Wide, wild and free, the boundless Siberia lies behind the Ural mountains. For many centuries ‘Yugra’ – Siberia – seemed to be unknown ground: barbarian and unsafe – not only for foreign travellers but also for Russians themselves.

And, even now, people who come from far-off foreign countries sometimes see this land as a god-forsaken hole or as the gigantic building site of the century.

Then suddenly Irkutsk opens up to them the richness of its spiritual culture, painstakingly put together over more than three centuries.

Irkutsk, location, population and climate

Irkutsk, located 68 km west of Lake Baikal along the shores of the Angara (the only river draining the lake), is the center of the area with the same name. The area covers more than 767 thousand square km and has about 2.5 million inhabitants, the city itself more than 650 thousand.

Its climate is influenced by the huge lake, even when covered with thick ice from January till April. The lake accumulates the summer warmth and releases it slowly during the winter. Even spring starts later up to 300 km around.

History of Irkutsk

In 1725 the first ‘mungal school’ was opened, in 1772 the first library, and in 1782 one of the first museums. The third largest art museum in Russia (after the Hermitage and the famous Tretyaov gallery), was created in Irkutsk. It is considered to be the best between the Urals and the Pacific Ocean.

Pioneer-Cossacks, missionaries, deportees, rich Irkutsk merchants all of whom could compete with the spiritual flower of Russia – the nobility – added to the glory and honour of their native city. The talented workers who gave the capital of East Siberia its distinctive and unique face worked tirelessly to benefit their descendants.

At the beginning of the century, the mellow chime of hundreds of bells met Irkutsk’s guests on holidays. There were about forty Orthodox Churches in Irkutsk in those days, but sadly not all of them survive to the present day. The slim and elegant Spask Church is the first from which the city’s genealogy is counted. Specialists called it ‘The swan song of ancient Russian architecture’.

During the three and a half centuries Irkutsk has lived its long-suffering life, it has undergone many severe trials. 1879 was called the ‘black year’. During three days and nights the city was a burning inferno and ten long years were needed to rebuild it.

Siberians and Russians created it from ash and after ten years A.P. Chehov said: ‘The city of Irkutsk is dandy. It is quite a European city…’.

Who made Irkutsk great?

Among others who worked much for the city at that time were Irkutsk merchants. Always great patriots, they built hospitals, orphanages, colleges, libraries and churches. People said that if they had wanted to make a road of silver Rubles, there would have been a glittering way from Irkutsk to Moscow.

There were one and a half thousand employees working for the brother-millionaires Vtorovs. Their shops were famous in many cities in Western Europe, China and Mongolia. To make their own houses they called in the best architects from Russia. Often a famous architect left his mark first in far Siberia, and only later somewhere in Moscow or St. Petersburg.

The whimsical brick house of the brothers Vtorov built in neo-Russian style can be seen at the former Ivanovskaya square. The millionaire Trapeznikov ordered his private residence to be built after the pattern of the famous Louvre. The great Qwarengi considered it an honor to fulfill the order of the powerful Sibyaryakov. Built to his design, the White House was called ‘the oriental palace’ by contemporaries because of its blinding richness.

Sukachyov, the mayor and founder of the Irkutsk art museum, built his private residence with an art gallery, in exotic oriental taste, on the outskirts of the city. But after the big fire, Bolshaya street, Amurskaya street and Laninskaya street were made the architectural attraction of the city, boasting work not only by celebrities from the capital, but also by local talented architects such as Rozen, Rassushin, Razgildeev, Alexeev and Vasilyev.

Irkutsk offers some particularly splendid examples of wooden parapets decorated with swathes of plaits and wooden bouquets.

The center of East Siberia was not only famous for its brick buildings. The timber part of the city was very competitive and there you can find a deeper national heritage. The majority of Siberian cities are proud of their timber architecture, but Irkutsk offers some particularly splendid examples. Here the wooden parapets are decorated with swathes of plaits and wooden bouquets.

Darkened carved tulips over windows, fans and beamed suns on plaited bands, slim irises covering house walls, figured carvings at the edge of roofs, and far more were used by carpenters to decorate Irkutsk houses. Even if you know only a little of the mystery of wooden lace work, sightseeing in Irkutsk along old streets could take you on a fantastic journey into the heathen world of the ancient Slavs.

Irkutsk today

The past is the staircase to the future. Nowadays the city of Irkutsk is one of the greatest economical and cultural centers in the East of the country. As the modern stately city expanded it grew far beyond its former outskirts.

There is a Polish Roman-Catholic church, a Tatar mosque and Jewish synagogue, which demonstrate that from the very beginning the city was multinational.

Irkutsk is one of the greatest economical and cultural centers in the East of the country

Formerly detached from central Russia by the rocky Urals this distant Siberian city is now connected with the whole world. The 100th anniversary of the East-Siberian steamship-line was celebrated in 1985. There are direct routes, which connect the city with Mongolia, Japan and China and a lot of routes within the country.

Despite the fact that Irkutsk is more than three hundred years old, the average age of the population is only 31.6 years. It is a city of youth – students especially. There are 36 institutes and colleges and 9 vocational education colleges. Every day 166 thousand pupils go to school.

Getting around Irkutsk

The main sights in Irkutsk can be reached on foot, with the exception of the train station which is the opposite side of the Angara River.

The main road in Irkutsk is Lenin Street with Karla Marxa Street with intersecting it and at the far end the river embankment which sweeps all the way around to the Lower Quay and the War Memorial.

Taxis cost about 50 Rubles per km. Buses, trams and trolleys cost 20 Rubles one way per trip, but as long as the weather is fair, use your feet.

The best way to enjoy Irkutsk is a 1-, 2- or 3-day excursion, all with different activities, but first you need to select your best Trans-Siberian Train package.