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For Perm-36 inmates who broke the labour camp’s often-inane regulations, “outdoor time” simply meant being escorted to another small room, this one with barbed wire for a roof.

For Perm-36 inmates who broke the labour camp’s often-inane regulations, “outdoor time” simply meant being escorted to another small room, this one with barbed wire for a roof.

Sergey Ponomarev for The Globe and Mail

International affairs

Mark MacKinnon visits the unassuming city in the shadow of the Urals where, not long ago and for not very long, free expression was allowed to flourish. In fact, it was encouraged and even financed by the state. Then something happened

Photography by Sergey Ponomarev

The era feels impossible now, in a Russia that's increasingly closed, controlled and paranoid: Crowds dancing as buskers played world beats in a muddy field outside the governor's office. A government-supported contemporary art gallery displaying exhibits daringly mocking of the Kremlin. An independently run museum that kept alive memories of the gulag and held an annual festival of opposition politics, on premises that warned against the dangers of totalitarianism.

For several years, Perm – a city of brutal Soviet architecture that is home to just under a million people – was an anomaly in this country, a special political space. While the Kremlin was crushing opposition parties and the last independent media elsewhere, in Perm artists were encouraged to experiment, journalists could criticize, and visitors might think they were in Western Europe, rather than middle Russia.

Project Perm, as it became known, was the brainchild of a reformist regional governor and an art curator cum political strategist who had played a role in Vladimir Putin's rise to power, something he has come to rue. Together – and with the tacit support of Dmitry Medvedev, who swapped jobs with Mr. Putin and served as president between 2008 and 2012 – they decided to build a showcase of how a different Russia might look, an alternative to the throwback authoritarianism on the rise in Moscow.

And they succeeded – for a while.

At Perm’s museum of modern art, signs point out the distances to other modern art museums around the globe.

At Perm’s museum of modern art, signs point out the distances to other modern art museums around the globe.

Perm's summers were transformed by the launch of the month-long White Nights festival, named for the endless summer evenings here on the plains just west of the Ural Mountains. Some years, as many as a million visitors were drawn to its mix of street art, theatre and live music. Each June, musicians and graffiti artists, some from as far away Western Europe and Latin America, descended on the city.

The heart of Project Perm was the Museum of Contemporary Art established in the city's disused River Station, a Stalinist hulk of a building where passengers once bought tickets for boat trips along the placid Kama River. Among the provocative works the museum displayed was a blood-red wall, spattered with black paint to look like clouds of smoke, entitled simply Maidan – a reference to the central square in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, where the pro-Western protest that was to overthrow a Russian-backed government had just begun.

The Perm-36 gulag museum – already the only place in Vladimir Putin's Russia where visitors could experience the mix of monotony and terror that was life inside a Soviet labour camp – launched Pilorama (the name means "sawing bench," a reference to the woodworking done by inmates), an annual festival featuring opposition politics and folk music.

The media also felt free enough to criticize Oleg Chirkunov, the reformist governor, and even Project Perm itself, although local journalists still knew better than to pay too much attention to national politics.

"The idea was they would allow Perm to become a democratic region. When people would come to Perm, they would see democracy and think: 'All of Russia could be like this,' " says Marat Gelman, the Moscow political scientist and art curator tasked by Mr. Chirkunov in 2008 with turning this little-known city into a renowned cultural centre, akin to Edinburgh or Bilbao. Over the next three years, Mr. Gelman recalls, Perm "made such important steps forward." He dreamed of spreading the model to other cities, of fathering an "artistic perestroika."

Then things started to unravel. Mr. Putin announced at a United Russia party conference in the fall of 2011 that he intended to return to the presidency the following year, and that Mr. Medvedev was stepping aside to clear the path. When anti-Putin protests erupted later that year, Mr. Gelman returned to Moscow to join them.

But middle Russia wasn't ready for the revolution Mr. Gelman and Mr. Chirkunov wanted to see. The protests foundered, and Mr. Putin won the 2012 election with precisely 63 per cent of the vote, both in Perm and across the country.

One of Mr. Medvedev's last acts in the Kremlin was to accept Mr. Chirkunov's resignation that spring – three years before the governor's term was to end. Project Perm was over.

Soon afterward, funding for White Nights and Pilorama was ended, and this year, the state moved to take control of the management of Perm-36. The new administration – arguing that residents of the city never wanted the avant-garde art and Western-style freedoms that Mr. Chirkunov and Mr. Gelman brought – seems possessed with trying to erase all traces of the brief period when Perm was ruled by liberal ideals.

Gone now are the art installations that mock the state, and the accompanying warnings about the dangers of returning to the Soviet past. In their place are endless billboards celebrating the Second World War victory over Nazi Germany – with scant mention that the country had allies in that fight – as well as the new symbol of pan-Russian nationalism, the orange-and-black St. George's ribbon used by Joseph Stalin to reward the heroes of his wars.

"The moment now is a moment for going back to spiritual and religious traditions, about restoring and renewing Russia's historical code of values," says Igor Gladnyev, the new regional minister of culture, youth policy and mass communication, his voice echoing through the empty café of the city's biggest hotel. "Some would call this conservatism. I would call it common sense."

But Mr. Gelman says the move against Perm is a microcosm of how the state has tightened control over how Russians think about themselves, substituting any desire to be part of Europe and the West with a belief in Russian exceptionalism and an accompanying willingness to stand alone.

"It's like some kind of conservative cultural revolution," he explains during an interview in Budva, the resort town on Montenegro's Adriatic coast where he now lives. "They are going back to the past, saying everything modern is bad, and everything old is good. In this way, the [Communist] revolution is a good thing, the monarchy was a good thing, and Stalin's labour camps were also good."

A prison cell at Perm-36, now on display at the Museum of the History of Political Repression outside Perm, Russia.

A prison cell at Perm-36, now on display at the Museum of the History of Political Repression outside Perm, Russia.


Sergey Kovalev still remembers how the cold got into his bones – how guards told prisoners their barracks were warm enough, even as ice coated the inside walls – while he was an inmate in Perm-36, one of the lesser-known spots in the Soviet Union's infamous gulag archipelago.

Now, four decades later, Perm-36 is in the process of forgetting him.

Mr. Kovalev, one of the Soviet Union's more famous dissidents, spent seven years at the labour camp after being arrested in 1975 for publishing a samizdat journal chronicling human-rights abuses. After the Soviet collapse, he was among the founders of Memorial, a group that took over the management of Perm-36 and preserved it as a museum, a lonely testament to the horrors of a system that swallowed millions of citizens.

For 20 years, Perm-36 was simultaneously ignored, tolerated and partly funded by the state. But it was never promoted as an important tourist attraction, and the government never bothered to improve the potholed dirt road from the city to the camp, making the 120-kilometre trip a forbidding 2 1/2 hour journey.

Now the state, which was renting the site to the human-rights activists, has taken charge of the museum (which had already stopped accepting grants from abroad to avoid being labelled a "foreign agent"). These days, Perm-36 is directly controlled by the regional ministry of culture, which seeks to tell a "neutral" story of what happened there, giving the testimony of prison guards equal weight with that of inmates.

The Soviet authorities, visitors are now told, had reasons for doing what they did.

To a first-time visitor, the tour given today at Perm-36 seems thorough enough. The violence and repression of the Stalin era are grimly illustrated with statistics and maps. Nothing is glossed over about the backbreaking work done here, or the claustrophobic isolation cells. For inmates who broke the camp's often-inane regulations, "outdoor time" simply meant being escorted to another small room, this one with barbed wire for a roof.

Only if armed with Mr. Kovalev's recollections can you spot how the story is now told differently. In the new version, the prisoners' cells were warmer, the beds softer and the guards less cruel than Mr. Kovalev remembers.

"Sometimes the prisoners just wanted to find reasons to complain. But in the 1970s and eighties, the conditions were okay," says burly tour guide Sergey Spodin. A former member of the Red Army, he remembers that his unit used to conduct shooting drills outside the barbed wire that surrounded Perm-36, knowing it would scare those inside, whom, they'd been told, were enemies of the state.

And some really were Russia's enemies, Mr. Spodin insists. Perm-36 held members of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, the militia founded by Stepan Bandera that briefly fought alongside the Nazis, and against the Red Army, during the Second World War. More than 50 years after he was assassinated by the KGB, Mr. Bandera has been resurrected by Kremlin-controlled media as the core reason for Russia's involvement in Ukraine.

Today, his collaboration with the Nazis has been exaggerated to the point that in Russia his name has the same ring as Hitler's. Russia claims it needed to annex the Crimean Peninsula to save residents from Mr. Bandera's modern followers, portrayed as having genocidal intentions toward those who speak Russian rather than Ukrainian. The Kremlin-supported separatist armies of eastern Ukraine's Donetsk and Lugansk regions say they are fighting for freedom from the "fascist Banderites" who now rule in Kiev.

As Mr. Spodin continues his tour, it becomes clear that Perm-36 was brought under state control not to hide what happened here, but to make sure the story being told fits in with the government's narrative about the war in Ukraine. As in Soviet times, not even a museum is allowed to challenge the official version of the truth.

"What's happening to the museum is the same as what's happening to Perm, is the same as what's happening to the entire country," Mr. Gelman says.

An elderly couple out for an evening stroll in Perm on June, 7, 2015.

An elderly couple out for an evening stroll in Perm on June, 7, 2015.


Perm could have been famous, were it not for the Russian literary tradition of bestowing pseudonyms on cities.

Set in the forest approach to the Urals, which separate Russia's European and Asian halves, the city was founded by Catherine the Great during her 18th-century quest to secure Russia's influence over Siberia. Perm has been identified as the "uncultured and behind-the-times" town that playwright Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters are desperate to escape, and novelist Boris Pasternak set part of his Nobel-winning Dr. Zhivago here, although he called it Yuriatin.

During the Cold War, Perm sank deeper into anonymity as one of the Soviet Union's closed cities. Its Motovilikha artillery plant and Aviadvigatel aircraft-engine factory were deemed too sensitive for foreign eyes, and tourists came only after the Iron Curtain fell.

Today, the city is still the industrial heart of central Russia, although a rusting one. The Motovilikha and Aviadvigatel plants remain, but don't employ as many people. Part of the slack has been taken up by the oil and gas industry, but the city feels mired in stagnation. A construction crane is a head-turning sight.

Critics say Mr. Chirkunov and Mr. Gelman, neither of whom had lived in Perm, failed to grasp the region's essentially conservative and working-class nature. Locals wanted culture that was connected to their lives, not high-brow installations that mocked institutions they respected, such as the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church.

Nikolai Novichkov worked as Mr. Chirkunov's chief of staff, and then as the region's deputy minister of culture, during the time of Project Perm. He was a supporter, until Mr. Gelman refused any censorship of an exhibit mocking the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. The show included a poster showing five nooses hanging in the shape of the Olympic rings, and another depicting a snarling Stalin wearing the suit of Misha the Bear, the Sochi mascot. Mr. Gelman's gallery displayed the exhibit during the White Nights festival in the summer of 2013, ensuring the maximum number of people would see the critique of a project deeply personal to Mr. Putin.

But by then Mr. Chirkunov was gone. The exhibit was closed and Mr. Gelman fired.

The pressure then escalated when he returned to Moscow and became one of the few public figures to openly support Pussy Riot, the female punk-rock trio jailed for singing a profanity-laced, anti-Putin song in Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral. His name began to appear on "enemies of Russia" lists posted online, not far below that of Boris Nemtsov, the opposition leader gunned down in February outside the Kremlin walls.

By then Mr. Gelman had already decided it was time to leave. "Until 2012, the situation was that 'if you're not with us, don't speak out, but [otherwise] you can do what you want.'" After Mr. Putin's return to the presidency, however, "it became 'You are with with us or against us and, if you are against us, you will have problems.' There was no more place for neutrality."

People at the park in Perm on June, 7, 2015.

People at the park in Perm on June, 7, 2015.

At the Kama River, an art installation reads: Happiness is not behind the mountains.

At the Kama River, an art installation reads: Happiness is not behind the mountains.

Musicians from the opera house.

Musicians from the opera house.

Vendors and residents at a street festival.

Vendors and residents at a street festival.

Chess on a holiday.

Chess on a holiday.

It was quite a comeuppance for a man who had played a key role in Mr. Putin's rise to power 15 years before. In 1999 and 2000, Mr. Gelman was the deputy director of state television, tasked with the sensitive project of introducing Russians to Mr. Putin and convincing them that this previously unknown man was the solution to the country's many problems.

He succeeded, helping to orchestrate fawning media coverage of such stunts as Mr. Putin piloting a fighter jet into Grozny during the war in Chechnya. But by the end of his first four-year term in the Kremlin, the President's evident authoritarian streak had begin to concern Mr. Gelman. He left politics and focused on his Moscow gallery until Mr. Chirkunov lured him to Perm.

"I think that, yes, [Mr. Gelman] made a mistake. … He gave them a reason to fire him," Mr. Novichkov now says of the ill-fated Sochi show. "I think, if you're going to put on an exhibit that a million people will see, you have to take into account the opinion of the Putin Majority."

That majority, Mr. Novichkov explains, is the 63 per cent of Perm who voted for Mr. Putin in 2012, and the much greater share who back him now on the annexation of Crimea and the standoff with the West. They are the ordinary Russians who feel their lives have improved economically over the 15 years of Mr. Putin's rule, and who support him politically in exchange.

The Western sanctions imposed since the start of the conflict in Ukraine have yet to alter that social compact. Italian cheese and French mineral water have disappeared from store shelves and restaurant menus in Perm as elsewhere (Russian countersanctions ban most Western agricultural products), and residents keep a keen eye on the bouncing value of the ruble, now worth about 40 per cent less than a year ago. But Russians are known for stoic suffering, and Mr. Novichkov says that most blame the West, not their own government, for the conflict in Ukraine, and for the sanctions. His own understanding of the Putin Majority perhaps explains why he now has a high-ranking post in the capital.

"Some call it self-censorship, I call it marketing. No one denies that you have to know your audience and how they will perceive your art," he explains, sitting in a Moscow café. "I feel strongly that the Putin Majority are inclined to like this imperial state of mind. Being an empire is comfortable, and the annexation of Crimea is an act of being an empire."

Soviet period propaganda posters at the Museum of the History of Political Repression outside Perm.

Soviet period propaganda posters at the Museum of the History of Political Repression outside Perm.


Sergey Kurginyan rejects the idea that the Kremlin is guiding Russia back to the past. Instead, the leader of a neo-Soviet movement called Essence of Time says the government has changed course to be in line with the majority.

Mr. Kurginyan is proud of the role Essence of Time played in the state's takeover of Perm-36, a move he says was essential to ending the "anti-Soviet propaganda" that was weakening Russia's sense of national identity.

Essence of Time is a new force in Russian politics. Mr. Kurginyan is an old one. Now 65, he was a gadfly in the last days of the Soviet Union, telling anyone who would listen that Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika program was part of a CIA plot.

Later, Mr. Kurginyan became part of the leftist reactionary movement that challenged then-president Boris Yeltsin's hold on power; he was inside Russia's White House when Mr. Yeltsin ordered tanks to fire on it in 1993 during his deadly power struggle with the Communist-dominated parliament.

After that, Mr. Kurginyan was confined to the political fringe. But the ideas he championed – he says he is hoping to see a "Soviet Union 2.0" – never went away. He took to posting lectures on YouTube. Despite their dry content (most feature Mr. Kurginyan just sitting at a desk and talking into the camera), some gained over 100,000 views. Most popular have been his recent lectures on why the Kremlin was right to seize Crimea, and why it should do more to support the separatist armies in Donetsk and Lugansk.

Mr. Kurginyan appears to have captured the political zeitgeist by working to reconcile two powerful forces that have long been in conflict: the Communist Party and the Russian Orthodox Church.

In 2012, when the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg were filled with tens of thousands of protestors, Mr. Kurginyan called for his online followers to defend Mr. Putin. They did, forming the backbone of a big pro-Putin rally, which Mr. Kurginyan opened by telling the crowd that "patriotic forces" needed to save the country.

Mr. Kurginyan believes the episode taught Mr. Putin that his support base was not the Moscow liberals who wanted the country to be friends with the West, but the deeply conservative millions who lived in the rest of the country.

Twenty years after his political career seemed over, Mr. Kurginyan was back with an army of motivated, Internet-savvy young people. And the Kremlin owed him a favour.

He says Essence of Time was responsible for starting the petition that led to a 2013 law banning U.S. citizens from adopting Russian children. He's also an outspoken supporter of the law against "homosexual propaganda" that Mr. Putin signed the same year.

After those victories, Mr. Kurginyan and his movement turned to Perm-36, unleashing an Internet campaign against the former prisoners who ran it. The local chapter of Memorial says that it was Essence of Time who pushed the government to run the museum.

"It was not a museum of history; it was a museum of propaganda, of anti-Soviet propaganda," Mr. Kurginyan now says, claiming – as the official tour guides now do – that conditions were not that bad. "This prison was the best in the whole Soviet Union."

While some historians say nearly 40 million people passed through the gulag system, Mr. Kurginyan says the real number is closer to 700,000. In Germany, questioning the extent of the Holocaust is a crime. In Russia, saying the gulags weren't so bad is now mainstream.

Mr. Kurginyan says only two ideologies can control Russia – extreme nationalism, which risks turning into facism, or a neo-communism that resurrects what he calls "the good in the Soviet Union."

The new Soviet Union, he says, would necessarily include territories populated by Russian-speakers beyond Russia's current borders. An aide says Essence of Time has actively been recruiting volunteers to help fight the Ukrainian army in Donetsk and Lugansk.

Despite Western accusations that Mr. Putin has become a dictator, Mr. Kurginyan says the President still needs and actively seeks popular support.

"If you have an anti-Soviet ideology in modern Russia, [to rule] you would have to be some military person who kills all the communists," Mr. Kurginyan says, reclining with a smile at the end of a two-hour interview that was much like listening to one of his lectures. "Putin is not as Soviet as I am. But he wants to be elected."

Visitors examine Second World War photographs in a military tent installed in a park in Perm as part of the city’s Kaleidoscope festival.

Visitors examine Second World War photographs in a military tent installed in a park in Perm as part of the city’s Kaleidoscope festival.


Instead of the White Nights festival that briefly drew crowds of tourists, Perm this year held Kaleidoscope, a much smaller offering focused on an amusement park stuffed with roller coasters and shoot-'em-up games in the city's central Gorky Park.

At the park's entrance, there is a canvas military tent where visitors can listen to a soundtrack of falling bombs mixed with martial music – and cries of "Glory to Stalin" – as they peruse 70 black-and-white photos from the war (which in the Russian telling began with Nazis invading the Soviet Union in 1941).

In most of the photographs, Soviet soldiers are driving back the enemy, or relaxing behind the lines. Only one shows someone killed in the fighting.

Many of those who visit the tent wear the orange-and-black ribbon that has – in its most recent resurrection – come to imply support for Mr. Putin and his policies in Ukraine. On the average street in Perm (or Moscow), half the cars and buses that pass will have an orange-and-black ribbon hanging from their rearview mirror.

"It feels like all the tragedy is gone and we only have success and this balloon of celebration. This is a problem, because it makes it seem as though war is good," says Nailya Allakhverdieva, who took over the Perm Museum of Contemporary Art after Mr. Gelman left.

The gallery has moved from the River Station premises – which the regional government declared officially derelict – to a smaller location far from the city centre. While Ms. Allakhverdieva prefers a lower-key and less provocative approach, the museum remains a hub of alternative thought.

"War won't come if we all say no," reads a message painted on the sidewalk outside the main entrance.

But Mr. Gelman thinks more war is coming. "People who were perfectly normal yesterday are going crazy today, saying 'Crimea is ours!'" he says as he walks through the quiet cobblestoned streets of his new home in Montenegro. "It's like 1936 in Germany. By 1939, everyone could see what was going on. But in 1936 there were still intellectuals who were rationalizing, explaining that Germans really did need Lebensraum" – more room to live.

In Mr. Gelman's telling, the closure of Project Perm and the state takeover of Perm-36 are akin to what the Nazis did in the 1930s: burning any books that didn't fit their official ideology. "For them, culture is an instrument of propaganda. An artist is just a hooligan – you have to limit and control them, to tell them what they can and cannot do. In fact, it would be better if there were no artists at all."

Artillery on display at one of the arms plants that made Perm off-limits to outsiders until the Soviet Union fell.

Artillery on display at one of the arms plants that made Perm off-limits to outsiders until the Soviet Union fell.


The guided tour of Perm-36 is exactly the same as 12 years ago (when I took it while on vacation with friends) – except for one room.

They call it the Black Room now, and it's behind a padlocked door, avoided by the guides. The walls are covered with the biographies and photos of some of Perm-36's most famous inmates, including Mr. Kovalev, the human-rights activist. Also honoured were two heroes of the Ukrainian nationalist movement: poet Vasyl Stus, who died in a hunger strike and is buried inside Perm-36, and Levko Lukyanenko, who survived to co-author Ukraine's declaration of independence and to serve as the new nation's first ambassador to Canada.

A senior member of the museum's new management team, speaking on the condition of anonymity, says neither man should ever have been celebrated in public, and the Black Room will reopen only when it no longer features "Banderites."

"If we talk about the gulag and political repressions, we have to consider the context that created the situation on the territory of the Soviet Union," says Mr. Gladnyev, the minister of culture.

"It's not a question of avoiding something, or of bias. But within the framework of historical events there were people who helped the fascists, and committed crimes. And there were those who protected their homeland and thought about the future."

Those involved in running it before the state takeover say that, without the material in the Black Room, Perm-36 has lost its meaning.

"The museum was dedicated to the political prisoners," says Robert Latypov, who heads the Perm chapter of Memorial. "Now they say: 'If you had Banderites in this prison, then the museum is a Banderite museum.' It's pure manipulation."

He, like Mr. Gelman, sees the takeover as one of the last acts in Russia's slide back to totalitarianism. "The process is almost over. The media is almost completely under control. Our power structure is purely vertical. In the regions, the governors don't answer to the local communities. They answer to just one person," he says, pointing up at his ceiling. "I'm sure that someone's listening to us at this very moment. I don't doubt it."

Now 85 and living in anonymity in Moscow's suburbs, Mr. Kovalev, the former inmate, is even harsher in his assessment.

"The differences between Putin's Russia and Stalin's time are just one. There are not mass political repressions. The victims of the gulag camps were millions. Now the number of political arrests are just a few hundred," he says, his voice filled with the anger of someone who has spent decades issuing warnings that few have heeded.

"But the nature of this state hasn't changed one bit."

Mark MacKinnon is The Globe and Mail's senior international correspondent, based in London.