The True Pearl of Eastern Siberia

The historical center of Irkutsk city has been included in the preliminary list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Often called “Eastern Paris” and “Siberian Petersburg”, Irkutsk continues to be one of the most architecturally beautiful and interesting cities in all of Russia. The city is full of stunning examples of Russian wooden architecture, Siberian Baroque, and Northern Classicism styles that can be studied by just taking a walk along the streets.

“This is the best place, good for arable land, cattle production, hay mowing and fishing. All are close by; but there is nowhere else to put a Fort because the land is steppe and unsuitable,” wrote Yakov Pokhabov, Russian explorer, in the summer of 1661. He traveled on the instructions of the Yenisei Voevode (local ruler) to the place where the Angara and Irkut rivers join. Irkutsk had its beginnings from a small Fort or Ostrog in Russian, founded by Yakov Pokhabov. The city got its name from the Irkut River, was supposed to become a link between the Yenisei River and Lake Baikal.

Traditionally for the 17th century, a settlement was built around a church. It kept on growing and received the status of a City in 1686. There are streets and squares, churches and mansions, theaters and administrative buildings. Nikolaas Witsen, one Dutch traveler, who visited this area in 1692, wrote: “The city of Irkutsk, located approximately eight miles from the shore of the Lake Baikal, was built several years ago. It is fortified with strong wooden towers and has a widely spread out outskirts… The land there is very fertile, and many Muscovites have settled here … In the city, within fortified walls there are house of the Chief, Armory and the Town Hall with guards. But the soldiers live outside it. There is a village in the Fort.” Fertile lands, the proximity of navigable rivers, booming trade with neighboring China — these factors contributed to the development of the city. Irkutsk was lucky: a strong local merchant class, nobles loved their city and spared no effort and money for its improvement. That is why the comparison with Paris and St. Petersburg. Irkutsk flourished and became prettier before our eyes. Another reason for the improvement of the city is that exiles traditionally were sent here. They were writer Alexander Radishchev, and the Decembrists Dukes — Sergei Trubetskoy and Sergei Volkonsky, Russian revolutionaries of 1825 December revolt, and many others. All this contributed to the development of culture, education, architecture of Irkutsk.

The Gold-Domed City

Residents of Irkutsk lovingly called their city “Gold-Domed”: the domes of its churches could be seen from afar. Church of the Image of The Saviour Not Made by Hands has survived from the Irkutsk Fort to this day. First built of timber in 1672; it burned down during a huge fire that raged in Irkutsk during August 1716 drought. Many city buildings perished in that flame. The construction of the stone Church of the Savior began in 1706. It was finished by 1710 complete with a Bell Tower and Spire built at the end of the 1850s. The Design of the Church of the Savior was by Moisey Dolgikh, a famous Siberian architect of that time. It was decorated with frescos inside and outside. Figures of saints decorated the south facades of the Church. The bells of the Church of the Savior were considered the best in Siberia in terms of sound purity and power.

Siberian Baroque and Classicism were combined in another architectural gem — Epiphany Cathedral. It is the second oldest stone building in Irkutsk. The first, wooden Epiphany Cathedral had been built back in 1693 and burned down in the same fire in 1716. The Epiphany Cathedral was built of stone on donations from the residents of Irkutsk. In 1722, construction work began. By 1729, Bell Tower was completed. The opening of the Epiphany Cathedral took place in September 1746. Years passed, the Cathedral has been changing, completed, acquired new bells and Cathedral Status. Even today it is considered one of the most beautiful Cathedrals in Siberia and the Far East, a kind of symbol of Irkutsk.

Russian history and architecture can be studied in another Irkutsk church — the Church of Transfiguration. In her parish, Sergei Trubetskoy and Sergei Volkonsky, the Decembrists lived with their families. The daughter of Prince Volkonsky, Elena, was married with Irkutsk Official Dmitry Molchanov in the Transfiguration Church. Wedding of the daughter of the Decembrist Mikhail Küchelbecker took place in the Church as well. The funeral services for the Decembrists Pyotr Mukhanov, a famous writer at that time, and Nikolai Panov were held here.

The Transfiguration Church was founded in 1795. Two Irkutsk merchants — Stefan Ignatiev and Ivan Sukhikh donated money for its construction. Designed by Anton Losev, the famous architect, geographer, historian. He is considered to be the author of the first regular plan for the long-term development of Irkutsk. He also designed Gostiny Dvor (a city Mall), which has survived to this day. The Transfiguration Church was the main masterpiece of architect Losev. It was consecrated in August 1811. At the end of the 40s of the 19 century, Efimiy Kuznetsov, the State Councilor and the honorary citizen of Irkutsk, allocated funds for the construction of a stone fence and cast-iron gratings around the Church.

White House, Lace House

The history of Irkutsk architecture is the history of the local merchants. It was at the expense of wealthy entrepreneurs that the city was created and built. First of all, I must talk about the family of Sibiryakov merchants. At the end of the 17th century its founder Afanasy Sibiryakov owned a fishing business and sailing ships on Lake Baikal. His son Mikhail was awarded the Nobility title for services in the development of industry and entrepreneurship in Siberia and for charity. Mikhail Sibiryakov was also the Mayor of Irkutsk. The next generation of the Sibiryakovs — Alexander, Konstantin and Innokenty — expanded the family business, built schools, hospitals, almshouses, churches, etc.

One of the most striking architectural masterpieces preserved to our days is the house of the Sibiryakov Merchants or White House. Siberian ethnographers believe it was designed by the great Giacomo Quarenghi, the Italian architect, who had created the main masterpieces of St. Petersburg. Today it is impossible to confirm the authorship of Quarenghi. The White House is still a gem of Irkutsk at Gagarinsky Boulevard. The luxurious building in the Empire Style was built in 1800–1804 by an order of Mikhail Sibiryakov. One of his sons inherited the White House. In the middle of the 19th century it was bought by the City and became the residence of the Irkutsk Governor Generals. After the Revolution, it became a home to a University.

Another interesting architectural monument that Irkutsk owes to its merchants is the house fondly called Lace House. In 1907, merchant Apolos Shastin, an honorary citizen of Irkutsk, bought a small wooden mansion and made a real work of art out of it. Two-story building is decorated with finest wooden carvings reminding of lace. Hence the name — Lace House.

Another gem that adorns Irkutsk is Trubetskoy Mansion. Today it houses the regional Historical and Memorial Museum of the Decembrists. According to local historians, it was built by Alexander Razgildeev, a famous Siberian architect, in 1847–1854. It is believed that Duke Trubetskoy wanted to have a house in Irkutsk that resembled the luxurious palaces of St. Petersburg. The Siberian architect managed to implement this idea, but adapt it to local realities.

Actually the historical buildings of museums and theaters in Irkutsk are a topic for full-fledged scientific research. Or a reason to admire the beauty of buildings that have survived to this day. For example Irkutsk Regional Museum of Local Lore. The money for its construction was collected by Lieutenant General Franz Klitschka, the former Irkutsk Governor General. The local merchants, as always, did not stint. In 1782 Irkutsk became one of the first Russian cities to have a museum of its own history. The building for the Museum was also built for this purpose. In 1879, another major fire almost completely destroyed the Museum Building. Again the merchants did not stint — they rebuilt it again, even better! It is one of the reason that the Irkutsk Museum received a 1st degree diploma at the Nizhny Novgorod All-Russian Exhibition in 1896.

The People of Irkutsk

The city was lucky not for the generous merchants alone. The people of Irkutsk are generally a unique breed. One of its prominent representatives was the City Head Vladimir Sukachev. One of the most versatile educated people of his time; Vladimir did a lot of charity work and was also a passionate collector. He had collected a lot of works of art at the end of the 19th century This huge collection was donated to the City. Irkutsk raised funds and commissioned a famous architect David Mogidey to design a two-story stone building for the future museum. Today this mansion with an adjoining park in the city center is a part of the Regional Art Museum. Vladimir Sukachev’s estate of also included a winter garden, stables, etc. It is also a monument of history, culture and architecture of the City.

Another significant name was Baron Heinrich Rosen. One of the most famous Russian architects of his time built a two-storey mansion in the early 80s of the 19th century. The building was commissioned by a gold miner Ivan Bazanov. This example of Russian Classicism has survived to this day; today it houses the Regional Art Museum.

Irkutsk is also proud of a architectural masterpiece by Viktor Shreter, a professor at the Imperial Academy of Arts. He was one of the most famous Russian architects of the second half of the 19th century. When an old theater of Irkutsk had burned down during another major fire, then Governor General Alexander Goremykin raised funds and commissioned Schreter to design a new, stone building for the Theater. In 1897 the construction was completed. Newspapers of that time wrote about a real architectural masterpiece, “… the likes of which you will not find from the Urals to the Far East.” It is located in the center of Irkutsk and houses the Okhlopkov Academic Drama Theater.

Eugenia Sineva