The Mole Diaries: Tomsk

The Mole Diaries: Tomsk

This article was written by Rachel Powell, published on 3rd April 2014 and has been read 7262 times.

Rachel is a third year student at Durham University reading History and Russian. She has divided her year abroad into three parts, starting in Siberia and ending in Moscow with Sochi in between. She says, "I’ve realised how much there is to say so feel free to read my year abroad blog to get a better feel for what I got up to and what I learnt. Here are some tips which I think were worth being told or figuring out early on while studying at Tomsk State University, Siberia."


Although leaving your world-class British university to study in Siberia might not sound like the most intellectually-broadening idea, it's not all bad. If your university works the same way as Durham, they will sort you out with a visa invitation, accommodation and flights. All you have to then worry about is finding out how the archaic and confusing world of education in Siberia works.

We had a Russian class every morning, and then were free to do what we chose. We had the option of taking any classes taught at the Faculty of Foreign Languages, i.e. languages. These were French, Spanish, Italian, German, Turkish and Chinese. Additionally there were lectures on history and linguistics, although our Russian was not at a high enough level to follow these.

Offered to us was also a Postgraduate Diploma in Translation, which consists of a minimum of one extra class a day and small assessments at the end of term. This proved however to be slightly dysfunctional as the classes were all designed for Russian rather than English native speakers. One semester is not enough to complete the program so there are also issues with long distance learning and teaching after leaving Tomsk.

As a fair exchange for being hosted by the university, we were offered up to assist in English language classes. This became one of our main ways of getting to know TSU students and making friends, and also gave us interesting insights into our own language as we realised how little we actually know about our own native grammar.

We met some Italians who studied at both TSU and TPU, and Bristol students who studied just at TPU. They had additional pronunciation classes which I believe would have made a huge difference and could be a factor in favour of choosing TPU over TGU if the option is open.

One key thing to bear in mind is that universities in Tomsk seem to be run a decade or two in the past. There is no internal email system, Blackboard learning, IT service etc, so if you want to get in touch with lecturers you have to hunt them down and get their personal email addresses or phone numbers. This can prove to be very frustrating, but it can make you understand how relaxed the teacher-student dynamic is.

Due to this lack of freely-obtained information, no one will have all the answers for you. If you want to attend astronomy or drawing classes on a whim, it will take a chain of several people and a time span of several days or weeks for any message to be conveyed. Patience is necessary.

You may feel a bit like an aborigine in Georgian England, as the university will show you off as much as they can by holding international press conferences and events which celebrate British culture (cue presentations on James Bond and pub food), Christmas carols and Thanksgiving.

Tomsk State University


In terms of accommodation, all of us Durham students were in home stays, where we paid around £300 a month to be sheltered and fed by native Russian speakers for ‘cultural and linguistic immersion’. This for some meant getting naked with their host the first day and going to the Russian sauna, while for others (like me) there can be little social interaction with your family meaning you’ll have to find other places to practice your language skills.


International students at TPU, the polytechnic university stayed in ‘obshezhite’ or student halls, specifically for foreigners. The university has a buddy building group to help the international students integrate, although living in halls has the disadvantages of being segregated from native Russians and curfews at midnight.

Cafes, Bars and Clubs

We spent a lot of times in cafes, often hours upon hours relaxing with hot chocolate and finishing off the day’s homework. Tomsk has an array of stylish venues which are often cafes, restaurants, bars and even clubs rolled into one. They usually serve sushi, traditional Russian dishes including cheap business lunches and shisha, all sometimes available until the early hours.

Here’s what you should remember about going out and about:

1. Don’t enter a cafe with the intention of getting all your work done

The relaxed atmosphere will mean that nothing will get done. It’s also unfortunately how us Durham students ended up speaking too much English without any Russian students around us. That aside, our favourite haunt was ‘Kofeshank’, a three minute walk from Tomsk State University. ‘Shokolad’ is a very similar venue closer towards the centre.

2. Don’t expect a soup, pasta, salad or meat dish to fill you up.

They’re often ordered in twos or threes for a whole meal. ‘Okrushka’ is perhaps one to avoid, unless you have the acquired taste for cold vegetable soup with a beery flavour (‘kvas’).

3. Food will never come out simultaneously

You may be in a group of ten with only two plates on the table. Being British and waiting for everyone to be served is impractical in Russia. Good restaurants/bars include ‘Belie Doski’ and ‘Pelmeni Project’.

4. Don’t be put off by the absence of an obvious entrance

The sign is rarely anywhere near where the actual venue is. Going upstairs, downstairs or even a shopping centre to get to a cafe is half of the experience.

5. Try an authentic ‘stolovaya’ or canteen for a much cheaper alternative to western cafes.

You can get tea for 15p, pancakes filled with cottage cheese (‘blini s tvorogom’), mini pies (‘pirozhki’) filled with cabbage or potato, large meatballs (‘kotleti') and so much more. Tomsk’s Anti-Cafe would be an unusual but fun alternative; it feels somewhat like a primary school minus the children and plus a plethora of teas, biscuits and sweets, where you pay per minute rather than drink.

6. Chain bars and restaurants can make life confusing

When planning a meeting with friends, make sure you double-check which one they mean so you don’t end up trekking to the wrong side of town. These include the Irish pub Harat’s and Korona Bar (both certainly recommended).

7. Join in for the authentic experience

To get the real Russian drinking experience make sure you take locals with you to teach you how to eat pickled mushrooms, sing karaoke and engage in philosophical or intellectual discussion while also drinking.

8. Don't forget your ID

If you have dressed up and lined your stomach for a night out, only to discover you’ve forgotten your ‘dokumenti’ or ID, pretending not to speak Russian often helps you to bypass the age verification onto the payment stage. ‘Pravda’ was my favourite club, ‘Teatro’ or ‘Shalyapin’ being classier alternatives and ‘Studio 46’ being somewhat reminiscent of a dark and dingy British club.

9. Party on!

Bear in mind that in Russian clubs, there can be a huge dichotomy between men and women. Some men just want to get drunk in a corner with their friends, and some women just want to dress provocatively and dance on their own. There isn’t the same hunt and chase dynamic, meaning you can go out for the pure enjoyment of going out.

Transport Tips

‘Marshrutki’ (minibuses) you will soon realise are the best mode of transport, but there are plenty more options. Here are some tips on how to survive your daily commute to university, and getting back home after a night out:

Make sure you always have a coat pocket full of change. 15 rouble marshrutki trips mean anything larger then a 100 rouble note will never be accepted by the driver. Pay when getting off the minibus, not on. If you’re stuck at the back, tapping the person in front of you, saying ‘peredaite pojaluista’ (pass on please) and placing your coins into their hand is the way to do it. If you don’t have the right change, you can always trust fellow passengers to return you the right money. Expect to have an intimate moment with a stranger every morning, whether it’s with an old man who has barged on despite a severe lack of space, or the one student you’ve seen all morning without a mullet haircut. Don’t speak too loudly, or at all. You may get verbally assaulted by an agitated babushka or open the bus to an impromptu chat show asking why you’re in Siberia studying Russian of all places and languages. Don’t expect any sort of timetables or maps. The former I almost came to see as a positive, as it psychologically prevented me from viewing the buses as always being late. Just make sure you don’t stand around too long after 9pm, as buses stop by 10.30pm. 2GIS soon becomes a godsend. It’s an app that you can download on your smartphone or use on your computer, using GPS rather than internet. It can show you which marshrutki can get you from A to B, and let you navigate the city’s complicated street numbering system. They make absolutely no sense as blocks usually maintain the name of a nearby main road despite being nowhere near it. (I’ve seen a building in Moscow numbered 17 3/4, and finally understood after seeing the sign why a man looking rather lost asked me where he might find number 18.) Tramvai are cheaper than marshrutki but very slow, and can run into trouble such as driving off their cables, so not always the best alternative. Although the city is reasonably small and feels very safe, I’d recommend always getting home in the evening by taxi. Calling a taxi company such as 90000 is securer than hailing one down. An automated text is sent to your phone giving details of the taxi’s colour, make, driver and registration number to make sure you get into the right car. You can get home for the equivalent of £3, even cheaper if you share with one or two other friends.

For a transport-related adventure, get on the Trans-Siberian railway to Lake Baikal, a mere 32-hour train ride away (plus maybe another 10 hours by coach, ferry and minibus to get from door to door). It was the best experience I had while in Tomsk, and makes you realise how we should really explore more of the UK by train.


A lot of Russia's shopping and pricing concepts will never make sense to us. Why you can buy a loaf of bread for 25p yet pay £3 for a small hot chocolate is beyond me, but you will quickly recognise the wonderful perks of living in Siberia.

1. Make sure you always have every single denomination of the rouble at hand when you go shopping.

You will be waved off a bus or out of a pharmacy before you can even finish the sentence 'I only have a thousand rouble note.' Time going to buy your week's chocolate supply well in advance for those coveted coins so you don't end up being late to a lecture because you're buying two bottles of nail polish twenty minutes before it starts (yes, it happened).

2. Take advantage of one of Russia’s achievements: kiosks.

Usually open until late in the evening, the usual ones are for ice cream, bread, souvenirs, cigarettes/chewing gum/snacks, fruit and veg, pancakes, mobile phone shops, flowers and banks. They pretty much line every single road so you never have to walk more than five minutes to find them.

3. Make a habit of visiting the pancake kiosks (‘Russkie' or ‘Sibirskie Blini’).

They are Russia's answer to Subway, where you can pick and mix sweet or savoury ingredients for a cheap and delicious meal. My favourites were garlic chicken with tomatoes and greens, and banana with caramel. The temptation of pancakes once made me and my friend miss a lecture, and it was definitely worth it.

4. If you feel like you haven't been paid enough attention as a foreigner, hit the central market.

The stalls aren't particularly varied, but sell everything from bras, sharon fruit and shoe soles to fur-lined leather jackets, woollen mittens and boots. Once we went looking for items to set out a mini British sports day at a bar, and had Tajiki fruit vendors going from stall to stall trying to help seek out those treasured potato sacks. If you want people shouting at you telling you you're German or American, go to the dodgy northern end of town. You can hear stories about how they met an Australian six months ago and haven't seen any foreigners since, and even leave with a couple of phone numbers.

5. The Shopping Centres

TsUM is Tomsk's version of GUM, a swanky shopping centre which is out of the financial reach of us students. Shopping centres (or ‘torgovie tsentri’) are everywhere though, where you can find more affordable clothing. In general you'll find that prices are marked up around 30% from that in the UK with brands such as Mango and United Colours of Benetton.

6. Buy a coat in Russia!

Although clothing might be expensive in Russia, it might be best waiting to buy a coat once you arrive. For men there are limited choices for winter coats, mostly the fur-lined leather jackets (reserved for the Russian equivalent of chavs and roadside drunks: ‘gobniki’) and ‘pukhoviki’ or down puffer jackets. Women have the luxurious choice of fur coats (at least £350), calfskin and long down jackets with belts to add some curves.

7. Get a hat.

When November hits you will get fed up of people asking you where your hat is, and their horrified expression when you tell them that you don't in fact have one. Fur is the way to go if you plan on staying throughout the winter.

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