Wooden Houses of Tomsk, Siberia – Wonder to Behold

Matthew Luxmoore is the Moscow correspondent of Radio Free Europe. Recently, he tweeted what he learnt about the history and peculiarities of Tomsk architecture on his visit to the city.

It’s not an original opinion but the wooden houses of Tomsk, Siberia are a wonder to behold. A short thread on what I learnt about their history and peculiarities on a visit to the city this week.

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On streets throughout this bustling Russian city, you find unexpected gems – wooden buildings built before communism that range in condition from pristine to crumbling, many neglected for years after the Soviet collapse. Some 1,800 of them remain in Tomsk.

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Bakunina Street is an absolute wonder. You have the sense you’ve stumbled on some village set back a century in time, with its cobbles and painted wooden gates

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Look out for the carved symbols just above the windows of such houses – most commonly they depict a pair of curtains, but sometimes they’re a disguised “message from the past”, like this one apparently meant to symbolise a woman giving birth.

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After the revolution of 1917, the government seized the houses and made many into communal apartments, with several families crammed into each. Since 1991, many have been replaced by supermarkets or high-rise office blocks.

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A push to restore the houses faces a parallel campaign to clear the majority. A state program called Rent For A Ruble hands houses to developers who pay 1 ruble rent per square meter for the next 49 years, on condition they restore it. Here’s a home restored under the program.

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There’s also a bitter debate in the city council about where to demarcate the borders of Tomsk’s old town, which has bearing on which houses will get state protection. While it continues, the old wooden buildings keep disappearing.

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This is Tomsk’s oldest building, 71 Oktyabrskaya Street, between 250 to 300 years old. It’s on the verge of collapse.

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71 Oktyabrskaya Street, Tomsk

My guide to this fascinating history was Elina Mikhaltsova, who lives in this 19th-century house that was once a school. She speaks 3 languages & has that rare ability to bring a place alive. I hope to publish a story about her, and the wooden houses of Tomsk, soon

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