Trips and Tales (Part 71): ‘A’ and ‘L’ and Irkutsk Part 4
I’m revisiting those Decembrist houses again… by proxy. ‘A’ and ‘L’ along with the rest of the population of Irkutsk pass by them on a daily basis no doubt, perhaps without so much as a second glance. However, their authentically Russian style, their artisan finish and the story of the Decembrists themselves fascinate me. I can’t explain it but certain architecture draws me in… there’s an affinity. It’s why I live in an old stone town, albeit in one of those faceless “Monopoly” houses that leaves me cold. But enough about my predicament…
‘L’ describes a scenario where the old and the new sit side by side. It sounds like an interesting set up: vintage wood, classical renaissance, Stalinist-slab and modern… well, something. Anyway, the proximity of contrasting eras makes for a dynamic four-way stand-off across space and time.
There’s a sense of pride in the existence of these long-standing wooden abodes, she says… well, as long as you don’t have to live in them. “They are beautiful for outsiders, but a problem for residents.” Why? Well, the reality today is that in spite of their founders these are “poor persons houses”. They have reached the end of their road.
Often, you may find them split into apartments for several tenants, including families. A final statement to the effect that the days of those Decembrist generals and the doting wives who followed them into exile have truly gone.
Did I subconsciously expect their noble descendants to still proudly dwell within? …maintaining the family line? Portraits of moustachioed generals in dress-uniform still hanging in pride of place? Romanticised tourist nonsense of course… history has long gone, only its shell remains, on a slow-dive into dilapidation.
Some don’t even have running water, or exist with the barest modernisation. They are “historical monuments”, equivalent to our “listed buildings” so permitted modifications are few, and the very prospect of DIY itself gift-wrapped in copious red tape. Mercifully, essential concessions to base survival have been thoughtfully accommodated by the presence of central heating and insulation. Without those, you would be staring death in the face every time that -35° Celcius winter came around. Expeditions to gather firewood in and around Irkutsk are not really viable today, after all.
There is a curious developmental limbo involved. It’s a three-limbed balancing act cum stand-off between the residents, the government and modern property developers. You see: generally tenants are not allowed to modernise their “listed” homes, that’s down to local government. The local government is potentially looking at a massive bill to upgrade these live-in historical-monuments within the constraints of legislation, and for all dwellers. So it drags its feet, lest a serious financial snowball be set in motion. And the residents feel trapped: they can’t afford somewhere better, they can’t upgrade the place they are in, and the government won’t…
Enter the property developers. They are in some instances allowed to buy-out and knock down wooden structures that have fallen into disrepair… with the obvious intent of making money on the modern properties built in their place. That’s right; there’s money to destroy them, but not to repair them… “Go figure,” as they say across the pond, …but the crucial proviso is that they are obliged to re-home current residents.
The third angle in all of this manifests in a twist involving those who are allowed… for whatever reason… to modify their decaying live-in monuments. Often they simply don’t… Why? Because if a property developer buys the wood from beneath their feet, then they’ll get the key to a better home handed to them, all they have to do is move in. So why try to prop up the old place? History is less attractive when it’s falling down around your ears.
Next time: Trips and Tales (Part 72) Pre-historical modern-day Buryat
[Photo by seseg_h]