Irkutsk: Libertine Legacy on the Shores of Baikal

Irkutsk: Libertine Legacy on the Shores of Baikal

Published: May 25, 2011 (Issue # 1657)

Galina Grebneva / for SPT

A statue of Alexander III on Ulitsa Karla Marxa in Irkutsk celebrating the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway.

IRKUTSK — The first thing a visitor recently saw when entering the museum of exiled Prince Sergei Volkonsky in Irkutsk was a drowsy, gray-haired attendant sitting behind a table with a calendar adorned with the Yukos logo, a forest-green triangle with a yellow tip.

The parallel was coincidental, but telling.

The fate of Volkonsky, who was banished to this eastern corner of Siberia for his role in the Decembrist uprising against the monarchy in 1825, resembles that of former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was locked up in an East Siberian prison after his own conflict with the government.

Khodorkovsky was shipped off far beyond Irkutsk, but this unofficial capital of the Baikal region has seen its fair share of rebels and prides itself for its libertine streak.

Granted, residents have not exercised it in years. But it surfaced in 2010 when they ousted a pro-Kremlin mayor and voted in the Communist-backed candidate.

The new mayor, Viktor Kondrashov, was quick to join the ruling United Russia party — a sine qua non of Russian politics.

But the vote signified a longing for change, long overdue in a city that has the potential to become an industrial, academic or tourist capital but does not qualify for any — yet.

But it does have ardent fans like legendary rocker Boris Grebenshchikov. “All the best about Siberia comes together here,” said Grebenshchikov, a household name in Russia who has performed with his band Akvarium many times in the city.

Irkutsk feels a lot like a Soviet city from the 1960s, thanks to the dated architecture of shabby apartment blocks and a central street still bearing the name Karl Marx. Downtown streets are lined with mammoth old poplars, and elderly couples still waltz in the parks in the summertime as they did during the glory days of native son Rudolf Nureyev, the celebrated ballet dancer who defected to the West in 1961.

But the new is creeping in, too. Old apartment blocks wage a stubborn battle against modern middle-class compounds, and Ulitsa Karla Marxa is chock full of brand-name boutiques and cozy restaurants.  

Irkutsk is even developing its own business district, Irkutsk City, complete with a Class-B business center, Terra, and a recreation zone. Tenants so far largely comprise small local companies, but Japan Tobacco, the world’s third-largest cigarette maker, and Canada’s Knelson mining equipment producer have also opened offices here.

Some 3,800 researchers study earth science at the local branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, which was opened in 1949 and occupies a campus on the shore of the Angara, the only river that flows out of Lake Baikal, located 70 kilometers away.

The lake is Irkutsk’s main tourist draw, attracting about 500,000 visitors a year to the city. Baikal is the world’s oldest and deepest lake with an average depth of 744.4 meters, as well as one of the clearest —although a nearby paper mill does its best to change that. Frankly, the word “lake” does not really do justice to Baikal — and any local will tell you that you have to see this vast freshwater sea to believe it.

An extra influx of tourists are expected in fall 2011 to celebrate Irkutsk’s 350th anniversary, and Marriott International, the global hotel chain, is scheduled to open a Marriott Courtyard this summer to help cope with the visitors.

Irkutsk was founded in 1661 as a Cossack fort to safeguard fur merchants trading with China.

Irkutsk City Hall has earmarked 80 million rubles ($2.8 million) to spruce up the city for the anniversary celebrations, including the renovation of its once-trademark wooden houses.

“Some of those houses have half sunk underground but, still, many of them are real masterpieces of joinery,” said Tatyana Denisova, a lawyer and a local history enthusiast.

What to See

The Sergei Volkonsky Museum (10 Pereulok Volkonskogo; +7 3952-20-88-18; offers sights beyond the Yukos calendar. The prince’s wooden mansion, itself a fine piece of joinery, is preserved from the mid-19th century and comes complete with stables, servant quarters and a piano room.

Don’t miss the exhibit dedicated to his fabled wife Maria Volkonskaya and the wives of other rebel aristocrats who followed their husbands into Siberian exile after the failure of the coup in December 1825.

Check out the impressive paintings in the Vladimir Sukachyov Museum (5 Ulitsa Lenina; +7 3952-34-01-46;, named after an Irkutsk mayor and patron of the arts who loomed larger than life in pre-revolutionary Siberia. Sukachyov’s personal collection, which he acquired in the late 1800s and bequeathed to the city, forms the basis for the museum.

On exhibit are a solid collection of European art from the 17th to 19th centuries, an exceptional set of paintings by Russian masters and one of the best collections of Japanese and Chinese art in the country.

Finally, the Angara steam-powered icebreaker (Solnechny district; +7 3952-35-80-85;, built by the British in 1898 on a tsarist government order and now turned into a museum, is the only surviving vessel of its type in the world.

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Population: 587,200

Main industries: military jet production, fish processing, construction

Mayor: Viktor Kondrashov

Interesting fact: The black cat on the city’s coat of arms and flag is actually a Siberian tiger still known by its 17th-century name, babr. In its mouth is a red sable, whose precious fur first attracted Russian merchants to the region.

Helpful contacts:

Mayor Viktor Kondrashov

(+7 3952-20-05-22;;

City Hall spokeswoman Lilia Khadyeva (+7 3952-52-00-35);

Konstantin Shavrin,

president of the Irkutsk-based East Siberian branch of the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (16 Ulitsa Sukhe-Batora; +7 3952-33-50-60;

Sister cities: Shenyang, China; the French cites of Evian-les-Bains, Grenoble and Dijon; Pforzheim, Germany; Pordenone, Italy; Kanazawa, Japan; Ulan Bator, Mongolia; Novi Sad,

Serbia; Stromsund, Sweden; Eugene, in the U.S. state Oregon.

Major Irkutsk companies

Irkut (3 Ulitsa Novatorov; +7 3952-32-29-09; produces Su-30 and Su-27 fighter jets and accounts for 15 percent of all Russian arms exports.

Founded as a small lab with Irkutsk State Technical University, TOMS (83/1 Ulitsa Lermontova;

+7 3952-79-87-00; has grown into an industry leader in mineral separation and has constructed mineral separation factories across all of the former

Soviet Union.

Irkutsk Mineral Water Bottling Plant (17 Ulitsa Kashtakovskaya;

+7 3952-78-04-40;, is a leading mineral water producer whose goods, naturally, come from springs surrounding Lake Baikal.

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