“We don’t know how to talk about the difficult times”

Sofiya Gavrilova, artist, geographer and researcher at Oxford University talks about regional identity, historical traumas and migration.  

You have been researching regional identities. Is it possible to talk about the existence of a Permian identity?

There are many ways to construct regional identity, but if we choose only one of them we reject the construction of alternative identities. It means instead of uniting those who live in the region, we fracture society by giving priority to one version of identity and ignoring another.

In your research, you consider hidden narratives in cities’ identities, including those used by government structures. Did you discover something similar in Perm? What should the authorities consider the key elements characteristic of the region’s territory?

We live in a market of narratives which are built by government, public organisations, academia, various festivals and other factors. The official narratives recorded in history textbooks have a particular role. They become a framework which restricts the expression of regional identity. Any narrative which does not fall within this framework is hidden.

In Perm Krai, the theme of repression is one such hidden narrative. In the city’s local history museum this theme is absent, but it is this museum which conveys the overall picture of the region’s history and identity. It is very strange not to speak about repression in a region where there has been such a dense network of camps in its northern part. I think we can’t talk about it without being ashamed.

Moreover, identity is something each resident has to work out for themselves, and people should not just adopt others’ ideas of identity. After all, everyone from Perm has their own narrative – one which is linked primarily to their relatives, but also to the same historical events and reference points. To be able to take a step back from the existing space matrix and approach one’s own identity within one’s native land critically is an individual and useful skill.

Have you visited any Perm local history museums? What are your impressions? Can their exhibitions be interesting for the modern audience?

Perm has a wonderful museum of local history. I really like much of its presentation. For example, the dioramas of everyday life covering life in Perm up to the 90s.

The most recent period is brought to life very effectively, and this part of the exhibition conveys the feeling that history is happening right here and now. I would like the Perm museum to find its own way of also presenting the dark periods of the region’s history, so that it can adopt its own language to be able to talk about the historical traumas.

Berezniki is a good example: the city museum, which was built by prisoners, has sections dedicated to the camps. However, they are of secondary importance. The central part of the space is devoted to the Great Patriotic War, although this topic is clearly less important for the formation of the region’s identity. Recently, this museum received a grant for modernisation, which was spent on modern equipment and interactive installations. At the same time, most of the content of the exhibition remained as before. The situation is no less interesting in Krasnovishersk. In its museum space the memory of Varlam Shalamov and pride in the past of Vishersk Pulp and Paper Mill and the achievements of the local factory workers sit side by side. In a city created during the first ever five-year plan by thousands of prisoners, these “two memories” cannot but be in a state of conflict.

In Krasnovishersk you can find displays with quotes from Shalamov, but a significant part of the museum is devoted to the Vishersk Pulp and Paper Mill.

Currently people are leaving Perm for Moscow, St. Petersburg and the Krasnodar Region. How can we make sure that people do not leave?

There is no need to be afraid that people, especially young people, are leaving the region and the city. They should travel, study in different places and make new connections, the main thing is that they should make a conscious decision to return. People will go to a city if there are prospects there: support for small businesses and low rents for creative initiatives, attractive mortgage conditions and so on. In Tyumen the authorities have such a policy. There is a research centre and scientific cluster where employees are well paid and housing provision is guaranteed. The conditions have also proved attractive for Western scientists.

Perm has attempted to become the region’s cultural capital. It deserves attention, but the project “did not hit the mark”, apparently because it found no support among the local authorities and there was no productive dialogue with residents.