The Road to Irkutsk

Article excerpt

Irkutsk, located on the Angara River (a tributary of the Yenisey) is one of the great centers of Siberian culture. Indeed, we could say that Irkutsk is the culmination of Siberia, both geographically and culturally. The great rift that created Lake Baikal also serves as a dividing line between Siberia proper and that part of the Russian Far East known as "beyond Baikal" (Zabaikalye).

But before Irkutsk, let us return to Tomsk (see Russian Life, November-December), the point of departure for this final segment of our Siberian journey. Getting from Tomsk back to the mainline of the Trans-Siberian railway is far more difficult that it should be, particularly if going eastward. In a major blunder, the city's merchant elite made no attempt to persuade Russia's Ministry of Transportation to build the mainline north through Tomsk, and therefore the city had to settle for a branch line, constructed in 1896, to a lonely junction known as Taiga, 80 kilometers to the south.

As a result, a typical connection to Krasnoyarsk involves taking a small train in the late evening down the Tomsk spur to Taiga, which is indeed in the middle of the taiga forest, anchored by nothing more than a major rail junction. At Taiga, the train car from Tomsk is uncoupled and sits, unventilated, for a couple of hours until the express from Novosibirsk pulls in. At that point (after midnight), the Tomsk car is slammed into the end of the express and the journey continues.

Late the next morning, the train emerges from forested hills to arrive at the city of Krasnoyarsk (current population around 925,000), which is now the capital of one of Russia's largest administrative regions, stretching all the way to the Arctic Ocean. Founded in 1628 as a frontier outpost on the mighty Yenisey River, the town for the first century of its existence consisted of little more than a Cossack detachment.

The area's rich natural resources gave rise to industrial and crafts production, particularly after the opening of the Moscow Road (1735-41), a more even, southerly route that redirected settlement and transportation in Siberia. By the turn of the 18th century, a few brick churches were constructed, of which the Intercession Church is the best preserved, with decoration in the florid manner typical of late 18th-century Siberian architecture.

As with Omsk to the west, Krasnoyarsk was transformed in the 19th century from a provincial garrison town into a major transportation center by the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. The increase in economic activity gave rise to a merchant elite that included Gennady Yudin, a bibliophile who sold much of his valuable collection of books to the Library of Congress in 1907.

After the revolution, the industrialization campaign of the 1930s led to the construction of major new sites for heavy industry, as did the evacuation of factories from the European part of the Soviet Union in 1941-42. As in many Siberian industrial cities, the preservation of historic architecture in Krasnoyarsk has often been neglected in the 20th century, as churches were closed and other buildings destroyed to make way for Soviet administrative buildings. For that reason, the most interesting ensemble of historic architecture in this region is in the much smaller town of Yeniseysk, located 340 kilometers to the north of Krasnoyarsk and also situated on the Yenisey River.

The main line of the Siberian railway, however, moves east and then south into the territory of Irkutsk Province. The track winds through forested hills of great beauty, particularly in September, when the birches and larches are brilliant against the dark background of coniferous forest. Sadly, the birch groves are in many cases the result of irresponsible logging, in which the forests are not replanted and the birches are simply first to grow back.

After almost a full day of travel from Krasnoyarsk, the train arrives at the imposing main Irkutsk station, on the left bank of the Angara River. …