Tomsk is a city with a population of 500,000 located in the Asian part of Russia on the frozen marshes of the West Siberian Plain on the Tom River which is a tributary of the Ob River. The axis of the city is the Lenin Prospekt with its banks, schools, municipal offices, shops and hotels. Tomsk is a large river port and an economic and industrial centre. A majority of its residents are local factory workers and traders. At present, the city benefits from the Siberian oil boom.
Tomskwas founded in the early 17th century as a Russian stronghold. It developed two centuries later in connection with the exploitation of gold in the Yenisei and Tomsk Governorate which Tomsk was the capital of. In 1782, Tomsk was granted the town charter and became a major trading centre. By the decision of the municipal authorities the Tran-Siberian railway bypassed Tomsk, slowing down the city’s growth and causing its long-term marginalization. Since 1944 Tomsk has been the capital of a district which is larger than Poland and is inhabited by only one million people. In addition to Russians and Poles the city is also inhabited by the descendants of Belorussians, Ukrainians, Latvians, Germans, Moldavians and the peoples of Caucasus. The city is a major scientific centre with eight universities, including the oldest Siberian university established in the late 19th century and the prestigious Polytechnic University (former Tomsk Technological Institute) which for many years was run by a Pole, Mikołaj Gutowski, as its vice-chancellor. Tomsk is full of students from all over Russia and the former Soviet republics: Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan... The academic life gives the streets of Tomsk special character and atmosphere. The city draws attention with its wooden architecture decorated with fine ornaments with the most attractive wooden buildings standing by the Krasnoarmeyska Street. Tomsk has also many interesting sacred buildings, including the Sts Peter and Paul Cathedral, the Epiphany Cathedral, or the Old Believers Orthodox Church. The Atashev Palace, originally the residence of a gold-mine owner, now houses the Regional Museum. Opposite from the palace there is the former NKVD prison and KGB building with a commemorative stone to the victims of Stalinist repression standing in front of it. In the 19th century Tomsk was inhabited by many Poles who were deported deep into Russia because of their participation in the January Uprising (e.g., the parents of Stanisław Witkiewicz who arrived in Tomsk together with him). It also attracted settlers encouraged to come to Siberia by the privileges promised by the Russian administration or looking for fertile land. The current Polish community is largely composed of assimilated descendants of displaced persons who are seldom speaking Polish. The several-hundred strong Polish community is gathered around the Roman Catholic Church, Polish Community Centre and the “Orzeł Biały” (White Eagle) Polish Ethnic Centre. The Poles from Tomsk are engaged in intense cultural activities, have a folk group, and issue the Dom Polski bimonthly. The university has the School of Polish Language and Culture and organizes language courses. Owing to assistance from Poland the local Polish community maintains contacts with their homeland. Outside the city in the entire Tomsk Oblast people with Polish roots are dispersed. The village of Bielastok, located 200 km north of the city, has the largest Polish community; other places inhabited by Poles include Krivasheyno, Melnikov, Petrovka, Svetliy and Kolpashevo. The old generation of Polish inhabitants in the region tries to maintain their national identity and tradition, chiefly on the platform of Roman Catholicism; they are visited by a Polish curate of the Church in Tomsk and are getting charitable assistance through the Polish Community Centre. Members of the young generation, however, especially in small towns, feel ever loser ties with the homeland of their predecessors and are hardly interested in their past.