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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

1 comment:

  1. I finished reading the biography of Catherine the Great last week - what a terrific book. But it made me want to visit Russia quite badly, and your pictures have further fueled the flame! :)


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