My mother recently oohed and aahed over the wooden architecture one finds in Tomsk. I can’t say as I blame her, so I thought I’d post this series of photos today for her. This is the building that now hosts the Vyacheslav Shishkov Arts Center. It houses a small Shishkov museum and provides space for all kinds of artistic endeavors for modern-day residents of Tomsk. It’s an imposing bit of architecture, with the gorgeous laced wood decorations standing atop a nice, firm, brick first-floor foundation. It wasn’t always like this, of course. In the last photo below you can see what the building originally looked like before it was expanded and fortified. Still, the specimen we have today is impressive. The photo above pictures the building from the courtyard, which is where you find entrances to all old wooden buildings in Tomsk. The next photo below provides a view of the structure from the street.
Shishkov (1873-1945) was one of the top Siberian writers whose works gave reading Russians an opportunity to get to know a land and a way of life that they would never have experienced otherwise. When I mention Siberia, of course, I’m not talking about the prison camps that westerners automatically associate with that place name, but rather the extraordinary and extraordinarily vast geographical location that is to Russia a bit of what the Wild West once was to Americans. For a Russian, even today (maybe especially today), the epithet “Siberian” is one that carries a great deal of respect. People who were born and grew up in Siberia are known as hearty, honest, straightforward, resourceful people with a strong relationship to land and heaven. Often, when I remark at home on someone’s admirable qualities, my wife will say, as if this explains it all, “Well, he’s a Siberian, you know. He comes from Siberia.”
Shishkov lived in this building, building No. 10, from 1911 to 1915 (he had resided in Tomsk since 1894) and here he wrote several of his well-loved works. Incidentally, when the writer lived here the street was named Krestyanskaya Ulitsa, or, Peasant Street. It was renamed as Shishkov Street in 1953.
Shishkov was not only a writer. In fact his name attracts several epithets, including ethnographer, social activist and river navigator. He led many expeditions exploring Siberian rivers, including the Ob, the Yenisei, the Chulim, the Charysh, the Lena and the Vitim. He left Tomsk when he took a job in Petrograd (formerly Petersburg, later Leningrad) at the Ministry of Roads and Waterways in 1916. There he oversaw the building of the Chuisk Road, or highway, leading from Novosibirsk to Mongolian lands. The same basic road is still in use today.
Shishkov made his literary debut with a tale called “Cedar” in 1908. It was published in Siberian Life newspaper. His novella, Taiga, was written while he lived in Tomsk. He began to publish actively around 1913 and his literary activity increased again when he moved to Petrograd. His two most famous novels are The Horde (1923) and Ugryum River (1933). He remained in Leningrad for part of the great siege of that city during World War II, and there he worked on what was to be an unfinished, three-volume novel about the life of the Russian rebel Emelyan Pugachyov.
Immediately below is a picture of Shishkov’s desk as now displayed, with original implements, at the Shishkov Arts Center. I would like to point out that the man you see standing at the building’s entrance in the top photo is Pavel Rachkovsky, the architect, historian, photographer and great Tomsk expert. Having Rachkovsky along with you in Tomsk is far better than having the key to the city or a million dollars. He can open any door, just as he is doing here on the museum’s day off. It was enough for the woman guarding the fort to see Rachkovsky’s face to open the entire building up to us. My thanks to her and, once again, to Pavel, for the incomparable Siberian hospitality.