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The birth and death of a cultural revolution

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‘Perm has nothing worth seeing’.

This was the answer I took from the first person I interviewed the day after my 24-hour trip from Moscow -1.440 km by car- and it’s the last thing you want to hear after so many hours on the road! This is Vladimir Abashev, a professor at the city’s university and head of ‘cultural heritage policy-making’.

Like dozens of cities in Russia and especially in the wider area of the Ural Mountains (rich in precious metals), Perm was founded in 1723 by decree of Peter the Great in order to house the workers of the first copper mine named ‘Yegoshikhinsk’. For almost 300 years the city lived thanks to its precious metals and factories, centres of all its economic activity; culture was always in the background, both politically and socially. An exception is the huge (when contrasted to a city population of one million) Tchaikovsky Opera and Ballet Theatre, which took its final, current form in 1880 and was the centre of Perm’s cultural activity. Traditional costumes, classical settings, and, of course, not a trace of new directorial looks. The ‘provincial’ spectators consumed what would be easy and understandable to them, what would relax them after a difficult day at work. At the same time, the city organized trade fairs with folk art and traditional dances and in its unique museum it housed mainly its famous wood-carved ancient ‘gods’. The current director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Nailia Allahmandulina, tells me: ‘Perm seemed to be a place where nothing happened. It was not on the map of modern Culture’.

All this until 2008. That was when everything changed. In 2005 Businessman Oleg Tsirkunov is appointed Governor of the Perm Region (Perm Krai) by decree of Vladimir Putin. Three years later, he announces to the local economic forum that culture is declared a central tool for the development of the city and its economy. This is the first time in Russian history that an official has announced such a thing. ‘Suddenly word was getting around that something was moving in Perm’, Allahmudulina recalls. The move attracts local entrepreneurs who step up the effort, while important art people from the rest of Russia gather in the city, with the gallery owner Marat Gelman being the most decisive of all. He is going to be the ‘brain’ of the project and sets up the ‘Russian Povera’ exhibition at an abandoned railway station together with the establishment of the ‘PERMM’ Museum of Contemporary Art on the same site. Local businessman Sergei Gordeyev became a sponsor of the museum.

Regarding all that followed in the coming years in Perm, M. Gelman has stated: ‘Art is a cheap and effective way to develop a city. Art achieves this more easily because sizes differ, compared to industry or politics. I often cite the following example: Picasso created works of art whose worth matches that of Gazprom. The fact that this ambition was born in Perm is related to a set of factors, with the most important being the political situation in the region at the time1Source: Expert website, published on 16th March 2015, by journalist Gleb Zoga. This view was shared by the Governor at the time, O. Tsirkunov: ‘People want to feel that their life does not pass without a purpose. That it is full, that they are at the centre of events. We had to create these events. Exhibitions, performances, street art… Investing in Culture is probably the cheapest and most effective way to feel like you live in the right place2Vedomosti newspaper, 2011. This is how the so-called ‘cultural revolution’ broke out in Perm.

In 2009 the ‘White Nights’ Festival begins, during which 80 exhibitions are held and 30 theatrical stages are inaugurated. More than 2000 people participate in its establishment. The locals are invited to paint the sewer caps and decorate the windows of their houses with their own works. In the first year, the Festival housed 136.000 spectators, of which 80% say they would revisit it next year. In 2011, 250 events are presented within 24 days, and its spectators reach half a million. Artists paint the concrete fences of the city, from which the project ‘Great Stories of Perm’ is born. New bus stops are being installed, designed by the ‘Perm Design Development Centre’, art installations are being set up, which later become new trademarks of the city, such as the inscription ‘Happiness is not behind the (Ural) mountains’ by Boris Matrosov but also the ‘red people’ placed by Andrei Ljublinski in the building of the Philharmonic. At the same time, the project ‘Perm – European Capital of Culture’ is launched; urban planners, architects, world-renowned artists of all kinds are invited and commissioned to renovate the airport, the Opera and Ballet Theatre, and the wood-carving museum. Finally, the stage of the musical theatre enters a new era when Theodoros Kourentzis takes over the artistic direction of the Opera and Ballet Theatre, moving there with the choir of musicAeterna from Novosibirsk. During his tenure (2011-2019) operas were performed in Perm, directed by world-renowned artists, such as Theodoros Terzopoulos, Romeo Castellucci, Peter Sellars, and Philipp Himmelmann. During the period of the ‘cultural revolution’, Perm became the third musical capital of Russia. It wasn’t long, though, before this revolution found its enemies, who were none other than residents and artists of the city. 

Ν. Allahmadulina takes me to the heart of the conflict: ‘All of us who came from other cities were described as ‘foreign invaders-intruders. They saw the project from the perspective of domination, of expansion without realizing its advantages. There was a small part of the inhabitants who wanted what’s new, what’s different, and they were mainly young people who usually leave the small towns. The ‘cultural revolution’ stopped this migration, as you could find yourself in different artistic circles at the same time, getting inspired and inspiring others regardless of what your art is. For this group of inhabitants, the ‘cultural revolution’ was a huge event. However, there was no outreach  to the part of the inhabitants characterized as ‘local patriots’, those who form the conservative side of Perm’s society, and that is why a great conflict came about, and was politicized. Politicians have emerged who have used the project for their own communication purposes, provoking this conflict, citing the large increase in the budget for Culture, and it was impossible to separate the real conflict from the political tone it deliberately took’.

For example, the famous writer Alexei Ivanov, a native of the city, said that it was humiliating that ‘paratroopers from Moscow’ brought about major changes in the city, while the well-known journalist of the city Ivan Kolpakov said that these actions are against the depressing nature of the city and that what the city needs is improval of its infrastructure and not contemporary art. Then, Ravil Ismagilov, president of the Artists’ Union of Perm, openly said in an interview that he would set fire to the ‘red people’ and, indeed, soon after this, residents vandalized the sculptures with broken bottles and graffiti, while repeated attempts were made to set fire to the inscription ‘Happiness is not behind the mountains’. Tsirkunov’s acceptance rates fell dramatically, and in view of the election, he had no choice but to resign. 

Just like that, the energy, the ideas, the imagination of the people who lived and created in the city in the past disappear, as in the end they became the ground for a political problem and problems, as is well known, require determination: in 2013 then-President Dmitry Medvedev accepts the resignation of the Governor. Tsirkunov now lives in France and is involved in winemaking. After this, the father of the ‘cultural revolution’ Marat Gelman was fired by the new head of Culture and now lives in Croatia, having been declared a ‘foreign agent’ by the government. The ‘White Nights in Perm’ contemporary art festival took place for the last time in 2014, the Museum of Contemporary Art ‘PERMM’ moved from the building of the railway station to a former shopping centre, while its old building, after being renovated by the Region, now houses the national pride exhibition ‘Russia, my story’. All cultural initiatives were terminated in 2014, with the official excuse of lack of resources. Finally, in 2019 Theodoros Kourentzis resigns as artistic director of the Opera and Ballet Theatre, with the local government accusing him that his performances are intended for abroad and not for the audience of the city. In other words, they are an exportable product. And that’s a bad thing. Because the product must be local, traditional, national, and of course, as such, it must feed and regenerate national pride. The stage narrative needs a traditional aesthetic and an equally traditional message so that its consumption is safe. As for this new generation of artists who returned to the city inspired by the current of the ‘cultural revolution’, they are left divided with each and every one of them following a sole, lonely path.

The week I stayed there I realized that Perm may not be a city full of historical sites but it is definitely full of unique, talented creators. In addition, it is also a city deeply wounded by the division that the political authority seeks to provoke when it decides to engage in art in order not to offer it freely to free citizens but to turn it into a tool of ideological domination and eventually enforcement. An authority frightened by what’s new and what’s free, deeming it non-national and therefore dangerous, all for the sake of a conservative electorate which is desperately seeking self-affirmation together with a misunderstood sense of ‘stability’ in its deeply unstable daily life. 

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