Russia is weird. I remember that when I first came to Germany, I was startled to find that is was not as foreign as I had imagined it would be. This was the condescension of one who had not yet traveled beyond her own country. It is justified here. My coursemates tell me I will come to love Perm before long, and I believe them – already its subtle charm is leaving an impression on me. But the first impression is bleak.
Perm is the result of industrialization, and the result is a large, sprawling city with a population greater than Detroit, dominated by the remains of soviet factories. I am unsure as to how many of them are functioning, or what they produce, but they somehow grab hold of the imagination. It reminds me of when I went to see Berlin for the first time, and the closer we got to Berlin through former East Germany, the more run-down the country looked: old, nasty, cinder-block buildings, hastily thrown together for mere functionality, with no character save what has been attributed to them by the liberal application of graffiti. That is what I now see in Perm, only on a much larger scale. Almost every building needs re-plastering, or at least a new coat of paint. There is rust everywhere.
This impression is not limited to the buildings. The cars on the road are old and boxy, largely trucks, most showing a lot of rust, and all with a thick splatter of dirt. I’m not sure the concept of an eco-friendly car exists here. Then again, I’m not sure an eco-friendly car could make it down these roads. The sidewalks are poor, usually flooded, and sometimes so thick with mud that I can’t be sure of there being pavement below at all. There exists a substantial generational gap in the way people dress. The little old ladies wear scarves over their heads and puffy, knee-length coats. Younger generations look tacky. Leather coats predominate among the men, and fur ones among the ladies. In the center of town, every woman below forty seems to be wearing heals, and the younger the woman in question, the more absurd the heals (even by my standards.) I bought toilet paper and a bar of soap to keep in my bag, because these are far from a surety at my school, where the toilets also lack seats. The toilet paper is not wrapped around a cardboard tube (although other brands are.)
And yet, as I said, the city is not without charm. People on the street seem depressed and unfriendly, but everyone I have spoken with has been warm and sympathetic. My coursemates, who have been here longer, tell me that many of the Russians they know are almost over-eager to be friends with them. The apartment buildings have clearly been lived in for decades by the same owners, who have taken considerable care to make them home, unlike most other apartments I have seen, which are only transitional. Even the busses have curtains.
The wallpaper may be pealing, my light fixture may be missing a bulb, the floor may be oddly uneven, and my bed may have no springs, but it is all homely. The bathroom has no sink, so we wash our hands from the tap in the bath. We shower in the same room we dry our laundry. I am pretty sure my hostess and her niece (the other occupants of the flat) sleep on pull-out beds in the sitting room, as it is the only room save mine and the kitchen. My landlady said to me “this is the real Russia”. I think I understand, and I think this is what is so pleasing about Perm. It is not beautiful or grand like St. Petersburg or Moscow, but it is an authentic place—shabby, but genuine. It is not a place you’d come to see, because it’s not a place you can like all at once. You have to know it.