You could, if you wanted to, divide travellers into planners and drifters. Some people rock up airily in a country and drift about wherever the wind takes them, leaving their experiences to chance: not me. I’m definitely a planner. Well, sometimes I drift, especially if I’ve been to the place before, but mostly I plan things months in advance, especially when time is tight, so I don’t miss anything I want to see. Despite this, I’m beginning to learn that however well you plan a trip, certain things will inevitably happen to make you throw your plans out the window. Sometimes you just have to surrender.
Perm isn’t one of the usual stops on the Trans-Siberian, but I especially wanted to go there. Firstly, it is near what was then the only surviving Gulag camp museum in Russia. Back in 2012 I was fresh from my MA in Russian and East European Studies, and I had recently finished a dissertation on ethics in Gulag literature, so I was particularly keen to visit the museum. Secondly, Perm was home to Diaghilev’s family when he was a boy and a lot of dancers, artists and musicians were evacuated to Perm during the war. The city’s ballet company is ranked just behind those of Moscow and St Peterburg, so I wanted to watch a performance while we were there. Chris very kindly didn’t object to this, so we jumped off the train ready for an action-packed stop in Perm.
We left the city 48 hours later without having seen either the Gulag museum or the ballet.
Perm is just west of the Urals, and marks the official start of European Russia. Our arrival marked the first time Chris has set foot in Europe since he went to China, something like nine months previously. It all started well: we arrived early in the morning and checked into our hotel in time to be served breakfast, which was a bit of a luxury. The hotel was of the bland forgettable type more geared towards business travellers, but Perm doesn’t have a lot of choice when it comes to accommodation, so there we were.
After breakfast we went to track down information about the Gulag museum. I had an address for the museum’s office in town, but it proved to be a false lead. Undaunted – though perhaps we should have been – we went to the main hotel in Perm, the Hotel Ural, which was pretty much the only source of tourist information in the city.
On the way we stopped off at the ballet theatre to book tickets, only to discover that the theatre was closed. For the whole of August. That was the end of our plan to see the ballet.
The Hotel Ural is a vast, confusing, monolithic building, with shops, tourist agencies, offices and a conference centre all heaped together. Somehow Chris and I managed to wander deep inside it and we found ourselves trailing up and down dark, deserted, menacing corridors looking for the tourist information office, and then, with increasing trepidation, just looking for the way out again. Eventually we found the tourist office by going out of the building and coming back in again via a distant shopfront.
No one spoke English in the tourist office, but they gave us a leaflet with information about how to get to the Gulag museum on public transport, including a map and careful instructions in English. Satisfied, we spent the rest of the day wandering around Perm, visiting its museum of art and generally exploring the place. It’s a lovely city, although it isn’t immediately apparent; its artsy, offbeat charm grows on you.
The next day we got up quite early and set off for the Gulag museum. We found and caught the right bus easily enough; sadly that was the only thing that went well.
The details are best forgotten, really. Suffice to say I drastically misunderstood the instructions from the tourist office and we spent much of the day wandering around the Ural countryside, miles away from the museum. Eventually we were forced to give up the hunt and head back to Perm, defeated. The nearest I got to experiencing a taste of the Gulag was a long march down the side of a road.
Despite Perm having been, even in the most generous assessment, an absolute cock-up from top to bottom, I enjoyed our time there. Chris and I keep saying that we must go back and try again. The city hosts a Diaghilev festival every year: I’d love to see that. Sadly, though, even if we do make it back to Perm, a trip to the Gulag museum wouldn’t be the same. Since 2012 the local authorities have taken over the museum and are busy re-writing its history in a much more pro-Stalinist light. Russia’s only surviving Gulag camp is now an Orwellian celebration of the oppressors, rather than a monument to the oppressed. Given that, I only hope many more people have as much trouble getting there as we did.