Perhaps making up for two days of lounging around (whilst still covering vast distances), I spent today very much on the go.
First job of the day was to get my bearings courtesy of a walking tour and it was my first one since Moscow.
Walks led by local people are becoming very popular in many towns and cities – they’re a great way to understand the geography and find out about what’s happening in the region.
Our guide, Mary is a Russian language teacher working with young children. By the end of the tour, she and I had swapped email addresses so that she can try to teach me Russian, (via the marvel that is Skype).
I found today’s walk utterly fascinating. Stand by, History Geeks and Pub Quizzers.
At the site of the inevitable Lenin statue, therenhad originally been a German church, reflecting the large German community that had settled here.
Catherine the Great, herself born in Germany had encouraged German settlement throughout her reign. Architects, scientists and geographers had moved to Siberia, Omsk and Irkutsk in particular, and their contributions had supported exploration and development in this region.
Irkutsk was at the crossroads of a number of trade routes between the East and the Westband it rapidly became a very affluent city, and quite an important one. I was surprised to see a statute of Tsar Nicholas II here.
In Moscow, the language about the tsar and his leadership was hardly complimentary, while Yekaterinburg showed that he was now a saint. What was the Siberian take on the man?
He extended the Trans Siberian Railway through cities like Omsk and Irkutsk, whereas other tsars had considered this far too costly. He connected the far Eastern reaches of the country to Moscow, further raising their significance.
Incidentally, how many capitals of Russia have I now been to? Five. Vladimir, Moscow, St Petersburg (2011), through Omsk and now to Irkutsk.
For three months during the Russian Civil War when the Red Army and the White Army factions struggled for control, a Siberian Admiral Kolchak briefly held power. The capital was moved again, and again.
Irkutsk suffered significantly upon the collapse of the Soviet Union – collapse of industry – with a rise in depression and drug use. HIV has been a key issue here.
The city is still dealing with a range of problems. Young people grow up gain qualifications and leave, usually for Moscow where the pay is much better than they can earn here.
Mary also showed us the traditional wooden houses of the region. Owners are expected to maintain them in the same way that owners of listed buildings in the UK have to ensure their homes are repaired by traditional/authentic methods and materials.
If you live in a wooden house here you can expect to pay around 200,000R – (approximately £2,250l just for the planning permission to install an indoor water supply. Most of these houses get their water from street pumps.
Irkutsk has been a place of exile and Mary thinks this creates an environment of speaking out. This was in response to my comments about the street art we had seen on the tour.
Her grandfather was captured by the Germans in World War II and put to work in a labour camp. As a result of being assumed to have collaborated he was exiled to Irkutsk.
He had freedom to work, freedom to live but not to leave Irkutsk. This is how Mary came to be born here.
Her grandfather was pardoned in 1989, three years after he died.
She had another more uplifting family history tale. Her great aunt lived in Smolensk when it was occupied by the Germans during the war.
A German general comandeered her house. She lived in the kitchen.
Despite the tremendous risk to herself and the lack of room, she gave shelter to a partisan fighter. He hid in a cupboard near the stove.
One night, the general came to the kitchen carrying food and medicine. He told Mary’s relative that she probably needed to put these in the cupboard by the stove, and he smiled and left the room.
Before the troop moved out of Smolensk, the general returned, with more food and medicine for “the cupboard by the stove”.
Mary is convinced that the general knew what her great aunt was doing and respected her courage.
You don’t hear these types of stories on tours by non-locals.
*Featured Photo: How Irkutsk used to look, a scaled 3D map in Kirov Square, a square that wouldn’t look nearly so pretty if Eisenhower hadn’t been planning to visit. Fidel Castro enjoyed the experience instead.