Tomsk: city of contrasts, universities, and cold winters

The Voice of Russia was the first radio station to broadcast internationally. On the air since October 29th 1929, VOR has been shaping Russia’s image worldwide and introducing Russia to the world and highlighting its opinions on global events. Today VOR broadcasts to 109 million listeners in 160 countries in 38 languages for a total of 151 hours per day, on short and medium waves, in the FM band, via satellite and through global mobile communications network. VOR programs are broadcast to the USA through satellite channels of the global network, by cable, in the FM band, and through mobile communicatiion links in 16 states. VOR is among the world’s top five radio broadcasters which include the BBC, the Voice of America, Deutsche Welle and Radio France International. According to a survey carried out by International Media Help (Switzerland) among radio listeners in 50 countries, VOR is the third in popularity after the BBC and the Voice of America . In their opinion Voice of Russia provides a convenient and democratic channel to obtain information about Russia.

I recorded an article for the UK version of the Voice of Russia. To listen, please click on this link –

Here is the script for the article –

Anton Chekhov once said, “Tomsk is a very dull town. To judge from the drunkards whose acquaintance I have made, and from the intellectual people who have come to the hotel to pay their respects to me, the inhabitants are very dull, too.” The residents of Tomsk reacted to Chekhov’s comments by building the author a statue – which is, shall we say, less than flattering. With its overly large feet, tilted top hat and umbrella tucked under the arm, the statue depicts Chekhov as more of a cartoon character than a serious author. Chekhov’s words did not fill me with hope, but they were the only opinion I had heard of Tomsk. But would I agree? I am extremely glad to say that no, I do not. With 9 universities in a city with a population of just over 500,000, the city is very much alive and full of energy.

It’s a 4 hour flight from Moscow to Tomsk. It’s not surprising then that the majority of people I have met here have never travelled outside Russia and and many have never even been to Moscow or to any other of Russia’s main cities such as St Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Nizhny Novgorod. And, as the city is located so far east, it lacks some of the western qualities I am used to. Upon arriving at the airport we were ushered into the buggage claim room whichwas essentially a tent made of white plastic sheeting. I’m  glad I wasn’t arriving in the depths of winter.

Driving towards Tomsk, the first thing that hit me was the sheer size of everything. The roads are wide, the open spaces are vast, the buildings are huge. Driving through seemingly endless forest to get to the city I was aware of how peaceful the countryside is. In contrast to this, I also realised how different driving in Russia is from driving in the UK. This definitely kept me alert, especially when the taxi driver decided to drive in the middle of the road. Arriving in the city the contrast between the buildings was quickly evident. The mixture of old and new buildings is part of this city’s charm. The famous Tomsk wooden houses with their ornately carved windowsills stand side by side with apartment blocks constructed in the Soviet era and lavishly designed churches and museums are nestled amongst all of this. The Siberian countryside is at the heart of this city with the Tom River flowing nearby and there are many park areas which allow the city and its inhabitants to breathe.

After having been here just a few days, I am most impressed with how friendly the people are. Russian hospitality is famous for a good reason. My host, and indeed all the staff at the university, have gone out of their way to accommodate me, and the students here are extremely welcoming. Foreigners are a rarity here, so people are curious about why I have chosen Tomsk. It’s easy to strike up a conversation. Rachel Barclay, a fellow English student here at the Tomsk State University, has experienced the same hospitality……

(Rachel Barclay)

Of course, there are cultural differences here. In the UK we have become accustomed to being politically correct but I have yet to see evidence of this in Tomsk. For example, while watching an American film in the cinema the audience started jeering when two men exchanged kisses. The gender gap here is also extremely evident with the traditional male and female roles being adhered to. People’s behavior is also quite a shock at first with people physically moving me out of the way and not saying please or thank you in shops or on public transport. Of course, this is not Russians trying to be rude, this behavior is the norm here. In fact, they even consider British people to be unnecessarily polite!

I haven’t quite got used to the food in Tomsk. Vegetables are becoming more and more expensive to buy as winter approaches which means most meals at home and in restaurants consist of a piece of meat with either mashed potato or buckwheat and no vegetables in sight. One dish that is particularly popular is Pelmeny, a cross between tortellini and soft dumplings, with an assortment of meat fillings such as minced pork or beef with garlic and onion. One thing that is particularly difficult to get used to is the quality of meat here. Of course, it’s possible to find good quality meat but this tends to be far more expensive. The minced meat that is so popular here contains bits of cartilage and the pork seems to be more fat than pork. There are certain dishes here that are far better than in Britain, for example Borsch, the traditional Russian soup made of beetroot . And it is perfectly normal to eat certain foods which would be considered expensive back home such as blinis served with caviar.

On first impressions, Tomsk is of course very different from anywhere I have previously visited but that does not mean it is any less interesting. I am learning new things every day and constantly meeting new people everywhere I go. Perhaps Chekhov just didn’t stay here long enough.


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