In good times, it was the Russian military town, near the taiga, bears, nuts in the wood, and secret military facilities with Missile Bases and Communication Bunkers. Now the Military Life is abandoned. Tomsk-43 start usual live.
A flock of chicken running across the streets, barren carcasses of houses, firewood neatly stacked in front of the five-storied apartment buildings still partially populated today (the inhabitants use firewood to heat the abandoned living space behind the wall of their apartment) and deadly silence in the air…
“What have brought you here?” You might be asked that question by the enlightened people of Tomskiy.
“Oh, we were just passing by…”, if you say so, they will laugh at you in disbelief.
“Huh! It is impossible to be passing by here!”
Published in GEO-Russia by Olga Saliy. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without prior written permission of author.
In the past it was indeed impossible to be passing by Tomskiy. It also called Itatka, “Town” or “Tomsk-43”, that means military. Tomskiy has a military background. Around Tomskiy formerly secret military bases stretch out. Though Google unclassified most of what a rough terrain kept secret for a long time. And today the disintegrating barracks and the launch pads where rockets used to be set are worshiped by all sorts of adventurers as a specimen of industrial exotics.
A barehanded girl was erecting a snowman in front of one of the multi-storied houses.
I insist on the word «erecting»:
«The snow does not stick», I say taking a picture with my camera.
«No», says the girl in a businesslike manner and so much like an adult.
While I was taking my pictures the snowman dropped its head, then its torso, then the head again, which the girl patiently restored to their positions. The girl did not give up, very much like the other inhabitants of the little town.
«Bye-bye.» We said to each other, she sounding quite casual as if photographers were an everyday occurrence, as if I were her sister who walked away to buy bread…
One day the peaceful tranquility of Tomskiy was torn up with a bang. It happened in 1991 when a boy found a grenade in a nearby forest and brought it home…
Training mines, ammunition boxes, detonators — could be found now and then in the adjacent forests since the military left. One of the local mines was even found at the train station in the city of Tomsk (located 60 km away from Tomskiy).
Just image the panic this find caused. However nobody wanted to blast the station, people just tried to earn their living turning in for recycling whatever metal was left after the soldiers. This was a trade many of the people of Tomskiy took on to make their bread that time. Even children were involved in that business.
The soldiers left in early 1990’s and now their abandoned bases are practically almost ‘cleaned up’. In late 1990’s Tomskiy was one of the numerous depressed settlements in Russia. In 2000 the little town was crumbling like a house of cards: the centralized heating system went through a series of break downs; people were running away leaving their apartments with the wall paint peeling off the frosted walls.
Some of the ‘live’ windows still house chimneys, apartments still have smoke flues and coal stoves which are periodically stoked up to give the residents a pleasure of having a steam bath. Satellite internet is available only at the school; telephone communication is only through cellular phones.
A nursing home is located in Tomkskoye. The corridors of the home look really good. There are around one hundred elderly residents housed here, primarily from the city of Tomsk. This is a home of hundreds of life stories… I was already leaving with my back to the institution of charity, when a man on crutches stepped into the doorway:
«Would you take a picture of me also? My sister will see it… she lives in Tomsk.»
The kindergarten should have to two groups of children by now, I was there, when the rooms for the second, junior group, were renovated on the first floor.
«When I came, this place was in ruins… to restore the kindergarten, I and other five women had to carry pipes here from the abandoned military sites». The kindergarten director said before I left, and instantly I saw not a director standing in front of me, but a Russian woman, little and confused as if she were from a poem by Nekrassov.
The children were asleep in a room splashed with sunlight. Before they used to set folding beds in the playroom, but now the children can enjoy a separate bedroom with real beds. The blankets feature Disney characters and the bedroom looks so bright — either due to the many children sleeping here or the little blankets, all splashed with sunlight.
I was making my way up the staircase to the top floor to get to the roof and photograph the little town from above when one of the doors half-opened revealing a dim apartment and I heard a voice of an elderly woman:
«Ooh, the heating plant supplies heat today! It’s so hot».
«It’s good it is hot, not cold», I say to the old lady… A conversation followed quite unexpectedly; I saw a cat and a dog running out from her apartment, a married couple came out of the door next to the old lady’s, they closed their door and then locked it with a padlock. The old lady spoke to everyone; and as for the key to the roof she told me to ask Irina Semyenovna who lives a floor below.
My other question: ‘why nobody lives on the first floor?’ the old lady answered with:
«I would not live downstairs myself, too many people poke around there… They mess even with my lock… There were good apartments downstairs, people broke them. Some took radiators; others took doors… though the apartments were good».
I knock at Irina Semyenovna’s door. She opens the door and smiles giving me a quick look:
«Hello, come on in!»
Ah, I would not open a door to a complete stranger like that, I thought to myself. Although, the other old women, who Irina Semyenovna took me later to, opened their doors just the same easily. One of them had ten great grandchildren, the other one had six. There are many such old women living in the little town only by themselves. The town has 150 pensioners per the population of 900.
To open a door like that, one has to be either very brave or very simple, or live in a friendly town. However Tomskiy is not that friendly a place. Its history starts with a prison, and prisoners has lived here all the time. Death camp Taiga was located not far away where all the sick and weakened prisoners from Itatka camp used to be transferred. Many of them died there. The only thing that is left of the camp now is an old well which was built by the prisoners, they all build it before they died.
The headmaster of the school in Tomskiy told me a lot showing his domain, and that information formed a core for this article. Oh, I have not yet mentioned the new doors, windows and the atmosphere of comfort at the school; the headmaster told me about the overhaul many a time, obviously it was important news for him. The school had survived without funding for a long time and it was indeed a sore issue.
When I photographed the senior class, the teacher put on the backboard ‘square root of five’ and the boys protested furiously, it was the first time they saw such a calculation. They told the teacher categorically that there could not be such a thing…
There is a history study group at the school, the children study history of the region and know much more than what Wikipedia has to offer now.
The first settlement in upper reaches of Itatka was registered in 1884. The first settlers came from the European part of the Russian Empire, especially during the Stolypin reforms, and used to re-establish their villages here.
Houses in Itatka (the regional center near Tomksiy) do not look like Siberian houses. People from the Baltic region, Germans, Estonians, Mordvins and many more live here. You cannot enter a pure Siberian house from the street. A Siberian house is surrounded by a high fence with a gate. You cannot find such a house here. The Itatka village is spread out which is also not typical of a Siberian village – a Siberian village sets precisely along a road.
During 1994—1995 people came here from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in great numbers, but there was no work here and after the heating system was frozen in the town people started leaving abandoning their apartments.
© Olga Saliy. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without prior written permission of author.