THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE
One afternoon in May, a radio host on Perm's local affiliate of Ekho Moskvy (FM 91.2 “Ekho Moskvy v Permi”) asked her guest, “What is a Permiak [resident of Perm’]? How is he different from the rest of Homo sapiens?” The guest was a local sociologist who had been invited on to discuss this very question: how to define residents of Perm, a city of just over a million residents on the western slope of the Urals? He avoided answering the question directly. But the host didn't let it go. She knew what her listeners wanted to know. “What is a Permiak?” she asked again.
Discussions like this aren’t at all rare in Perm. It is a city extremely concerned with its own identity. I’ve been to many of the provincial capitals in Russia, and rarely have I heard anyone talk about the brand or the image of the city or what makes the residents distinctive. (This type of discussion, I should mention, seems to be on the rise all over Russia). But when I was in Perm for a couple of weeks this summer, I heard this kind of talk from everyone I met: local professors, television personalities, small business owners, writers, and students. The local intelligentsia seems especially engaged (not to say obsessed) with the question of what makes Perm Perm.
I asked a local cultural theorist, Vladimir Abashev, how and when this interest in the city as such began. Abashev’s own book, Perm as Text (Perm kak tekst, 1999), is one of the high-water marks in this trend. It analyzes Perm’s urban semiotics (in a self-consciously but productively Lotmanian mode) as reflected in the texts produced in and about the city. Abashev told me that the search for local identity goes back at least to 1970s underground poets, including Aleksei Reshetov and Vitalii Kalpidi who would invoke the history of Pasternak’s stay in the city, appeal to local nature, or romanticize the city’s industrial strengths.
But why Perm? These particular phenomena are in no way unique to Perm. Other cities could say more or less the same about themselves (and some of them do). But in Perm the discussion around these questions is especially intense.
I caught up with the sociologist from the radio interview, Oleg Lysenko, and asked him a similar question, why Perm? What’s so different about this city? What makes its rhetoric of local identity so hotly debated?
The obvious answer is the Perm Cultural Project, an initiative pursued by the region’s governor, Oleg Chirkunov, during his term in office from 2004 to 2012. The project attempted to redefine Perm as a center of contemporary art by funding museums, festivals, and street art both imported from outside and recruited from within Perm.
It was either a huge success or an infamous failure, depending on who you talk to. Either way, it caused a stir. It piqued the interest of residents, raised the hackles of the local intelligentsia, and caused scandals, in part, because it appeared to highjack the project of local identity that was well under way. If Perm thinkers were not already actively engaged in their own project of local identity, Lysenko told me, the Perm Cultural Project wouldn’t have worked (or fallen apart) quite so dramatically.
Which brings me back to the same question, what’s so special about Perm? (With repetition, this question starts to sound like the radio host grilling Lysenko. This type of inquiry can be self-generating. The more you ask a question, the more intrinsically important it seems.)
If there is an answer, it might be found in Perm’s long history as no place at all.
Even the city’s connections to Russian high culture—often used in attempts at pulling Perm out of obscurity—actually end up sinking the city further into anonymity. Serguei Diagilev was born here, for example, but he left when he realized that you can’t very well be an impresario in the Urals.
Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” apparently, took place in Perm. That’s the play whose almost incantatory refrain, “To Moscow! To Moscow!” communicates with heart-wrenching insistency the sisters’ despair at their provincial setting. But in the text of Chekhov’s play, their place of residence goes unnamed. It’s only in a letter to Maxim Gorky that Chekhov explains that it takes places in “a provincial city like Perm.”
Doctor Zhivago’s provincial town—also not named Perm—is more likely modeled on the place. (Pasternak spent some time here.) The Perm-analog fulfills once again the narrative function of non-capital, a place relatively untouched by the grand events of revolutionary history.
In World War II, when the Soviet Union was invaded by Nazi forces, Perm’s isolation—its status as no-place—made it the perfect point of retreat for some of the USSR’s major treasures. Thousands of works from the Hermitage and the Russian Museum were evacuated to Perm during the siege of Leningrad, as were the members of the Leningrad Philharmonic and Ballet. Anna Akhmatova spent time in Perm as well. She was airlifted out of the northern capital during the siege, a journey she describes in the last lines of Poem without a Hero:
As Akhmatova evacuated eastward, she traced the path so many of her friends and family had taken in other circumstances, on their journeys to imprisonment and often death. Akhmatova’s vision anticipates much of Perm’s post-war history. As no-place, Perm was a perfect setting for two of the Soviet Union’s most notorious institutions—the gulag and the armaments industry.
Set up in 1955, the prison camp known as Perm-36 housed political prisoners during the most heated years of the Cold War. No longer officially part of the GULag, the government office that administered the camps under Stalin and up through 1956, the camp continued to operate under the new administration (and usually still referred to colloquially as a “gulag”) until the 1980s.
But it was armaments manufacturing that made official what the city had always tacitly acknowledged—its status as no-place. Here, tanks were assembled, jet engines built, and nuclear technologies developed throughout the Cold War. These most secret operations of the Soviet Union had to be hidden from enemy eyes.
Perm became one of many closed cities. Closed to outsiders—domestic and foreign—access was granted strictly on the grounds of residence. And if you couldn’t visit, you didn’t need to know about it. Perm disappeared—at least cartographically—from the Soviet Union. It was removed from official atlases and maps (in the Soviet Union, that meant all atlases and maps), so that if you were in school in Moscow or Yakutsk in 1978, you would never even know that a place called Perm existed. This city of almost a million Soviet citizens was officially no place at all.
With this history in mind, the recent explosion of debates around Perm’s identity might be best understood in the context of the Soviet and post-Soviet practice of “rehabilitation,” the process of resurrecting the memory of repressed persons. If memories of any single person can differ by personal perspective, images of a city of more than a million residents are bound to crumble as soon as they begin to take shape. The city’s history as no-place leaves a blank space onto which each resident can project her own experience. In absence of other definitions, each person’s experience has an equal claim to define the city. And so the field of local identity, the question about what makes a Permiak, opens up to anyone willing to present an answer.
So what is a Permiak? The best answer might be that a Permiak is someone who asks that question, whose local identity is underdetermined, open for interpretation, in search of images, values, and meanings that might help provide answers.
Bradley Gorski is the editor of Ulbandus Online. He works and studies at Columbia University.
 Translation by Nancy K. Anderson from: The Word that Causes Death's Defeat: Poems of Memory (New Haven: Yale UP, 2004).