Irkutsk: The Paris of Siberia

We stayed in Irkutsk for a few days, putting together the stories from Lake Baikal and taking occasional walks around the city. Irkutsk has been called the "Paris of Siberia" -- which sounds pretty comical at first, but actually makes some sense when you stroll around a bit. The tree-lined city center boasts eclectic architecture and beautifully renovated pre-Revolutionary mansions, interspersed with chic stores like Benetton and Yves Rocher.

Even the couple we're staying with here, Igor and Oksana, are more stylish than your average Siberian. Igor works at the Trubetskoy House, a museum of the 19th century Decembrist revolutionaries, and prefers dry red wine to the usual Russian rocket fuel. Oksana, a theater costume designer, is one of those beautiful women who can make herself look fashion-shoot ready simply by wrapping a scarf around her head.

Igor and Oksana relax on a balcony at the Trubetskoy House museum, where Igor works. (David Hillegas)

I asked Igor and Oksana what had changed in Irkutsk over the last 10 years. Igor said, "The city has changed as much as capitalism has arisen. Now there are more businesses, ads, stores, and restaurants that weren't here before. And fast food places. Service in general is also better than it was."

Did that mean things were better now than 10 years ago? Oksana didn't hesitate. "They're better for me," she said. But Igor was more circumspect. "Well," he said, "we were better then, so it's hard to say." I asked what he meant. "We were younger then, everything was ahead of us. We were better."

He went on to say that for budzhetnikis, or those who work on fixed government salaries, life wasn't really better now. "Because of the new stores everywhere, people want more things. For young people, they all look around and want a car, a mobile phone, nice clothes. I don't know how people afford to buy things in Benetton. Maybe people save up all year to go in and buy one special thing."

Alyosha from Ulan Ude keeps turning up in unexpected places in Irkutsk.

After a couple of days spent working on the Baikal stories, it was time to move on. I caught a minibus down to the train station, and bought us tickets to Novosibirsk for the next afternoon. I was about to catch a minibus back when I suddenly decided to withdraw some cash from an ATM inside the station. (There's another big change since 1995 -- ATM's are all over the place, even in smaller cities like Birobidzhan.)

I walked back into the station, and whaddaya know -- there was Alyosha from Ulan Ude! This was the second time I'd run into him in Irkutsk, and by now it seemed a bit ridiculous. "Well, either you're a spy, or I am," I told him. We had one of his colleagues snap a picture with my camera, and I'm happy to now be able to show Alyosha's face, as the other picture of him on the site is of his back. If we run into him again somewhere further west, we'll have to do a whole photo gallery.

Next stop: Novosibirsk.

By Lisa Dickey |  October 10, 2005; 11:59 AM ET
Previous: Irkutsk: The Wacky Hotel in the 'Middle of Nowhere' | Next: Novosibirsk: Grisha's Death


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Welcome back to the big city! Do you feel any disappointment in leaving the spectacular beauty of Lake Baikal, or just relief at returning to a higher level of creature comforts?

I've found that a lot of Russians are as circumspect as Igor when asked how they're doing. It's a pity that Russia's history does not make more people cheerful like Oksana. The pessimists have been proven correct too often. There's also the "culture of envy", sort of a "keeping up with the Joneses" syndrome to an extreme. The differences between the rich and the rest are very visible, and exasperating to those even a little bit down from the top.

Thanks for such a great blog! The comparison of 1995 with 2005 is fascinating, and it's great that you're capturing the whole spectrum of opinion on the changes!

Posted by: Mark | October 10, 2005 01:16 PM

I loved Siberia, but I loved Irkutsk the most. I was ready to pick up and move from Moscow to Irkutsk back then. Why? well, because it didn't feel the least bit foreign to me. If you have ever been to the Laurentians, the mountain range just outside of Montreal, you'd realize that "Les Laurentides" and the Taiga are 'adinakova.' The flora the fauna, the smell of the pine, Adinakova! To grow up in the dacha-land of Eastern European Jews who settled Montreal at the turn of the century, is to realize that all they did was transplant Siberia and the Izbah (right down to the windows and the red or blue colouring) to rural Quebec.

It was both comforting and disheartening to be there for me. Comforting because it felt like home. Disheartening because why did I have to travel half way around the world to see exactly what I've spent every weekend of my life living in?

Posted by: sandy | October 10, 2005 05:21 PM

Mark - We've been surprised to find that our "creature comforts" in Novosibirsk have been lower than in other, less cosmopolitan places. We're staying in a nice enough apartment, but the internet connection is incredibly slow, and you can't dial a cell phone from the home phone. My cell phone has a sim card from Khabarovsk -- so calls are very expensive and I keep having to buy more minutes. Though Novosibirsk is big and sophisticated, somehow we feel like we're in a small city again...

Posted by: Lisa Dickey | October 13, 2005 07:32 AM

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