’m guessing Pasternak, himself a persecuted artist who also conjured up romantic visions for Perm, would have approved.
IF YOU GO
WHERE TO STAY
Ural Hotel, an enormous, nicely renovated Soviet-era hotel, dominates the central square. The basement restaurant, Stroganovskaya Votchina, serves excellent bear meat and beef stroganoff, a local favorite, given that the Stroganoff family hailed from the area. Lenina Street, 58; (7-342) 218-6261; en.hotel-ural.com. A double room with breakfast is 2,300 rubles, or about $81 at 28.22 rubles to the dollar.
Amaks Premier Hotel, a comfortable modern spot in the historical center across the street from the Kama River. Ordzhonikidze Street, 43; (7-342) 220-6060; en.amaks-hotels.ru. Double rooms with breakfast start at 3,990 rubles.
WHERE TO EAT
Pasternak-Zhivago, an innovative restaurant, cafe and bakery complex in a striking glass and stone building, is a favorite for Perm’s bohemians and its cultural tourists. Lenina Street, 37; (7-342) 235-1716.
The two Pelmennaya restaurants next to the main square feature 50 kinds of pelmeni, Siberian dumplings, in lively beer-hall settings.
Pelmennaya No. 2, Lenina Street, 47; (7-342) 212-3895.
Pelmennaya No. 3; Lenina Street, 67; (7-342) 233-0158.
Coffee Expert is a cozy spot for a shot of caffeine; Kommunisticheskaya Street, 39a; (7-342) 221-85-08.
Perm State Art Gallery, Komsomolsky Prospekt, 4; (7-342) 212-2250, gallery.permonline.ru.
Perm Opera and Ballet Theater, Petropavlovskaya Street, 25a; (7-342) 212-3087; theatre.perm.ru/en.
Theater-Theater, Lenina Street, 53; (7-342) 236-4553; 2tperm.ru.
For a schedule of coming festivals in Perm, see visitperm.ru/en.
FINN-OLAF JONES writes frequently for The New York Times about lifestyle, travel and culture.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: July 31, 2011
Because of an editing error, the cover article last Sunday about efforts in Perm, Russia, to remake the city into a cultural capital misstated, at one point, the name of a theater that stages cutting-edge performances there. As the article correctly noted elsewhere, it is Theater-Theater, not “-Theater.”