"From Moscow, the Showcase City, to Perm, the Closed City."
In the dining car of the mighty Rossiya we sped through the steppes of Siberia. A young Dutch woman told me and a retired English couple her life story. She was a tour guide with several elderly Dutch people in her care. They were taking the Trans-Siberian Express through Siberia and into Mongolia. Adele was an inveterate traveller she told us. She could not stay still but when she did she went home to her parents in the Dutch countryside. Her father was in his eighties. Adele was the 28-year-old product of his second marriage to a much younger woman. Her half-siblings were in their fifties and sixties with children close to her own age. I pictured her at home with her indulgent father and placid mother in a Dutch suburban setting. She would soon get restless I guessed. She needed to travel, she said. She had been to the former Dutch colonies on many work trips. On her last trip she had met her current boyfriend who was Indonesian. I was surprised. I thought the patrician influence would guide her towards an older, more established man. But no, her partner was working as a cleaner in a Butlin’s holiday camp in Minehead, Somerset. She was planning to visit him later that year.
It struck me as an incongruous pairing. Even as she told us about it her eyes betrayed the knowledge that this was a transitory romance and she would be back home with her parents soon enough. Who knows where my itchy feet will take me next, she said.
The retired English couple were from Kent. They too were travelling to Mongolia and then on to China and Vietnam. They looked at me expectantly. What was my story
What was my story
There are lots of gaps in it and it’s hard to find where to start. I thought about a film I’d seen recently that had struck a chord with me. It was about an alcoholic who never knew his parents. I echoed what I’d heard in that film:
I know three things about my father.
- He was Italian.
- He smoked Chesterfields.
- He didn’t like England.
Past six in the evening on the last day of the summer season, after a schvitz in the banya-on-the-beach I climbed the high rim of the Baikal Canyon. From where I stood, high plateaus, in soft, drizzling light, seemed to stretch forever westward to the Urals. Facing east, my companion, the descendant of Bulgars, spread her long arms. Far below was Baikal, the most ancient lake on earth. It was shrouded in mist that drifts up the steep slope as if in search of us. The canyon rim on which we stood is a mile or more above the surface of the lake, whose greatest depth is 6,300 ft, or 1.2 miles, with an additional four miles of sediment above the bedrock. The great Baikal rift is seven times as deep as the Grand Canyon, by far the deepest land depression on the planet. It was only when I started writing about my trip to Siberia that I realised what I had been looking for.
Hilton Garden Inn, Heathrow Airport
In the Seventies, when I was a child, Russia was the enemy. It was vast and incomprehensible; everything about it, even the alphabet, spelled mystery and mystification. I was intrigued. I wanted to know more. I wrote to the Russian embassy and asked them to tell me about their country. They sent me pamphlets and brochures. I was disappointed. I had thought they might send me an invitation. Perhaps if I had told them I didn’t feel at home here in England, that my dysfunctional family was squeezed into a small flat when other seemingly non-dysfunctional families lived in spacious villas, they might have offered me free passage. I wished then that I had told them that I liked the sound of Communism where everyone was dealt the same hand. Maybe they would have listened. Maybe they would have sent me that ticket to a far-off land.
In 2018 I was still living in a small flat, albeit alone, and I was still surrounded by villadom. With the strange goings-on at Salisbury, cyber attacks and election interference, Russia was still the enemy, and I still wanted to go to there.
Russia summons up the prospect of a land which represents the unlimited, the uncontrollable, the Europe that is estranged from itself, far from occidental civilisation and its concerns. I needed to dispel my infatuation with Russia’s otherness or confirm it.
The bureaucracy of arranging visas and accommodation proved to be formidable so I hired a travel agency to smooth them away. This is probably not in the spirit of people who go on pilgrimages. You’re supposed to revel in the blisters. But that’s not my way. I would spend a few days in Moscow before taking the Trans-Siberian Express over the Urals into Siberia. At the end of my train journey was a destination I had invested with magic powers. It was so foreign it out-foreigned Russia herself. It was the kind of place that sucks me in: a borderland containing a multiplicity of mysteries.
The largest and reputedly most beautiful body of fresh water in Asia; a rift lake bordering the Republic of Buryatia and Irkutsk Oblast, invested with geographical significance, ecological significance, holding one fifth of the world’s unfrozen fresh water, it had already been granted divine authority by a millenium of Buryat shamans. Lake Baikal was going to be my Mecca. The Buryats would be my conduit to the source of the immensity that eluded me.
This lake lies at the heart of Russia’s extravagant promises to travellers. It is a meeting place for East and West. It contains ethnicities that bring with them strange customs and unfamiliar facial features. The Buryats are just one of the myriad ethnicities in Russia. They are a northern subgroup of the Mongols, directly descended from Chinghis Khan. Lake Baikal, as well as Olkhon, its sacred island, is of great importance to them because Chinghis and their other great ancestor, Tamerlane, came from the mountain region touching its southern borders. It is the source of their lost power.
“1630: Arrival Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport. Transfer by private car with an English-speaking driver to hotel.”
Russia had hosted the World Cup football championships a few months before I arrived. The smiley warm buzz England fans had experienced had worn itself out. I was in a post-World Cup, deflated Moscow
My driver Dmitri was, as his bearing suggested, ex-army, now hiring himself out as a guide. He was pleasant and obliging. He smiled like a mother at her child when I shouted with joy and relief at the sight of a Café Costa. He withstood my demands for soya milk and decaffeinated coffee with patient fortitude. Behind the wheel of his car he was more bullish.
“You believe all the bullshit on CNN and BBC” he said. It was more of an assumption than a question. I felt like saying hang on a sec, I’ve only just landed and I’m still getting my head around my decaf soya latte. I spluttered something vague about the importance of keeping an open mind. But Dmitri wasn’t letting me wriggle out of this one.
“It’s all bullshit, but you Westerners, you believe it,” he insisted. Since I had several friends in London who were entertaining the prospect of the British government’s poisoning of the Skripals, I was in the happy position of being able to prove him wrong. The alternative narrative went that MI5 had poisoned the luckless father and daughter and pinned it on the Russians in order to distract the British public from the horrors of austerity. The storyline was convincing-stroke-confusing because it was straight out of BBC’s Adam Curtis, and he says, and I believe him, that nothing is true anymore and what is real is made up.
It’s a long drive to Moscow from the airport and there was nothing much to look at apart from new-builds that reminded me of Croydon. So Dmitri got my attention.
“Gorbachev opened the gates,” he told me. “Brezhnev sold everything. Putin is making us great again.”
Hotel Budapest, Ulitsa Petrovskiye Linii, 2
Dmitri unpacked me onto the pavement outside the Budapest and rolled me into Reception. The streets of central Moscow have a calmness to them; clean stone facades, rhythmic detailing of balconies. Some of the wider thoroughfares have central aisles filled with trees and grass-covered lanes for pedestrians. This is a gracious city made for people to walk in – and they were, leisurely commutes or promenades under leafy canopies. The motor traffic was less gracious. We sat in a lumpen mass of unregulated Kazikstani taxi drivers and other ferrymen.
Hotel Budapest was built by the architect Boris Freidenberg, one of the most acclaimed Viennese architects of the 1870s. He was invited to Moscow by the celebrity owners of the old Sanduny baths. His mission was to rebrand them as a luxury VIP hang-out. Moscow was in the midst of an artistic renaissance known as “Russian Revival”, closely modelled on the Viennese Secessionists and French Art Nouveau. After the liberation of the serfs in 1861 and the Great Reforms of Tsar Alexander II, new private capital drove the new style, and Freidenberg gave value for money.
I could have been in Diaghilev’s Moscow. Serried rows of white stone were pinioned with lamp-posts of cast iron and frosted glass globes. As I entered the lobby, a graceful, dark-eyed woman was winding herself around a lamp-post, unfurling her smile for an invisible audience. Passersby and hotel staff seemed to be oblivious to this one-woman show. But then her audience materialised: the inbuilt camera of a mobile phone.
She had lit on the Budapest as a suitable backdrop for her latest update on social media. The Revival style, which seems to combine the gothic, the monolithic and the classical, smacks of lamp-lit flaneurs and dawdling rapporteurs. So I could see how she was referencing a noble tradition.
By contrast, a brass plaque on the exterior of the hotel bore Lenin’s face in stark, square-planed Deco relief. I’d just witnessed the western influence in action. Here was something of the East in Lenin’s slanting eyes and the Cyrillic script that gave the dates he came to the Budapest. The receptionist translated for me: 26th November 1918 and then again on 11th April 1919. But what had he done here, I wanted to know. Was he having a break from revolution Did he have a continental breakfast
“He made a speech here.”
To whom About what
“… Uh … a speech to some workers …”
It’s really good if you like history
“Red Square – Lenin’s Mausoleum”
Red Square was closed for the Spasskaya Tower International Military Music Festival. Ditto Lenin’s Mausoleum.
Vast tents – not at all like the Yurts of the Gobi desert. These tents were marketing marquees for the purveyors of brass instruments and military uniforms. Behind them, obscuring the Kremlin were the towers of scaffolding for the festival’s audience, oceanic posters and some stripy onion domes. I couldn’t see much past the surge of tourists mostly Japanese and Chinese and very brand conscious, and a procession of the Brentwood Imperial Youth Band, a traditional marching band based in Brentwood, Essex, and founded in 1990.
It was at this point I realized I was a small human being on a teeming planet being shunted around tourist destinations. I asked my guide, Tatiana, what the Kremlin’s 1812 museum was like.
“Boring,” she said. “Don’t go there.”
According to Trip Advisor I discover – too late – that “it’s really good ... if you like history”, which I do.
“We Russians aren’t interested in history,” Tatiana said. “Only in moving forward.” History of tsardom was wiped out under Stalin, then he was rewritten under Khruschev.
The most impressive sight in Moscow I had so far seen was the unblemished face it presents to the world. There was simply no litter anywhere, and nothing looked old.
“Moscow is Putin’s showpiece,” an American realtor told me. “It’s where the money goes to show the rest of the world how Russia’s doing.” Dick was in Moscow to set up an office selling Miami real estate to oligarchs. He told me that the city’s landmarks are rejuvenated every five years. Pavements are kept hospital-standard clean by 24-hour workers. I felt an awe that I was later to feel on my journey through Siberia. In the steppe it was the sense of a divinity at work in an otherworldly, majestic landscape.
“God is on high and the Tsar is far off,” they used to say. In Moscow he was sitting behind a desk in the Kremlin.
I was beginning to feel overwhelmed by the monumental scale of Moscow, the arrhythmic spasms of guided walking tours. I was getting depressed. I felt I was executing a gigantic task of stone masonry. It was not art or architecture. It was hard labour. So I asked Tatiana to take me underground.
Here was regulated movement, celebration of the ordinary, and space for all. Here in sunless vaults I marvelled at the swathes of unblemished, polished platforms. Under diffused and subtle lighting, clutches of commuters stood and chatted like old friends. A girl in a pink dress sat in an alcove framed in marble statuary. Here was bygone, burnished steel and tactile veined marble. And one train every minute, without fail, like clockwork. I sat on the Koltsevaya line, speeding through mosaic and stained glass and soaking up the soul food of History.
The subway continued to distract me with visions of the past. The kiosks sold real things for real people. Corsets, bras, shoes, key-rings, antiquarian books. I stopped in my tracks. This was my kind of shop. The stallholder was elderly, large and shambolic, dressed in a dirty vest and sagging shorts. His stock was a cross between mouldy hoardings and antique vellum. The leather-tooled spines of books, rolls of manuscripts and lithographs were stacked high in the window. Inside there was room only for a wall of shelves, a chair and a till. He had the Collected Writings of Ruskin in English. He had a hand-tinted cartoon of Felice Orsini’s assassination attempt on Napoleon III. Speech bubbles were coming out of the mouth of Orsini. I desperately wanted a closer look but to do so meant unravelling piles of ancient Cyrillic tomes, and the old man was quoting thousands of rubles.
Like the 1812 museum, I can’t stop thinking about that print.
eccentric ruble millionaires
“Levsha Flea Market, metro + bus to Novoshodnenskoe Highway 166 N. The Levsha Flea Market is located some 20km north of Moscow and will probably take up to four hours to visit properly, and I will ask your guide to give you directions.”
Tatiana had never heard of the Levsha, but after some patient googling she told me to take the metro from Teatronaly station, next to the Bolshoi and opposite Tsum department store, and then a bus to a field off a highway somewhere.
Muscovite traders don’t haggle. They know the price of things – who doesn’t – it’s all on eBay – and they simply refuse to budge. Apart from that, I loved the flea market. I loved the hour-long bus journey to get there through acres of concrete and grassland and shopping malls and nothingness. I loved the ticket collector from Nizhny Novgorod who smiled and laughed and google translated the bus timetable for my return journey. The bus was a small coach that had seen many years of service. My fellow passengers were silent and unsmiling. Not many Russians smile unbidden, I had noticed, and I had not yet met one who laughed. The ticket collector was an exception. A cuddly, dyed-blonde, impish woman, she had the kind of warmth that would have invited me into her home if it were feasible, and urged me to eat all her food and wash away all my cares because she had all the time in the world. She hugged me when I got off her bus.
I loved the flea market because it was sprawling and scruffy. It had grit, surprises and characters, collectors and hoarders, revolvers and samovars, oil lamps and down-and-outs who were probably eccentric ruble millionaires. That was the thing about the flea market. I just didn’t know what I would find there.
The silvery vastness
“Late evening depart Moscow Yaroslavskaya on first train leg to Perm.”
My holiday romance began in a masterpiece of Russian Revivalism. I was waiting to board the Trans-Siberian Express in a hall decorated in wrought-iron and frosted glass. I love railway stations at night. The animation that I had sought on Moscow’s streets I found here. Energy was pulsing from the tracks. Faces were etched with worry, anticipation and impatience. Endless queues of passengers moved along raised gangways between wooden handrails. On the rows of plastic seating we coughed, spat, shifted about, and spoke in voices that resounded in a loud hum under the vaulted ceilings. A woman wept in the arms of her mother while the rest of the family tactfully formed a circle around her luggage. The Trans-Siberian is not primarily a tourist train. It is a commuter train for passengers who cross continents in search of work. Built for Siberian gradients, it is the most powerful freight locomotive in the world. Dressed in red and grey, the Rossiya was unveiled at Novocherkassk Electric Locomotive Plant in Rostov-on-Don as part of Railwaymen’s Day celebrations on 3rdAugust 2014.
Finally, my platform was announced. I was as giddy with excitement as I had been on approaching the Aeroflot jetbus at Heathrow. This time I was greeted by a provodnitsa (conductor) in a red and grey uniform and a jaunty cap. She was a tiny copper redhead with a cheeky, freckled face and a confusingly taciturn manner. She showed me to my cabin. She didn’t speak English but managed to convey through mime that the samovar was at the end of the carriage. She had the efficiency of movement that only the petite have. With the flick of a wrist I understood there were toilets at either end of the carriage, and the dining car was the next carriage along. She left me in a cabin that was caramel in decor and charmingly sooty and snug. I was limbering up to be enchanted. I wouldn’t have to wait long. The train heaved into action and Moscow faded from view. Soon I would be feasting on the sense of immensity that mirrors my yearning for something larger than myself and that I had caught a glimpse of in Scriabin and Amazon Prime’s Music Store.
I made my way to the restaurant car stepping from one carriage to another over chains and cables joining the coaches together. It was worryingly windy as I stepped over the metal grate, under which I could see the rails slipping past very fast. The car was empty except for two men drinking beer. One was a small shaven-headed man in combat trousers topped off with a string vest. I had seen many men like this so far in my journey. They were the lost generation of manual workers whose muscles came from labour, not the gym. His companion was a large man in casual sports gear with Mongolian features. He was rather more prepared for the digital world. He was scrolling down the screen of his mobile shooting disapproving glances at his drinking companion whose head was now resting on the table in front of him. He was breathing through his mouth and dribbling. The Mongolian raised an eyebrow at the dining car attendant. She nodded wisely. He threw down some roubles and left the sleeping beauty to dream.
I ate my vegetable soup by the cinemascope window watching suburbs become farmland become abandoned factories and a reversion back to Nature. Rows of birch get monotonous after a while, and here were curtains of them. I could not help feeling that something interesting was going on behind these stretches of tree and that my view was barred. I thought I would go back to my cabin and read a book.
Back in my cabin, where it was seductively warm and enclosed, I watched the trees go by. I watched my thoughts arise, disperse and vanish into the silvery vastness, and with no warning, grief rose up that had been a long time shelved. It needed airing again and I started sobbing. When I came up for breath, I saw that a clearing had emerged. Just as soon as I saw it, the curtains closed again. But a log cabin lit from within had stopped my tears.
The little houses that line the track remain as they have always been. Constructed like log cabins, or simply of wood planking they are built directly into the earth. Some lurch dangerously, about to topple. Many have seen fire and the scorched wood has not been replaced. They face the passing train with windows framed in fancy carving. Their inhabitants are resourceful. At the back and around the sides of each cabin were outbuildings, lean-tos and cabbage patches. Trees of very small apples and, sometimes, bundles of multi-coloured flowers. Old ladies in headscarves tended their gardens. Some tethered cows; they stacked their winter hay; they left their chicken and geese to wander. Here and there stood a nursery-rhyme well, and sometimes a muddy tractor.
Golden spires and domes of a cathedral high on a hill indicated we were approaching a major city. With her exquisite economy of movement the provodnitsa set out the steps onto the platform at Vladimir, and indicated with her watch that we had 26 minutes to enjoy the platform. It was white with moonlight. There were four vending machines to choose from and a woman in a headscarf selling homemade loaves of bread. I’m gluten-intolerant, caffeine-shy and sugar-free so I sipped on my flask of herbal tea and watched the bored and grumpy provodnitsa gossiping with her colleagues.
The train was stopping for a re-fuel. At every halt, the Rossiya’s passengers disembarked. Only the English – myself and the retired couple from Kent, tramped up and down the platform with the resolution of the Brit in search of exercise. Our fellow travellers watched us unsmilingly and with no comment. From what I could see of the surrounding town it was crowded with dreary apartment blocks and forest. In my 20-odd minutes I watched the night lights and thought about what it might have been like to visit Vladimir when travellers entered the city through a Golden Gate. Vladimir was founded in 1108 by Vladimir II Monomakh, Grand Prince of Kievan Rus’.
The vastnes of Russia cries out for strong leaders. Vladimir fought off a pillaging excursion of this region headed by the leader of a Turkic tribe. He was known as Maniak, which carries the same meaning today. The people of the Rus’ territories were grateful for V2M's intervention. He kept the big, bad foreigner away.
“Late evening arrival at Perm. Transfer to Hilton Garden Hotel.”
On the Trans-Siberian you get up at eight o’clock every morning. There is no need to, of course, for your time is your own. But at about eight the train comes to life, and everyone seems to materialise from their cabins ready to be washed and fed. I woke to find the Volga River flowing outside my cabin window on its way to the Caspian Sea. I had the day ahead of me to do nothing but watch abandoned factories, birch trees, and read Dostoevsky. He was about to arrive at the prison camp in Omsk. I looked up. More captivating log cabins, more self-sustaining fantasies. I heard voices in the corridor and stepped out.
It was 11:26am. A group of Norwegians told me we were arriving at Kirov. We were due for an 18-minute stop. I did some stretches very un-balletically on the platform. I looked up Kirov on the Internet. The satirist Saltykov was exiled here in 1848 by Tsar Nicholas I. He hated it. The thought of spending the rest of his life in Kirov made his beard bristle, he wrote to a friend. A drunken German staggered towards me. He asked if I had a light for his cigarette. I didn’t. I had seen him earlier in the dining car looking for an audience. I turned towards the Norwegians, a pair of fathers and sons. They were trim, in various stages of middle-age, with rucksacks and waterproof gear. They looked the sort of travellers who know where they are going and what time zone they are in. (This journey would take me through four). I asked the father if he knew where we were, geographically speaking, and the son told me we were in central southern Russia, approaching the foothills of the Urals.
Back in my cabin I watched the suburbs of Kirov recede through the window. I read a bit more about Saltykov while the signal was still active. He came to accept that he would never leave Kirov. Once he had accepted his fate he seemed to rejuvenate. He married the daughter of the vice-governor, decided to improve the education of girls and women in the area, and wrote a brief history of Russia. The serpent train sped uneasily, rocking sharply from stern to stern – like a fretful mother rocking her baby – against the creak of iron and rattle of chains on rails.
At the next stop, the semi-rural Balezino at 14:59, there was a change of locomotive. We were still west of the Urals and had just left the Udmurt Republic, whose painted log cabins are home for the Finno-Ugric people. The third-class passengers were out of their sardine cans, smoking and vaping. I peeked through the window of their carriage. On top and around the dormitory-style berths I could see piles of plastic bags, children, a few dogs and a team of cadets in blue tee-shirts. The Norwegians were taking photographs. The German had found the sympathetic ear of the retired English couple.
I was relaxing into the landscape, its history, the rolling stock and my companions. The effect of the endless steppe and having the time to contemplate it was the equivalent of a meditation workshop on a cliched beach somewhere.
However the blankness needed stories, and I was still curious to discover Saltykov’s fate. After the Tsar’s death in 1855, Saltykov received permission to return to Saint Petersburg. His next book was Provincial Sketches. Turgenev was unimpressed but in the following century Marxists said Saltykov was the “true revolutionary”.
Back on the train the un-landscaped and un-pastured view towards an invisible horizon was changing lights and colours. The vanishing point was drawing me in to the gloomy forebodings of a Russian peasant or the holy rapture of a mystic finding herself gazing at a point so far away she is gazing at the end of all stories.
2130: Perm 2. Another driver, this one quite happy just to drive, takes me from a Soviet-era station to a post-Soviet hotel: the Hilton, where I luxuriate in a vast, snowy bed with vast, snowy towels, room service and an English-speaking TV.
Before I hit the sack I take advantage of free wifi. In the glow of my remote-controlled dimmer switch, I read more about Saltykov. Simone de Beauvoir once wrote a book about old age which drew on Saltyknov’s novel The Golovlevs. The main character is a woman who undergoes a shift from didactic middle-age to timeless dreamy dozing interrupted by fearful jolts of waking:
“She lived as though she took no personal share in existence…. Earlier she had been afraid of death; now she seemed to have forgotten it entirely …. a self-seeking pliability developed in her with astonishing speed…. The transition ... to submissive flattery was no more than a question of time….”
I had seen the same transformation take place in my Mother. I had arrived in a hospital in Plymouth to find her in a public ward, wearily greeting members of her fractious family. She had spent the past year in increasing stages of discomfort and pain. So she was ready to go. I looked after her as she had once looked after me. Mother and child were reunited but we had switched roles. It was one of the happiest times of my life.
Saltykov, I learnt, had the mindfulness of the Russian novelists of the nineteenth century—the sense of dwelling in the day itself, in the minutes that tiptoe through the fields or the library. This is precisely what the time-scale of my Mother’s death was: a life lived a day at a time, the sun coming up, the sun going down. I sat by her side and watched the dreams cross her face. Some made her giddy with memory and wake with violence. Only drowsiness appeased her. Finally, she made the final, startling move and turned her head away from me.
“AM: The best way to get a feel for Perm is by walking down The Green Line that follows the two main roads, Lenin Street and Komsomolsky Prospekt. Along the way you’ll pass a number of different Constructivist and 19th-century buildings.”
The Green Line has been blurred by a couple of winters worth of sand blowing in from the Urals. Perm was touted as a Cultural Capital back in the 2000s but someone pissed off Putin and the culture was shut down. Perm is like a ghost town now; like a Western set in concrete.
According to the Russian linguist D.V. Bubrih, the word “perm” derives from Finnic-speaking Veps, a tribe from the Baltic states who occupied this region in the 9thcentury. So many ethnicities so much space. The Vepsian word “perama” means “far-away land”. Set in the forest approach to the Urals, Perm still had the feel of a far-away land in 1916 when Boris Pasternak lived on its outskirts in the forest. In his novel, Dr Zhivago, Perm becomes Yuriatin, and it is in the library by the house with the Art Nouveau dancing figures that Dr Zhivago meets Lara. It is in the forests surrounding Perm that Zhivago is caught by red partisans, who force him to work for them. When he finally runs away he returns to Yuriatin and lives with Lara and her daughter before Lara is taken away and he loses his daughter.
The library Pasternak describes is still here and so are the willowy Art Nouveau ladies. The “ten thousand acres of largely impenetrable virgin forest as black as night” are largely gone.
Perm was born to be provincial and is still a far-away city. “Why are you going there” asked Tatiana, incredulous as only a tourist guide who stays on the beaten track could be. Perm housed the merchants who lived in de-luxe log cabins. The railway brought trade and commerce and more merchants who built stone houses that still nestle in large gardens along the banks of the River Kama. All rivers in Russia are as wide as seas. The Kama eventually joins ranks with the Volga and has banks that look like canyons.
After the high-maintenance glamour of uptown Moscow I found Perm’s air of neglect easier on the eye. During the Soviet era Perm officially did not exist. It was a Closed City due to the ballistic output of Factory #19 and other military installations. It was here that jet engines were produced and they still are. Putin’s Jet Number One has an engine built in Perm.
In the 2000s Perm’s reformist regional governor and the Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev tried to turn Perm into a cultural capital, along the lines of Bilbao in Spain. Project Perm, as it became known, was to be a showcase of how a different Russia might look, an alternative to the patriarchal authoritarianism on the rise in Moscow.
The only report of this cutting-edge city that I could find was an unlikely source: the American publication, the Globe and Mail. This is what their reporter, Mark MacKinnon, had to say:
“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. ... 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 ... entitled simply Maidan– a reference to the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, where the pro-Western protest had just begun.”
And that was it. I asked my guide, Semyon, what happened.
“The governor was bringing Moscow artists in and the local people felt pushed out.” They were quite happy when “Moscow” shut down the resources for the art scene and sacked the governor.
“Russians don’t like satire these days,” Semyon said. Born in Perm, Semyon studied its geography at University. He was the Zhivago-esque intellectual I had been waiting for. He loved his city and he watched its decay with the cool detachment and artist’s appreciation for texture.
“Have you seen The Death of Stalin” I asked him. The film by Armando Iannucci had been released the previous year and lampooned the power struggle that took place in the period following the Father of Nation’s inglorious death.
“It’s banned,” he said.
“For portraying Russian leaders in a poor light.”
I looked at him in disbelief.
“Like I said,” he replied, “Russians don’t like satire now.”
“Do you like satire” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, and looked away.
To me, Perm still had the feel of a closed city. The gallery was still there but it squatted forlorn in a traffic island with overgrown weeds stalking the perimeter fence. I was reminded of myself as a schoolgirl in the sports field waiting to be picked for the hockey team and waiting in vain. Outsiders and radicals turn to art to change what is inside people’s heads. But the reality of people’s lives creates conservative aspirations.
Semyon took me deeper into Perm’s history. He showed me the house that was home to three sisters in the late 19thcentury. These three spinsters opened a school for the children of Perm. When the playwright Anton Chekhov came to visit he heard about the new school. Despite the poignancy of their aspirations, the three sisters could not detain the great playwright. He arrived in the afternoon and left the same evening. But something from Perm went with him – perhaps it was the quietness, the stillness, the isolation and emptiness. Or perhaps it was the stifling provincialism. Perm inspired Chekhov to write a play about three sisters longing for the bright lights and Russian Revivalism of Moscow.
The Green Line is obscured with sand and grit used to melt snow in the winter. Sand permeates the air from here to Irkutsk. I could feel it papering my throat as I surveyed the glossy green canyon that led down to the pale green river. The contemporary art was gone but the monuments to the past were melting beautifully into the slow-moving river.
Soviet Russia by comparison was full of fast-moving industry. A ravishing white pile of Constructivist experimentation had once been a kitchen where Perm’s workers enjoyed the dubious benefits of mass catering. The Factory Kitchen Central Working Cooperative was built in 1932. The production capacity of the factory-kitchen was 25,000 dishes per day. The canteen sat 180 people at one sitting. It has been restored and until recently was the base for local gangsters. Now there were some signs advertising non-existent burger bars on the ground floor. The rest was empty.
It was hard to imagine the full blast of productivity that must have made this building the centre of Perm in the 1930s and 1940s. Slogans were cheerful. “A cup of tea served in time gives to industry a satisfied labourer ready to work.” In the communal kitchen everyone had their role. The woman who prodded potatoes with a fork to see whether they were ready. The man who cleaned the primus stoves and the saucepans. The man who cleaned the griddles and the frying pans. The woman who counted every drop of milk, every glass of tea, spoonful of soup and slice of meat. The junior kitchen-boy who stirred the contents of one of the seventy-bucketful cooking pots. These pots could feed a whole city. The implications were staggering. The scale of the experiment awe-inspiring.
The freedom here was in being one human being in an indifferent crowd, just how I felt in Gorky Park, thinking my own thoughts, watching the others thinking theirs, all of us occupying our rightful place. Instal one such kitchen in every city and the entire population will be emancipated from the burden of domestic drudgery, dirt, from the waste of time which oppresses, under the guise of individuality, every woman’s home. Think of the women who are forced to spend their best days and hours stirring, cleaning and feeding. No wonder I get sentimental over my mother. No wonder I cry when I think of her.
Perm has a compulsively readable back-story. Semyon showed me a memorial tablet installed on 3rd November 2005, in front of School #9. It was a dark stone plate with a Russian inscription that read:
To Roderick Impey Murchison, Scottish geologist, explorer of Perm Krai, who gave to the last period of the Paleozoic era the name of Perm.
In 1841, Roderick Murchison made a tour of the area and named an early geological period in honour of the province. The geological period of Perm spans 47 million years and took place 260-odd million years ago. Like the country itself, this is incomprehensible to me. I envy the geographer or the geologist who can see simultaneously past and present. Like a staircase receding, Russia climbed, vast and dazzling, the geologic ages of Time, leaving me on the very lowest steps, looking at monuments.
Ten years after his return from the Urals, Murchison addressed a large meeting in Hyde Park, London. He was taking a stand against England’s anti-Russian stance. He did not want us to join arms with Louis Napoleon of France in the Crimean War.
“Even when Russia extends its possessions into bordering territories, it gives its new colonies more than it takes from them, unlike other colonial powers. This doesn’t happen because Russia is governed by a particular philanthropy, nothing of the sort. ... Eastern Slavonic moral values formed in pre-Christian times keep a Russian person from violating another’s soul or property. Out of his deeply rooted compassion, the Russian is more inclined to give his last shirt than to take one from someone. ...
Upon somewhat thorough research, one can easily discover that those defeated or under Russian patronage ... keep their way of life and sacred institutions intact... and they also gain financially and become more civilized overall.”
Murchison had found the secret of Mother Russia's appeal. She looks after you, even as she lashes out. The Russians liked him back. I saw at least two Scottish pubs in Perm, as well as the commemorative tablet. Murchison was right to be against entry into the Crimean War. The only victor of that war was the country that did not take part: Germany.
the largest exhibits are kept in the car park
“Perm Museum of Artillery, 1905 goda Street, 20, has one of the most complete collection of ballistic missiles and rocket launchers in Russia.”
Wherever you go in Russia you will find “Khruschev’s Slums”. They are identikit blocks of flats, eight to ten storeys high, with balconies, internal stairwells, and ground-floor gardens with children’s play areas. Shostakovich wrote an operetta about these blocks in which Sasha and Masha have to bribe local officials to get allocated a 10th-floor flat. Workers were desperate to move out of decrepit comunalki where families shared kitchens, bathrooms and sometimes bedrooms into what Khruschev promoted as the acme of modern, comfortable living. Each block offered fresh air, green spaces and each flat had its own bathroom. There was no kitchen. Instead Khruschev thoughtfully provided a galley with a heating plate to warm up food purchased at the Kitchen Factory.
The Khruschevs were built in the Fifties. They are still in use. Millions of people throughout Russia still live in these hiding places from health and safety. Built to last for twenty years the flats have survived with DIY cardboard sheets placed over chipped defective concrete, and loose electric wires tangled around rusty piping.
“There is nothing so permanent as temporary,” Semyon told me. “It’s another Russian joke,” he smiled.
I could have felt sad for the tenants of this tumble-down estate but I didn’t. It was like walking through a secret garden where blocks of brick and concrete have lost their blunt geometry, and Nature has taken over. The occupants had shown their resourcefulness and their spirit. They planted hanging baskets that swarmed with narcissi and trailing pelargonium. Vegetables grew in petrol cans and water tanks. There was a confusion of decay and vitality, foliage and patinated stone that flourished with graffiti. It was as though heedlessness had taken over from the Nanny State.
Some children were playing on the rotting, splintered wood of climbing frames. They careened down the slides and took their young lives in their hands on sagging swings. Young women in tracksuits sat on benches and watched them play. A young man with red, dilated eyes watched me. He lurked like a London drug-dealer in the doorway of his block. I was not exactly put off but I felt like a voyeur, beguiled by the staircase behind him. Layers of peeling paintwork in washed-out mauve and baby blue disappeared in a spiral of iron rails. What really fascinated me as I trespassed on this prelapsarian era was the demeanour of its residents. The man who lowered at me, the women who ignored me. Housing officers were not bothering them with surveys and questionnaires. They were just getting on with it, or not, as the case may be. It felt again like a kind of timelessness, and a kind of freedom. There was room to get lost and found here, to exist beyond the conventions of a processed society.
And so to the Yuri Gagarin Palace of Culture. Each district of Perm has its own Palace of Culture in sumptuous Constructivist concrete and space-age statuary. Rockets are big in Perm, as I would find imminently. This Palace was hauntingly, ominously resonous like the music that stops at the concert’s end. I wondered round in search of a far-off violin I could hear being scraped in a music lesson somewhere. But around every corner all I could find was another.
The old Motovilikhinskiy Plant, now known as the Museum of Artillery, was equally deserted. It was shut despite it being midday, and there was no indication that it might ever open. Luckily the largest exhibits are kept in the car park, alongside Ladas and ordinary family saloons.
The Second World War is celebrated throughout Russia with tanks parked on streets. They commemmorate sacrifice and endurance. Here there was a corrugated-iron shack selling kebabs next to two thirty-foot rocket launchers.
The car park outside the museum was empty of people but there were ranks of SAM missiles, tanks and the 152-millimetre howitzer used in August 1944 by the advancing Red Army to fire its first shells into German territory.
It was nearly time to board the train. Since fruit is a rare commodity on the Trans-Siberian I made a stop at Perm’s Central Market. I can see how Perm was once a modern town – some time in the 1930s that would have been. The streets were wide like Moscow’s. Tramcars clanged down most of them. The roads were tarred; others were stone setts. But what was notable about them was the state of disrepair. The pavements were loose flags set roughly in the ground; there were cavities in the tar.
The market was eerie and disturbingly watchful. No one smiled. There was no banter. No bargaining. After acres of white concrete I finally found a section where ruddy-faced farmers sold crops of cucumbers, potatoes, cabbages and pine nuts. Old ladies sold handmade lace shawls. Other stallholders sold Chinese-made Western goods. But Perm Central Market had the aching emptiness of the rest of the city. It was as though the apocalypse had come to town and no one had told me. Where were all the shoppers, the housewives, the workers Finally I found a young woman whose stall was piled high with tiny red pippins. She refused to accept payment for my bag of apples.
Russians – either they blank you or they indulge you. I agree with Roderick Murchison. As a people, Russians possess a rare dignity that possibly has its roots in Eastern Orthodoxy, but definitely derives from a doleful worldview that chimes with my own. It is a dignity that is best described as transcendence. It is expressed in acts of compassion that runs deep with them because they know what it is to suffer. The inescapability of suffering is a kind of sobriety that is largely absent in England or America. It is bound up with the powerlessness of any individual to escape their fate. The Russians I met, like Tatiana and Semyon, may not have laughed at my jokes or traded confidences, but they seemed to have an inner calm, a source of unflagging energy that flows like the Kama, the Volga and maybe dwells in the mysterious Lake Baikal, my last stop.