Welcome to Siberia, a remote wilderness where cold means -35°C…
Initially, I thought, the stereotypes were true. I stepped off the plane at six o’clock in the morning (after a very bumpy landing), having arrived into a tiny airport in the middle of the forest, and hastily pulled on the half-forgotten jumper and coat I had been using as a pillow. A few hours later, however, (after a very bumpy bus-ride) I had changed into shorts and discovered that Tomsk is bigger than Manchester.
Perhaps you are currently more than 4000 miles away as you read this: nonetheless, I would like you to become acquainted with the little-known Siberian city in which I am living and studying for three and a half months. Tomsk is, like Durham, a university town, and comes alive during term time. Unlike Durham, there are six higher educational institutions here, and we do occasionally have to take a bus. As you might imagine, if you are at all familiar with Russia, it is Lenin who overlooks and lends his name to the main street, along which all the major universities can be found. Parallel to this is the treacherous river Tom, which freezes in winter, and explodes in spring.
Together with nine other students from Durham, I am staying in university accommodation: a modern blue-and-white sixteen-floor building reminiscent of a cruise ship, surrounded on all sides by Tomsk’s characteristic little ramshackle wooden houses. A striking juxtaposition? At some point, perhaps, you become accustomed to Russia.
I am sharing a room with Iona and a lovely Austrian girl called Sonja. We have use of a kitchen and there is also a canteen on the ground floor. Our accommodation is a ten-minute walk to the university campus and another five minutes into the city centre.
Let us move now from the where to the what: how will I spend my time here? The question has been answered for me. Each week, I have more than twenty hours of classes: Russian grammar, translation, German and, for some reason, psychology. I am also teaching a little English – and learning, in the process, how intricate my own language is! As for the rest of the time, it very quickly fills up, seemingly of its own accord. The Russians I have met so far are all delighted to meet real-life English people who even try and speak their language, and my diary is thus being arranged very capably for me.
Do you now feel you know Tomsk and Tomsk life a little better than you did before? I hope so. It is only a very basic introduction: but then, I still don’t know the city very well either. For now, I would like to share an impression with you. A fear. It is probably irrational. It is this: the vastness of Russia scares me.
The sky seems so huge. Perhaps it is because I am used to hills, and here there are none. Or perhaps it is because here, the roads are wide, the houses are spread out, there is so much space; and it is not cared for as it is in England, because there is too much space. Across the river, the land is flat and wild and dusty-green-brown and it stretches on and on without end…
Here, a journey that takes three days is considered ‘not far away’. I cannot comprehend it. The sky is so huge and blue and free of clouds, so open, and yet I feel somehow trapped in the vast landmass that is Russia – because I am far away from everything I know; because it makes me realise how small I am, how vulnerable.
I am very lucky that I don’t suffer from homesickness. In fact, I am happy here, facing the challenge that is Russian. There is just one question I ask myself, after the idyllic albeit short period of time I spent at home:
Where is the sea?