Newly renovated traditional houses stood side-by-side with newly constructed buildings in the centre of Tomsk. (James Hill for The New York Times)

Revival for Siberia's gingerbread houses after long neglect

TOMSK, Russia: The building at 32 Kartashov Street had had enough. It once served as home to a 19th-century merchant, a little log masterpiece with ornate doors and shutters carved like doilies and a structural swagger that said, "Look at me!"

But after the Soviet years, when the place became a woebegone flophouse, it was nearly dead. An engineer might have noted that its roof had wilted and rot was chomping at its beams. The neglect, though, seemed to go deeper, as if the building had all but given up after realizing that no one in this Siberian city could even be bothered.

A city official named Nikolai Zakotnov went past 32 Kartashov one day and vowed to rescue it. Here would stand an example of how Tomsk could defend an architectural heritage that is as charming as it is unexpected.

On side streets all over this riverfront city are wooden buildings erected before Communism and now in various states of decay. As Tomsk prospers from the trade in the region's natural resources, pressure is growing for new real estate projects, especially in the commercial district. What to do about the gingerbread houses?

Some are already gone, demolished and replaced by the usual high-rise apartments and supermarkets and offices. Yet 1,800 or so remain, and their fate is emblematic of the struggle across Russia to balance the preservation of architectural treasures with the demands for development in a surging economy.

"This is the problem: preserving a unique layer of Russian culture that is disappearing, that is being pushed out by reinforced concrete and stone," Zakotnov said. "Actually, this is a problem for all Russian cities - having a downtown area that is being covered by modern structures."

Zakotnov is hoping that a third of the wooden buildings can be saved and restored, creating a historic district that might even lure tourists to Tomsk, which is four hours by plane from Moscow. The idea is not as far-fetched as it sounds.

Some buildings have been renovated in the past few years, either with government or private money, and the results do the city's forefathers proud. Turn a corner onto one of the nicer blocks, and you may have the impression of stumbling into a little fairy-tale village constructed by some very industrious elves way back when.

For decades, the wooden houses were taken for granted or even snubbed as musty hovels. But people have begun to embrace them, not only for their beauty, but also because they seem linked to Siberia's rustic past, a time before the region became synonymous with gulags and then oil. They also supposedly nurture good health.

"Wood, when kept up, keeps a good energy inside the house, and it is very easy for us to breathe inside," said Yelena Andreychenko, who is in her 30s and lives in a building newly repaired by the city. "The ceilings are high. Visually, it widens the space, and makes you feel good."

In the old days, the homes' owners competed to show off the most lavish wooden designs. Craftsmen flocked to Tomsk and other Siberian cities, and their art thrived. To create such carvings from wood was a fine way to honor the Siberian forests.

Then came the revolution. The government took over the houses and converted them into communal apartments. Three or four families moved in to each, and during World War II, when factories were evacuated to Siberia from the front, the buildings were crammed with eight families or more.

It was not just the facades that suffered. Even basic maintenance was ignored. As was so often the case under Communism, with everyone responsible for upkeep, no one was.

And as is so often the case after Communism, recovering from this mess is not easy. Zakotnov is spending $3 million this year from the city treasury to fix up a dozen buildings, under a program that began a few years ago. While the amount is relatively small, he said he believed that once the city can demonstrate the artistic and financial value of the newly renovated buildings, private money will begin pouring in.

At 32 Kartashov Street, workers are gutting the building and replacing rotted logs with new ones, using Siberian larch, a sturdy conifer. The interior will be brand-new, including, for the first time, bathrooms. (There is still an outhouse in the backyard - imagine having to use that in the middle of the night during the Siberian winter.)

The renovations themselves are only part of the challenge. Zakotnov has become something of a social worker who has to help tenants find temporary or permanent apartments while the work is done. Many have been living in the houses for so long that they are accustomed to the shabbiness and do not want to leave.

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