Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Impressions of Irkutsk

Irkutsk, which lies six hours by plane or three days by rail east of Moscow, is the capital of Eastern Siberia. A city of some 600,000, it seemed bustling with new wealth and new development, in addition to significant pockets of poverty. In my first three days in Irkutsk I saw three traffic accidents, compared with none on the rest of a three week trip. Irkutsk drivers may be reckless, but most of the cars I saw were shiny and new.
Once known as the Paris of Siberia, it was the place of exile for most of the noble revolutionaries known as the Dekabrists, who were sent here following their failed revolt in December of 1825. I stayed in a large comfortable house in a suburb of the city(gated, naturally) that is named for the Dekabrists. It was strange but pleasant after an uneventful flight that landed at about 5:30 a.m. Irkutsk time to be greeted by a smiling, fashionably attired host who led us to her sparkling clean European SUV. then took us to her home not far from the airport, fed us breakfast and let us rest for a few hours to beat the effects of jet lag.
She later drove us downtown and showed us the sights, including a large park overlooking the wide Angara River. It was the last day of school for Irkutsk students, and the park was full of soon -to- be high school graduates celebrating what they call Last Bell. The girls were dressed in black with lacy white aprons and small headdresses, which reminded me of native Breton costume. They had small silver bells pinned to their dresses, and everyone was in a cheerful mood.
On a later sightseeing tour we visited the square of three churches, two Russian orthodox dating from the early 18th century and a Roman Catholic cathedral built by Polish exiles in the late 19th century. It is the largest Roman Catholic church I have seen in Russia, and still holds services.
The main streets of Irkutsk are still named after Communist heroes, Karl Marx and Lenin, and it is really possible to say, "Meet you at the corner of Marx and Lenin." Some of my Marxist professors would be delighted.

The Cathedral of the Epiphany, built in 1718, is on the square of three churches and is often used as a symbol of the city. It is in a style known today as Siberian baroque, and is pictured below. A nearby church, the Church of the Saviour, is built on the spot where Cossacks founded Irkutsk more than 300 years ago.

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