Irkutsk on the rise
Thanks to Rhia for filling in the holiday slot with the Russian Christmas article. It would have never occurred to me to write one… Before the festive season took hold I was getting stuck into Irkutsk and rummaging through some history on the exiled Decembrists and the multi-faceted benefits their endeavours brought to the region…
It was certainly a boost for a 17th century gold/fur trading and administrative outpost, prison colony and Buryat tax-collection point (…that’s fur-taxes incidentally).
The initial construction had been merely a “winter quarters” built in 1652, followed by a nearby fortress in 1661. This is apparently the start of a popular upgrade-path where Siberian cities are concerned. Developing from its fortress, Irkutsk received official town status in 1686 but had to wait until 1760 before being “plugged-in” to the fast lane (?) courtesy of the Great Siberian (road) Route heading out of Moscow. By the mid 1800s it would snake through Mongolia and reach a gate in the Great Wall of China; forming a major East-West trade route and gaining its alternative title: the Tea Road, for obvious reasons.
It’s important to note the word “route” as opposed to “road” here as in fact the route was an amalgamation of several roads. Even today the modern Trans-Siberian Highway is actually seven linked roads, still. Having seen a photograph of a section of the original “Siberian Highway”’ I can safely say: “I wouldn’t have fancied it”, resembling as it does, a broad snow-track hacked through the forest. Perhaps it looked more survivable in summer… Travellers would have fared better with the arrival of the railway in 1898. But I digress …
So Irkutsk increased in importance as its trade connections flourished; it even became the seat of the Governor-General of East Siberia in 1821 … and still the exiles arrived. In fact, by the arrival of the 20th century an astounding third of the population comprised of exiles. An incredible figure that changed the region’s demographic and touched all aspects of its culture. … And just to re-frame the nature of this enforced influx: this is not just a legion of chained cattle-rustlers or the era’s equivalent of car thieves …. Once again: the Decembrists, artists, political revolutionaries, intellectuals, different-thinkers… all at odds with the court of the Tsar. A veritable counter-culture in the East buoyed up by force of will and the burgeoning influx of trade from East and West.
The influence of these alternative minds was (is) certainly felt in the flesh and bones of the infrastructure: around the turn of the 20th century and the “one-third-exile” population mark; the city had become known for its style and design as “The Paris of Siberia”. It had also gained electricity only four years prior (1896). This is indeed some-going considering that three quarters of Irkutsk had burnt to the ground as recently as 1879, also known as “The Black Year” … (Is this a running theme amongst burgeoning Russian cities?) At any rate: it’s as if some forward momentum kept pushing it ahead, regardless.
Thankfully, many of the wooden houses still survive today, their rich, organic, ornately carved edifices at odds with their dead Stalinist-slab neighbours. There’s a curious sensation at the thought of this juxtaposition … considering that both were in some way the product of anti-Tsarist, revolutionary thought and action counterbalanced on either side of the Soviet Revolution. Representational 3D constructions of “before” and “after”, somehow… and a cautionary tale: be careful what you wish for …
Next time: Trips and Tales (Part 62) Stop living in the past: Irkutsk now (Part 1)
[Photo by oskarlin]