✍️: Erin 📸: Jan & Erin
Ignorance met me in Irkutsk, a city rich in Russian political history that I knew little about before wandering in on a bus.
A drawback of visiting a new place on a whim is not having time to read about its history until arriving. This city has plenty of it and, luckily, is happy to share it.
The Paris of Siberia
Irkutsk was essentially founded by government dissidents banished from Moscow in the early 1800s. The men were condemned to labor camps in Siberia, and their wives — many of them high-society — followed them some 3,730 miles on a journey that took 37 days, according to local museums.
In tow were their Moscow-European clothing, customs, books, architecture and flare. By the end of the century, thanks to their influence, Irkutsk had become known as the “Paris of Siberia.”
That spirit remains. Rows of brightly colored apartment buildings are built alongside 19th century homes slowly being restored. Streets are lined with hipster-esque bars, coffee houses and book shops. Some clothing stores even advertise “Beverli Hils” quality.
This isn’t what I expected in Siberia.
The most famous of the banished dissidents were the Decembrists, a group that included a prince and other high-society men who made an ill-fated attempt to overthrow the newly named tsar in December 1825. The failed coup garnered death sentences for some and forced labor in Siberian mines for others.
The Decembrist story is fascinating. I’ll do it little justice here, but in short, the rebels opposed slavery and Tsar Nicholas, a conservative who wasn’t a fan of dissent. The movement weakened before the night in December 1825 when thousands of men descended on Senate Square in Moscow to oppose Nicholas. One of the movement’s leaders, Prince S.P. Trubetskoy, didn’t show up. Another fled. Nicholas’ troops greatly outnumbered the rebels and eventually prevailed.
Trubetskoy was among those banished and imprisoned in Siberia. He survived his forced labor, settled in Siberia for many years, and wrote extensively, according to two museums in Irkutsk dedicated to the Decembrist movement.
The museums are each housed in restored 19th century homes dating back to the era. Both are worth visiting. The Trubetskoy House Museum features personal artifacts of the Trubetskoy family along with a larger history of the Decembrists on the house’s lower level.
The second museum is the Volkonsky House, which looks more closely at another Decembrist, Count Sergei Volkonsky, and his family’s life in Siberia at the time. The museum has long explanations and background printed in English and other languages on laminated handouts in each room.
No need to book a tour to either museum — both are easy to find by walking, and you can purchase one ticket to access both museums at the tourism center.
The New Irkutsk
Irkutsk is a great mix of Russian history and modern culture. It’s also a major stop along the Trans-Siberian Railway, so it’s worth spending a few days here during a cross-country train trip.
Make your first stop the city’s main Tourist Center, where English-speaking workers can answer questions, arrange tours, provide maps and give recommendations. The young woman who helped us was incredibly nice and surprised to see Americans. Not many came through, she said. She was even more surprised when we told her we’d come across eastern Russia rather than from Moscow like most tourists. “That’s not the normal route,” she laughed.
For a taste of the city’s modern flare, we visited a neighborhood known as the 130 Kvartal project. It’s a bit posh, touristy and comparatively pricey. But we found friendly baristas at Engineeria Coffee who knew more about Seattle’s coffee scene than we did.
While trying to find the area, we happened across a stellar used book store, Book Box 138. A young woman who spoke English helped Jan find two great souvenirs: a small book of Tolstoy’s fairy tales and a beautifully illustrated edition of a Pushkin poem. Both books were published and stamped during the Soviet era.
Another fun find was a small art studio called House of Dolls & Paintings near the Znamensky Monastery. The artist, Tatiana, was super friendly and showed us some pieces in process. Stop by her studio if you visit the monastery. And be sure to dress appropriately if you want to go inside the church — head covering for women, pants and button-up shirt for men.
The 130 Kvartal project is worth walking through, but no need to stay long. One place that looked promising was The Library, an eatery where the drink menu is entirely in English and the decor markedly American (Ernest Hemingway, Jack Daniel’s and a Gibson guitar are prominently displayed). Friendly staff but overpriced and a bit over-hyped. A similar sit-here-to-be-seen vibe is in a redeveloped area of Irkutsk along the Angara River.
We rented in a small apartment in the riverside area. It made getting to museums or other parts of the city a bit of a hike, but it’s a nice area to stay if you don’t mind figuring out local bus and trolley routes. There are also numerous apartments to rent here if you’re staying a few days.
Street vendors in the area abound with fresh vegetables and fruit. Some basic Russian and hand signals make the shopping process fairly easy. We saved money by mostly cooking at our temporary home — often with Russian flare: dumplings or chicken with cucumbers and tomatoes, heavily sprinkled with fresh dill.
Cooking is also a good way to settle in a bit. It helps make yet another new place feel like home, at least for a few days.
Irkutsk is a main stop in Siberia along the Trans-Siberian Railway. It’s where many tourists start hearing south toward Mongolia and eventually China. We’ll also head south, but not just yet.
We’ve decided, again, to take a last-minute detour — this time to an island.