I arrived in Tomsk in the early morning from Tobolsk, another city off the Trans-Siberian. These two cities, completely different in nature, are united by the same fate: their significance as cultural and historical centers of Siberia considerably declined after the Trans-Siberian Railway was built.
An important clarification is necessary in order to understand the transportation infrastructure and geographical location of Tomsk. There is no direct connection between Tobolsk and Tomsk. I had to travel for over a day with a transfer in Omsk. The more traditional route to Tomsk is by direct train from Moscow (over a two day’s journey). An even more commonly used route is the day train from Novosibirsk.
The real reason why the Trans-Siberian Railway was built in 1893 bypassing Tomsk (80 km to the south) is still not totally clear. It’s been said that Tomsk merchants who were engaged in transportation along the Siberian Route, hoping to retain their businesses, were able to stand up against the construction of the railway in the city. A more convincing explanation is that it was cheaper to build a bridge across the Ob River in the area near Novonikolayevsk. One thing remains certain: Tomsk, the largest city in Siberia at the end of the 19th century, rapidly lost its significance as an economic center, whereas the small village of Novonikolayevsk at the foot of the bridge across the Ob River grew over the past 100 years to become the third largest city in Russia with a population of over 3 million.
Another milestone in Tomsk’s history, and perhaps an even more important one, is the founding of the first university in Siberia in 1878. The presence of the university and its remote location make this city totally unique: it’s quiet but not provincial, very intelligent and with a cultural life incomparably more attractive to tourists than Novosibirsk.
Students play an old piano on the embankment of the Tom River
Here, next to Slavyanskiy Bazaar, the oldest restaurant in Tomsk, is a caricatural monument to Anton Chekhov. The writer is portrayed in a ridiculous hat with disproportionately large bare feet. This grotesque statue is the Tomsk citizens’ revenge for the lines Chekhov wrote about Tomsk in his book about his journey through Siberia to Sakhalin Island:
“Tomsk isn’t worth a brass nickel… an incredibly boring city…. and the people here are incredibly boring… the city is full of drunks… it’s endlessly muddy… the maid at the local tavern wiped my spoon on her butt before giving it to me… The dinners here are excellent, unlike the women who are rough to the touch…”
You should leave the area of Tomsk with stone architecture and its chaotically built Soviet administrative buildings and set off towards the wooden part of Tomsk. Architecturally, Tomsk is primarily a preserved wooden housing development: there are merchants’ mansions, each with its own unique decoration, and Tomsk’s famous wooden 'lace'
In Siberia, wood from the forests was and remains the most affordable building material. Wooden houses have been built in Tomsk since the moment the city was founded, but Tomsk’s wooden architecture was particularly in its heyday at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century when classicism was replaced by eclecticism and modernism. The famous house with dragons is in the photo.
Another district of Tomsk that almost entirely consists of wooden buildings is Tatarskaya Sloboda (Tatar settlement). Nearly all the buildings in the Tatar settlement are wooden and are rather ordinary in style for Siberian cities with no outstanding examples of northern modernism, but nonetheless the Tatar settlement has its own very special lively atmosphere.
The preservation of Tomsk’s old wooden houses is a difficult and very thorny issue. Those houses that are not included in the list of historical monuments are in a pitiful state.
From the wooden part of Tomsk, I once again returned to the central area with its stone architecture; in particular, I went to 44 Prospekt Lenina to visit the Memorial Museum of the History of Political Repression (former NKVD prison).
The museum is in the basement, where the prison was located during the years of the Stalinist repressions. It’s the place where political prisoners were interrogated and temporarily imprisoned before being exiled to the northern part of Tomsk Region to timber enterprises in the depths of the marshy Narym Territory.
The exhibits include copies and genuine documents of investigative cases, photo albums, embroidery, paintings, drawings, playing cards, and wooden and stone handicrafts that were made in the labor camps and in exile.
Prisoners’ cells and solitary confinement cell
The tiny room where the museum’s employees carry out research in order to restore the memory of repressed people
The Memorial Museum of the History of Political Repression in Tomsk was one of the first memorial places that opened in post-Soviet Russia in commemoration of the victims of the GULAG labor camps. When writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia in 1994, he began his trip by traveling across the entire country from Vladivostok to Moscow and he stopped in Tomsk to meet with the museum’s founders.
On par with Tobolsk, Tomsk is remarkably interesting for travelers. Although these cities’ remote location from the Trans-Siberian hindered their development, this also had a positive influence—their historic buildings have been preserved and remain authentic.Tobolsk is striking with its architecture of the Russian Middle Ages and its snow-white Kremlin rising over the waters of the Irtysh River and the taiga, whereas Tomsk is a charming university city and a cultural oasis with the best examples of wooden architecture in all of Siberia.
From Tomsk, travelers often continue their journey by rail. It’s typical for travelers to return to the Trans-Siberian via Novosibirsk and then go further east towards Irkutsk and Lake Baikal. It was a real stroke of luck for me to find an interregional direct flight from Tomsk to Barnaul. Having flown over the industrial Kuznets Basin in just an hour and a half on a twin-engined plane, I went from Tomsk to the center of the Altai Territory in order to continue my journey to the mountainous part of the Altai Territory in the very south of Siberia.