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Perm: Why a Western Journalist Criticises a Russian City

Mark McKinnon at Toronto Globe & Mail gives a profoundly distorted portrait of a Russian city because its politics are not liberal.

In September 2015 through the generosity of the Oxford Russia Project I visited the Urals city of Perm.

On 15th August 2015 – just a few weeks before – an article about Perm by Mark McKinnon appeared in The Toronto Globe & Mail.

I will straight away say that I do not recognise the Perm I visited from the description of the city in Mark McKinnon’s article. 

Where McKinnon saw a city of “mired in stagnation” with “brutal Soviet architecture” part of the “rusting industrial heart of Russia”.

I saw an orderly, prosperous and thriving city, with a dynamic university, fascinating and well-attended regional museums, and a brilliant and massively popular ballet and opera company.

My fundamental problem with McKinnon’s article however is not with his description of the city, false though I find it, but with his approach to Perm’s local politics and the approach he takes to its art and to its view of history.

Perm is the nearest city to Perm-36, a former Gulag camp, which subsequently became the USSR’s leading political prison and which is now a well-maintained museum. 

The fence at Perm-36

As I learnt whilst I was in Perm a conflict arose some time ago over the management of the museum, which has resulted in it being taken over by the state authorities. 

Some people who were previously involved with the museum were concerned that this would lead to an attempt by the museum’s new management to sugarcoat the Gulag and the whole Gulag experience.

I have to say that I saw no evidence of that when I visited Perm-36, and the impression I got was that some of the critics of the authorities’ takeover of the museum have been somewhat placated by the way the new management is actually running it.

More to the point however is that McKinnon also found little to complain of.  Here is what he said:

“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.”

McKinnon does claim that there have been some attempts to present a more favourable image of Perm-36 since the takeover.  However he contradicts himself later in the article by saying his recent tour of the camp was all but identical to a tour he made 12 years earlier. 

It turns out that his real objection is over an ongoing controversy over how the museum represents – or fails to represent – certain Ukrainian nationalists who were detained in the camp.  For the record during my tour of the camp – conducted by a local historian from the university and not by an official of the new management – the story of the Ukrainian nationalists held in the camp – one of whom was apparently a poet – did receive due mention.  I was shown the poet’s cell and told of the circumstances of his death.

The rest of McKinnon’s article consists of a lengthy denunciation of Russia’s recent Soviet past and of the supposed attempts of some in Russia to whitewash it, and the alleged stifling by the Russian authorities of a supposed “democratic spring” in Perm which  supposedly happened under its previous liberal governor Oleg Chirkunov.

Entrance into the Gulag Museum at Perm-36.
Entrance into the Gulag Museum at Perm-36.

The main expression of this “democratic spring” was the White Nights Festival which McKinnon says attracted hundreds of thousands of people from across Russia and abroad.  McKinnon is rhapsodic about it:

“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.“

It is clear that this festival had a very strong political character:

“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.”

(*emphasis added)

Elsewhere we learn 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.”

McKinnon complains that this festival featuring opposition politics and partly held on the grounds of Perm-36, has been “suppressed” (actually funding for it was stopped). 

He laments that it has been replaced by a new 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).”

(*emphasis added)

The first thing to say about all this is that from what McKinnon says there was nothing “democratic” about the White Nights festival.  On the contrary McKinnon admits it was brought to Perm from outside and reports criticisms that the local people were at best unenthusiastic about it:

“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.”

Elsewhere McKinnon admits 63% of the people of Perm voted for Putin in the 2012 Presidential election, and that

“….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”.

Pope Francis wearing the ribbon of St. George.
Pope Francis wearing the ribbon of St. George.

The “orange-and-black” ribbon McKinnon refers to is the St. George’s Ribbon – Russia’s equivalent to the British Red Poppy – which long predates the USSR and Stalin, and which it would have been natural for Russians to wear in 2015 – the year of the 70th anniversary of their country’s victory in the Second World War.

In view of McKinnon’s admission of the patriotism of the people of Perm and of their support for Putin, it is hardly surprising if a festival that supported Russia’s liberal opposition and which included praise of Ukraine’s anti-Russian Maidan “revolution of dignity”, mockery of the Russian state, ridicule of the Sochi Olympics and crude attacks on Putin, might not be popular and if many people might have felt that it was not “culture that was connected to their lives”.  McKinnon says many of the people who attended the festival were “tourists”, which suggests the festival was anyway not really intended for the people of Perm, who were nonetheless required to host it.

Similarly it is hardly surprising if many people in Russia – not just in Perm – might feel that an opposition oriented political festival held on the grounds of a former Soviet era prison camp was overstepping the limit, especially given the propensity of Putin’s Russian liberal and Western critics to make false comparisons between his government and the totalitarian past.  (Marat Gelman, the organiser of the White Nights Festival, was at it again – quoted by McKinnon making absurd comparisons between the situation in Russia today and that in Germany in 1936).

It is also completely understandable why many people in Perm might in place of the White Nights festival welcome celebrations of the 70th anniversary of their country’s great victory in the Second World War, and might wear St. George’s ribbons to proclaim the fact.

McKinnon’s response to these perfectly understandable reactions is to descend into scorn and cliches in a way that I find grating. 

Thus we learn that the “stoically suffering” “conservative working class people of Perm” (“the Putin Majority”) are incapable of appreciating “high-brow installations” and “avant-garde art” and prefer “an amusement park stuffed with roller coasters and shoot-’em-up games”.  If Perm is incapable of appreciating the effort to make it the “Edinburgh of the Urals” it is because it is the provincial backwater once described by Pasternak in Doctor Zhivago and by Chekhov in The Three Sisters.

This is to stand reality on its head. 

If Perm has a cultural centre it is its opera house, one of the best in Russia, renowned for its cutting edge productions of Mozart operas and its outstanding ballet company.   As I witnessed for myself, the local people take immense pride and interest in it and on the one occasion I visited it the performance was sold out with a good half of the audience being young people.

I saw several examples of contemporary avant-garde art in the city’s main art gallery, whilst the students of the city’s university were in the process of holding a major arts festival whilst I was there.  The university was also hosting a major literary conference as well as lectures from a top US neuroscientist.

I also met in Perm individuals of various political views including a postgraduate student interested in ecological questions and two local politicians, both members of the opposition Communist Party, with different views of local and national politics.

Lastly I also met a political scientist who had straightforwardly liberal views.

To imply in the light of all this that Perm is some sort of reactionary “stagnant” cultural backwater where freedom of expression has been crushed is a travesty. 

McKinnon says nothing about any of the artistic activity going on in Perm unconnected to the White Nights Festival though it would be difficult to think of a more “high-brow installation” than an opera house. (The only reference to the opera house in his whole article – supposedly about culture and free expression in Perm – is in a photograph).

The reason McKinnon is so uninterested in all this artistic activity is because it is not focused around liberal anti-Putin and anti-Communist opposition politics as the White Nights festival apparently was. 

In other words it is not the quality of artistic activity that matters for McKinnon.  It is its political message.

Similarly what angers McKinnon about Perm-36 is not that the facts of what happened there are being suppressed (he admits they are not) but that the history behind those facts – whether the subject is Ukrainian nationalists or any other issue – is not being interpreted in the only way he wants it to be.

As for “democracy” in Perm, for McKinnon the measure of democracy in Perm is not in respecting what its people want.  It is in having what the West and Russia’s liberal opposition want imposed on them.  That is “democracy” and not acceding to it is its “suppression”.

If this all sounds like inverted Stalinism – judging art by its political message, imposing a single view of historical truth, and imposing on people what an elite thinks is best for them – it is because it is.

As everyone who visits Russia today can see, the country is in the process of a deep re-examination of its past.  Outsiders are obviously entitled to their views, but ultimately this is a Russian debate and Russians’ right to conduct it should be respected. 

In the meantime words like “democracy” and “freedom of speech” should be used properly, not manipulated to further a particular agenda. 

As for Perm and its people, they should not be mocked and criticised and accused of acting to suppress free speech and the truth, simply because most of them happen to hold opinions about their country that are different from the ones McKinnon wants to impose on them.

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Alexander Mercouris
Editor-in-Chief atThe Duran.

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