May 01, 2000

Tyumen & Tobolsk: Siberian River Cities

Tyumen is a city of startling contrasts. A provincial Siberian administrative center with quiet streets and picturesque log houses, Tyumen is coping with the contradictions of great wealth from natural resources. Thirty-five years ago, huge oil and gas reserves were discovered in Tyumen region, and, despite their plundering for decades by Soviet central planners, much of this wealth remains. To this day, Tyumen sits atop Russia’s largest oil and gas reserves. Yet, even in the post-Soviet era, little of the wealth earned from these natural resources has trickled down to effect the lives of ordinary Russians.

Founded in 1586 on the site of an earlier Tartar settlement at the confluence of the Tura and Tyumenka Rivers, Tyumen was the first Russian town in Siberia. Conquered in 1581 by Yermak, Tyumen’s name derives from the region’s Tartar name and the Russian word t’ma, meaning “multitude” or “ten thousand”—a suitably imposing name for a distant outpost.

Although Tyumen has expanded since the Second World War to some half million inhabitants, a walk through the historic center of town shows only a few streets with pre-revolutionary, brick commercial buildings, rarely more than two stories in height. The grand building boom at the turn of the 20th century seems to have passed by Tyumen. Yet the boom of the 1960s and 1970s did not. As is typical in Siberian towns, most residents live beyond the center, in new, monotonous housing developments with (relatively) modern conveniences .

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