Perm: Siberia's best-kept secret
Perm was once a gateway to the Soviet gulags. Today, Europe's most easterly city is a hip hotspot with cool art and cosy cafés, as Richard Conway discovers
'But, why?" my puzzled friend asked when I showed him my itinerary. "Why would you want to go to Perm? No one does -- there's nothing there but bears and wolves."
But it looked interesting to me. Yes, it's a little out of the way, but it's still a city. I was going to visit art galleries, indulge my passion for Soviet-era architecture and maybe even sneak off into the wilderness of Siberia. Surely it couldn't be all bad?
"If you say so," he said, smiling cynically. "Good luck with it."
Now I was worried. This guy was Russian, an insider -- he had to be pretty clued in.
A few days later, as I stepped off the plane on a bright, blustery morning, I wondered if he was right. Here I was in Perm, Russia's 13th largest city, the gateway to Siberia, and I couldn't fit into the airport. Queuing outside, struggling to get into the minuscule baggage reclaim area, a tourist near me joked "is this it?" as we finally made our way in past gruff-looking security.
It's perhaps not surprising in an area that was hidden from the world for decades, quite literally. One of Russia's 'closed' cities (due to military production facilities), Perm only opened its doors to outsiders at the end of the Cold War. But now that they are open, it wants them to stay that way.
The city is trying to reposition itself as a modern cultural destination, with vast rural splendour on its doorstep. For the past three years it's been putting on the White Nights Festival, a sort of central-Russian version of the fringe. It showcases avant-garde art, dance, theatre and song, and highlights the area's industrial and agrarian history.
And when I finally settle in, I get to see celebrations in full swing. The city has gone all out: giant photoart bedecks the sides of otherwise shabby buildings, and there's even a clever logo -- a red cyrillic 'p' (for 'Perm') which looks like a lowercase roman 'n'.
This is a typical provincial Russian town really -- all wide avenues and kitsch buildings. It's a bit drab, sure; a bit tacky, definitely. But there's something about it. There are excellent cafés (such as Pasternak-Zhivago) and some beautiful buildings (the Transfiguration Monastery stands out).
There's even a newly designed cultural walk, the Green Line, which leads visitors to the city's best sights. But it doesn't take me long to see that even outside festival times, it's the museums, galleries and arty spaces that make the city truly excel.
Take the ballet. The Perm Tchaikovsky Opera and Ballet Theatre on Petropavlovskaya Street is one of the best, and oldest, in the country. Tchaikovsky was a local, and his entire repertoire is performed in this multi-award winning space. Housed in a 19th-century neoclassical building, shows here are world class, rivalling those of Moscow's Bolshoi.
During a showing of Ravel's 'Daphnis et Chloé', I sit in an audience where children brandish opera glasses and their elders scrutinise the dancers' every jeté.
The Perm State Art Gallery is another must-see. Here, 500-year-old wooden sculptures particular to the area (constructed under the patronage of the Stroganov family) sit near works by Shishkin and Savrasov. Nestled at the banks of the winding Kama River, it's a busy place where locals browse alongside tourists, and every room bustles.
Not far away, I come across the more edgy collection at the Perm Museum of Contemporary Art. This place could rival many of Europe's smaller galleries -- it's a sort of IMMA-lite with hints of the Tate.
Off the Green Line, my wandering also shows me that this is a town not shy of its once-secret military past. A solid producer of the country's wartime equipment, the old Motovilikha Plants museum now proudly displays Soviet cannons, rockets and other war-related paraphernalia. It's quite a sight: teenagers play in the grounds as parents enthusiastically take pictures. "Look, look at this!" a child shouts, as he sits atop a tank.
But for me, and for many who come here, this city is something of an afterthought. It's what's outside it that truly counts. Not far from here is the vast openness of Siberia. Expansive, captivating, eerie and bookended on this side of Russia by the Ural mountains, it's a place where near-unknown towns seem to straddle a void.
But as I soon find out, I don't have to get lost there to experience it. Just outside Perm is the charming village of Hohlovka. A sort of open-air museum of pre-revolutionary life, its wooden buildings are elegant, simple affairs made from sturdy pine trunks and it gives a pretty good idea of how rural Russians lived for centuries. It's quite a feat, with many of its buildings having been shipped here from other parts of the country.
Walking around in the near silence, it's easy to imagine just how isolated life here would have been. But far from being a sombre place, it's quite uplifting. There are even wooden sculptures of owls and lumberjacks playfully punctuating the site.
Out here in the wilderness too, though, in Kutchino, not far from Perm, is a reminder of the not-so-distant-past. Perm-36, a Soviet gulag, still stands, one of the only prison museums in Russia. Here, tourists are shown where political prisoners would have been held.
It's a pretty shocking place, but now, officials say they are even going to start using this as a cultural venue for concerts and music. Perm and its surrounds, it seems, are places where history is not so much being rewritten as re-imagined. And the effects are obvious: the area is quickly emerging as the country's most innovative and interesting cultural destinations.
Later, back in the city, I settle down outside a busy central café. Ordering can be tough here, because very few -- if any -- locals speak English, but today I'm lucky enough to have found one. A woman sitting nearby asks me if I like Perm. I laugh and tell her my Russian friend back home warned me not to come.
"From where?" she asks.
"Moscow," I say.
She stops for a second: "I hardly go to Moscow," she quips, with tongue presumably in cheek.
"Who cares about Moscow?"
5 great things to do in Perm
1 Visit the wooden village of Hohlovka, a museum of pre-revolutionary rural Russian life. Open May to October. Tel: 007 342 212 2569; heritage.perm.ru/ hohlovka
2 Catch opera at the Perm Tchaikovsky Opera and Ballet Theatre. Tel: 007 342 212 3087; theatre.perm.ru/en.
3 See local wooden sculp-tures at the Perm State Art Gallery on Komsomolsky Prospekt. Tel: 007 342 212 2250; gallery.permonline.ru.
4 Soak up the arty atmosphere and sublime baking at Pasternak-Zhivago café on Lenina Street . Tel: 007 342 235 1716.
5 Amble among Soviet tanks and war paraphernalia at the Motovilikha Plants museum. Tel: 007 342 267 8024; russianmuseums. info/M2106.
Need to know
Exchange your money. The currency is the rouble and one euro is about 40 roubles.
Few people speak English, so organise a guide through a tour operator. Don't be afraid to wander, though -- the city is safe.
A good way to find out things to do before you go is to visit visitperm.ru (but run it through Google Translate).
To get a heads-up on the Green Line cultural trail, call the tourist board or download a brochure for more details. Tel: 007 342 218 6021; visitperm.ru/en/ other/greenline2.php.
Follow the Perm-36 museum on Twitter @perm36
Richard flew to London Heathrow with Aer Lingus (0818 365000; aerlingus.com) and then with Aeroflot (0044 207 3552233; aeroflot.co.uk) to Perm (via Moscow). Allow six hours' flying time. Return fares from Â¤1,000.
Irish citizens require visas to enter Russia. It can be quite a bureaucratic process, and an invite to the country is required. The Russian Embassy (01-492 3525; dublin.rusembassy.org) is your starting point, or spare yourself the hassle by visiting a travel agent who can provide the invite for you.
The Soviet-era Ural Hotel is a kitsch reminder of Russia's near past. It's enormous and room spec is more than adequate. It's expensive though, with double rooms from €150. Tel: 007 342 218 6261; hotel-ural.com.
If classic western comfort is more your thing, there's the Hilton Garden Inn. Rooms are cheaper too at about €90 per night. Tel: 007 342 227 6787; hiltongardeninn.hilton.com.