The Yenisei River rises in the Mongolian mountains above Ulan Bator and traces a wide arc through southern Siberia before arrowing northwards to the distant, frozen Arctic Ocean. The largest city it passes through on its route is Krasnoyarsk, a former Gulag town and home to nearly a million people. The city was the centre of Stalin’s penal system, housed captured German soldiers during the Second World War and is now the prison capital of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, with more than 30 jails in town and in the surrounding countryside.
Temperatures can drop to -40°C in winter and hard manual labour is still the norm within the prison camps. Encircled by a jagged range of red-tinted mountains and perched astride the Yenisei, where flotillas of ice make their way north, Krasnoyarsk is a harsh place. An unlikely location, you might think, for a cultural renaissance funded by Mikhail Prokhorov, a man who co-owns the Brooklyn Nets basketball team (until recently with the rapper Jay-Z).
I arrived in Krasnoyarsk with a group of British writers as part of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference. It was early November and already the city was dusted with snow. Temperatures at night fell to -20°C and no combination of thermals could keep the wind at bay. Krasnoyarsk was the most distant outpost of the Edinburgh conference – a British Council-led initiative to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1962 symposium at which Norman Mailer sparred with Muriel Spark; Lawrence Durrell with Henry Miller. Over the next few days, we discussed the state of the contemporary novel with a group of leading Russian writers at Siberia’s answer to the Hay Festival, the Krasnoyarsk Book Culture Fair.
The book fair is funded by the Mikhail Prokhorov Foundation, a charitable institution set up by the billionaire businessmanturned- politician and administered by his elder sister, the publisher and literary critic Irina Prokhorova. Prokhorov is the tenthrichest man in Russia, with a fortune of more than $13bn, which was built up in the 1990s under the controversial loans-forshares scheme in which most of Russia’s large corporations fell into the hands of a small group of young, aggressive businessmen – the oligarchs. In 2011, Prokhorov joined and became the leader of the pro-business party Right Cause. He stood against Putin in the 2012 elections and has since called time on his business interests to devote himself to politics. He formed a new party, Civic Platform, which seeks to forge a “third way” between the Kremlin and the vociferous opposition parties.
In the heat of Prokhorov’s failed presidential campaign last year, a star was born: his sister, Irina. Russia stages American-style television debates in the lead-up to its elections. However, rather than appear themselves, politicians nominate proxies to rep - resent them. In Putin’s corner was the film director and ultra-nationalist Nikita Mikhal - kov. Facing him was Irina, unknown outside literary circles.
Irina Prokhorova founded the Russian academic journal and publishing house New Literary Observer in 1992, carving out for herself a niche in the world of books every bit as successful (if not quite as lucrative) as her younger brother’s in the world of business. Still, it seemed a mismatch, this softly spoken, serious woman in her mid-fifties coming up against the firebrand Mikhalkov. Over the course of the debate, Mikhalkov was reduced from shouting to spluttering to silence. Prokhorova’s small, dark eyes darted around as she spoke but her voice was calm, unpicking her opponent’s arguments in precise sentences. By the end, Mikhalkov was promising Prokhorova that if she ever ran for president, she would have his vote. The debate became a YouTube hit and Prokhorova the face of her brother’s campaign. Although the presidential bid fizzled out, Prokhorova established herself as one of the leading lights of Russia’s opposition.
On my last day in Krasnoyarsk, I sat down with Prokhorova on a gaudy, leatherette sofa in the atrium of the city’s Hotel Siberia. A neat, understated woman with a bob of auburn hair, she apologised for her (impeccable) English. She lives with her daughter in a wing of her brother’s mansion to the west of Moscow and wears little jewellery – far from our image of the typical wealthy Russian. Only the bright regularity of her smile marked her out from the scores of other serious women at the festival.
I asked her about the debate that brought her to the attention of the country and the world. “I couldn’t understand it at first. But I think it’s about this: usually Russian debates are about personal slights, spats – people pushing each other, throwing water in each other’s faces . . . The appearance of a politician with a different style, a different language, a softer way – that spoke to people.”
Prokhorov had been touted as a real threat to Putin but in the end he garnered less than half the 17 per cent secured by the moribund Communist Party. Prokhorova believes her brother received closer to 30 per cent of the vote. “There is a huge difference between official figures and unofficial figures,” she told me. Prokhorova published a guide to spotting electoral fraud in the lead-up to the election. “It was a huge bestseller,” she says. “We sold 15,000 copies in ten days and it became a textbook for observers at the election polls.”
There were many on the left in Russia who believed that Prokhorov’s campaign had been orchestrated by the government. He was painted as a Kremlin puppet, a front for one of the “pocket-opposition” parties Putin has created to sustain the charade of Russian democracy. “My brother refused to criticise Putin during the elections,” Prokhorova told me. “Not because he was afraid but because he wanted to run a rational, positive campaign. He tells the voters: ‘I have a different programme. Listen to it, read it.’ I understand that it’s difficult to persuade people of this but it’s a new stage of political life, a new stage of culture. Russian people always create conspiracy theories – it’s part of the Stalinist tradition.”
Prokhorova spoke slowly and quietly. “We must be patient,” she said. “The state of society is very dramatic. People need time to be educated. What we’re doing here in Krasnoyarsk is not only about books but also about the evolution of society. It’s important to remember that the discourse of Russian political language is full of cultural metaphors, because culture was, for so many years in Russia, the only way of uniting people. So here you can see that we are forming a new civil society – a neutral place where people can be united around culture, whatever their political views. This is a huge cultural and political experiment.”
At the conference that afternoon, the author Tibor Fischer wore a “Free Pussy Riot” T-shirt onstage. I asked Prokhorova about this latest evidence of a lurch to the right from the regime.
“There is a lot of subtlety around it. Several years ago, no one in Russia would have paid any attention; there would have been no verdict and no trial. Now, things have changed. I support Pussy Riot, in that I think the trial was really awful and sets an awful precedent. We can’t judge culture in court. But there are mixed feelings here. In the Russian context, this desecration of places of worship, of respected institutions, is very much totalitarian. After the revolution, the Bolsheviks destroyed so many holy places; they crushed so many churches that were associated with imperial Russia. So any kind of destructive gesture not only reminds us of protest against totalitarianism but somehow is also a mirror of it.”
Prokhorova is no Kremlin puppet. Unlike some other oligarchs, she and her brother have stayed in their home country and, through the Mikhail Prokhorov Foundation, have worked to improve the cultural lives of millions of Russians. Krasnoyarsk now has a world-class concert hall, an array of museums and galleries and a thriving cultural life where once there was only a city known as a stopping-off point for the Trans-Siberian Railway. The main museum was the last to be built under communism: the final bricks were laid as the old order unravelled. Instead of demolishing the building (as has been done elsewhere), the city authorities invited artists to work around the statues of Lenin and images of Soviet workers gazing into a utopian future.
On my last night in Krasnoyarsk, I attended an event at the museum packed with young people talking about the art – the best of which is a series of wonderful collage paintings of major works of Russian literature – The Master and Margarita, Crime and Punishment, A Hero of Our Time. Other young Siberians sat rapt as a poet declaimed on one stage; a troupe of dancers performed on another. This is what Prokhorova is building: a future for these young people and one that doesn’t involve leaving for Moscow or London. Krasnoyarsk may not be picturesque (though Chekhov called it “the most beautiful town in Siberia”) but it is the scene of something remarkable – a cultural renaissance brought about by the wealth of one man and the determination and vision of his sister.