top of page

Lilian Pizzichini: Project Perm

A thousand miles to the east of Moscow is the last city in Europe. To be precise, the fourth largest city in Russia, situated along the spine of the Urals and on the banks of the River Kama, is the easternmost city of the European subcontinent. The city is called Perm, although in 1940 Joseph Stalin renamed the city Molotov in honour of his Minister of Foreign Affairs. The name Perm was restored in 1957 in the wake of Nikita Khrushchev's campaign of de-Stalinization. Shortly afterwards, as the Cold War intensified, the city became a Closed City, when it officially did not exist.

The idea of a closed city is hard to resist. Soviet cartographers erased Perm and the roads that let towards it from Soviet maps. Soviet officials pretended it was not there. There was a Soviet fortress behind invisible walls: a huge military industry producing artillery and rocket vehicles, as well as intercontinental ballistic rocket-launching systems, engines for MiG jet fighters and cannons of all ranges. The Soviets did such a good job of hiding Perm that Russians from outside the region simply did not know of the existence of its one million citizens. Until the end of the cold war, Factory #19 and other military installations were kept under wraps, and Perm's population were not allowed to leave without special permission.

Of course Perm is an open city now, though industry still dominates. A major petroleum refinery uses oil transported by pipeline from the west Siberian oilfields, and the city's large chemical industry makes fertilizers and dyes. President Putin's Jet Number One has an engine built in Perm. But that is not all. In the 2000s, after Glasnost and the liberalisation of Russian society, Perm found itself at the centre of an artistic renaissance. The region's reformist governor and then Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev planned to turn Perm into the Russian equivalent of Bilbao. Project Perm, as it became known, was to be a showcase of how a different Russia might look; an alternative to the patriarchal authoritarianism on the rise in Moscow. Perm's summers were transformed by the launch of the month-long White Nights festival, named for the sunlit evenings that warm the plains that spread out from the Urals, while at the heart of Project Perm was the Museum of Contemporary Art, established in 2009 in a disused river station, a Stalinist hulk of a building where passengers once bought tickets for boat trips along the river. One of the works the museum displayed was a blood-red wall, spattered with black paint entitled simply Maidan – a reference to the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, where the pro-western movement had just begun. On the outskirts of the city Perm offered a museum that had once been a Soviet forced labour camp and a karst cave containing stunning ice formations. The latter has been a tourist destination since Peter the Great decreed its special status in 1703. The former was a brave attempt to understand the horrors of the gulag, and to give a voice to those who suffered in it. Perm had a lot to offer. But only the ice cave remains. Project Perm was shut down.

"The best way to get a feel for Perm is by walking down The Green Line that follows the two main roads, Lenin Street and Komsomolsky Prospekt. Along the way you'll pass a number of different Constructivist and 19th-century buildings."

This is what my tourist brochure said. In 2018, when I was strolling Perm's empty streets, I sensed a return to the days when Perm was a frontier town on the Trans-Siberian railroad. The boulevards are wide like Moscow's. Tramcars clang down most of them. But what was most notable was the state of disrepair. The pavements were loose flags set roughly in the ground; there were cavities in the tar. As for the Green Line, it had been blurred by several winters' worth of sand blowing in from the Urals.

But it is precisely this sense of strolling through a deserted gallery, admiring long-gone exhibits on dusty plinths, that gives Perm a fascination that is hard to shake off, and harder to convey.

Apart from the perverse desire I have to visit out-of-the way places, what initially drew me here was the fact that Perm is not Yekaterinberg, the stop next to Perm on the Trans-Siberian Express. I have little interest in the Romanov dynasty, the tragedy of their assassination in 1918 or the nostalgia that surrounds them. I did not want to visit the site of their execution in what has become a shrine to them, the Church on Blood in Honour of All Saints Resplendent in the Russian Land, so I disembarked at Perm. It has always been a people's city, and this I wanted to see. Of course I found much more.

According to the Russian linguist D.V. Bubrih, the word "perm" derives from Finnic-speaking Veps, a tribe from the Baltics who occupied this region in the 9th century. The Vepsian word "perama" means "far-away land". Set in the forest approach to the Urals, Perm has always had the feel of a far-away land, especially in 1916 when the writer Boris Pasternak lived on its outskirts in the forest.

In his novel, Dr Zhivago, Perm becomes Yuriatin, and it is in the library by the house decorated with an Art Nouveau frieze of dancing figures that Dr Zhivago meets Lara. It is in the forests surrounding Perm that Zhivago is caught by Red partisans, who force him to work for them. When he finally escapes their clutches, he returns to Yuriatin and lives with Lara and her daughter before Lara is taken away and he loses his daughter. As I passed the house with the willowy frieze overlooking the mossy canyon that leads to the pale green waters of the Kama I could see the poignancy of exile and loss, dilapidation and neglect. The library and the facade Pasternak describes are still intact. The "ten thousand acres of largely impenetrable virgin forest as black as night" are largely gone.

Before Pasternak sojourned here, Perm housed traders and merchants who lived in de-luxe log cabins. The railway brought trade and commerce and more merchants who built stone houses that still nestle in large gardens along the steep banks of the Kama. After the high-maintenance shopfronts of uptown Moscow, I found Perm's air of neglect easier on the eye.

I met my guide in the bar of a hotel that looked like the kind of place a lonely businessman would pick up a hooker. Semyon told me that the local people were quite happy when "Moscow" shut down the resources for the art scene and sacked the governor.

"Artists are satirical and Russians don't like satire these days", he said.

Born in Perm, Semyon studied its geography at Perm State University. He is the type of Zhivagoesque intellectual who gives Russian culture its melancholy charm. Semyon loved his city and he watched its decay with an artist's cool detachment and appreciation for texture. He took me to the now deserted Museum of Contemporary Art. It squats on a traffic island that is slowly being suffocated by weeds. I could see why a contemporary art movement would not thrive in Perm. Outsiders and radicals turn to art to change what is inside people's heads. But the hard reality of people's lives creates conservative aspirations. It looked to me as though life was hard here.

Semyon took me deeper into the city's history. He showed me the house that was home to three elderly sisters in the late 19th century. These three sisters opened a school for the children of the poor. When the playwright Anton Chekhov came here in 1891, his hosts told him about the sisters' new school. He arrived in Perm in the afternoon and left, earlier than anticipated, the same evening. Something had unsettled him. It seems that artists and Perm don't get on. Perm inspired Chekhov to write a play about three women longing for the lamp-light and glamour of Moscow but who are stuck in a world that lacks meaning. On a more prosaic note, I would like to think that the original three sisters did find a purpose; they founded a school.

Even in avoiding Yekaterinburg, I could not escape the Romanovs. The Red victory in the spring of 1919 is commemorated in the centre of town by a bronze statue of Red soldiers and commissars. The sculpture is located where Lenin Street meets the Komsomol Square park. Near the Bolshevik monument is a restored townhouse built in 1910 by the merchant Vasily Korolev and known as the Korolev's Rooms Hotel. The facade now displays a bronze plaque noting that Grand Duke Michael Aleksandrovich, the fourth son of Alexander III and briefly the successor to Nicholas II, lived here during 1918. After the Romanovs were slaughtered in Yekaterinberg, on the order of the Council of the People's Commissars, which included both Vladimir Lenin and Stalin, the dead Tsar's younger brother Michael was exiled to Perm. The journey, by freight train in a coach without windows or heat, took eight days. Michael moved into the best room in the best hotel in Perm, along with two manservants and an aide. His wife and son managed to escape Russia but he stayed, sick with dysentery. On 12 June 1918, the leader of the local secret police, Gavril Myasnikov, hatched a plan, with the connivance of other local Bolsheviks, to murder Michael. Myasnikov assembled a team of four men who, like him, were all former prisoners of the Tsarist regime. Using a forged order, the four men gained entry to Korolev's hotel at 11.45pm. At first, Michael refused to accompany the men until he spoke with the local chairman of the secret police, Pavel Malkov. Then he said that he could not because he was ill. His protestations were futile. His aide insisted on accompanying him and the four men plus their two prisoners climbed into two horse-drawn three-seater traps.

They drove out of the town into the forest. When Michael queried their destination, he was told they were going to a remote railway crossing to catch a train. By now it was the early hours of 13 June. They all alighted from the carriages in the middle of the wood, and both Michael and his aide were fired upon, once each. But, as the assassins were using home-made bullets, their guns jammed. Michael, whether wounded or not is unknown, moved towards his wounded aide with arms outstretched, and was shot at point-blank range in the head.

His remains have never been found.

Years later, Soviet Perm was a hub of fast-moving industry. A ravishing white pile of Constructivist experimentation had once been a kitchen where Perm's workers enjoyed the dubious benefits of mass catering. The Factory Kitchen Central Working Cooperative was built in 1932. It has been restored and until recently was the base for local gangsters. All I could see, apart from a mosaic of expressionist Soviet woman all of whom had been liberated from domestic drudgery, were posters advertising empty burger bars. It is hard to imagine the blast of productivity that must have made this building the centre of a thriving metropolis in the years leading up to the Second World War. What remains is the evidence of what was once a good idea.

Perm is full of evidence. Epochs leave traces of decline, the most prominent being Soviet. On street corners sit tanks and armoured vehicles, relics of a victorious world war. Military might props up the flagging spirits of a decaying city. Further away from the centre I found the housing estates that sprawl across all the major cities of Russia. Not unlike the housing projects of America and the tower blocks of London, "Khruschev's Slums" are identikit blocks of flats, eight to ten storeys high, with balconies, internal stairwells and communal gardens containing children's playgrounds. Shostakovich wrote an operetta about these blocks in which Sasha and Masha have to bribe local officials to get allocated a 10th-floor flat. In post-war USSR, workers were desperate to move out of decrepit comunalki where families shared bathrooms and bedrooms into what Khruschev promoted as the acme of modern, comfortable living. The Khruschevs were built in the Fifties. They were built to last for twenty years but millions of people still live in them. The flats have survived with DIY cardboard sheets placed over chipped concrete and loose electric wires tangled around rusty piping.

"There is nothing so permanent as temporary", Semyon told me. "It's a Russian joke", he smiled.

I might have felt sad for the tenants of this tumble-down estate but I didn't. It was like walking through a garden where blocks of brick and concrete have lost their blunt geometry, and where nature has returned to her original state. The occupants of this scruffy Eden show their resourcefulness and spirit. Hanging baskets swarm with nasturtiums and pelargonium. Vegetables grow in petrol cans and water tanks. There is a confusion of decay and vitality; of foliage and patinated stone topped off with a flourish of graffiti. Some children were playing on the rotting, splintered wood of climbing frames. They careened down the slides and sat on sagging swings. Young women in tracksuits sat on benches and watched them play. A young man with red, dilated pupils watched me. He lurked like a London drug-dealer in the doorway of his block, the staircase spiralling behind him. What really fascinated me was the absence of officialdom. Sasha and Masha had a kind of freedom in their slum.

And so to the Yuri Gagarin Palace of Culture. Each district of Perm has its own Palace of Culture in sumptuous Constructivist concrete, housing space-age statuary. Rockets are big in Perm. I roamed around its cavernous halls in search of a far-off violin. I could hear it being scraped in a music lesson somewhere. But around every corner all I could find was another cavernous hall. Semyon showed me a memorial tablet. It read:

To Roderick Impey Murchison, Scottish geologist, explorer of Perm Krai, who gave to the last period of the Paleozoic era the name of Perm.

In 1841, Murchison made a tour of the region and named an early geological period in honour of it. The geological period of Perm spans 47 million years and took place 260-odd million years ago. Like Russia itself, these figures seem incomprehensible. I envy the geographer or the geologist who can simultaneously see past and present. Murchison had found the secret of Mother Russia's appeal: she is as limitless as she is harsh. Mother Russia liked him too. I saw at least two Scottish pubs in Perm, with the punters toppling out, drunk on Scottish whisky.

Finally, Perm's piece de resistance is the old Motovilikhinskiy Plant, now known as the Perm Museum of Artillery, with one of the most complete collections of ballistic missiles and rocket launchers in Russia. It was shut, despite it being midday, and there was no indication that it might ever open. Luckily, the largest exhibits are kept in the car park. Like a general surveying his troops, I admired the ranks of SAM missiles, the tanks and the 152-millimetre howitzer used in August 1944 by the Red Army to fire shells into German territory. Alongside Ladas and family saloons, I found a corrugated-iron shack selling kebabs in between two 30-foot rocket launchers. A stray dog alerted its mates and I was surrounded by importuning hounds. It was nearly time to board the train and I was reluctant to leave. I wanted to stay in this remote and otherworldly city that seemed untouched by its strange history. Like Chekhov's three sisters, everything seemed fraught with the sadness of an unknowable destiny.

Since fruit is a rare commodity on the Trans-Siberian I made a last stop at the Central Market. According to the tourist brochure, I should have found kiosks filled with Georgians and Armenians selling kebabs straight from the barbecue. As a further exotic enticement, I should have seen remnants of the region's Tatar population scraping a living from jewellery stands. What I did stumble across was acres of empty concrete and corrugated iron. Finally I found some old ladies selling handmade lace shawls. Then I found a section of the market where Chinese or Vietnamese stallholders were selling Chinese-made Western-style goods. After more stone setts and empty concrete bunkers, I finally found a large hut where farmers were selling crops of cucumbers, potatoes, cabbages and pine nuts. But there were no shoppers. There was no bustle, no banter, no commerce. In the windy silence, I found a young woman whose stall was piled high with tiny red pippins. She refused to accept payment for my bag of apples. Her shy smile and unexpected act of generosity was Perm's parting shot.

Once he was back in England, Roderick Murchison described the citizens of Perm as possessing a rare dignity that possibly has its roots in Eastern Orthodoxy. It is expressed in acts of generosity that seem to run deep because they know what it is to suffer. The inescapability of suffering fosters a kind of sobriety that is largely absent in England or America. It is bound up with the powerlessness of any individual to escape their fate, and seems to produce an inner calm; a source of energy that flows through history as the Kama flows through Perm from its beginnings in the Volga to its destination in the Caspian Sea.

Lilian Pizzichini is the author of Dead Men's Wages: the Secrets of a London Conman and his Family (winner of the 2002 Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction), published by Picador. In 2009 Bloomsbury published The Blue Hour: A Portrait of Jean Rhys (a BBC Radio Four Book of the Week) in the UK. Norton published it in the US, where it was shortlisted for the Marfield National Arts Award. Her most recent book was Music Night at the Apollo: A Memoir of Drifting (Bloomsbury 2014), a Spectator Book of the Year. Her next book is The Novotny Papers, to be published by Amberley in March 2021. As a journalist and critic, Lilian has worked on the TLS, the Literary Review and the Erotic Review, as well as writing travel pieces and arts and book reviews for national papers. She has taught Creative Writing in prisons and in universities.


bottom of page