A City Sprung from Marshes

As there’s so much you shouldn’t believe about Russia, at first it seemed facetious to ask you to believe what I say. But, it’s probably safer than most things as I’ve literally been there, done that and, yes, bought the t-shirt.

After living in many different countries all my childhood, I have decided to write about Russia. It is completely different from the UK in so many ways: from the scenery to the language, from the climate to the culture. Moscow (where I lived for two years as a child) is a beautiful and interesting city, but it doesn’t represent the nation’s spirit. So, we shall now go far beyond it, over the Urals and into Western Siberia, to a city sprung from marshes, forests, lakes and people’s hard work: Tyumen. This is the place I write about because I have spent the last four summers in it and part of my family lives there, so I know it much more intimately than any other place in Russia.

Personally, I think Siberia is the most exciting, wild, cultured and little-known part of the country.

There, I have visited forests so huge that a large part of them remains unexplored by humans. Edible mushrooms with caps bigger than an outstretched hand grow there, along with clusters of scarlet stone berries, cranberries and whortleberries.

There, lakes are tucked away in secretive corners, where we have fished, and then ate what we caught after cooking it on a fire by the lakeside. Some fish of the Tyumen region can only be found in Siberia, for example, Muksun and Nelma (members of the salmon family). Many Russians eat it as a delicate-tasting dish, stroganina, made out of the raw, frozen and spiced fish.

Something which is completely unfamiliar to the English is a ‘dacha’. This is an allotment of land, outside the city, which is used as a combination of garden and vegetable plot, so that it both a means of producing food and a place to relax. What is unusual is that there is a house on the land, where part or even all of the summer is spent, and much of the spring and autumn as well. Another important aspect of ‘dacha’ is the ‘banya’. The closest thing I can compare it to is a sauna, but with very high humidity, which is achieved by throwing water over the hot stones. Bunches of leaves from birches, oaks, pines and other trees are wafted for healing purposes.

There are extreme temperatures in Tyumen, it’s true. In winter, it isn’t unusual for the temperature to fall to -30 or -40 degrees Centigrade. Far less famously, it is normal for the temperature in summer to rise to +30 or +40 degrees.

Although Tyumen is a modern, powerful centre of oil and gas industry, the city has a long history, beginning with its foundation in 1586. Its location was chosen for ease of defense, as it is bordered by the river Tura on one side and a deep ravine on another (as our granddad once said on an evening walk along the embankment). Reminders of this history are all around the city, like the plain cross which stands in the centre of one of the squares and marks the site of the first settlement there. Wooden buildings with traditionally carved wooden shutters nestle between concrete office blocks, strange and yet so right.

I was interested by the bone carvings made by the native peoples of the Far North on display at the Museum of Visual Arts which present beauty in simplicity. In contrast to the carvings, the recent exhibitions of Orthodox icons (some of them dating from the 1800s) demonstrate the rich society of those years, when the icons were made of gold and silver.

Think of the dramatic political, social, economic and cultural changes that the local people lived through. The city has a multitude of ‘Palaces of Culture’ (concert halls that also include clubs and cultural events), museums with exhibitions ranging from oil, gas and geology to natural history to art, and churches (including Orthodox, Catholic, Evangelical, mosques), not to mention a Philharmonic Society (a large concert hall with other functions).

Another attraction outside the city is the hot mineral springs. They are considered to be very good for health, so the water is channeled from the geysers into swimming pools so that people may bathe in it. My grandparents go in the winter, when the contrast between the cold air and hot water is very pleasant, but I found it a little too hot in the summer.

If some people know about all of the things above, then hardly anyone has thought of this: the world famous scientist Dmitriy Mendeleyev, who put together the periodic table of chemical elements, came from Tyumen region.