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Monday, October 22, 2012

Irkutsk -- the Paris of Siberia

"The Paris of Siberia," or so said writer Anton Chekhov on visiting this far away city on the Angara river near Lake Baykal.  Irkutsk began as a fur and gold trading settlement in the mid-1600s and since that time it’s coat of arms has been a Siberian tiger holding a sable.  Its merchants grew rich over time by expanding their trade to include other minerals as well as lumber plus goods from China and Mongolia.  So, upon visiting this city 3133 miles (5043 km) east of Moscow, Chekhov was surprised to see its wealth and architecture.
Cossack Founder of Irkutsk 
We arrived in Irkutsk by train on a warm and rainy day.  The whole atmosphere was intriguing.  A heavy mist rose off the river.  And, I saw a gigantic Great Dane taking a leisurely walk.
The smell of yeasty bread dough at a nearby bakery wafted around the Epiphany Cathedral and mixed with the sweet aroma of incense.  
Epiphany Cathedral
Wooden houses with intricate "gingerbread" carvings sat next to 19th century neoclassical buildings.
And, everywhere there were glimpses of a complex history. 
Alexander III -- statue marking the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway
In December 1825, after the mysterious and unexpected death of Alexander I, there was a short spasm of unrest in St. Petersburg about the succession.*  Some thought that  Alexander’s oldest surviving brother, Constantine, automatically became Tzar and swore allegiance to him.  Unbeknownst to most people, long before the death of Alexander I, Constantine had abdicated his right of succession in favor of his younger brother Nicholas.  As the news about the succession slowly became known, other people and regiments swore allegiance to Nicholas I.

After the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s that took many of Russia’s wealthy aristocrats to Paris and other western capitals, various secret societies arouse with the aim of transforming Russia to a more liberal society.  Most members of these societies were young, well-educated, well-travelled, rich aristocrats -- many of whom were even personal friends of the Tzar.  With the unexpected death of the Tzar Alexander I, these groups hoped that the government could be radically reformed with a constitution.  To make things more confusing, for several weeks there were people swearing allegiance to a “constitution” (that did not exist), others to Constantine (whose name sounds like constitution and who did not want the job), and others to Nicholas I (who wanted the job and was very put out by any semblance of revolt). This whole episode of Russian history is called the Decembrist Revolt, because it took place in December.   

By mid-January 1825, Nicholas I crushed the revolt.  Five of the Decembrists were tried and hanged.  Prince Trubetskoi, Prince Obolensky, Peter and Andrei Borisov, Prince Volkonsky, and Artamon Muraviev, were sent to the mines at Nerchinsk, near Irkutsk.  These idealistic aristocrats, without a practical bone in their bodies, would probably have become an ossified dot in history if not for one thing:  their heroic wives, who followed them.  My next post will be about the Decembrist Wives.

The turbulent history or Russia’s revolution also touches Irkutsk.  Admiral Kolchak, leader of the White (i.e., counter-revolutionary anti-communist) Russian forces during the Civil War of 1918-20, was executed by firing squad in Irkutsk and his body was thrown under the ice of the Angara river.  Now, less than a 100 years later, there is a massive statue commemorating Admiral Kolchak.
Admiral Kolchak Memorial
Beneath the Dedication of the Kochak monument is an image of a
White Russian soldier on the viewer's left and of a Red Russian soldier on the right.
Kochak was also an arctic explorer and map maker, whose maps are still among the most accurate ever made.  A 2008 drama of his life, including complicated love-life, is available on DVD with English subtitles:  Admiral
The 18th century Russian merchant, map maker and explorer of Siberia and Alaska, G. Shelikhov is also buried and commemorated in Irkutsk.

*Alexander I, his wife and youngest brother, Nicholas, and family were in the Crimea when he suddenly “died” at the age of  48.  However, there is a long tradition and belief that, with his wife’s and brother’s knowledge, he staged his death and  became an itinerant pious hermit. He allegedly lived until 1864 under the name of Feodor Kuzmich.  Interestingly, in 1984, a synod of the Russian Orthodox Church elevated Feodor Kuzmich to sainthood.  See, Troubetzkoy, Alexis S. Imperial Legend: The Mysterious Disappearance of Tsar Alexander I. New York: Arcade, 2002

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Riding the Golden Eagle

This was our Siberian summer.  Mr. Wonderful and I covered 3941 miles (6343 km) by train from Moscow to Ulaan Baatar.  We were on the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express ... a bit like a cruise on wheels, though in tighter quarters.
Our group met up in the VIP lounge of the Kazan' train station in Moscow and then followed our white-gloved cabin crew to the red carpets leading to our quarters while a brass band played just for us.   If there had been snow and if I'd been elegantly dressed, it would have been like the beginning scenes of the film Dr. Zhivago.
The accommodations were tight but comfortable.  Each cabin had a sofa that became a bunk bed at night and its own bathroom with shower.  The attendants were always prepared to bring a cup of tea or coffee and they couldn't have been nicer.

We pulled out of Moscow behind an old steam engine -- part of the show -- then switched to a modern diesel engine.
Given the length of our journey, we had time to read, gaze out the window at endless birch forests, talk with our traveling companions in the bar car, and explore the many cities along the train tracks.  We could not have done this trip by car, since the trains go where roads don't yet exist.  And if we'd flown, we would have missed seeing and experiencing the land.
Almost every train station (Вокзал pronounced vokzal) was modern with a neoclassical architectural skin. Here are photos from Kazan' (in Tatarstan), Ekaterinburg and Novosibirsk.

Naturally, there are open air train museums to visit, like the one we saw in Novosibirsk.

There are also helpful posters along the way ...
Danger! No walking on the tracks!
Locomotive stopping
An Icon sticker at the entrance to our car ... for safety.
Now for meal and some rest ...

as the train chugs into the unknown ....
and I contemplate writing up more blog posts and selecting the best of 1400 photos!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Killing Kennedy

Anyone born as late as the 1950s cannot help remembering exactly where they were the day JFK was shot.  I was in Mrs. Doxtater’s second grade class when she was called to the principal’s office.  She came back and told us to put all our things in our desks and sit quietly.  Then she started crying as she told us the president had been shot.  We were all bewildered and scared.  Some of the children in class also started crying quietly, even the most rambunctious.  Later that day, when I saw my mother openly weeping while walking home from work, I was even more scared.

While Killing Lincoln, Bill O’Reilly’s and Martin Dugard’s first collaboration, was a great read, I hesitated about reading KillingKennedy: the End of Camelot.  I was not sure I wanted to revisit that chapter of our collective history and of my life.  Now, having devoured their new book in two sittings, I am glad I did not hesitate very long.

Killing Kennedy is a riveting and unvarnished account of the President and those closest to him.  The book takes you to places and shows people with an immediacy that makes you feel you are there.  You smell the cigar smoke at an elegant dinner party at the White House and feel hot as you squint into the Dallas sun along the route of the fatal Presidential motorcade.  And, although you already know and dread the ending of the book, you keep on reading and turning the pages.

O’Reilly and Dugard are neither fawning acolytes of Camelot nor are they relentless critics.  They dispassionately present the complexities of the main characters of our history and let us draw our own conclusions.  With President Kennedy, they show the arc of his growth in leadership:  from his unprepared command of PT-109 and his indecisive and weak handling of the Bay of Pigs to his clarity and strength when confronted with the Cuban missile crisis.  They show him as a fun-loving father rolling on the floor with his children but, at the same time, they do not gloss over his continuing peccadillos and what discovery could have cost him.  With an economy of words, they provide three-dimensional compelling portraits of the First Lady and of Vice President Johnson.  And, there are the inescapable details about the unstable and delusional ex-military marksman Lee Harvey Oswald.

Focusing on the random intersection of decisions and acts that resulted in a great American tragedy, Killing Kennedy brings to life our recent past.  Without irony, it lets us know that Bobby Kennedy had Martin Luther King Jr.’s great civil rights rally, culminating in the I Have a Dream speech, take place at the Lincoln Memorial in order to keep marchers away from the White House and Capitol Building.  It rewinds the live television broadcast showing Jack Ruby killing Oswald hours after Oswald’s capture.  It reminds us  -- with a photo and description of a self-immolating Buddhist monk in Saigon -- of the beginnings of the Vietnam War.  It also reminded me of fallout shelters in school and of overhearing my grandmother’s friend Irene coming for a cup of tea during the Cuban missile crisis because she did want to be alone when the atom bombs fell.

Living up to his reputed pithiness, in 300 pages O'Reilly and his co-author present a textured and exciting, albeit sad, slice of American history that we should all be familiar with, whether we lived through it or not.

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