BRIEF HISTORY OF IRKUTSK
Irkutsk was founded in the 1661 as a fort to colonize Siberia. At was the main Russian fort behind the Urals, all the expeditions to colonize Kamchatka and Alaska started there.
After the Decemberist Revolt of 1825, many Russian artists, officers, and nobles were sent into exile to Siberia for their part in the revolt against Tsar Nicholas. As a result, in the late 1800s, 30% of the population were intellectual exiles which influenced the average IQ level of the inhabitants.
During the civil war that broke out after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917-1922, Irkutsk became the site of many furious, bloody clashes between the “Whites” and the “Reds” (aka Bolsheviks). A number of city landmarks remain from that era. In 1920, Kolchak, the once-feared commander of the largest contingent of anti-Bolshevik forces, was executed in Irkutsk, effectively destroying the anti-Bolshevik resistance.
Today, Irkutsk is the 6th largest city in Siberia, with a growing population of more than 600,000 people. There are several universities in Irkutsk and a major branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, due to its proximity to Lake Baikal.
Irkutsk is important business center in Siberia and considered to be important Trans-Siberian Railway junction. The city is situated on the both banks of Angara River, which is the only river that goes out of Lake Baikal.
The center of the city is full of wooden houses with typical decorative carvings on the walls and window frames. Most of the buildings of this kind were destroyed in Moscow and other big cities during the industrialization of the 20th century, so it’s a rare opportunity to see what a Russian city would look like if it stayed the way it was back in the days. Today, Irkutsk has about 700 monuments of wooden architecture.
Epiphany Cathedral is an excellent example of Siberian architecture. The decor of the cathedral is a mixture of Buddhist art, the southern Russian ornaments and ancient Russian architecture.
The House of Prince Sergey Volkonsky is where the famous Russian Prince lived during his exile. Here the Museum of the Decembrists was opened. The building is completely covered with carvings. Inside everything is in the decor of the 19th century. Here you will see the world’s only pyramidal piano, made in Germany in the late 18th century. This instrument helped the Volkonsky couple to survive the years of exile.
The so-called “Lace House” is a symbol of the city. It’s a marvelous example of Russian baroque. The structure amazes with the refinement of its carved wooden ornaments and amazing intricate carving. Today the office of the House of Europe is located there.
FROM IRKUTSK TO BAIKAL
Irkutsk is also a starting point for expeditions and tours to Baikal Lake, which is just in 1 hour ride from the city. In summer, there are a lot of travelers from all over the world going to the lake from Irkutsk.
The closest place, where you can see Baikal is Listvyanka settlement, which is 65 km from Irkutsk. Listvyanka is quite a touristic village. If you have three or more days, you should definitely visit Olkhon Island — a beautiful land of steppes and sandy beaches.
Baikal is wonder in statistics: it is the deepest (1637 meters) and the oldest (about 20 million years) lake in the world, containing a fifth of the fresh surface water on the planet (23 thousand billion cubic meters) and full of creatures more than 2000 of them found nowhere else.
Lake Baikal is known as the “Galapagos of Russia” and is probably the most biologically diverse lake in the world: more than 1000 species of aquatic plants, 56 types of fish, 300 protozoans – and entire groups that haven’t yet been studied.
Then there’s the Baikal seal, or nerpa, which can dive to 300 meters and go for 70 minutes between breaths. The nerpa’s nearest relatives are several thousand kilometers away. How did nerpas even get to Baikal?
But in the end, Irkutsk is not only about Baikal. The great Sayan Mountains are very close, and if you have time, it would be a shame not to go there for a few days.