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My First-Hand Account of a Provincial Russian City (It's Bustling!)

Travelling along the Trans Siberian Railway from Moscow to Perm reveals a bustling modern city - totally different from the dark provincial Russia of western fancy

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This post first appeared on Russia Insider

As I reported for Russia Insider a few weeks ago, I have recently visited Perm, an important industrial city in the Urals.

This is my first visit to a Russian city other than Moscow or St. Petersburg.

The trip was made possible by the Oxford Russia Project. This is – amongst much else - an academic exchange bringing together heads of English Departments from across Russia and Belarus for seminars and meetings with major figures in the literary scene in England.

I am not a writer and I do not teach English literature, but through the kindness of Karen Hewitt – the extraordinarily gifted coordinator of the project – I was able to accompany my wife, who heads an English literature department at a University in England, and who is a regular participant in the project.

Though I did not take part in any of the seminars, through the kindness of the staff of Perm State University (I would specially mention – and thank - my outstanding hostess Svetlana Polyakova, together with the dean of history, Igor Kirianov and his daughter Olga Kirianova) I had an exceptionally full series of meetings, meeting an extraordinary variety of people who were kind enough to give me their time and to answer my many questions.

The result was an exciting and stimulating visit, which answered many questions, and posed new ones.

Over the next few weeks I intend to write a series of pieces setting out my impressions.

Before however I do so however there is one general point I want to make.

The overwhelming impression the Western and Russian liberal media convey of life in Russia outside Moscow and St. Petersburg is one of grinding poverty and harshness.  

A recent article in The Economist, with the ominous title “Russia’s Economy: The Path to Penury”, is a case in point. The article starts with a typically gloomy opening paragraph:

“Almost 500km (310 miles) separate Moscow, Russia’s glittering capital, from its lesser-known namesake, a dying village deep in the forests of the Tverskaya Oblast.

The road that connects them begins as smooth asphalt beside the red walls of the Kremlin and ends as a rutted dirt track amid abandoned wooden homes.

The characters that populate the towns and cities along the way often live very different lives.

But as Russia’s recession deepens (the country’s GDP shrank by 4.6% in the second quarter measured year-on-year), the effects resonate across every stratum of society. “  

It proceeds to paint a picture of misery and hopelessness, with the clear implication that this is how life is lived beyond “Russia’s glittering capital” – Moscow.

Having now actually seen Perm and met with people from across Russia who were attending the various seminars, and having also seen one of the small settlements on the railway linking Moscow to Perm, I can say this is complete nonsense.

There is poverty in Russia, rural depopulation does occur, and there are poor villages and regions. To suppose that the whole country outside Moscow and St.  Petersburg is like that is however so wrong as to be grotesque.

The reality of Perm is of a bustling modern city, with powerful industries, a dynamic university, and a highly developed cultural life. Based on what people from other regions told me, it is by no means untypical.

That is not to say that Perm – like the country as a whole – is free of problems. Over the course of the series of articles I intend to write I shall touch on some of them. 

However a proper understanding of the country and of its problems is only possible once the myths are banished away. Given the immense traction these myths have – and the interest some have in perpetuating them – banishing them is not easy.  However the effort has to be made, and Perm is as good a place to start as any.

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