Raising the profile of a Russian province is not easy – there are 83 of them – and most have little to offer aside from a few large factories, a war memorial, and the occasional hockey team.
Intellectual and artistic life is something that happens chiefly in Moscow and St Petersburg, where most money and talent flow. The province of Perm, an industrial city in the picturesque Ural mountains, was one such hinterland, but has resolved to do something about it.
Marat Gelman, the architect of the new policy, calls it “rebranding”. He recently made the reverse pilgrimage, from Moscow, where he was a political consultant, deputy director of a state TV channel, and an art gallery proprietor. In Perm, he heads one of the most spectacular galleries of modern art in Russia – the Perm Museum of Modern Art.
His model for the city’s conversion, he says, is Glasgow. In 1990, it was “just a big industrial city with heavy industry, crime, alcoholism and drugs. Now, they have 3,000 cultural events in a year.”
Perm’s attempt to become a European cultural capital, like those many European regional cities, has begun with festivals. He says of Perm: “In this city, they had maximum one or two festivals a year. This year we’ll put on 15.”
“This has had an unbelievable effect,” he says. “People have come from everywhere to see how we did it. Nothing like this has been done in Russia outside Moscow and St Petersburg for hundreds of years.”
Oleg Chirkunov, the province’s governor, is supporting the projects, hoping to reverse the brain drain his city has suffered. The population fell by 160,000 in eight years, as people aged 18-35 moved away.
“In principle, we want to create some life in the city. Why does someone want to live here? A good job, quality education for the kids, and medical services, yes, but also for the sense that something is happening, that life is not being spent doing nothing of value. That is what the function of culture is.
“We’re trying to provide a platform to people who don’t want to just sit around, but who want to make something,” he says.
This year, the province received Rbs1.4bn ($48.2m) from the ministry of culture, doubling the budget of the previous year for its cultural activities.
Part of the effort to rebrand the province means bringing some world class architecture to the city. David Chipperfied, the architect who built the Neues Museum in Berlin, has been hired to refurbish Perm’s Opera and Ballet Theatre and create a 1,100 seat auditorium by 2014.
Another project is to refit the Museum of Contemporary Art, which has perhaps the most breathtaking collection of its kind in Russia. State museums such as the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and the Hermitage in St Petersburg focus on historical works, while Perm’s museum focuses on modern and avant-garde artists such as Ilya Kabakov.
The efforts are popular among the city elite. “We can walk three blocks and see paintings of the kind that previously hung only in Moscow or Paris or London,” says Irina Ginzburg, who works for a bank in the town centre.
Other citizens are not so sure, saying the money should be spent on jobs and services.
Mr Gelman cites a poll saying 43 per cent of the public approves, while 22 per cent disapprove.
He is, he says, an unabashed elitist. “The problem with the orientation of the state is that it aims only at the lowest level of society, the very poor.
“There is nothing wrong with that. But there is a generation of talented and wealthy people who we have to persuade to stay in Perm, who have appetite for more than just food and medical care. They need something great, they need meaning in their lives. And they will stay if they believe something great is happening here.”
Another goal is tourism. Mr Chirkunov is frank, looking out the window at the drab March winter townscape of apartment blocks and smokestacks. “It’s clear we are not a tourist city,” he says. “But we’re getting there.”
“We don’t have something like Machu Picchu or Stonehenge. Our ancestors built everything of wood. You need big stones or pyramids to get tourists.”
The political climate in Perm is comparatively liberal. Mr Chirkunov, for example, is not a member of the hegemonic United Russia party, chaired by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, which dominates politics throughout the country.
An hour and a half from the city is a unique and forbidding “attraction” – the only surviving Stalin-era Gulag camp, known as Perm 36, which was shut only in 1987. The fact that the buildings are still there is testament to the liberal climate in Perm.
Mr Gelman is hoping the artistic efforts will rub off in a broader way on the economy,
“Russian designers are not made use of by industry, and that is something we need to address,” he says. He has invited Artemy Lebedev, perhaps the country’s most famous designer, to look into creating a range of household goods that can be manufactured in the city’s enterprises.
It is too early to know whether Mr Gelman’s vision of rebranding a Russian industrial city will work and stem the tide of emigration.
“The advantage of culture is that it works quickly,” he says. “We could have made this an educational centre or a medical services centre, but that takes longer. The first results would not be for years, and we needed to reverse the outward flow of the populations at once.”