Wednesday, Apr 08 2020
All Cities
Choose Your City
'In Novosibirsk... you feel the same energy as in Moscow, New York or London'
dancer Sergei Polunin

So what it is like living in the Siberian Athens?

By Ruth Moore
02 October 2013

What I wasn't expecting was just how beautiful everything looked under the sparkling white blanket of snow.

I vividly remember touching town on Siberian soil after a hectic whirlwind of sight-seeing and bar-hopping in Moscow, even though we arrived bleary-eyed after an all-nighter of travel. Picture: Ruth Moore

Reflecting back on my time in Siberia I am struck by how mysterious a thing the memory is. Whilst some memories are so vivid it seems like they happened yesterday, others have already become clouded over and lost somewhere in the periphery of a collective nostalgia for the place in which I spent 4 months. 

Why is it that I can recall the taste of the lagman (a kind of spicy thick noodle soup) in our favourite local Uzbek eatery but I have already forgotten the name of the road our university was situated on? Admittedly perhaps this pondering reflects more of my lacking in the geography department than a profound insight into the nuances of the human mind, but it has also made me realise how I should probably reflect on my experiences before they vanish completely. 

So what it is like living in the Siberian Athens, so called because of its six universities and huge student population (and not its balmy climate!) Since my return a lot of people have asked me this question, or in fact the less erudite 'So Russia, what's that like?' 

How can you answer such a big question with a succinct enough answer? My decision to study Russian was both random and rather unexpected for my friends and family and I suppose my decision to go to Tomsk also was. When one of our university lecturers offered Tomsk as a study option I was intrigued - what was this place that I had formerly only known as the name of a Womble? Before I knew it I had volunteered myself and was bulk-buying insulating socks. The rest, as they say, is history. 

I studied at the Tomsk Polytechnic University for just over four months, slowly chipping away at was initially seemed an indecipherable and but beautiful sounding language and trying to ingratiate it with my ever befuddled mind. 

Living in Tomsk as a student

Although I realised during my stay as a student in Tomsk that life in Russia is not for the faint of heart, I also realised that I will look back on my time there as the most enriching of my life. Ruth, left, and Abigail, her friend from Bristol. Picture: Ruth Moore

I vividly remember touching town on Siberian soil after a hectic whirlwind of sight-seeing and bar-hopping in Moscow, even though we arrived bleary-eyed after an all-nighter of travel. It was only as I stepped off the plane that I truly understood the meaning of a 'biting wind'. It swept snow along the ground in a swirling mass so that you could hardly see your own feet and stung your cheeks and eyes with a dry, persistent battering force that made me glad I had thermal underwear covering about 80% my body. 

Perhaps this is what I had long been expecting (what else can you expect when arriving in Russia in the winter?) but what I wasn't expecting was how beautiful everything looked under the sparkling white blanket of snow. 

I don't know whether it was the early morning darkness that gradually lightened with the dawn or just the effect so much white had on our unsuspecting eyes, but the snow literally appeared to sparkle, as if someone had mixed a tiny amount of glitter with it and deftly sprinkled it everywhere just in time for our arrival. 

Our disorientating drive from the airport to our student halls appealed to all of my romantic tendencies with endless birch trees and houses buried under the fresh flurry of snowflakes. The countryside soon gave way to the city with its comical mashroutkas, austere Soviet-style buildings and impossible looking wooden houses and I knew then that I would never get bored of Tomsk.

Living in Tomsk as a student


Living in Tomsk as a student

Perhaps this is what I had long been expecting (what else can you expect when arriving in Russia in the winter?) but what I wasn't expecting was how beautiful everything looked under the sparkling white blanket of snow. Pictures: Ruth Moore

Once my romantic reveries and the excitement of arrival diminished somewhat, the realities of Siberia hit home. 

The biggest shock initially came not from the weather, but the language. Despite 2 years of learning Russian at my university we naively arrived at our first phonetics class with little idea that we were almost incomprehensible to the average Russian. 

Although we knew a lot of grammar, too long without actually conversing with any 'real' Russians transpired to mean that we pronounced essentially every word unintelligibly. Anna, our spritely and eternally patient first teacher, went to pains to rectify this. The initial two weeks consisted of Anna saying a word, us repeating the word and then this process repeating itself as many times as it took for us to sound just a fraction Russian. It was a long two weeks if truth be told. 

Fortunately the patience of Anna was also mirrored by our amazing study coordinator Nastya, who went out of her way at every opportunity to help us, advise us and smile sympathetically at the correct moments. 

Her services ranged from constantly asking us where our hats were (the Russians it turned out are perennially in fear of you getting a cold head) to providing us with a 5 page list of medications and medical supplies that were ‘essential’ for a two day train journey. This caring nature was common of many of our teachers, one of whom even gained the nickname 'mummy' because she was always so interested in what we had eaten for dinner, how we had spent the time since our last lesson and most importantly of all, how our health was. At the slightest yawn or sniffle her forehead would wrinkle as she frowned with concern and demanded first 'How many hours did you sleep last night?' followed swiftly by 'Are you ill?'

Living in Tomsk as a student

The best way of getting the most of any experience in a new country has to be saying yes to every opportunity that presents itself. Picture: Ruth Moore

One of the aspects of life in Siberia most extraordinary to an outsider is of course, the weather. Suffice to say that although I think it was initially a shock, being decked out in the appropriate clothing suddenly means that there is little difference between -5C and -25C. 

The cold of the outside was viciously battled on the inside by the overpowering central heating of every municipal building. Shedding clothes in much the same (slightly reptilian way) that a snake sheds its skin upon entering the doorway became second nature, as was adding at least five minutes to each journey in order to allow for the donning of extra socks, boots and an assortment of gloves, hats and scarves. 

In fact we soon acclimatised so much that by the time temperatures reached 5C, it felt warm enough to ditch our attire definitively and boldly step out without our bulky layers in a fashion that was met with disapproval by many Russian teachers, one of whom threatened to march us home and forcibly dress up the next time we arrived at her classroom in a just a jumper. 

I was always amazed at how the walk to university was made one of the most interesting parts of the day just from the variety of outerwear people wore. From stunning fur coats and stilettos to the most outrageous luminescent puffa jackets, it couldn't be said that the citizens of Tomsk were attention shy. My inability to keep a firm footing even in the sturdiest snow boots unfortunately marked me out as a foreigner. 

I am almost convinced that the women of Tomsk somehow evolved differently to allow for walking on sheet ice in heels without toppling. Like mountain goats, they navigated the icy streets with little difficulty whilst I slipped and slid like a new born baby deer. Except probably far less elegantly...

Living in Tomsk as a student


Living in Tomsk as a student

'We soon acclimatised so much that by the time temperatures reached 5C, it felt warm enough to ditch our attire definitively and boldly step out without our bulky layers in a fashion that was met with disapproval by many Russian teachers'. Top picture - Ruth, left, and Abigail. Pictures: Ruth Moore

The best way of getting the most of any experience in a new country has to be saying yes to every opportunity that presents itself. Initially we accepted everything because our Russian wasn't really good enough to allow us to know what we were accepting... which was a novel if slightly roulette-like experience. 

This led to adventures such as a snowy trek through the Siberian wilderness, attending a Russian puppet show adaption of the ‘The little Prince’ in a Hansel and Gretel-esque wooden witch's house, and even going skiing for the first time. The latter was a long time in the coming and although skiing in chinos is probably not to be recommended for the faint-hearted, I survived with body (although not pride) intact. Tomsk was a fantastic city for students, not only for the opportunities that it  presented, but also for the energetic and youthful spirit of everyone around us. 

The university was always keen for us to be involved in the excursions they organised, and the numerous festivals that happened during our time there. At Maslenitsa (the start of Russian lent) we drank hot black tea and ate shashlik, on International women’s day we received flowers and as we caught the train home on Victory day our friend Phil even went missing for some time (presumed lost) because he had been taken into a friendly man named Vlodya’s carriage to sample some vodka. These experiences were at once bewildering, unexpected and unforgettable.

One of my favourite places in Tomsk had to be 'Lagernie sad'. This was a huge park that stretched out on the edge of the town above a steep slope down to the river, providing a view of an extraordinary nothingness that seemed like a scene from some kind of apocalyptic painting. 

Staring out into the distance you could really gain a sense of how small you were and how big the world was, which for anyone is a rather humbling experience. Perhaps I attached so much significance to this park because it was one of the places we visited on our very first day, with naive excitement and freezing faces battling the frosty winds as we stared out across an amazing stretch of land that showed nothing, for miles and miles and miles. In the winter no one went, which provided ample opportunity for moody riverside walks, and in the summer everyone went, which provided the richest people-watching opportunities for the curious onlooker. 

Living in Tomsk as a student

So what it is like living in the Siberian Athens, so called because of its six universities and huge student population? Picture: Ruth Moore

Although initially I feared that Tomsk lacked a certain architectural charm (it was hard to be enthused about the stocky, squat, grey halls of residence and dour tower blocks), I did eventually come around to realising that charm in Tomsk could be found in abundance if you were to look outside the norm.

Take for instance the fact that dogs wear tiny shoes on their feet to protect them from the cold of the snow, or that babushkas freely hand out sweets to any child they meet without parents becoming suspicious. 

I realise that so far my reminiscences have strayed dangerously into rose-tinted nostalgia land and perhaps I should reign it in. Of course there were factors of life that were upsetting: seeing needles on the floor and being asked once by my teacher why my goal in life wasn't to get married for one. I could never quite get over the frostiness of shop workers or the excruciating bureaucracy either. Yet my overall sentiment was one of enchantment with this externally unlikely and even standoffish little city, something that I have to put down to falling in love with it just a little bit.

I of course found that there were deep differences between the my life in the UK and Russia. 4 months wasn't time enough to claim anywhere near an understanding of some of the things I saw, and perhaps even 4 years wouldn't be. 

I became painfully aware that there was a whole 'unseen' side of Russia that I couldn't hope to get near to as a foreign student in a certain city for only a certain short time, and this was something that frustrated me as much as it  but  made me realise I have to go back. In a land where a turbulent history, contrasting cultures and an only relatively recent 'openness' coexist, could I hope to appreciate, let alone comprehend the country? 

The answer is of course no, but although I realised during my stay as a student in Tomsk that life in Russia is not for the faint of heart, I also realised that I will look back on my time there as the most enriching of my life.

Comments (11)

just arrived at tomsk ,it's gonna be long haul !!
solar bear, india
04/11/2016 10:52
0
0
Hi Ruth!
I'm going to spend 5 months in Tomsk in the next semester! Your article has been really interesting and usefull since in the net I can't really find some information or tips about spending a few months in Siberia.
I'd love to know even more about Siberia, how to dress and so on..

Valentina
Valentina, Italy
22/08/2014 03:37
1
0
A nicely and well written article. Loved it and really Ruth thank you for sharing your wonderful experience in Siberia. I've always been fascinated by Siberia or I should say Russia in my college and got only one chance to visit Moscow & St.Petersburg as a kid.
Deepak, Mumbai, India
29/11/2013 21:45
0
0
Ruth, thank you for the article. We, people of Tomsk, are proud of our town, and we always like to hear good words about it from outside.

Costas, before Ruth answer let me note that prices in Tomsk and Nizhnevartovsk. Nizhnevartovsk is a town of oilmen where all russian oil and gas comes from, so people there have more money and prices there can be a little higher than in Tomsk.
Vyacheslav, Tomsk
07/11/2013 04:39
2
0
Just been searching for info on life in Siberia, cost of living etc.. apart from this blog, not much info..... i might be starting work as an English teacher in a town called Nizhnevartovsk quite some way north of Tomsk, but still Western Siberia. Would you mind giving me a general idea of prices eating in or out... stuff like that.. would be much appreciated

Thanks Ruth
Costas , London
24/10/2013 03:16
1
0
I would definitely come back to Siberia to teach, although I think I would also like to experience life in Moscow or St.Petersburg. As I said in the article, I met lots of really welcoming and lovely people during my time in Tomsk and I think there is something really interesting and unique about Siberia.
Ruth, Bristol
16/10/2013 18:17
1
0
I would love to read more from people like Ruth, can you keep going with getting more contributors and talking to expats or foreign visitors?
Angus, Scotland
09/10/2013 22:54
5
0
would you come back to Siberia to teach English?
Sasha, Krasnoyarsk
07/10/2013 17:58
6
0
Hello Yegor and Tatiana, thank you so much for reading my article,

Tatiana - I am still learning Russian and have returned to University in England for my final year of study before I graduate next year. At the moment, like many undergraduates I am still a little unsure of what exactly I would like to do once I have finished, but definitely something involving travel and hopefully something using languages as I also study French. At the moment I am thinking of returning to Russia to teach English at some point next year. My interest in Russian started when I was 16 and read Anna Karenina. I became really engrossed in Russian Literature and the passion grew from there!

Yegor - My favourite food would have to be Russian blini and golubsty. I tried lots of delicious things though: pilmeni, vareniki, borsch... in fact I miss them quite a lot now that I can't buy them at the local supermarket!
Ruth, Bristol
07/10/2013 17:48
11
0
what did you like the best about the food in Russia and Siberia?
Yegor , Novosibirsk
05/10/2013 23:34
5
0
Hi Rooth, are you still studying Russian? What will you be using it for, and why did you want to start learning it?

Thank you,

Tanya
Tatiana, Tyumen
04/10/2013 14:41
7
0
1

Add your comment

We welcome a healthy debate, but do not accept offensive or abusive comments. Please also read 'Siberian Times' Privacy Policy

Name

Town/Country

Add your comments

The views expressed in the comments above are those of our readers. 'Siberian Times' reserves the right to pre-moderate some comments.

Control code*

Type the code

* obligatory


News

Features

Business

The Bank of Russia official exchange rates of foreign currencies
EUR82.01USD75.46GBP93.07Other...