Stop living in the past: Irkutsk now (Part 3)
I wanted to get a feel for Irkutsk at street level. Not the brochure, tourist or blog versions… It’s tricky. Nothing beats “going there” of course… wherever “there” may be (… I’ll probably pass on Chernobyl or the open-cast asbestos mines in Mongolia though …) Anyway, after a little scouting around the web, I did find some interesting footage … valid second-hand goods perhaps? … a reel of snap-shots, a snip of video travelogue from a UK citizen walking the Irkutsk streets, and a continuous in-car travelling shot taken over several minutes across town … Clues.
Before now I have launched enthusiastically into long distance interviews with travellers who have passed through the region … several regions in fact … Then with some slight disappointment it dawned on me that there’s no real prospect of gaining much of an insight into say: real Moscow-lives (real Irkutsk lives…) from someone who spent two hurried days there before heading East. Obvious, with hindsight … With thanks to all who tried (and often succeeded) to help: I was expecting too much. Essentially, you tend to get the same high-contrast impressions … though if fortunate: some good anecdotes too.
This is not the greatest preamble then, to announce that I’m trying to sort out more interviews … It’s been an ice-age … I’m trying to get a more incisive angle … starting with Irkutsk. So wish me luck.
After picking over the evidence I’m getting impressions of Irkutsk that are starting to stick: the surprisingly European feel to the place, for one. This is something I’ve grown used to with St. Petersburg: a locale that imported the lineage of post-renaissance architectural style (beloved of Peter the Great) to build the new capital … but with Irkutsk, this far out? Curious. Sure enough there are squat rectangular buildings in a European classical style … old and new, flourishes of Petrine Baroque: colours, columns and arches … and still those open, broad boulevards; multi-lane arterials, befitting a “Paris of Siberia” indeed. I’m struck by the modern city’s low, unhurried unfolding … in terms of layout (not kamikaze traffic excesses …): as if a handful of dice had been cast down a gambling table and then made neat. Weirdly, it made me think of Sheffield…! with the trams, but minus the hills. That’s a good thing: I’ve always felt uncomfortable in central London’s towering claustrophobia for instance. Anyway, none of these references should by rights apply to Irkutsk… look where we are on the map!
So … I’m going to make a partially-informed guess. Here goes: I wonder if it’s the legacy of those Decembrists again somehow? Or perhaps the mentality they attracted and encouraged … either overtly or not. They are the obvious link with an architectural form popular back-West … and, significantly, all over St. Petersburg. It’s a thought.
Of course the Decembrists didn’t arrive to recline in stony Petrine Baroque … more so to survive in edifices of wood hacked out of the ground. Many (or some?) of these still stand. In what appears to be stubborn determination to make the new place “home” these display some incredible, ornate flourishes, set typically around the windows, roof edgings and soffets … They often resemble the traditional sea-wave décor abutting the streetward edge of shop awnings … but shaped and carved into pierced and hollowed mouldings of exemplary craftsmanship. Great.
And, what is really “something” from an external view-point is that whilst walking down a broad, modern street … you can just glance to the left, say … down a side-road or alley: …and there’s history waiting for you in beaten and weathered wood … resplendent with those ubiquitous, painted and sash-locked shutters… a direct link to a turning point in Siberian history. … Do you “get” that? … For me that’s just incredible.
Oh and they are often still privately occupied too, arranged in low terraces or detached, and displaying various states of repair or decay. … I must get an insight into how the locals regard them.
Next time: Trips and Tales (Part 64) Stop living in the past: Irkutsk now (Part 3)
[Photo by Nagy]