Irkutsk is the main city in eastern Siberia. It was founded in 1651 as a point for gold mining and trade, as well as a center for collecting fur taxes from the local Buryats. The city is located on the banks of the Angara River, which originates 60 km east from one of the wonders of the world: the great Lake Baikal. Irkutsk was a destination for political exiles from the tsarist times, including the famous Decembrists. These exiles, generally from the intelligentsia and with a high cultural acumen, contributed greatly to the public life of Irkutsk and the improvement of the city. The origin of the city population is a rich mix, such as those found throughout Siberia, of Cossacks, pioneers, soldiers, hunters, rich merchants, missionaries, prisoners, functionaries, deportees, and scientists. Nowadays Irkutsk is the region’s commercial, cultural, and scientific center, a modern and charming city with brick embankments, theaters, museums, and typical Russian architecture.
Panoramic tour of Irkutsk. Irkutsk is rightly considered to be a city-museum, with more than a hundred significant monuments. In its most important streets, Karl Marx Street and Lenin Street, the original wooden architecture, burned down by a great fire in 1879, was replaced by majestic stone buildings, the inspiration for which was drawn directly from the streets of St. Petersburg and Moscow. Many theaters are situated nearby, such as the Musical Theatre and the Drama Theatre. The Church of Our Saviour is the oldest building brick in the city, having been erected in the 17th century, while the Polish Cathedral is the only gothic construction in Siberia. This Roman Catholic temple was built for the Polish minority that was made up of political exiles and their descendants. Other religious buildings of interest are the Epiphany Cathedral and Holy Cross Cathedral. We will pass through Kirov Square, where the Cossack Pokhabov built the first fortress in 1661, and then stroll along the beautiful embankment along the Angara River: green Gagarinsky Boulevard is the best place for a promenade, featuring many cafes and terraces. We will then visit Uritskogo Street for some shopping as well as the neighboring market place, also called a bazaar, and its fish stalls loaded with catches from Lake Baikal. Behind the busy market begins the calmest part of the city: Irkutsk is particularly known for its typical Russian architecture, including traditional Russian wooden houses with carvings on the shutters and windows that are spread all over the city. We will spend some time in Irkutskaya Sloboda, a recently restored area that includes dozens of historical architectural gems.
Visit to Znamensky Convent. Founded in 1693, it is one of the oldest monasteries in Siberia. The convent’s architecture was inspired by medieval Russian constructions and also integrates some elements of “Siberian Baroque.” Its interior is richly decorated, especially the famous baroque carved iconostasis, featuring icons built into the old silver framework. A necropolis is located within the monastery grounds, which is the final resting place of Grigory Shelekhov, the founder of the Russian-American Company and the first permanent Russian settlement in Alaska. Next to the monastery we will see the monument to Alexander Kolchak, a Russian admiral and one of the White leaders during the Russian Civil War, who was shot within the monastery walls by the Bolsheviks in 1920.
Visit to the Decembrists’ Museum. On December 1st, 1825, Tsar Alexander I died. During his reign, Napoleon and the liberal ideas of the French Revolution were militarily defeated, but liberal feelings entered Russia, where many people of different social classes started asking for political reforms. A group of dissidents organized an armed revolt in St. Petersburg, Russia’s capital, protesting the crowning of Nicholas I, Alexander’s heir. They criticized Nicholas’ conservatism, refused the oath to the new tsar, and demanded the abolition of serfdom. The revolt was violently suppressed and many participants were sentenced to exile in Siberia, where they went along with their wives. Given that they were cultured and enlightened, they greatly contributed to the development of Irkutsk, spreading reformist and progressive ideas throughout Siberia. The museum consists of the ancient estates of two of the Decembrists, princes Trubetskoy and Volkonsky, and the collection includes their personal belongings, documents, and home furnishings.
Visit to Taltsy Ethnographic Museum. Situated between Irkutsk and Lake Baikal, Taltsy is a village 47 km southeast of Irkutsk. The open air museum of wooden architecture has collected 17th-20th century landmarks of defensive, civil, and religious wooden architecture from the Irkutsk Region, the most notable of which are the Spasskaya Tower of the Ilimsk Ostrog (Fort) (1667) and the Chapel of Our Lady of Kazan (1679), which is still an active church. Here we will also find numerous ethnographic collections, unique examples of Russian, Buryat, Evenk and Tofalar culture.