Creativity often emerges from chaos. Nowhere is this more true than in Russia today, where a straitened political landscape is driving Russians to be more resourceful in their attempts to create a country that is liveable and enjoyable. The result is a creative renaissance with an ethos that stands in stark contrast to the ostentatious displays of wealth and muscle-flexing that Russia is known for.
While Moscow and St Petersburg are leading the charge, other cities in the regions are following suit, with former factories and grand old mansions converted into bars, restaurants, artists’ studios, boutiques, co-working spaces and more. There’s no denying that there’s still work to be done. If, as urban theorist Richard Florida says, the creative economy depends on the three Ts — technology, talent and tolerance — then Russia has a long way to go. With legislation such as the “gay propaganda” law it fails spectacularly on the tolerance front and while there’s a wealth of talent, it isn’t always channeled in the right direction or is undercut by officialdom, or worse still, corruption.
What Russian cities ultimately lack is an ecosystem that nurtures creativity; as it stands, most projects are built up piecemeal and not without a struggle. It is against this backdrop that Russia’s urbanised, highly networked, mobile creative class is fighting back — and the results are impressive. As with all indexes, a degree of subjectivity is inevitable. But, we’ve searched high and low for statistics — no small feat in Russia — and tapped our extensive contributors’ network to bring you our alphabetically listed selection of Russia’s top creative cities.
And if you think there are other cities in Russia that make the grade, let us know with your comments.
A cultural melting pot with fresh new ingredients
As grandiose modernisation projects characterise the start of Kazan’s second millennium, its people are making sure that the city’s cultural treasures are not neglected. Operas and plays at its dozens of theatres are performed in both Tatar and Russian, while there is a Museum of Soviet Life as well as a National Museum of the Republic of Tatarstan. As a metaphor for the republic’s religious harmony, the town kremlin contains both the Blagoveschensky cathedral and the Qul-Sharif mosque —the only such multi-faith fortress in Russia. The Kazan International Festival of Muslim Cinema has been held every year since 2005, showcasing new films from within Russia and locations further afield like Kyrgyzstan.
New restaurants struggle to stay open for longer than a year, but the ever-changing roster always features the food of Tatarstan’s European and Central Asian diasporas. The city is also one of the first in Russia to establish a Sunday Up Market, a movement of markets and shows for young fashion designers to promote and sell their creations. Time will tell whether Kazan’s creative landscape will continue to develop as fast as its physical one, but the signs are positive. JC
The hub of ideas that keeps spinning all night
When it comes to creativity, Moscow is Russia’s beating heart, a centripetal force pulling in the brightest and the best minds from across the country. The most cosmopolitan of all Russian cities, the capital is home to world-class institutions like the Bolshoi Theatre and the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. And it’s also the centre of a renaissance in contemporary culture that’s rippling across the country. Former factories (as well as a boat and a dacha) are being converted into art clusters and co-working spaces at a prolific rate, while a new breed of drinking and dining establishments is looking to London, Berlin and New York for culinary and design inspiration. Nowhere captures Moscow’s transformation better than Gorky Park, the Stalin-era recreation ground-turned-hipster hangout that’s home to the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, two skate parks, a petanque cafe and a selection of restaurants and bars to suit every budget.
The man behind the makeover is Moscow’s cultural minister, Sergei Kapkov, whose next project is revamping the city’s 400-odd libraries. After sunset, the city comes into its own, with international DJs spinning and designer cocktails flowing till the early hours.
What makes Moscow stand apart from other capitals is that it is a truly 24-hour city, with all-night dentists, tanning salons, bookshops, veterinary clinics andmore. Just outside Moscow, there’s Skolkovo, Russia’s would-be answer to Silicon Valley. Although hobbled by long construction delays and allegations of corruption, recent reports suggest that the tech hub is finally back on track. MO
Cutting-edge buzz in a pretty old town
Situated at the confluence of the Volga and Oka rivers, Nizhny Novgorod is one of Russia’s most picturesque cities. The eastern bank of the Oka is home to the historic centre, with the hilltop kremlin as its focal point. Within the walls of this impressive 16th-century red brick fortress is a local branch of the National Centre for Contemporary Arts. With events such as the Marevo Opera, an experimental one-act contemporary opera that bagged the 2013 Innovation award, Russia’s equivalent of the Turner Prize, the NCCA has shown itself to be a driver of artistic innovation in the region.
The city’s main artery — Bolshaya Pokrovskaya, or Pokrovka — is packed with museums, theatres, art galleries and restaurants. What’s unique to Nizhny Novgorod is the DIY culture that’s emerged, led by pay-per-minute cafes and “free spaces” that play host to film screenings, poetry slams, lectures and more. It was in Nizhny Novgorod after all that Russia’s first Restaurant Day was held, a four-times-a-year global event when anybody who fancies themselves as the next big cooking sensation can set up a pop-up restaurant and see where it takes them. MO
Post-industrial revival in the shadow of the Urals
The industrial city of Perm, a one-time manufacturer of tanks and missiles, is no beauty but what it lacks in architectural glory it more than makes up for with a vibrant cultural scene. Thanks to the efforts of former regional governor Oleg Chirkunov, the city is now home to a contemporary art museum, the annual White Nights festival of arts and an array of public art sculptures dotted around the centre.
Although Chirkunov’s attempts to spark a cultural revolution have somewhat foundered since his departure in 2012 (his replacement seems ill-disposed to the arts), a number of grassroots projects have sprung to life. Most notable is Apteka Bartminskogo, a cultural cluster housed in a former 19th-century pharmacy. Wend your way to the top of the building, past the record shop, the perfumier, the bookshop and vintage store, and you’ll find a restaurant and bar serving seasonal and local produce and if you get lucky, homemade beer. Other cultural highlights in the city include the Museum of the Soviet Naive, the Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre, and the annual Flahertiana documentary film festival. MO
World-beating culture with a contemporary edge
It’s easy to lose count of the number of creative clusters popping up in the majestic buildings and former factories of St Petersburg. Taiga Space, Architector, Third Cluster, Fligel, Tkachi, Loft Etagi are just a few, each of them home to design studios, boutique fashion stores, record shops, cafes, hostels and more. Look beyond St Petersburg’s candy-coloured, baroque facade and you’ll see an entire city experiencing a creative renaissance, with a crop of delectable eating and drinking options that are adding a contemporary edge to the historic city. The strip of land between the Neva and Moyka rivers, in particular, has seen a recent flourishing of classy cocktail joints and forward-thinking eateries.
Even the State Hermitage Museum, the crown jewel of Russia’s art world, is keeping pace, with the addition of Hermitage 20/21, a contemporary art wing, bringing the venerable institution into the 21st century. And the second stage of the Mariinsky Theatre, Russia’s legendary opera and ballet house, opened in 2013 with a gala performance that wowed critics. After Moscow, St Petersburg is the place in Russia to shop, with a flourishing streetwear scene that has caught the eye of international labels and, twice a year, Aurora Fashion Week, a showcase forthe best in Russian design from across the country. Bibliophiles will be also well placed: the former capital, once the inspiration for authors such as Dostoevsky and Gogol, continues to cherish its literary past with bookshops that double up as focal points for the city’s intellectuals. MO
Budding arts scene with a Far Eastern flavour
After a trip to the US in 1959, Nikita Khrushchev returned to Russia and implored the residents of Vladivostok to transform their hilly city into “our San Francisco”. Four decades later and the city may not be a hub of alternative culture but it does boast several impressive bridges, including the world’s longest cable-stayed crossing. The bustling port city is on the eastern edge of Russia, neighbouring China, North Korea and Japan, so Asian influences abound. Japanese cars are de rigueur and the city is home to Pyongyang Cafe, one of only a handful of DPRK-backed restaurants in the world. Despite the influx of cheap Chinese garb, there’s a small but steadily growing number of local fashion designers, most notably Sveta Gruzdova whose east-meets-west-inspired clothing line has won her the affections of Vladivostok’s fashionistas.
The city’s art scene is a mix of old and new: the Primorye State Picture Gallery houses a decent collection of 18th to 20th-century art, including works by Chagall, Kandinsky and Goya, while the Zarya Centre for Contemporary Art offers a platform for today’s artists. Public art is actively supported and paid for by the city administration. The city centre is likewise a combination of old and newarchitecture, a patchwork of majestic 19th-century buildings, vertiginous skyscrapers and ubiquitous Russian tower blocks, all gently curving round the Golden Horn bay. Film buffs can get their fill at the Pacific Meridian, a celebration of Asian and Pacific filmmaking that offers an award in memory of the city’s most famous resident: Yul Brynner. MO
Where young, creative talent is thinking big
Russian cities can, at first glance, look a little samey: dancing fountain – check, statue of Lenin - check, improbably named fusion-cuisine restaurant – check. In this respect, Voronezh plays to type: half a day’s drive due south of Moscow in the midst of the absurdly abundant Black Earth agricultural region, this provincial centre isn’t much to look at. But, fortunately, a significant minority among its million residents — ranging from both idealistic twentysomethings to surprisingly open-minded officials — have realised that true beauty is on the inside, and that thoughtful, high-quality creative projects can help secure a new reputation and stop bright kids seeking bright lights up the road in the capital.
In fact, one prominent local boy has made the return journey: theatre impresario Eduard Boyakov made Moscow his own, but now he’s come back home to inject some big-city savvy into the Voronezh cultural scene, launching the Open! festival and reworking the popular Platonov festival. A more grassroots approach has been pioneered by local media outlet Downtown, whose website and events programme showcase the talents and tattoos of the local creative class. A similar get-up-and-go spirit runs through the Voronezh Centre for Contemporary Art: set up by local artists in 2008, it’s now collaborating with international galleries. The dancing fountains and dodgy restaurants are probably here to stay, but the people striding between them are going places. JR
Spraying and sculpting a new urban aesthetic
A vibrant, dynamic city, Yekaterinburg is known as “the Russian capital of street art”. The tag is well deserved. Not only did the country’s first street art gallery open in Yekaterinburg, but the city also plays host to Stenograffia, an annual international graffiti festival. It’s also the home of Timofei Radya, a street artist-cum-activist whose daring designs have earned him the moniker of “the Russian Banksy”.
Thanks to the region’s mineral wealth, Yekaterinburg, which sits on the Europe-Asia border, has undergone a rapid transformation since its days as a city with a noted mafia presence (although you can still visit the flashy tombstones of local gangsters, their faces etched into the granite). Skyscrapers are popping up on an almost daily basis. And every two years, the organisers of the Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art take over the city’s factories with exhibitions that explore issues around post-industrial society, a fitting theme for a place that manufactured much of the heavy machinery that fuelled Russia’s industrialisation.
A number of dance companies and a department of contemporary dance at the Yekaterinburg University of Humanities make the city a draw for those looking to practice the discipline. During summer, residents gather at Istorichesky Skver, a pretty square with landscaped gardens, or at the City Pond, which is surrounded by Yekaterinburg’s best museums. After sundown head to any number of pubs, clubs and bars — a source of pride for locals. If none of the above captures your imagination you can always go on a walking tour of the city’s unusual public sculptures, which include a computer keyboard, HG Wells’ Invisible Man and an improbably large bank card. MO
More from Travel · St Petersburg · Moscow
Discover a Georgian wilderness that's like Lord of the Rings with AK-47s