Novosibirsk: Odd Contrasts and a New Destination

It's been a strange week here in Novosibirsk, full of odd contrasts. The city, the third-largest in Russia, manages to feel cosmopolitan, yet weirdly provincial at the same time.

Photo Gallery: A statue of Lenin looms over downtown Novosibirsk, a bird perched on its head. (David Hillegas)

The Internet connection in our apartment is the slowest yet -- but Novosibirsk's "Traveler's Coffee" also boasts the first coffee shop wi-fi access we've seen in Russia. (Filing entries every day for the past month and half, Internet speed can really impact our lives). We schlep downtown on old-style, rickety municipal buses -- and find the streets there packed with shiny new SUVs, far more than we've seen elsewhere in Russia. We eat day-old muffins from a Soviet-style bakery for breakfast, as there's no place nearby to get real groceries -- then we get into town and indulge in "Klub sendviches," French fries and slices of so-called New York pizza from hip Western-style eateries that certainly did not exist during our first trip ten years ago.

The weather is adding to our general feelings of discord. After five weeks of flawless sunny skies and warm-ish temperatures, we've faced gloomy slate-gray cloud cover all week, with occasional snow flurries, reminiscent of those we experienced in 1995. We've broken out the winter coats and bought new knit caps, and I'm guessing we'll be wearing them from here on out.


The quiet, leafy town of Akademgorodok is a hub of scientific research just outside Novosibirsk. (David Hillegas)

For years Novosibirsk has been considered the educational hub of Siberian Russia. This began with the founding of Akademgorodok, a scientific research area, in the 1950s. In the Soviet era, Akademgorodok boasted ample government funding, thousands of world-class scientists, and dozens of esoteric research centers like the "Institute of Automation and Electrometry" and the "Institute of Cytology and Genetics."

Today, the various institutes aren't as well funded, and many scientists have left for better opportunities elsewhere. Still, there's a wonderfully quirky feel to the place, like a big scientific commune created by all the the smartest kids in school. There's talk of reviving Akademgorodok and turning it into a kind of "Silicon Taiga." It'll be interesting to see whether any such plans pan out in the coming years.


On September 23rd, we invited you to tell us where to go with our extra week on the road. Lots of great suggestions poured in, along with a few clunkers like "Magnitogorsk! ...One of the largest steel mills -- and one of the most polluted towns -- in the world!"

For the record, the most votes went to Saratov, Velikiy Novgorod and Ufa. No one, unfortunately, wrote in and said they owned a five-star resort spa in western Siberia they'd like to invite us to. We got lots of suggestions to see statues, churches, factories and the like. And after sifting through all of them, we've made our decision.

It's... Murmansk! Why the heck not go up to the Arctic Circle in November? Cold, dark, possibly buried under several feet of snow -- Murmansk sounds like an adventure, if not exactly a traveler's dream.

Now, for our next question: Does anyone have tips regarding who we should see and/or stay with in Murmansk?

Next week: Chelyabinsk.

By Lisa Dickey |  October 14, 2005; 10:15 AM ET
Previous: Novosibirsk: Zhenya's Arrest and Siberian Gay Life | Next: Riding the Rails


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I hope you will have a chance to visit Akademgorodok. It is so different from Nsk. If you do get a chance, try to go to the Novosibirsk State University and visit their student center and folks who take care of their local newspaper "Uzh". It should be open even over the weekend. And yes, there is a big plan to turn Akademgorodok into a Silicon Valley. Our president is interested in that. They've got some funding.
My cousin used to live in Murmansk. He worked in the navy base. There is not much to do there but the nature is so different from anything else. It makes you feel a bit similar to when you are in Arizona in the desert though in Murmansk it's very cold :o I am sure it will be an unforgettable experience. Try to visit their State University; and try to get in touch with their Gay Polar organization. But be careful, the city is a military base, and people might be not as open-minded as in Novosibirsk. I have a feeling it might be one of the least gay friendly places.

Posted by: AK | October 14, 2005 01:35 PM

esoteric research centers? good joke.
20 years ago I studied electrodynamics. Our teacher advised us behind the well-known black round table in control centre of the electron-positron collider, in institute of nuclear physics.

Once our teacher has forgotten to warn security about our visit. We have passed inside through a hole in a fence :-))
From the right part of a building:

Now this fence have repaired, and you still can take a look at the collider and other sights if someone from employees of institute will agree to be your guide.

best regards,
Novosibirsk, Russia.

Posted by: Serge | October 14, 2005 02:34 PM

The New York Pizza chain in Novosibirsk is owned by a guy from Minnesota.

Posted by: kpom | October 14, 2005 03:53 PM

21-month-old Jasper wishes to send Danka a warm hello!

Posted by: Adriana and Jasper | October 14, 2005 04:42 PM

Lazy and un-inquisitive - this is how Pushkin once characterized the Russian people. Had he known the American mainstream journalists and aspiring bloggers, he would have recognized them as honorary Russians. It's like reporting from Great Britain and devote two paragraphs to Oxford and Cambridge.

Posted by: George | October 14, 2005 05:43 PM

I went to Murmansk once, back in late 1994. My group was there to visit with their navy people next door in Severomorsk. We stayed at the Hotel Arktika, in the very center of the city (elsewhere it would be called Hotel Florida). They had nicely redecorated rooms for foreigners, simple and austere, though they cut off the water at midnight. They had the old style woman-on-each-floor who handed you your keys, but they were helpful. We didn't notice any other hotels in the city. We were surprised that the city really dated back to only around 1917. It has a planned look, with some nice municipal buildings, but a certain lifelessness to it, and back then essentially nothing to buy. It should have gotten better, though the port and shipyards issued no steam at all and may still be dead for all I know. There is a really nice museum in the center that provides a good look at the culture of the north, including the Lapps. There is also a naval museum, which is not bad, and, a little to the north of the city the naval aviation museum dedicated to Gargarin, who was a naval aviator. We were there on November first and encountered the first snow of the winter -- only an inch or so. The countryside was beautiful even at that time of year, especially if one were able to take a cruise on the Kola Inlet (we took ours on the Northern Fleet Commander's barge). It's worth a trip to one far end of Russia, if only to say that one has been there.

Posted by: H. H. Gaffney | October 14, 2005 07:03 PM

Try to see Murmansk's cemetery of allied war dead. A lot of the American Lend Lease aid to Russia in WWII went through Murmansk, and the small collection of headstones has a startling collection of nationalities, ethnicities and religions. It's very touching. As I recall it's somewhere near "Alyosha", the enormous soldier statue on the hill that commemorates Murmansk's "Hero City" status.

Cruise on the Kola Inlet--a definite must.

George, either you haven't read much of this blog, or you don't read much on Russia in general and don't have a good basis for comparison. "Lazy and un-inquisitive" don't seem appropriate in the context of prior writings and destinations.

Posted by: Anne | October 15, 2005 01:05 AM

Sorry that you didn't get an invite to a good resort in Ufa. The Baskortastan Inn is very nice. I've stayed there many times. The city is kind of like a Russian Houston. Lot's of industry, some pretty good restaurants, good internet access, and a favorable business climate with the typically very friendly Russian people.

Posted by: Jim in Houston | October 15, 2005 08:40 PM

AK, HH and Anne - Thanks for the tips on Murmansk. We're looking forward to it, though it's a bit daunting to contemplate so many hours of daytime darkness... If anyone else has additional tips, we'd love to hear 'em!

Posted by: Lisa Dickey | October 18, 2005 05:02 AM

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