Creativity is hard to define but even harder to quantify. Few people would disagree that creativity is also an indispensable and very tangible resource in making places around the world more liveable and open. This is true in the case of Russia where locals, particularly those living outside of Moscow and St Petersburg, are often forced to be exceptionally creative to deal with the pressures of the day. As the director of an award-winning advertising agency from Yekaterinburg, Nikita Kharisov explains: “This sense of daily resistance makes you look at the world from a very different angle and it prompts you to come up with some brilliantly twisted ideas.”
Some of these trailblazing ideas, people and projects are central to Calvert 22 Foundation’s upcoming Index of Creative Capital, a part of which is previewed here. Produced in association with PwC in Russia and to be launched later this year, the index is designed to gauge key economic indicators that make for more innovative cities. Focusing on nine pilot cities (listed here in alphabetial order), it will reveal the vital qualitative aspects of creative life — such as openness, as well as racial, sexual, gender and religious diversity — that very few organisations have ever tried to examine comprehensively. This selection, compiled with the help of local researchers, writers and photographers, is just a little taste of a bubbling grass-root scene that is slowly but steadily changing Russia for the better.
A melting pot of different cultures, Kazan was officially honoured as “Russia's third capital“ in 2009. The city has experienced two seismic events in recent: its millennium jubilee and the XXVII Summer Universiade (an international event for university athletes), which furnished Kazan with a string of new motorways, five-star hotel chains, craft beer bars, and independent coffee shops. Last year, the Republic of Tatarstan (of which Kazan is the capital) embarked on a major modernisation of its urban parks and embankments. The most promising creative project in Tatarstan, however, is Innopolis — a modern-day re-interpretation of the Soviet naukograd (science town), forty minutes away from Kazan, and which plans to accommodate some 150,000 people, employed primarily in the high technology sector.
Krasnodar is the capital of the warmest, most fertile, and most tourist-trodden region in Russia. It is one of the country's fastest growing regional economies and every year it draws thousands of migrants from other Russian regions. One of the reasons is food: following the introduction of the sanctions, local farmers vigorously set about expanding their production to replace the banned imports. In a little over a year, they have had enormous success, sowing hope that the region can become a Mecca for gastronomic tourism in the years to come. The Krasnodar region is also the most northerly tea-producer in the world, and the harvest is abundantly available in the capital’s central market. Besides the wonderful climate and delicious food, its cultural offerings are manifold: from Tipographia, one of Russia's most interesting centres for contemporary art, and historic public spaces, such as the city's central Krasnaya Street which is pedestrianised at weekends, to its proximity to Rostov-on-Don, the Caucasus, and Crimea. Together, these factors make Krasnodar one of Russia's richest, most promising, and most dynamically developing regions.
Moscow is the nerve-centre of the country, connecting numerous Russian regions with the outside world, but it also interlinking them with each other. The capital is now encroaching on twenty million (the size of an average European country), however the city's creative capital is about much more than its gigantic human potential. Nowhere else in Russia do all the vital components for creative breakthrough coincide in a single place: cultural talent and institutional support, liberal education, a comfortable urban environment, social activity, an open culture, and economic diversification. The most significant players in the latest surge in the city's creative economy have been the educational institutions cultivating professionals for the innovative sector. From Strelka Institute of Media, Architecture and Design to Moscow Film School to The Glinka School of contemporary music, the new generation of independent educational startups are shaping up a massive pool of talent and knowledge that is already dramatically changing the creative landscape of the city.
Nizhny Novgorod is one of the largest cities in modern Russia — currently the fifth, although it moves up and down the population leader-board. It is just a few hours from Moscow by train and yet life here moves at a notably more relaxed pace. The city, which unfurls from the hills down to the river, is also one of Russia's prettiest. The view from the lofty upper half of town over the confluence of the Oka and the Volga is nothing short of enchanting; the sudden changes in elevation and the surprising architectural contrasts make you forget, momentarily, all the other places in the world. Gorky (the Soviet name for Nizhny Novgorod) was a “closed city” right up until 1990 — principally meaning that it was closed to foreigners — and this has left the city with a fondness for the good old days. That, however, has not prevented a dynamic cultural environment from forming in the guise of creative hubs and exhibition centres, including the imposing Arsenal, one of the largest galleries of contemporary art in Russia.
Dubbed “the capital of Siberia”, Novosibirsk is a young city in terms of its history, and its residents, many of whom are students originally from neighbouring cities. The city has achieved as much in 123 year existence, that has taken other cities close to centuries, and today it is a fully-fledged megalopolis of almost 1.5 million people. It has been called “a city of scientists”, for housing Akademgorodok, a scientific and educational centre built under the auspices of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, as well as a “city of entrepreneurship” — few regions can boast entrepreneurs as successful as the founders of 2GIS geosystems and the airline S7, or IT developers as good as those behind Parallels's virtualisation software that is used globally. Really, Novosibirsk is a multifaceted city that attracts both tourists and entrepreneurs. Its city’s development has always been driven by human capital, as opposed to by oil revenues, and this is often seen as its major advantage.
Considered Russia’s most European city, St Petersburg is home to a unique assembly of classical museums, theatres, and palaces. It’s also widely considered as the hip capital of Russia with endless experimental bars and creative quarters. Today, St. Petersburg’s respected universities and large IT companies, world-known cultural institutions and huge empty industrial buildings make for a thriving creative sector, though the city is criticised for its conservatism. Many projects and startups treat St. Petersburg as a testing ground before moving to Moscow, where the money and open-minded investors are concentrated. Fashion is a burgeoning market in St Petersburg, and is currently in a state of buoyant adolescence. Slowly but surely, local brands — ranging from street-wear to handmade lingerie — are reaching beyond creative niches to the mass consumer.
Despite being an industrial city with a natural-resource-based economy, Tyumen is also home to one of the largest theatre buildings, The Tyumen Drama theatre, and boasts over twenty amateur theatre companies. From contemporary theatre to extreme sports, the city’s creative scene has been growing in the last decade, and “Tyumen trendy” can be spotted sporting local clothing brands such as Homles Clothing or Moloko. The latter recently joined their friends the Retokhaus ceramics workshop at the Fabric Loft, a club that includes a concert space, lecture theatre, and workshop. The SibSub skate park project, meanwhile, has given various subcultures and extreme sports communities the opportunity to develop.
Centre of a largely agricultural region, Voronezh was chosen as a cultural capital of the CIS last year — a status which reflects the cultural breakthrough the city has made in the last few years. Since 2011, the city has hosted the annual Platonov Arts Festival, with a programme to rival any Moscow festival. Voronezh has also made a name for itself in the contemporary art world. Every year, a new artist from the city makes the list of participants at an international art biennale or is short-listed for Russia’s national art prize. The idea of promoting contemporary culture in Voronezh was championed by the famous director and producer Edward Boyakov, whose attempt to instigate a cultural revolution in a specific Russian city is much discussed to this day. Boyakov was responsible for “Voronezh Pulse”, a study of the local cultural environment conducted by a group of Voronezh cultural figures and invited experts. Though Edward Boyakov has since returned to Moscow, Voronezh’s creative scene continues to grow like an unruly wild garden over its fertile black soil.
Historically, Yekaterinburg attracted the bold and opportunistic, who endowed the city with its spirit of freedom and protest. It was this spirit that inspired the pioneers of the Russian avant-garde to build the world's biggest ensemble of constructive architecture deep in forests of the Urals. Today, that same atmosphere of independence has produced the generation of rock musicians behind the latest wave in Russian music. To this day, the city is gripped by a creative fever that keeps its designers, artists, musicians, and entrepreneurs continually moving and innovating, and the result is some of the best creative companies in the world. The list of awards accrued by local agencies such as the Ural’s RA Voskhod, The Red Pepper, and Street Art teams is too long to list here but includes the impressive Golden Lions from the Cannes Lions advertising festival.
Text: Masha Borodacheva, Ian Evtushenko, Anna Kosinskaya, Kirill Maevsky, Semyon Panin, Anton Make Polsky, Alexandra Phillippova, Alexander Tsarikov, Sofia Yartseva, Anastasia Zakharova, Igor Zinatulin
Image: Evgeniy Alimzhukhin, Lena Frants, Mikhail Kolchin, Kseniya Kolesnikova, Dmitry Lookianov, Daniil Maksyukov, Aida Myrzaeva, Ekaterina Sergeeva, Fyodor Telkov, Sofia Yartseva, Denis Yakovlev, Viktor Yuliev, Irina Yulieva, Oblic Blog, Olga Virich, Denis Volkov
Stats: Calvert Forum, Rosstat
More from Tech
Inside the Russian company taking immersive theatre to the next level