Is this some kind of milestone? We’ve reached episode 50 of Trips and Tales which represents around a year’s worth of articles. Things are normally celebrated in 25’s, 50’s, 100’s … aren’t they? Though why the 50th should in itself be any more of an event than the 51st … or the 17th… or the 68th is unclear under examination: they are all equally unique and never to be repeated, right?
So anyway, would anyone like to say a few words …? No? (Why start now?) … Then allow me.
Somewhere between Altai and Baikal
We were looking at Tomsk last time; a city that just missed the main Trans-Siberian line … and all the dubious glories that would have come along with that. Not least the way that “progress” comes riding in on a bulldozer to tear the soul out of a place, or to bury it in concrete. You’ve only got to look at some of the faceless “precinct towns” here in the UK to see the results of that bright idea.
Tomsk is a University town … and this statement already loads a certain style and atmosphere into consciousness, in the same way that we think of Oxford and Cambridge. Cliches? … undoubtedly … but only because such notions are demonstrably and repeatedly valid over time. I’m painting with broad strokes here, but there’s something in it.
I read that the city is home to museums rich in Siberian history, surely worth a look, and to cap it all: the KGB Memorial Museum. It’s housed in a genuine KGB building: an edifice dedicated to years of oppression and terror, and to the labour camps located in the Tomsk area. It makes you think … which is probably its purpose.
So did the communist regime filter down to be any better at ground-level than the Tsarist lineage it replaced? Tsar Nicholas II was christened “Bloody Nicholas” after the numbers that died under his rule at home and at war … but in his last days, how many would have opted for Stalin if forewarned of what was to come? It’s doubtful that you’ll find the answer there, but in amongst the documents and evidence (including Solzhenitsyn’s signature), there are stories of the lives of those who opposed and survived the system… all diametric opposites to the members of the new Communist Party who still go on processions annually: still wanting their old Soviet Union back.
I also read that as a visitor to Tomsk, you are conspicuous … in a way not experienced in cosmopolitan St. Petersburg and Moscow. It makes sense … you’re way off the main tourist drag and a rarer visitor out here. Just look at the map. So it’s that kind of place: your very presence will attract attention … a great way to meet the locals then, with all the curiosity and contrasting wariness and welcome that comes with the deal. “Seldom hostile” or thereabouts was one of the descriptions of the inhabitants … a term that doesn’t come across quite as positive as it was (no doubt) intended!
I’ve spoken to an American ex-pat who’s lived and worked in Ekaterinburg. He speaks of a 6 month period of “distance” before some invisible switch is thrown and you are suddenly “in”: welcomed with open arms… So don’t expect too much. You’ll be much further “out there” (in all ways) than in Ekat; don’t forget … maybe this turns up the dial on both extremes?
Remember too, that in living memory all residents of Russia had a damn good reason to be wary of those that they didn’t (and often did) know … remember that KGB museum again?
Next time: Trips and Tales (Part 51) More about Tomsk, then on to Krasnoyarsk
[Photo by Adam Jones]