Stop living in the past: Irkutsk now (Part 4)
I’m still trying to track down some English speaking residents of Irkutsk … folk who can give me the low down on life at street level. In the meantime I’m rummaging through other people’s photo collections … other people’s memories. Last time, I was writing down impressions of a place I’d never been to, based upon the cast-off evidence of others … Virtual eavesdropping … in the hope that my words would find some truth via the eyes of others, and in the now-second-hand sights they beheld. I still need to get the “word-on-the-street” though … once again: wish me luck …
On we go … So there’s the post-Renaissance architecture with its colourful Russian-candy twist … and the broad open boulevards of a Paris of Siberia … And then there’s the immediate step-back-in-time of the surviving Decembrist (et al) houses in their dark, ageing wood.
Incidentally I caught a fascinating comment about the state of some of these… It seems that in places, the advance of time has proven to be tangible in the height of asphalt and concrete laid and laid again since the time of the Decembrists … the layers of man-made strata rising in succession from the soiled ground-level of pre-modernity. So in relative terms those old wooden houses appear in places to be sinking into the ground when positioned alongside what has become a modern conveyor-belt street! Literally a metre or so over, say 150 years… a centimetre every 18 months, of history submerging into the dirt. I saw a photograph of pavement creeping to mid-way against a row of old, paint-flaked wooden door frames as a terrace sinks into the mire of the past. Resolute and upstanding, as a proud, beaten captain and his sinking ship.
It’s a process that continually occurs the world over of course, and the reason why archaeologists dig holes … but it’s unusual (for “us” at least) to see the devouring process in action.
Throwing contrast against all of the above are the flourishes of Russian Orthodoxy, yet another head on the chimera. I saw photographs of murals, defined by the rules of their Icon-ic style, set around a cathedral-tower’s external wall, defying the elements and testing divine protection against encroaching earthly ravages (Epiphany Cathedral). Also, a weathered, first-floor external wall depicting a triptych fresco above an extended low roof: baptism? … resurrection? … Christ in Majesty? … It’s hard to tell. This time the church appeared disused, abandoned, the covenant of protection broken and nature granted permission to scrub and fog the paint-work into obscurity (Our Saviour’s Church). Well looks can often be deceptive: in this particular case the images are fading indeed, but into the present, not away from it; as restorers unmask original detail hidden under bland, flat coats of white … and the images themselves: the baptism of the Buryats … obviously a notable event for Orthodoxy. You had to be there. There are two monasteries in Irkutsk also, one of which, the Znamensky Monastery, is 300 years old and features imposing onion-domed towers topped with Orthodox crosses. A familiar look, coherent across the whole nation and undeservedly reduced to cliché in the eyes of the West.
The final influence upon Irkutsk seems to have been the Soviet era, not surprisingly. Stalinist accommodation “slabs” re-occur as pre-echoes of the kind of stacked, budget dwelling-hutches that someone thought would be a good idea here, in 1960s UK. Well, I’m sure we’ve all heard about the endeavours of those who do not learn from the mistakes of history … and here’s more proof.
Of course the flip side to Soviet Russia’s depressing edifices is their strident, forward-looking and triumphalist art-work whether set in sculpted, painted or printed form … as if valuing lives lived under a future utopia as greater than those endured in a declining present. Now, ironically of course, these monuments to futures past are history in themselves.
More Irkutsk next time: things to see and do.
Next time: Trips and Tales (Part 65) Stop living in the past: Irkutsk now (Part 4)
[Photo by reibai]