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.