- By Roland Oliphant
- Jul. 10 2011 00:00
Main industries: Chemicals and petrochemicals, food, forestry processing, machine building, oil and gas refining, printing
Mayor: Igor Sapko
Founded in May 15, 1723
Interesting fact: Perm takes its name from the medieval Principality of Great Perm, an ethnic Komi state that enjoyed a large degree of independence until it was subdued by Muscovy in the 15th century. Today there are about 183,000 Finno-Ugric Komi in the Perm region — about 5.7 percent of the population.
Sister cities: Oxford, Britain; Quingdao, China; Duisburg, Germany; Louisville, Kentucky, U.S.
Governor Oleg Chirkunov (+7 342-217-7158, 217-7458;
Anatoly Makhovikov, executive in charge of city hall’s relations with investors (+7 342-212-7167;
Galina Popova, head of the Department for Industrial Policy and Investment (+7 342-212-4538;
Marat Bimatov, president of the Perm Chamber of Trade and Industry (+7 342-212-2811, 210-1000;
Mayor Igor Sapko (+7 342-205-9059;
PERM — The picture below this encouraging tagline shows a white stick figure wielding a baseball bat, clearly on the verge of doing some hideous violence to an unseen victim.
In case you don’t understand how you are expected to change, there is a black line drawn through the club, as in a “no smoking” sign.
The message is unmistakable. It’s a disturbing sight for a visitor to come across in a city center late at night.
But after a glance over one’s shoulder and a cautious visual check of passers-by, it produces a question. Just what kind of a city needs to tell its public not to behave like that?
After all, Perm is not actually a menacing place. Its wide but congested streets slope downhill to the banks of the Kama River, and there is an air of quiet bustling ambition about.
While industrial — and perhaps wild around the edges — there is no feel of decay or abandonment.
Perm was immortalized in Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” as the genteel but provincial backwater the Prozorovas were so desperate to escape. A little boring, perhaps, but no hotbed of iniquity.
Like its sister cities in the Urals, Yekaterinburg and Chelyabinsk, Perm grew up on the mountains’ rich mineral wealth — especially salt — in the 18th and 19th centuries. Perm residents are still said to have “salty ears,” in reference to the prodigious quantities of sodium chloride the area produced.
There’s been a settlement on the site at least since the 17th century, which grew into a town when an artillery officer founded a bronze and silver smelter there.
A clue to its mineral heritage can be seen at the airport souvenir booths that sell jade and malachite boxes decorated with a statue of a lizard wearing a crown.
This is the legendary Lizard Queen — a mythical character who miners and stone workers encounter in folk tales recorded by Pavel Bazhov in his children’s classic “The Malachite Box.”
Later the town grew by taking advantage of its position on the Kama River to export paper, steamboats and munitions — which made it a key strategic battleground during the Russian Civil War.
After it churned out artillery during World War II, it graduated to become a center of Cold War-era missile production — and disappeared from the map, as the Soviets declared it a closed city. It was renamed Molotov, after Stalin’s foreign minister.
LUKoil Perm (62 Ulitsa Lenina; +7 342-235-6648, 235-6101;
Proton PM (93 Komsomolsky Prospekt; +7 342-211-3501;
Port Perm (1 Ulitsa Reshetnikovsky Spusk; +7 342-256-5011;
Perm also had a darker role in this period — as one of the main “islands” of the gulag archipelago. A well-preserved camp outside the city is a moving memorial to victims.
Today Perm is open, the missile factories build rockets for Russia’s civilian space program, and the oil and mining industries are still going strong.
But it is still easy to see why Chekhov’s sisters wanted to escape from the nondescript, provincial industrial center.
And that’s what those menacing posters are really about, says Perm Governor Oleg Chirkunov — a future that demands change.
“We live pretty well, but like the rest of Russia most of our wealth comes from just a few different sources — oil extraction and refining, the chemical industry, and, of course, spaceships,” he said.
“So like the rest of the country, we’ve got to understand how we’re going to live if the oil price falls,” he said.
Perm also faces another problem that has been causing headaches in the Kremlin: a shrinking population.
The city’s population fell by almost 10 percent since the census of 2002, when it stood at just over a million, to about 900,500 in 2010, according to the State Statistics Service. Although the latest census shows a slight recovery from that low, Chirkunov says the resulting work force deficit is his biggest headache as governor.
But while most regional governors like to talk about setting up special economic zones and boast of attracting foreign investment, Chirkunov has another vision — of putting Perm on the map as a new cultural capital not only of Russia, but of Europe.
The logic is simple — reliable electricity supplies, tax breaks and free land for factories are all very well, but businesses also need talented employees — not to mention a comfortable environment for the bosses themselves. “And to persuade talented people who businesses want to employ to live in Perm, you’ve got to make life comfortable,” he said.
The Prozorova sisters would be thrilled. To stop them pining for the culture and refinement of far-away Moscow, the local authorities are determined to bring it to Perm.
Inspired by the regeneration of rundown industrial centers like Bilbao and Manchester, Chirkunov wants to turn the city into Russia’s No. 1 center for theater, dance and painting. He’s even got his eyes set on the rotating title of a cultural capital of Europe — brushing off the fact that Russian cities are not eligible for the award, as he points out, “yet.”
Artistic impresarios including Greek conductor Teodor Currentzis, doyen of Russia’s modern art scene Marat Gelman and director Eduard Boyakov have been lured to the city to lend credence to the claims.
A trendy arts and lifestyle magazine called Sol — a quip on the salt Perm locals carry on their ears — edited by Gelman, is now available in trendy supermarkets and newsstands across Russia.
Looking to co-opt competition it could not defeat, the city has cunningly signed a cooperation agreement with Russia’s undisputed cultural capital St. Petersburg.
Meanwhile, a series of drama, dance and art festivals are intended to flood the city’s streets with Russian and foreign visitors all summer.
The Perm White Nights festival, which ran for most of June, combined performing arts, photography and public lectures, and turned the city into a month-long extravaganza of creativity reminiscent of the Edinburgh Fringe.
The local government also wants to build infrastructure and cultural institutions. Prominent architects have been recruited to design a new modern art gallery (Gelman’s museum is currently housed in the old ferry terminal on the banks of the Kama) and a ballet theater. The small, rundown airport is scheduled for renovation.
Weaning citizens off the joys of casual violence and other antisocial pastimes — similar posters feature stick figures swigging from bottles, littering and urinating — is a finer element of the strategy.
Hence, the subtitle beneath the antisocial stick figures: “We are a cultural capital.”
What to do if you have two hours
Q: What are you doing to attract investors?
A: The long-term problem we’re facing is a work force deficit. In the past people used to move to where the jobs are; today, jobs come to where the people are. So we’re trying to make it not so that this is a good place to produce, say, medicines, but so people who make medicine come here and say “this works for me.” To do that we need to create infrastructure, cultural venues and to build up the city, generally. And if we understand this properly now, we’ll be in a great position three or four years from now.
Q: How long is this going to take?
A: It’s a 20-year project. The task is to fill the city so that a person who lives in the city doesn’t think that the most interesting things are somewhere else. A great part of culture is people’s belief that they’re in the right place, that they’re doing the right things, and that things are interesting here in their home city.
Q: Will Perm become a center of business innovation — like Skolkovo?
A: We’re probably not going to compete with Skolkovo, which is really better compared with Novosibirsk’s Akademgorodok. But we do have innovative businesses. Proton PM, our rocket builder, is producing parts for the new Angara range of space rockets. Also we have Ural Telecom, a company that was founded a few years ago to make use of modern communications technology and now works all over Russia. And we also started supporting students working on new ideas — and in a few years they will be able to set up their own businesses. So this is not just in the future — it is happening now.
— Roland Oliphant
The center of Perm is relatively small and easy enough to get around on foot. The town has a navigable grid layout that slopes down on a gradient to the banks of the Kama River — which is the main tributary of the Volga and more than three kilometers wide next to the city.
A walking tour called the Green Line (helpfully marked by a continuous green line painted along the pavement) is one of the best ways to see the city.
Marat Gelman’s much vaunted PERMM modern art museum (2 Ulitsa Ordzhonikidze; +7 342-2199172;
The Green Line walk guides you from the gallery on the promenade next to the river, up the hill to the Tchaikovsky Opera and Ballet Theater and through the main square still dominated by a statue of Lenin — he remains the place of choice for newlyweds to lay flowers.
You can also see venues that inspired Chekhov and Pasternak, whose famous Dr. Zhivago spent a great deal of time in a city based on Perm.
Further up Komsomolsky Prospekt just past the Hotel Ural you will find a strange bronze sculpture consisting of an oval frame with two “ears” — a monument to the Permyaks’ (as the locals call themselves) reputation for having “salty ears.” Tradition is to have your picture taken through the frame.
What to do if you have two days
Nikolai Novikov, Perm’s top culture official, recommends two must-see trips outside the city itself: the Khokhlovka ethnographic museum and Perm 36 — the last and best-preserved camp in the gulag archipelago.
Perm 36 (Kuchino village; +7 342-212-6129;
Established in 1946 and closed in 1988, the camp held political prisoners — including poets, artists and scientists — considered dangerous to the regime. But in an ironic twist it was also chosen as the place for law enforcement officials convicted of crimes — including the small handful held accountable for their role in Stalin-era atrocities.
Chusovskoi is about 100 kilometers east of the city, and therefore takes the best part of a day to reach by bus or car. Tours are available from Perm.
The Ethnographic Museum (village of Khokhlovka, Perm District; +7 342-299-7181;
Built on a hilltop surrounded on three sides by water 45 kilometers east of the city, the outdoor museum includes wooden churches, traditional huts and other municipal buildings that would have been at the heart of city life when Perm was founded in the 18th century.
The Tchaikovsky Opera and Ballet Theater (25a Petropavlovskaya Ulitsa; ticket office +7 342-212-3087;
Where to Eat
Preferred drinking dens for businessmen depend on the business you’re in, but locals say the best place to rub shoulders with the local economic and political elite is the Havana Cup cigar club (45 Gazeta Zvezda Ulitsa; +7 342-244-0963;
Restaurant Zhivago (37 Ulitsa Lenina; +7 342-235-1716) — named after Pasternak’s famous doctor — serves fancy experimental dishes at appropriately fashionable prices (the average bill comes to 2,000 rubles). It’s a fusion menu, offering French, Italian, Russian and Japanese dishes, but the management recommends that visitors try the spinach pastry pelmeni with pike, perch and carp from local rivers. It is also a favorite venue for the local bigwigs to entertain foreign guests as well as visitors from Moscow. Previous diners include President Dmitry Medvedev, conductor Vladimir Spivakov and Israeli diamond magnate Lev Leviev.
The Porta cafe and bar (Komsomolsky Prospekt 20; +7 342-217-1107;
For the intellectually snooty there is club Pravila (+7 342-212-9008), whose motto is “for those who know.” In the interests of exclusivity its web site is out of commission, and it lists no address.
The Stroganov restaurant at the basement of the Ural Hotel (58Ulitsa Lenina; +7 342-218-6050;
Where to stay
Locals view the 187-room AMAKS Perm (43 Ulitsa Ordzhonikidze; +7 342-220-6060;
The Hotel Ural (58 Ulitsa Lenina; +7 342-218-6261;
It offers drab but clean rooms from 2,000 rubles a night with breakfast included.
Newer establishments include the Zhemchuzhina Hotel (65a Bulvar Gagarina; +7 342-261-9091, 261-7633; e-mail: email@example.com), a 10-story, four-star tourist hotel opened in 2008. It is attached to an entertainment complex and tailors its services toward relaxation rather than work. Double rooms start from 4,900 rubles a night.
The very comfortable Hilton Garden Inn (45b Ulitsa Mira; +7 342-227-6787;
The administration’s cultural plans are not universally popular. About 200 local intellectuals (or “poets, communists and Cossacks,” as Gelman helpfully dubbed them in a blog post) protested the plans on June 30 — largely because they feel the plans benefit glamorous Muscovites rather than homegrown talent. Those on the other side of the fence have accused the discontented of being stick-in-the-mud conservatives with an irrational aversion to contemporary culture — or simply at odds over money. Either way, in the right circles it could cause an animated discussion.
Other helpful hints
The highlight of the year is the White Nights festival in June, but a proliferation of festivals of all kinds means the event calendar is busy most of the year. Check out the city web site (
How to get there
Perm’s Bolshoye Savino Airport (+7 342-294-9825;
Perm Railway Station No. 2 (89 Ulitsa Lenina; +7 342-219-2957;
The river terminal may have turned into a modern art museum, but several tour companies still operate cruises calling at Perm in spring and summer. Intourist (