Monday, June 06, 2011

Amazing Siberia

I just returned from three weeks in Russia, including my first visit to Siberia, storied land of suffering and exile. I can report that there is a lot more to the place than those old tales, however true and valuable they may be.
Irkutsk, capital of eastern Siberia, is a booming cityof about 600,000 inhabitants with lots of traffic and new building. Made famous by the Dekabrist revolutionaries of 1825, it has long been considered the pearl of this vast, underpopulated region. The noble revolutionaries of the 19th century and their wives who voluntarily joined them in exile brought cultrue to this remote, forbidding area. Some of the mansions they built here still survive, along with numerous old churches and even a large Roman Catholic church built by Polish exiles.
Today Irkutsk is home to a large academic community and appears to be benefitting from some of the wealth generated by Russia's oil, gas and mineral development. There is still poverty, but the general mood seems upbeat.
I travelled to Irkutsk as part of a tour organized by Friendship Force, ( an international organization that brings together diverse groups of people who visit one another's homes. My host in Siberia was very generous and welcoming and did a lot to make my stay very pleasant. The same applied to a different host in St. Petersburg. I'll tell you more about the trip with pix in the coming weeks.

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