Irkutsk really felt like the Siberia of my imagination, especially when the snow came, and the temperature dropped to -12.
St Petersburg, Moscow, and even Krasnoyarsk felt something like places I’ve travelled in Europe, but in some senses Irkutsk reminded me more of travelling in South America. It was the first place where we were hassled by taxi drivers, constantly for about 10 minutes while we stood waiting for a bus. At a bus stop. One of them even tried to convince us to take a taxi to Olkhon island, which is 5 hours away. Seriously?
When the bus came, the fare into town was 12 rubles, which is about 12 pence. In a cafe that we went into to warm up and use the wifi a cup of tea was 14 rubles. You could easily pay ten times that in Moscow. (A cheap cafe having wifi slightly ruins my point, but wifi and fancy phones are ubiquitous everywhere we’ve travelled so far. The world is getting smaller.)
Apart from the prices, the streets had something in common with Peruvian and Bolivian ones. While we waited for a minibus to whisk us away to lake Baikal we observed a car pulling into a road side parking spot, only to fall into a hole. The bemused driver got out to stare at the corner of his car embedded in the tarmac, wheel hanging in mid-air, and was soon joined by a clutch of passers by who stood immobile, looking equally flummoxed.
When the snow came there was no salting of pavements or roads, and they became tractionless ice overnight. On steep hills cars screeched and wheel-span, but the drivers persisted, in a cloud of exhaust, until they jerkingly made it to flatter ground. Picking my way gingerly along the street in my sensible shoes, I was overtaken by Russian girls in six inch heels.
The mix of elaborate and permanent official buildings (train stations, goverment offices and the like), and precarious temporary looking homes and commerce reminded me of South America too. Markets crowd the centre of town, and shops are run out of garage-like spaces. Houses that look abandoned and tumble down turn out, on closer inspection, to have curtains and flowers in the windows, and smoke coming from the chimney.
I suppose this comes down to money. Irkutsk feels poorer than the other places we visited in Russia. Though the occasional brand new 4 by 4 still passes, the streets are mostly full of ancient buses and Soviet era cars, when they’re full at all. We even saw a pony and trap.
Irkutsk does have some grandeur too. It’s famous primarily as the place where many of the Decembrists were eventually banished to (after years in Siberian labour camps) following their failed revolt in December 1825. The revolt was an attempt to alter the constitution, to limit the power of the monarchy and abolish serfdom, but failed after loyal troops opened fire on the Decembrists (or dentists, as my autocorrect prefers).
Several of the Decembrists exiled in Siberia were from the nobility, and were followed into exile by their wives. These women are presented as saints showing unwavering wifely devotion, which is a bit rich given that they seem to have managed a pretty comfortable life in Irkutsk. I get the impression that their exile was more of an inconvenience than a tragedy, and even afforded them more freedom in some respects.
We visited a Decembrist house in Irkutsk, where Prince Sergei Volkonsky and his wife Maria lived with their two surviving children. Their first child, born before the December revolt, was abandoned in St Petersburg by Maria when she left for Siberia, and died the next year. I’m not sure how that fits in to the saintly image. The house is grand, and full of grand things. The rooms were filled with elaborate pottery and trinkets, and delicate wooden furniture varnished to a mirror-like shine. There was a piano, a bay window for sewing in, and a sun room for growing plants. It seemed like a pleasant, serene and spacious home.
Perhaps this home was a terrible step down for the Prince and Princess, but I didn’t feel very sorry for them. Certainly not compared to the ‘common’ soldiers who were exiled here with nothing, and had to eke out an existence from the frozen soil.
Apparently Maria Volkonskaya was known as the Princess of Siberia though, and Pushkin was purportedly in love with her, though this is probably fiction. While in Irkutsk she set up a foundling hospital, fittingly, and a theater. The Decembrists do seem to have had an impact on Irkutsk, bringing European culture to a place that at the time was mostly populated by native Siberians and gold traders. At some point the city came to be known as the Paris of Siberia. They also seem to have brought at least a veneer of gentility — before this Irkutsk had been the murder capital of Russia, with at least one occurring every day.
After the Volkonsky house we wandered (past a statue of Maria Volkonskaya) to Kazan Cathedral. Outside was a wedding limousine with blacked out windows. Inside were plenty of shiny brightly painted icons, being made shinier by an army of pre-teens. At least half of the people in there were cleaning the place, hindered slightly by having to cross themselves, and perform several bows, every time they approached a new icon to clean. Cross themselves with two fingers of course, this being a Russian Orthodox church. Crossing yourself with three fingers was the norm before 17th century reforms split the church. Those who’ve stuck with three fingers are known as Old Believers, and believe that using two fingers will send you straight to hell. Their beliefs have tended to drive them into isolation, and in Siberia in the 1980s an Old Believers village was discovered where the residents had never heard of Stalin, or electricity.
Outside the cathedral, Simon, a Swiss guy from our hostel who we’d spent the day with, was accosted by a very excited Russian man. He’d clocked Simon’s German brand of coat, and was clearly keen to speak German to somebody. It wasn’t totally clear, but it appeared he’d come back from Germany, where he worked, to volunteer at the Cathedral. Clearly the icon cleaning workload was so high that they’d had to begin recruiting from overseas.
Comparing Irkutsk to Paris seems fairly absurd these days, but the old buildings that remain in repair do give a sense of former glory. And it does seem bustling, and even almost prosperous, compared to the expanses of endless trees, smoke plumed industry, and ramshackle farms that we’d passed through for days on the train. This lively atmosphere would have tempted me to stay longer than the day we gave it. However, the Siberian cold had got to me, and I was nursing a head cold and a chesty cough. Getting back on the train and lying down for three days solid seemed like just the thing to do, so that’s just what we did.