Russian city's bid to reach artistic
heights flames out
By IVAN NECHEPURENKO The New York Times
Perm, a provincial Russian city on the western edge of Siberia,
is defined these days not by what it is, but by what it was
supposed to be by now and is not.
By now it should have had a sleek new opera theater, designed
by the British architect David Chipperfield, a shining contemporary
art museum in a refurbished landmark building and a gallery
of celebrated local wooden statues -- an imposing white cube
standing over the wide expanse of the Kama River.
The central esplanade -- proudly described by locals as longer
than the National Mall in Washington -- should have been full
of avid visitors from around Russia and beyond, taking in
theater on pop-up stages and progressive street art.
But none of that has happened.
In 2008, Perm became a laboratory for an audacious social
and cultural experiment. Oleg Chirkunov, the regional governor
at the time, decided to use art projects to try to propel
the modernization of provincial life. An ambitious and forward-looking
politician, Chirkunov invited Marat Guelman, Russia's pre-eminent
arts impresario and an occasional spin doctor for politicians,
to direct the project.
"We destroyed this stereotype that there cannot be anything
interesting in Russia beyond Moscow and St. Petersburg,"
said Guelman, who has since left Russia for Montenegro. "Locals
realized that their status had changed and began to demand
more. When you have a contemporary art museum in town, people
want clean roads, too."
By now, according to the plan laid out by Guelman, the city
should have been rivaling Moscow and St. Petersburg, for centuries
the only artistic centers of gravity in Russia.
It is not. Its brief renaissance ended in 2012, and since
then Perm has lapsed into its former status as an average
Russian industrial city: an utterly unglamorous mixture of
charming, but mostly lackluster czarist buildings in the center
and piles of gray concrete in the suburbs.
Before Perm made headlines as a cultural powerhouse, it already
had an identity as the gateway to the gulag, a hub for political
prisoners who were shuttled through the city on their way
to camps in Siberia. In the 1950s, when that traffic slowed,
Perm began to produce ballistic missiles, making it off-limits
Guelman had a grandiose vision of transforming Perm to demonstrate
to Russia's other lethargic provincial cities how they could
become vibrant cultural capitals in their own right. He hoped
that the project would give them a measure of independence
in a country where most regions depend on Moscow and are therefore
easily controlled by the Kremlin.
Guelman opened Permm, a contemporary art museum, the only
one of its kind in Russia outside Moscow, and created a number
of festivals that filled Perm with visitors from around the
country and beyond.
The local government invited Teodor Currentzis, a Russian
conductor of Greek origin, to lead the opera. Today, he is
one of the few artists still hanging on in Perm.
"I had offers from many leading orchestras in Europe,
but I chose to stay in Perm," said Currentzis, 44, who
favors tight black jeans and leather biker jackets. "The
reason is that I believe in this utopian idea of promoting
a 'Plan B' for the Russian culture."
But that vision was anathema to the one man whose opinion
counts above all others in Russia, President Vladimir Putin.
In 2012, shortly before Putin returned to the presidency after
serving as prime minister, Moscow replaced Chirkunov with
a bureaucrat, Victor Basargin.
Basargin quickly set about undoing most of what Guelman had
accomplished. He appointed Igor Gladnev local culture minister,
with the express order of returning Perm to its drab former
In an interview, Gladnev said he was proud of his work. Elitist
Western culture, he said, had infected his hometown "like
"This pest was blossoming violently on the soil of Perm
region," said Gladnev, 55, a former actor. "No outstanding
exhibits were presented and no distinguished performers emerged
over this period. Nothing deep and bright was created."
(Gladnev was so impatient for his scathing remarks to appear
in print that he even published the entire interview with
The New York Times on his website before this article appeared.)
Local cultural leaders went into shock.
Four red Lego-like figures that had been erected on Perm's
main square were among the first things to go. The Red Men,
as the work was called, set off protest among local conservatives.
At one point, regional lawmakers refused to pass next year's
budget unless the figures were removed.
A small team of workers removed the figures in the dark of
night. Eight months later a shining plaque of the Order of
Lenin was installed in the same spot.
"This swap was very symbolic, better than what an artist
could imagine," said Nailya Allakhverdiyeva, who curated
the red people project and selected the initial habitat. "The
symbol of progress was exchanged for the symbol of past."
In July, Gladnev fired Boris Milgram, the director of the
local theater and his predecessor as culture minister, and
filled the post with an employee from the legal department.
"We were dreamers," Milgram said, sitting in an
office overflowing with awards and gifts, including a Golden
Mask, Russia's highest theater award. "We realized that
we had this unique chance to make Perm into a place where
people would want to live, but there is always this fear in
Russia that creative freedom makes people too difficult to
The public anger at Milgram's dismissal was so great that
Basargin, the governor, felt compelled to reinstate him.
Today, Milgram and Currentzis refuse to abandon Perm completely,
though Currentzis takes time away to conduct Mozart in Salzburg,
Austria, and Wagner in Germany.
"We didn't come here for good architecture. The architecture
is better in Paris than in Perm," Currentzis said. "Why
do young people leave provincial towns? We wanted to change
that and we did."
Along with Milgram, Currentzis is one of the few magnets still
luring visitors to Perm, among them Chirkunov, the former
"We had our mistakes, but I am proud of what we did,"
said Chirkunov, who now lives in France. He visits Perm every
now and then, especially to go to the opera, which he thinks
is superior to the Opera Bastille in Paris.