There are endless reasons to visit “Paris of Siberia” : it is a city lined with cobblestone streets, wide boulevards, a cultural city, some of the best food in Russia, very walkable with great sights, including one of the most beautiful Russian Orthodox Churches in Russia, even if it only gets to daily high of minus 15.
Irkutsk is called the “Paris of Siberia” for the above reasons. In addition, it served as an exile for many Russian artists, officers, and nobles who were deported in Siberia for their part in the Decembrist revolt against Tsar Nicholas I in St Petersburg in 1825. These citizens of St Petersburg bought their culture with them to Irkutsk. It became the major center of intellectual and social life for these exiles, and they developed much of the city’s cultural heritage as we know it today.
For two adventurous history buffs, Irkutsk was a good stopover on the Trans Siberian Railway of five days, we could have stayed longer as there is so much to do and see in Irkutsk.
Irkutsk was founded in the mid-17th century as a winter quarter for gold and fur traders. It became a fort on the tea caravan trade route to India, Mongolia and China.
We visited the temple down near the river, which is the only building left from the Irkutsk fort. It is also the first stone building in Eastern Siberia of early 18th century with beautiful fresco up near the tower.
It became a city by 1686, and the road was constructed in 1760 connected Siberia to Europe. Seven years after the start of the construction of the Trans Siberian Railway in Vladivostok, the railway line reached Irkutsk in 1898. Finally, goods could be traded all year round, as before the Trans Siberian during summer, rivers were the main means of transport. During the cold half of the year, cargo and passengers travelled by horse-drawn sledges over the winter roads, many of which were the same rivers, but ice-covered. It opened up the trade on the former tea caravan route and the city flourished.
The city changed, when participants in the Decembrist revolt against Tsar Nicholas I were exiled to Siberia in droves, turning Irkutsk into their cultural center. 30% of the population of the city were exiles. Irkutsk became the major center of intellectual and social life for these exiles, and much of the city’s cultural heritage is a result of these exiles. Many of their wooden houses, adorned with ornate, hand-carved decorations, survive today in stark contrast with the surrounding Soviet apartment blocks.
Our introduction to Irkutsk was not great, I must say, we arrived on train 001M- Rossija from Ulan Ude at 3.50 pm. There are a few things to watch out for on the Trans Siberian, one of them is locals trying to extort money out of you. We got approached as we came out the front doors of the railway station, by a Russian guy saying we could take us to our hotel. Things are cheap in Russia, but be aware there is a Russian price and European price. We put it down to experience in the end.
ACTIVITIES TO DO IN IRKUTSK, SIBERIA, RUSSIA
We visited Taltsy – Architecture museum, an open-air museum of cultural and historical significance. It has numerous traditional wooden buildings from villages in the Angara valley. The houses have been transported to the museum and reassembled there when the villages got flooded for the construction of two local dams.
One of the centerpieces of the collection is a partial recreation of the 17th-century ostrog (fortress). It was especially a highlight for us, as it started to snow as we entered the museum. Within 30 minutes, there must have been a good 10 cm of snow on the ground. Our Kathmandu hiking boots and several pairs of woollen socks kept us warm as we walked around this beautiful museum. We spent a good two hours exploring this true gem.
Kazan Church named after the icon of the Lord’s Mother of Kazan was built in 1892 by local merchants and philanthropists for craftsmen that lived and worked in Irkutsk. Its Russian-Byzantine architectural style makes it one of the most beautiful churches.
It is about 45 min walk from the center of town. You know you have arrived because music is played for some reason at all churches in Russia.
It give us an opportunity to see the city as we walked in minus 15 . We almost could not feel our fingers, despite three sets of gloves on that day. It was so worth it. Kazan Church is one of the most beautiful Orthodox churches we went into in Russia.
THE CATHEDRAL OF THE EPIPHANY
Cathedral of the Epiphany – a monument of architecture of the 17th century, one of the oldest stone buildings in Eastern Siberia and the Far East. The cathedral was restored from 1967 to 1985. The Cathedral of the Epiphany is the traditional opening place of the festival “Shining of Russia” in Irkutsk. it is the current Russian Orthodox Church.
The church is located down near the riverside. It is my second choice of churches to visit in Irkutsk. We were allowed in that day. Nice spot to just get out of the cold for 10 mins.
HOME OF DECEMBRIST COUNT SERGEI VOLKONSKY
This small mansion provides an insight into how exiles from St Petersburg lived in the early 1880s. The house has a courtyard with stables, a barn and servant quarters.
Prince Sergei Volkonsky, who had fought in the Napoleonic War, was the only active general of the reformist movement of the Decembrists. After that coup against Tsar Nicholas I, he was sentenced with 120 others to 20 years of penal labor and banishment for life to Siberia. He was one of a few, who was followed by his wife. His wife Maria Rayevskaya was on the train and boats for five days leaving their children behind in St Petersburg. Any children born in Siberia were under the terms of his punishment not entitled to rights, privileges and even titles of their fathers (such as princes). Their youngest son could therefore not attend university in Russia. He couldn’t leave Siberia after the 20 years of hard labour were over, he decided in 1847 to settle with his wife Maria in Irkutsk. At least until the amnesty of Tsar Alexander I in 1856, when they could return to Europe.
In the decade leading up to the Volkonskys’ return to St Petersburg in 1856, the house was the epicentre of Irkutsk cultural life, with balls, musical soirées and parties attended by wealthy merchants and high-ranking local officials. A tour of the building, with its big ceramic stoves and original staircases, takes visitors from the family dining room, where guests once feasted on fruit and veg grown by Volkonsky himself in the garden out back, to the upstairs photo exhibition including portraits of Maria and other women who romantically followed their husbands and lovers into exile.
I asked myself at the time when wandering around the house why was Irtusk chosen as the location to deport these people. There are a few reasons which seem straightforward to ask but there is a far simpler reason it was easier for the Siberian government to control a large, concentrated group of convicts, and maximize surveillance and limit revolutionaries’ contact with local populations. Concentration facilitated the guarding of prisoners, but it also allowed the Decembrists to continue to exist as a community. I wonder if the government of the time, would ever think that these houses in Irtusk would become a major tourist destination in their own right.. and also how much has not changed in over 100 years.
COST: RUB500, about NZD 10 pp