This city of a million inhabitants is casting off this working-class
image and reinventing itself as a cultural capital to rival
Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Perm was opened to outsiders in the final years
of the Soviet Union. Source: Geo Photo
According to local legend, the residents of Perm, Russia have
salty ears. As an industrial capital near some of Russia’s
largest metal and salt mines, workers are said to have once
lugged so many sacks of salt on their shoulders into Perm
that a briny smudge rubbed off on their skin. Today, this
city of a million inhabitants is casting off this working-class
image and reinventing itself as a cultural capital to rival
Moscow and St. Petersburg. Once a closed city during Soviet
times, Perm is now a vibrant urban centre with a rich artistic
tradition that has opened its doors to visitors.
Before Russians started mining salt here, the region was called
Great Perm by the Komi, a group of Finno-Ugric people who
share ethnic and linguistic ties with Hungarians and Estonians.
The Komi lived on the Kama River, which runs through the modern
city of Perm, and in the surrounding Ural Mountains, one of
the world’s oldest mountain ranges that separates Europe
In addition to naming one of Europe’s most eastern cities,
the Komi also supplied the moniker for an important geologic
age, the Permian Period. English geologist Sir Roderick Impey
Murchison coined the term after conducting research in the
Urals during the 19th century. Murchison’s Permian Period
ended with a cataclysmic event that killed nearly all the
world’s species known as the Permian extinction.
Although Perm’s name recalls destruction, within Russia
it has long been a place of opportunity. In medieval times,
the Urals represented the beginning of Russia’s ‘Wild
East’, a land of untapped resources that attracted explorers
and traders as Russia expanded into Siberia. When minerals
and precious metals were discovered in the Urals, Peter the
Great founded Perm in 1723. The mountains still produce a
lucrative export trade in metals and salt.
Belogorsky monastery in Perm region. Source:
During the Soviet days, Perm was renamed Molotov after Joseph
Stalin’s foreign minister and right-hand man, Vyacheslav
Molotov. In the Second World War, weapon factories were relocated
to Perm further east from the Nazis. Perm got its original
name back after Stalin’s death, and the city was opened
to outsiders in the final years of the Soviet Union.
Today, city planners and local politicians have sponsored
large-scale investment in Perm’s cultural life. New
theatres and art galleries are sprouting up as construction
projects take shape along the waterfront district on the Kama.
Visitors here can enjoy ballet and theatre without navigating
chaotic Moscow. Hiking and rafting opportunities abound in
the Ural Mountains and nearby expanses of northern Asia. The
refined culture of Europe and ruggedness of Siberia together
form the very essence of Russia; Perm offers both.
You can reach most areas of interest in Perm by foot. It’s
believed that Boris Pasternak, winner of the 1958 Nobel Prize
in Literature, based the town of Yuriatin in his novel Dr.
Zhivago on Perm. Pasternak visited Perm frequently and lived
nearby for several months in 1916. Start your walking tour
of Perm with a visit to the Pushkin Library (Ul. Petropavlovskaya
25) a striking yellow building with a small exhibit about
Pasternak in the room that he is thought to have envisioned
Zhivago meeting his lover, Lara, in the library of Yuriatin.
Preobrazhenskaya church in Kungur, Perm region.
Source: Geo Photo
Close to the library lies another sight referred to in Dr.
Zhivago as the “house of figures,” a beautiful
blue edifice decorated in white bas-reliefs of female heads
and which today houses the local branch of the Russian Academy
of Sciences (Ul. Lenina 13a).
Just north of Ul. Lenina is the Perm Museum of Modern Art
PERMM (Ul. Ordzhonikidze 2). Located in the old river station
hall by the Kama, PERMM is famous for its contemporary, and
often controversial, rotating art exhibits. Further east along
the Kama is the Perm State Art Gallery (Pr. Komsomolsky 4)
inside the former Cathedral of Christ Transfiguration. The
Gallery houses an impressive collection of paintings as well
as wooden sculptures made by the region’s Finno-Ugric
Perm is one of best places in Russia to see ballet and home
of the famous Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev. The city
has a museum dedicated to Diaghilev (Ul. Sibirskaya 33), and
you can catch a show at the Tchaikovsky Theatre of Opera and
Ballet (Ul. Petropavlovskaya 25), originally founded in part
by a donation from Diaghilev’s grandfather.
Outside the city is Perm-36 the only gulag in Russia that
is formally open to visitors. During the repressive Stalin
years, thousands of dissidents and intellectuals were sent
to gulags, or labor camps. Coils of barbwire fence still surround
Perm-36’s original buildings; concrete cells where prisoners
were jailed, and a new museum. A visit here is a moving journey
through one of the country’s darkest eras. The Perm
Tourist Travel Agency (Ul. Lenina 58, inside The Hotel Ural)
and other local outfits lead tours to Perm-36 that run upwards
of $100. Alternatively, the museum’s website contains
valuable information on how to organize your own transport
and book a cheaper guided tour through its Perm office (Bul.
Perm-36, the only gulag in Russia that is formally
open to visitors. Source: Geo Photo
Perm is also gateway for rafting, trekking, skiing, and horseback
riding adventures in the Urals. Tour operator Krasnov can
help you embark on any of these outings. Their 7-day rafting
expedition ($750-1,000 depending on group size) is highly
Perm’s calendar is chock-full of festivals. The White
Nights festival features a month of art and concerts every
June when the Russian sun hardly sets. The Kamwa Festival
starts every July and is both a celebration of modern art
and music as well as the artistic traditions of Perm’s
How to get there?
Direct flights run daily between Perm and Moscow (under $200
round-trip) or St. Petersburg ($250). Perm is also situated
on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. In the afternoon, Perm-bound
trains leave Moscow’s Yaroslavsky Station almost hourly
($50-120 one-way, 20-26 hours).
Where to stay?
The Hotel Ural (Ul. Lenina 58) has a great location on Perm’s
central square. Rooms start at $100.