In my last visit to Russia, I was fortunate enough to visit a great friend of mine from college in Tomsk. She is currently being awesome all over Tomsk and teaching English to a bunch of Siberians as a Fulbright Scholar. It was my first time east of the Urals, and I greatly enjoyed my trip. I flew Moscow to Tomsk, and returned on the Trans-Siberian Tomsk to Nizhny (49 hours!).
Tomsk made a lot of impressions on me, from the beauty of its old-school wooden architecture to the almost-rural-like warmth of its residents. However, the most thought-provoking and amazing discovery for me was how much it resembled Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, and all the other Russian cities I’ve visited. Tomsk is about half-way across Russia, and almost the same distance to Beijing, as it is to Moscow (if one were to draw a straight line on a map), however it looks very much like all the other places I’ve seen in Russia.
I am not claiming that Tomsk is non-unique. On the contrary, I thought it had a very particular charm to it. Yet, I was completely taken aback at how standardized Russia is in its development and culture. Walking out of the Tomsk airport, I saw the same trams, the same buses, the same Soviet buildings, the same street names, the same shops, as I have seen elsewhere in the great nation. Of course, relating back to my experiences in India and Ghana, this somehow shocked me. In India, it was enough to drive 200 kilometers (123 miles) to encounter a completely different community: different language, different primary deity, different architecture, different predominant food, etc. In Russia, after traversing over 1900 miles, I was in a place that looked, sounded, and felt pretty much like Moscow.
Now, as any other policy, standardization is a double-edged sword. I can see the arguments both against and for it. I do, however, realize what a fantastic challenge it must have been to standardize a country as big as Russia — to make 13 time zones (now reduced to 11) look and feel so much like one another. Ironically, I think Russia’s standardization and sense of same-ness makes it quite unique when compared to other countries.
For me, Russia is a very unique place to be, in general. It contrasts highly with the other places I go, whether in weather or politics, foods or languages. Generally, the “home”-ness of Russia stands in stark contrast of my other traveling experiences, where I sharply stand out (usually due to the way I look). Even in destinations where I can physically blend in, my language skills shout, “Foreigner!” In Russia, however, people treat me as a “local”, as one of their “own”. Almost 2000 miles away, I didn’t expect this to remain the case.
Thanks, Tomsk, for your hospitality, your thought-provoking streets, your welcoming residents, your filling blinchiki (the Russian version of crepes or pancakes), and the ever-lasting impression you have made upon me.