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Siberia's treasured wooden houses face uncertain future

Siberia's treasured wooden houses face uncertain future
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Tomsk, Russia: The ornate wooden homes dotting the Siberian city of Tomsk are cherished landmarks, but that hasn';t prevented many from falling into disrepair following years of neglect, with some now facing demolition. Image Credit: AFP
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A scattering of the iconic buildings still boast brightly-coloured and cared-for exteriors with intricate wood carvings adorning window frames and roofs. A large number, however, look as if they have been abandoned. Image Credit: AFP
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The townhouses represent some of the finest examples of wooden architecture in the country. Image Credit: AFP
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Yet historians in the city say their future is uncertain, with government support too slow to respond to the urgent need to save them and commercial interests spying prime real estate. Image Credit: AFP
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Many of the homes have only survived this long because residents "were forced to live in what already existed", historian Sergei Maltsev, 46, tells AFP. Image Credit: AFP
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There are around 2,000 of the historic houses in the city of 575,000 people, Maltsev says, pointing out that fewer than 100 are preserved by the state as heritage sites. Image Credit: AFP
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Some fall prey to real-estate developers and can be levelled on orders from the mayor. Image Credit: AFP
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Some 2,900 kilometres (1,800 miles) east of Moscow, Tomsk is one of the oldest cities in Siberia, founded in 1604 on the banks of the river Tom. Image Credit: AFP
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At the beginning of the 20th century, it was a major transport hub through which merchants would pass on their way to Asia. Image Credit: AFP
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Conservation efforts lack ';political will';: Traders, craftsmen and blacksmiths built hundreds of the houses made of wood - affordable building material at the time - to demonstrate their success. But the age of prosperity was short-lived. Image Credit: AFP
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In the 1910s, Tomsk was stripped of its status as the regional capital in favour of a village called Novonikolaeyvsk, located some 265 km southwest, which was to become a stop on the Trans-Siberian railway. Image Credit: AFP
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That settlement would later be renamed Novosibirsk, now the third largest city in Russia and a large industrial centre dominated by imposing Soviet-style buildings made of concrete blocks. Image Credit: AFP
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In 2016, a project was launched aimed at establishing a historic preservation zone in Tomsk within which the wooden houses could not be destroyed. Image Credit: AFP
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But the initiative has been slow to get off the ground even though Russian President Vladimir Putin last year personally instructed local government to ramp up conservation efforts. Image Credit: AFP
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Maltsev puts this down to "lobbying by construction companies" or the "usual bureaucratic delays". Image Credit: AFP
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Another conservation programme sees the properties rented at a symbolic price on the condition that they will be restored by their new inhabitants. But it is yet to have any significant impact. Image Credit: AFP
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Maltsev says the programme "works" but notes it has saved fewer than 10 houses since it launched three years ago. Image Credit: AFP
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"It takes a long time and there are few investors given the current economic situation," he tells AFP. The historian believes that only "political will" can protect the landmarks. Image Credit: AFP
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He gives as an example the ongoing renovation in the town of Plyos on the Volga River where former president and prime minister Dmitry Medvedev is believed to own an estate. Image Credit: AFP
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"Unfortunately, none of the big bosses are from Tomsk," Maltsev jokes. Image Credit: AFP