City by the Tom opens up to 'white crows'

August 2, 1996

Foreign visitors to Tomsk still excite surprise and comment in this remote university city of 500,000 people, which sits above the high pine-covered bluffs of the River Tom.

When the Trans-Siberian railway was built it bypassed Tomsk - the nearest stop is at Taiga in the middle of the birch and pine forests two hours to the south.

When the politburo bosses of Soviet times sought secrecy for their atomic weapons research and production, they chose Tomsk, a closed city until six years ago and historically a final destination for many exiles, for its perfect isolation.

People in Tomsk still refer to foreigners as "beiiye voroni" - white crows - for their scarcity, but university leaders in a city with Russia's highest student density are fast forging contacts the world over.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union five years ago Tomsk State University, Siberia's oldest university and officially rated third best in Russia after Moscow State and St Petersburg State, lost a major slice of its income.

Traditionally a research-based institution, the university heavily relied on funding from the Soviet defence budget. A huge ballistic warhead production complex 15 kilometres north, occupied many top mathematicians and physicists. Defence cuts cost Tomsk's scientific research institutions more than 80 per cent of their funding and the university reeled from upheavals never witnessed in more than 100 years of academic and scientific endeavour. Many of those involved in atomic weapons or rocket research left the university and today many joke that they are beetch - a Russian acronym meaning "former intelligent person".

Alexei Timoshenko, Tomsk State's deputy-rector for international programmes, said: "The shortage of funds, like at many universities across Russia, is acute.

"This is the main reason we are refocusing away from a maths and science bias towards the humanities and internationally-focused programmes."

In the past four years the university has initiated an impressive range of new departments and faculties designed to give students and academic staff access to the international marketplace.

A mix of full-time undergraduate courses and part-time postgraduate courses, aimed mainly at working professionals, has been developed, drawing on and adapting many of the university's older specialisms, such as the department for modern history, set up 30 years ago and renowned in Soviet times for ground-breaking work on the political and sociological economy of capitalist countries.

Students at the department of international studies, founded in 1992, concentrate on studying applied economics and languages, preparing them for careers within regional or national government and business. Semi-private schools and colleges of business and social sciences also offer specialised programmes in business, management and public administration.

The university's first faculty of foreign languages, set up last year, will send its first group of exchange students and teachers to Sheffield University this summer for an English language training course.

"Until 1990 Tomsk was a closed city - our scholars sometimes had the opportunity to travel, but nobody ever came here. We have a hunger for contacts with the outside world and want today's students to have opportunities we never had," Mr Timoshenko said.

The university has established contacts and exchange programmes with American universities - Ohio State University was one of the earliest foreign colleges to forge contacts in Tomsk and the United State Information Agency opened a well-stocked library and resource centre in the university last year. The Goethe Insititut, Munich, has also paid for a German language resource centre.

Contacts with UK universities have been slower to develop, but Sheffield is a partner in the two Tempus programmes at Tomsk for university management training and environmental protection and Glasgow and St Andrews Universities are involved in joint technological research projects.

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