Mr. Pink clashes with red tape

Mr. Pink youth house is in a dilapidated building on the outskirts of the largest city north of the Arctic Circle. Its management is having to make hard choices about its future.

A creative youth house in Murmansk is facing an uphill battle as a lack of funding and growing governmental opposition threaten its future.


The building materials and paint lying about in a small room of a Murmansk youth house reveal its state of flux. It’s nothing new; the home of Mr. Pink has been in constant change since it was first opened three years ago – but now the change may be permanent. Innovative projects like a creative kitchen and an ongoing collaborative workspace may be scrapped as the organization scrambles to plan for its future.

 “The main task of the youth house will be to learn how to be sustainable,” says co-founder and president Evgeny Goman, an energetic musician with messy hair and an easy smile. “It’s not possible to depend on subsidies and grants all the time.”

It’s uncharacteristically serious talk for the young visionary, who, all told, has been working on bringing Mr. Pink to life for ten years. But with bills piling up just to keep the lights on and the building warm, and pay himself and his tiny staff of two a meager salary, the time has come for hard decisions.

Operating on the outskirts of the largest city north of the Arctic Circle, Mr. Pink youth house provides learning and funding opportunities for young people who want to “live their dream and earn a fair salary for it,” explains Goman. Fittingly, the building is abuzz with an environmental seminar in the theatre, cartoon storyboards lining the walls, and, of course, worries over the looming financial crunch.

It’s not just people bringing the building to life. Mice scurry about unseen, cars rattle past on the potholed dirt alley outside the ground floor windows, and the fluorescent lights hum in the cluttered hallways. That’s not to say the building is unwelcoming: every room has been thematically painted, and the kaleidoscope of colours matches the variety of sounds produced by the in-house recording studio. Throughout the building, groups of eager young visionaries showcase their projects.

It could all come to an end this coming September, however, when Goman and his partner, Natasha Kolesnik, decide the fate of Mr. Pink. 

The team has narrowed down their options into three possibilities: to drastically cut the projects down to only those that can be commercially viable; to scale back enough that government support alone can support their operations; or to unite with other local NGOs to become a coalition to support youth opportunities. All of the options would require massive cuts to the current operations, which have sprung out from every direction since Mr. Pink’s optimistic start in 2011.

“The whole idea at first was groundbreaking,” recalls Goman. “We wanted to prove that the idea we had was working.”

But Mr. Pink soon became a victim of its own success. The idea of giving youth latitude to pursue dreams of their own choosing doesn’t mesh well with the established Russian model of success, with its formality and dependence on regulation. This met with disapproval among the local bureaucracy. 

“We lost some authority in the eyes of the governmental workers, because we supported some projects that they didn’t like,” he says. In 2012, Mr. Pink hosted a documentary film festival that ran a political film, Khodorkovsky, despite the warnings of the local authorities. After that, funding dried up from the regional administration and the future of their lease came into question. 

The same lack of bureaucratic oversight that landed Mr. Pink in trouble has also been the key to its success. That success attracted more youth engagement for the nonprofit than the government’s own equivalents. This did not improve relations.

“Other public people saw the effectiveness of the youth house, and this comparison was not in favour of [the equivalent government-run programs],” says Goman. “They still consider us competition, in a way.”

When the local government opened its own youth house last year at a cost of 20 million rubles – enough to run Mr. Pink for 13 years – Goman says he and his team weren’t even invited to consult. That, despite the fact that the organization has completed 86 projects reaching over 60,000 people in its short tenure in its dilapidated home.

“We’ve attracted more people,” claims Goman. “We’ve realized 20, 30 times more projects than they did.”

The organization runs on 1.3 million rubles per year, (about $40,000 US), which covers heating, electricity, project materials and tiny salaries for the three full-time employees. Of those expenses, only project materials qualify for government grants; the rest, Mr. Pink has to raise itself.

The “ideal” budget would be “close to 4 million [rubles] a year,” says Goman. But given the fact that just to keep repairs up to date the employees work in maintenance shifts every weekend, he recognizes that it’s “not realistic at the moment.”

The two toilets at Mr. Pink each have their own themes. One is a “bushes” motif, decorated with bees and grass and, curiously, Dr. House. The other is painted to invoke Skolkovo, the planned “Silicon Valley” near Moscow, ­which has thus far been a dismal failure due to the weight of red tape hindering its development. Billions of dollars have been “flushed down the toilet” in Skolkovo. It’s a running joke at Mr. Pink.

Mr. Pink itself is more akin to Silicon Valley proper, with its free-form working groups, collaborative projects and boundless enthusiasm. Its clashes with bureaucracy are symbolic of the resistance within the Russian government towards Western-style innovation. It’s a uniquely Russian paradox that even while the organization depends on grants for its survival, local authorities actively undermine its success.

Goman and his team are growing tired of fighting, and anxious to start working on their own dreams. As he sits on a makeshift bench in the still-unfinished kitchen, Goman looks up at a point high on the wall where there is just enough space for the unofficial house slogan.

“It’s just like in the Bible,” he says. “No prophet is accepted in his own country.”