September 8, 2008
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Home / Issue Archive / 2008 / February #2 / The Two Eras of Tyumen

№ 2 (February 2008)

The Two Eras of Tyumen

At first glance, Tyumen seems like a typical Siberian provincial town, which no one would ever confuse for an oil capital of Eurasia. However, once you look closer, this place bears all the signs of a prosperous Russian province thriving on oil and gas, with a slight sense of luxury among the historical and cultural mix

Tyumen has a special charm that distinguishes it from other Russian cities and towns. A friendly and pleasant place that will make anyone feel at home, it provides an opportunity to study the cultural riches of Russia and is notably the first Russian city in Siberia, largely unchanged through the present day.

The look and atmosphere of Tyumen depict two important stages in the city's development. Back in the 19th century, merchants were the main residential cohort due to Tyumen’s location at the crossroads of the great trading routes going from north to south and from the west to east, particularly the tea trading route from China. This fact heavily contributed to the city’s wealth and development, resembling Chicago in the beginning of the last century with its rapid pace of growth and historical importance. It was the first Russian city founded in Siberia and thus played a key role in colonizing the wild lands east of the Urals.

Despite numerous fires destroying a good part of the architectural heritage, the downtown still bears wooden and stone buildings which were homes of trading moguls in the 19th century and are now stores, barber shops and even corporate offices. Proprietors have the obligation to take care of the buildings and preserve their original look. The floral motif of the carvings embellishing the walls and window frames shows a strong Asian influence, distinguishing Tyumen from other Siberian cities where mermaids and fish dominate the decor.

The former homes of the rich are recognizable by wide gates designed to accommodate horse-driven carts and trefoils carved by the entrance, which the inhabitants believed to bring great luck and prosperity since the number three has always been considered sacred in Russia.

The past has made its way into the future in a very curious manner. Ever since it was founded 421 years ago, Tyumen has thrived on its advantageous geographical position, which at the time was the most important factor in economic prosperity. Now Tyumen finds itself in a familiar position accommodating a commanding share of Russian oil and gas, the most precious assets of modern times. This situation transformed the city of merchants into a city of oilmen, keeping the average income of Tyumen residents above the Russian average. The effects of oil majors’ activities on the region’s economy are evident no matter where you go. Today, in almost every district and every area of the city you’ll see brand new luxury apartment buildings, stores, restaurants and shopping malls, not to mention the offices of companies like Gazprom, TNK-BP, and LUKOIL. Most of the infrastructure, including the roads, has been built over the past decade during the economic boom from surging energy prices. The city, which counts over 600,000 residents, keeps attracting more and more people from all over the region of 1.5 million sq. kilometers, three times the territory of France, as well as from other parts of Russia. As a result, climbing real estate prices make it harder and harder to move to Tyumen.

The oil industry continues the old merchants’ traditions in more ways than one. Apart from keeping the region flourishing with riches, the energy companies are actively investing in Tyumen’s most important educational institution, Tyumen Oil and Gas University. The support isn’t limited to funding, as executives from TNK-BP and LUKOIL act as guest lecturers at the university. Back in the day, Tyumen merchants actively invested in education, believing it was essential for the city’s prosperity and for bolstering its spiritual life. Today, Tyumen is home to 10 universities and over 50 research institutions, which besides the oil and gas university include the Tyumen State University, the Tyumen State Medical Academy and the Agricultural Academy of Tyumen, famous for storing the body of Lenin when it was evacuated to Siberia during the Great Patriotic War. Even though Lenin is now gone, his presence is still special in Tyumen as his monument in the central square stands out from its peers in other Russian cities and towns by symbolizing the very nature and importance of this place for Russian economy.

The creator of the monument, sculptor Portyanko, intended to make a statue reminiscent of those seen all over the Soviet Union with Lenin’s arm pointing forward to the bright future. However, according to legend, when he made a breadboard model out of plasticine, the statue's arm melted and tilted downwards. Portyanko tried to fix it but the arm kept moving down, and then he decided that it would be right to keep it this way. Instead of promising a bright future, Lenin points at the region’s riches which are the oil and gas hidden deep in the soil. This added even more charm to the city’s monumental ensemble which includes the Farewell monument depicting a high school graduate at the prom in military uniform saying the last goodbyes to his girlfriend before leaving to fight in the Great Patriotic War. The best scholars are chosen to stay on guard beside the monument on special days, such as the anniversaries of victory and the inception of the war.

Adding to the city’s architecture and historical legacy are the religious sanctuaries of Tyumen, which include 10 operating Russian Orthodox churches, a few mosques, and a synagogue which remind both residents and visitors of the cultural variety of Russia. Some have unique histories. The local Roman Catholic church was built just over a hundred years ago, but the first Poles arrived in Tyumen in the 19th century when Poland was still a part of the Russian Empire. Siberia was the prime destination for Polish rebels seeking to break away from Russia, with people being deported from all over Poland, especially Warsaw. The Polish community is still solid in Tyumen, with numbers reaching about 30,000 of the 600,000 residents. The Jewish population of the city is even smaller at just 2,000 people, yet the local synagogue in one of the quiet and cozy corners of town is always well-attended. The Holy Trinity monastery, situated in the northeastern part of the city, is seen as the spiritual center of Tyumen.

Established in 1616, it remains the oldest church in the region and has gone through each of the historical époques of the city, including the period of Czarism, the Imperial era when Peter the Great himself helped raise funds for the sanctuary, and the communist reign when most religious institutions got shut down and were reopened only after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Today, the oldest Russian city in Siberia offers a lot to both residents and visitors. Whether they are newlyweds who go to Lovers' Bridge to follow the tradition of attaching a lock inscribed with their names or write about their feelings on a special wall for romantic messages, or a lost Muscovite who can feel right at home on Tsvetnoi Boulevard, built on the order of then-governor and present head of President Putin’s administration Sergei Sobyanin to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Tyumen region in 2004. Just like its Moscow counterpart, it has a circus which creates an even more striking resemblance. Another option is to drop by a nearby park to see the sculpture of the famous Russian clown Karandash and his dog Klyaksa which, if you trust the locals, brings luck to anyone who rubs her nose, especially if you use your wallet. The best advice for doubters of this superstition would be to take a walk around the town and check out the local oil majors’ offices.

Copyright © 2007 Eurasia Press, Inc. (USA). All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2007 Eurasia Press (www.eurasiapress.com)