Tobolsk was once a powerful stronghold of the Russian empire in Siberia, though it lost its economic importance even prior to being bypassed by the Trans-Siberian railway.
A quiet provincial town, it is now a much-desired hub for tourists seeking to break from their busy city lives.
Tobolsk is perched atop a giant rock and the view from the Tobolsk Kremlin stretches as far as the eye can see. But its picture-postcard churches hide the story of a town built by opportunistic explorers, political exiles and crafty fur traders.
In the 1580s the Russians had only just conquered Siberia, taking it from the Muslim Tatars. Surrounded by enemies, Tobolsk was to be their stronghold, built on top of an older town. Soon it became an economic hub since Siberian fur was the oil of its time – bringing in one-third of all Russia’s state revenues.
However, Tobolsk’s remote location had other uses for the Russian Tsar.
“Tobolsk was one of the most-popular places to send political dissidents,” says local historian Ekaterina Kulik. “Not only people were exiled, but once a giant bell that was used to incite riots was forced to serve a 300 year term.”
The Russian aristocrats who led a revolt against the tsar in 1825 – known as the Decembrists – were sent there in droves. In Tobolsk they created a replica high-society, displaying the latest French fashions they carried with them into exile from Paris to Siberia.
The town also served up some bitter irony for the Russian Royal Family after the Bolshevik revolution. Nicholas II’s entire family was exiled there, when they spent less than a year in Tobolsk. They would never escape and were mercilessly murdered in the Siberian city of Ekaterinburg.
In Soviet times, with the town’s grand history forgotten, Tobolsk became just another provincial town. Now it hopes to reinvent itself as a winter wonderland and an arts and crafts capital.
Tobolsk’s Kremlin is the only stone Kremlin in Siberia. The reason for this is the fact that the town was once the capital of Siberia – a status that entitled it to the fortress, Lyudmila Kantysheva, a local tour guide, explained.
Tobolsk resident Yulia Udartseva says for her the Tobolsk Kremlin is the most remarkable thing about the town.
One of the key features of Tobolsk is the mix of traditional and urban cultures, says Dean of the Foreign Languages faculty at Tobolsk University, Yulia Vorotnikova.
“The town is divided into two parts – the so-called historical part is lowlands, and usually people of traditional culture, for example Tatars, live there. And still we have highlands – the modern town,” she explains.
Nadezhda Zhuravlyova, a native of Tobolsk, now lives and works in Tyumen. She says that finding a job in Tyumen was easier, but she still prefers her hometown’s quaint look and tranquil feel to the bustle of Tyumen.