Cities beyond the Trans-Siberian: Tobolsk

East of the Ural Mountains, Russia is sparsely inhabited, with most major settlements located along the Trans-Siberian Railway. The Trans-Siberian, which encircles the entire south of Siberia, is a lifeline; the further north you go, the less people there are.

Surprisingly, the most interesting cities in Siberia from a historical perspective are not located along the Trans-Siberian, but are in fact away from it. It was only at the end of the 19th century that the railroad connected Siberia with the rest of Russia. The Trans-Siberian defines the industrial development of Siberia and the shift of its meridian from the taiga zone towards the forest-steppe in the south. Before the construction of the railroad, the way to Siberia stretched along the endless Siberian highway. It was the post road, located to the north of the Trans-Siberian, that Anton Chekhov traveled along on his trip to Sakhalin.

Thus, Siberia’s historical centers—Tomsk and Tobolsk—ended up away from Russia’s main transportation artery. They are smaller in size than the Siberian metropolises such as Tyumen, Omsk, and Novosibirsk, but are among the most important cities in Russia for their large amount of architectural and historical monuments. In terms of transportation, Tomsk and Tobolsk have one thing in common: a person traveling along the Trans-Siberian Railway will have to spend a night or even a whole day to get to one of these cities along a separate railroad branch.
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In this article, I will tell you about my trip to the old city of Tobolsk. Tobolsk is one of the first Russian settlements in Siberia and was founded just a year after Tyumen in 1587. Rapid industrial development turned Tyumen into a major city with nearly 800,000 people, but the population of Tobolsk has not even reached 100,000.

Everybody knows about the Trans-Siberian, but in Russia there are other railways that are outstanding in their engineering properties. Construction on the railway from Tyumen to Surgut commenced in the 1960s, when Soviet geologists discovered unprecedented reserves of oil and gas in Western Siberia. The famous Samotlor oil field became the largest and most important oil field in Russia. The beginning of the development of Samotlor coincided with the 1973 oil crisis and enabled the USSR to become one of the main exporters of hydrocarbons on the world market at that time. With all its unparalleled wealth, the explored deposits were located in impassable swamps. Building a railroad to deliver these deposits became one of the USSR’s priority tasks. It was the discovery of Samotlor that largely determined the route of the future railroad from Tyumen via Tobolsk to Surgut, and further to the east, where the city of Nizhnevartovsk was built. Later, this railroad would be extended to connect to the ‘gas capital’ of Russia, Novy Urengoy, and finally, at the end of the Soviet era, the railroad approached the coast of the Arctic Ocean in the village of Yamburg. The new railroad connects all of Western Siberia’s oil and gas deposits.

The railroad to Tobolsk was only completed in 1967. This is immediately noticeable in the station’s architecture in the style of Soviet modernism, in great contrast to the opulently decorated stations on the Trans-Siberian. Due to the difficulties of building a bridge across the Irtysh River, the railway station is located 8 km from the city center and you also have to find your way to it.

All Siberian cities began with a fortress. The heart of Tobolsk is the snow-white Kremlin with its 18th century architectural ensemble.
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The 18th century was an impressive age for Siberia. This is the only stone Kremlin east of the Urals. Siberia’s first capital began to rapidly grow due to its good location. Tobolsk is located on a high bank at the confluence of the Tobol and Irtysh rivers. The Irtysh, in its turn, is the main tributary of the Ob River.
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The magnificent view of the fortifications and towers was the result of large-scale Soviet restoration work carried out in the 1960s

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Located in the Kremlin is the oldest stone building in Siberia, the St. Sophia-Assumption Cathedral, that was built in 1695. It was stone because Siberian cities began from wooden fortress-jails that were not preserved to the present day.
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In Western Siberia, the height of spring is at the end of May; lilacs are blooming in the Kremlin

The eparchy (diocese) was the administrative-territorial unit in Russia prior to Peter the Great’s reign. Among the Kremlin’s surviving historical buildings are the Bishops’ Chambers, which served as the main administrative building of the city and region in the 17th century. In 1708, after Peter the Great’s reform, Tobolsk became the capital and center of Siberia, the largest province in Russia that stretched all the way from the Urals to Russian colonies in America.
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After the fall of Soviet power, a seminary—an educational institution for future priests—returned to Tobolsk

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A view of the Lower City and the Irtysh River opens up immediately outside of the Kremlin’s walls. Compared to the giant industrial cities on the Trans-Siberian, Tobolsk is so small that the city’s boundaries are clearly visible from the hill at the Kremlin. The boundless expanses of the taiga surround the city and begin directly beyond the river. This gives the place a unique Siberian feeling.
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New houses are being built at the foot of the hill, but the city’s population is growing slowly. The city’s main industrial enterprise—Tobolsk Petrochemical Plant—has recently received large investments into development and is trying to attract young professionals to the city.
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The water still remains high on the Irtysh River

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Tobolsk’s importance diminished in the 19th century, and due to the construction of the Trans-Siberian, it slowly became a quiet regional city. In 1834, the famous scientist Dmitry Mendeleev was born into the family of the director of the Tobolsk gymnasium.
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Remote Chukotka, Kholmogory, and Tobolsk are the main centers for the craft of bone carving in Russia. It’s believed that after the Great Northern War, exiled Swedes started to practice bone carving in Tobolsk. In the 10th century, the miniature volumetric sculptures and handicrafts inlaid with bone that were made by Tobolsk craftsmen were well known throughout Russia. Carved boxes and snuffboxes were popular among the Saint Petersburg aristocracy.

You can see the collection of handicrafts made from bone at the Art Museum and the Tobolsk Provincial Museum.
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Siberia is widely known as a place of exile, but in Russia it was not only people who were exiled, but bells as well. Tsar Boris Godunov exiled a bell from the city of Uglich to Tobolsk because it was used to signal a people’s revolt. Among other famous exiles to Tobolsk is the family of Emperor Nicholas II, who spent their last months in the city from August 1917 until April 1918.
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After Tobolsk, a long journey by rail to Tomsk lay ahead of me. It’s another historical center of Siberia located off the Trans-Siberian that’s completely different in nature. For this very same reason, I did not manage to visit the village of Pokrovskoye, the birthplace of the most odious character in Russian history—Grigory Rasputin.

In order to visit Rasputin’s home village, you should return back to the Trans-Siberian via Tyumen not by train, but by car. Pokrovskoye is located 160 km from Tobolsk and is nearly equidistant from Tobolsk and Tyumen.

Rasputin’s real home was prudently broken down during the Soviet era prior to the 1980 Olympics. In its place is a new wooden house with genuine door trims.

The family of Russia’s last emperor left Tobolsk in April 1918. On the way to Yekaterinburg, where the imperial family and their family doctor would be executed in July, they made a stop at Pokrovskoye. There’s an entry in Nicholas II’s diary dated April 14, 1918: "We changed horses in the village of Pokrovskoye. We were stopped for a long time just across from Grigory’s home..."
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