Gallery The Paris of Siberia

Melvyn Dresner was promised the Paris of Siberia. Did Irkutsk equal his expectations? Or did he find something different?

I imagined Irkutsk a wondrous architectural gem lost in the vastness of this endless continent. I first came across the idea of Irkutsk as a Paris in Eric Newby's1 late 1970s account of his train journey across Siberia. Colin Thubron2 in his account echoes (in disgruntled fashion) this view. Thubron ponders whether he would feel so elated if he came across such a city elsewhere in the world. He dismisses the idea. Irkutsk is in Siberia, no doubt.

I arrived in Irkutsk by air. It always seems to me that air travel is a miracle but its major drawback is it separates a place from its context. Rail travel provides a better sense of arrival. Newby and Thubron both came across Irkutsk from the train station, so that's where I'll begin my account. I couldn't manage the vast distance from Moscow, so I begun my journey in Angarsk, a city less than an hour from Irkutsk notable for its Clock Museum and its vast petrochemical facilities, but that's for another account.

I like train travel. Looking out the window as we approach the city from the north you begin to sense the city is gathering around you, or at least the activity of the city. The train tracks seem to multiply and more trains come into view. Vast trains, fifty or sixty carriages long carry cargoes of timber, entire tree trunks bundled like sticks gathered by some giants' hands. Out the window the Irkut River serenely shimmers in the late afternoon glow. It's a long drop before you would touch its misty surface. It joins at this point to the Angara. In fact, it is this confluence of rivers that persuaded the Russians to settle here the city's original founding as fort. The ancient foundations of the city can be found a little south of the confluence.

The Seine is a ditch in need of a drink compared to the Angara, which joins the Yenisei several hundred kilometres north before finally reaching the Artic Ocean to become the sixth longest river in the world. It all begins here. Irkutsk 1, Paris 0.
The city and the rail station sit estranged from each other, like two friends who have just fallen out. The train station on the west bank of the Angara and the historic heart of the city on the east bank. This is reminder of a history that pre-dates the arrival of the Trans-Siberian Railway in 18983 by more than two centuries. They are connected by a road bridge that stretches like elastic across the Angara that is a heady distance below. Elsewhere in the city it is possible to take a gentle stroll from city concrete in a few easy steps to dip a toe in its chilly water. On this bridge the Angara is some distance below. It is the only river to flow from Lake Baikal. All the other rivers feed this largest body of freshwater. The Seine is a ditch in need of a drink compared to the Angara, which joins the Yenisei several hundred kilometres north before finally reaching the Artic Ocean to become the sixth longest river in the world. It all begins here. Irkutsk 1, Paris 0.

As you begin your ascent to the city, the first thing you see is a vast hoarding depicting the classic shape of a Coca-Cola bottle on the side of a block of flats. The gassy liquid continues to make its benign conquest of the known world, with this kitsch Americana. I wonder if in an alternative universe, the world is drinking Kvass from yellow street tankers, queuing to sip the liquid from plastic cups, whilst Americans sip Coca-Cola bought from street vendors and complain about the Kvassisation of the world, with hoardings saying in Cyrillic 'Drink Kvass'. I can't put my finger on the taste of Kvass, it's kind of fruity but not sweet, it is not fizzy but still lively, maybe it's cold tea with something substantial added. (Editor: It is a fermented drink made from rye flour or bread or rusks with yeast. What we drink in the street is not as good as the real home-made kvass.) I must find out what it is. It is thirst-quenching and unlike Coca-Cola doesn't leave you in a bloated state. I should seek employment with the Kvass Marketing Board (if there is such a thing?), in their campaign to de-throne Coca-Cola from the top beverage slot.

Gallery Back to Irkutsk, my map of the city is split into two halves by Karl Marx Street, which runs from the monument built to mark the arrival of the Trans-Siberian Railway through the commercial heart of the city crossing Lenin Street before reaching its conclusion. It is cut into quarters if you trace a line from the War Memorial north of the Regional Administration following the formal gardens to the south along Lenin Street where you run out of steam at the vast concrete edifice of the Musical Theatre. Irkutsk is built on a regular grid not too difficult to fathom. I guess this layout provokes comparison with the French capital. My impression of the shaded streets with gardens and well proportioned buildings would suggest some of the charm of Paris, with out the hassle of endless traffic and aggressive French drivers. Away from the main thoroughfares, you could find a bench and imagine you were in a quiet Parisian arrondissement.

Over Lenin's revolutionary shoulder I can see the large video screen playing a trailer for Matrix Reloaded. Lenin points away from the screen, maybe he'll prefer a different sequel, Marxist Reloaded, I ponder.
Karl Marx Street in the old days was called Bolshoi Street (Editor: not so important, but ulitsa, 'street', is feminine gender in Russian, so it was Bolshaya Street), Big or Bigger Street, there doesn't seem to be headlong rush into name changes in Irkutsk, so Karl Marx Street it remains its entire length. It doesn't seem overly broad as the map (or its former name) would suggest, as I travel its length the building just seem to have a little more elbow room than on the parallel streets. It starts its journey on the bank of the Angara with an elongated square that houses an obelisk to mark the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway. This was sheathed in timber so I couldn't take a detailed look. Evidently, it used to be a statue of Tsar Alexander III, who was Emperor when the Railway was begun, but the Bolsheviks decided it had to go. Behind the hoardings construction workers are busy resurrecting on the old tsar.

It is not the architectural splendour of this space that attracts my attention; now I am distracted by two men posing for their portrait. They are quite obviously drunk and their smiles are broad but you feel their joviality could easily break at any moment. The artist with the forced humour of his profession, (or maybe I'm too much of a cynic) rolls on his heels as he sketches and tries to maintain their pose. They are wrapped together like two long parted brothers. I am able to watch all this from the vantage point of one of the makeshift cafes that fringe the square selling beer and ice cream to the idle like me. My shashlik is now covered in blossom and ketchup; I swig my beer before going on, leaving artist and patrons to their barter.

The first portion of Karl Marx Street should be dominated by the Drama Theatre. The building is elegant and its setting perfectly proportioned but it is overshadowed by the sports stadium to its rear that disrupts the street pattern like a pebble dropped with a great splash. Its whitewashed exterior just cajoles my non-athletic self to run. Its bulk stands tall like an over-sized athlete bemused by the arts, though it does create a handy shortcut onto Lenin Street. Back on the main drag; we stroll our way along passed elegant buildings but none particularly notable until we reach Lenin Street by the long cut. Here I watch a young couple take turns photographing each other beneath the feet of V.I. Lenin. It is my turn to assist; they wave their camera under my nose. I click their cheesy pose; fixed forever under Lenin's heroic gaze. Over his revolutionary shoulder I can see the large video screen playing a trailer for Matrix Reloaded. Lenin points away from the screen, maybe he'll prefer a different sequel, Marxist Reloaded, I ponder.

Still on Karl Marx Street, I cross Lenin Street. We are in the real capitalist heart of Irkutsk. The shops try a little harder with their presentation and window displays; some even have seats for a weary customer. The shop assistants really want to sell you something. Though even here, the architectural structure of the city's buildings, solid construction with limited fenestration, makes the casual browser feel like he is peeking into someone's living rather than window shopping. Even the cinema seems like a grand house, where you half expect someone to announce your arrival on entering. You feel like some kindly old gentleman will lead you to a dusty upstairs room and unlock his projection room whilst you and a few select others will sit in easy chairs as some ancient movie plays on the big screen. The entrance lobby is bare with one solitary window for ticket purchase. I'm here to drink some coffee and have a bite to eat. The pollen that falls like snow is irritating my nose. Time enough later to find the Paris of Siberia!


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Copyright ╘ 2003 by Melvyn Dresner
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