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. Last Updated: 07/31/2014

Irkutsk: Libertine Legacy by the Lakeside

A statue of Alexander III on Ulitsa Karla Marxa celebrating the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Irkutsk’s coat of arms is on the sign.
Galina Grebneva / For MT

A statue of Alexander III on Ulitsa Karla Marxa celebrating the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Irkutsk’s coat of arms is on the sign.

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IRKUTSK — The first thing a visitor recently saw when entering the museum of exiled Prince Sergei Volkonsky in Irkutsk was a drowsy, gray-haired attendant sitting behind a table with a calendar adorned with the Yukos logo, a forest-green triangle with a yellow tip.

The parallel was coincidental, but telling.

Irkutsk

Population: 587,200

Main industries: military jet production, fish processing, construction

Mayor: Viktor Kondrashov

Interesting fact: The black cat on the city’s coat of arms and flag is actually a Siberian tiger still known by its 17th-century name, babr. In its mouth is a red sable, whose precious fur first attracted Russian merchants to the region.

Helpful contacts:
Mayor Viktor Kondrashov (+7 3952-20-05-22; Admirkutsk.ru);
City Hall spokeswoman Lilia Khadyeva (+7 3952-52-00-35);
Konstantin Shavrin, president of the Irkutsk-based East Siberian branch of the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (16 Ulitsa Sukhe-Batora; +7 3952-33-50-60; Tppvs.ru).

Sister cities: Shenyang, China; the French cites of Evian-les-Bains, Grenoble and Dijon; Pforzheim, Germany; Pordenone, Italy; Kanazawa, Japan; Ulan Bator, Mongolia; Novi Sad, Serbia; Strömsund, Sweden; Eugene, in the U.S. state Oregon.

The fate of Volkonsky, who was banished to this eastern corner of Siberia for his role in the Decembrist uprising against the monarchy in 1825, resembles that of former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was locked up in an East Siberian prison after his own conflict with the government.

Khodorkovsky was shipped off far beyond Irkutsk, but this unofficial capital of the Baikal region has seen its fair share of rebels and prides itself for its libertine streak.

Granted, residents have not exercised it in years. But it surfaced in 2010 when they ousted a pro-Kremlin mayor and voted in the Communist-backed candidate.

The new mayor, Viktor Kondrashov, was quick to join the ruling United Russia party — a sine qua non of Russian politics.

But the vote signified a longing for change, long overdue in a city that has the potential to become an industrial, academic or tourist capital but does not qualify for any — yet.

But it does have ardent fans like legendary rocker Boris Grebenshchikov. "All the best about Siberia comes together here," said Grebenshchikov, a household name in Russia who has performed with his band Akvarium many times in the city.

Irkutsk feels a lot like a Soviet city from the 1960s, thanks to the dated architecture of shabby apartment blocks and a central street still bearing the name Karl Marx. Downtown streets are lined with mammoth old poplars, and elderly couples still waltz in the parks in the summertime as they did during the glory days of native son Rudolf Nureyev, the celebrated ballet dancer who defected to the West in 1961.

But the new is creeping in, too. Old apartment blocks wage a stubborn battle against modern middle-class compounds, and Ulitsa Karla Marxa is chock full of brand-name boutiques and cozy restaurants, much like Moscow's own Tverskaya Ulitsa.  

Major Irkutsk companies

Irkut (3 Ulitsa Novatorov; +7 3952-32-29-09; Irkut.com/en/) produces Su-30 and Su-27 fighter jets and accounts for 15 percent of all Russian arms exports.

Founded as a small lab with Irkutsk State Technical University, TOMS (83/1 Ulitsa Lermontova; +7 3952-79-87-00; Tomsgroup.ru/eng/) has grown into an industry leader in mineral separation and has constructed mineral separation factories across all of the former Soviet Union.

Irkutsk Mineral Water Bottling Plant (17 Ulitsa Kashtakovskaya; +7 3952-78-04-40; Irkvoda.ru/en/), is a leading mineral water producer whose goods, naturally, come from springs surrounding Lake Baikal.

Irkutsk is even developing its own business district, Irkutsk City, complete with a Class-B business center, Terra, and a recreation zone. Tenants so far largely comprise small local companies, but Japan Tobacco, the world's third-largest cigarette maker, and Canada's Knelson mining equipment producer have also opened offices here.

Some 3,800 researchers study earth science at the local branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, which was opened in 1949 and occupies a campus on the shore of the Angara, the only river that flows out of Lake Baikal, located 70 kilometers away.

The lake is Irkutsk's main tourist draw, attracting about 500,000 visitors a year to the city. Baikal is the world's oldest and deepest lake with an average depth of 744.4 meters, as well as one of the clearest —although a nearby paper mill does its best to change that. Frankly, the word "lake" does not really do justice to Baikal — and any local will tell you that you have to see this vast freshwater sea to believe it.

An extra influx of tourists are expected in fall 2011 to celebrate Irkutsk's 350th anniversary, and Marriott International, the global hotel chain, is scheduled to open a Marriott Courtyard this summer to help cope with the visitors.

For MT

Viktor Kondrashov,
Irkutsk Mayor
Before being elected mayor with Communist support in 2010, he rose to prominence as the successful owner of the local Takota holding, which included a construction company, a supermarket and a human resources agency. He also has worked as a tailor and did a stint as a part-time male model in a local fashion house in the mid-1980s.


Q: How has your background as a businessman helped you as mayor?
A: I was involved in the construction business, and I assume that if you have learned how to build houses, you can become a good city manager.

Q: Where should investors put their money into Irkutsk?
A: I have appealed to the business community to lease public areas along the banks of the Angara River from the city in order to make them attractive for locals and tourists. Entrance to the areas should remain free, but businesses can provide various equipment and run restaurants there.

Q: How do you spend your free time in Irkutsk?
A: I am an avid skier, and while I have skied abroad, I like to ski around Irkutsk. I feel really connected to Baikalsk [on the shores of Lake Baikal and the site of the Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill], and I hate the smell and the smoke. I believe it is an ideal place to create a tourist zone.

— Alexander Bratersky

Irkutsk was founded in 1661 as a Cossack fort to safeguard fur merchants trading with China.

Irkutsk City Hall has earmarked 80 million rubles ($2.8 million) to spruce up the city for the anniversary celebrations, including the renovation of its once-trademark wooden houses.

"Some of those houses have half sunk underground but, still, many of them are real masterpieces of joinery," said Tatyana Denisova, a lawyer and a local history enthusiast.

What to see if you have two hours

The Sergei Volkonsky Museum (10 Pereulok Volkonskogo; +7 3952-20-88-18; Imd38.ru) offers sights beyond the Yukos calendar. The prince's wooden mansion, itself a fine piece of joinery, is preserved from the mid-19th century and comes complete with stables, servant quarters and a piano room.

Don't miss the exhibit dedicated to his fabled wife Maria Volkonskaya and the wives of other rebel aristocrats who followed their husbands into Siberian exile after the failure of the Decembrist revolt in  1825.

Check out the impressive paintings in the Vladimir Sukachyov Museum (5 Ulitsa Lenina; +7 3952-34-01-46; Museum.irk.ru/homeengl.htm), named after an Irkutsk mayor and patron of the arts who loomed larger than life in pre-revolutionary Siberia. Sukachyov's personal collection, which he acquired in the late 1800s and bequeathed to the city, forms the basis for the museum.

On exhibit are a solid collection of European art from the 17th to 19th centuries, an exceptional set of paintings by Russian masters and one of the best collections of Japanese and Chinese art in the country.

If art viewing feels too trite, go for technology and visit the Angara steam-powered icebreaker (Solnechny district; +7 3952-35-80-85; Angara.gavailer.ru), built by the British in 1898 on a tsarist government order and now turned into a museum to the only surviving vessel of its type in the world.

What to do if you have two days

Take a picturesque trip around Baikal on the Circum-Baikal Railway (Kbzd.transsib.ru/eng/), nicknamed "the Golden Buckle of the Steel Girdle of the Russian Empire." An architectural marvel, the 84-kilometer railroad offers 39 tunnels (including one that is 807 meters long), about 200 bridges, 14 kilometers of supporting walls, and 47 stone and three iron galleries — all built more than 100 years ago. At one of the dozen stops along the way, don't forget to buy omul — a local delicacy of the sturgeon family. Otherwise, you won't understand why locals say: "You haven't been to Irkutsk if you haven't tasted omul."

For MT

Olga Tsibina,
Tour manager at Baikal Adventures travel agency

Q: What are the main challenges that you face?
A: The main — and even global — challenge is finding a way to develop the non-industrial sector in the Baikal region. Tourism plays a big role here. If tourism proves to be successful, there will be no place for the Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill and the development of new enterprises that pollute the area.

Q: What does the future hold for local tourism?
A: The city of Irkutsk has a quality airport, railroad station and roads to the main tourist spots. But one of the most critical factors that restrains tourism is the absence of comfortable hotels and ships that can host tourists. Demand for quality hotel space far passes supply, and the construction of new hotels could boost the tourist market.

Q: What would you recommend to see in Irkutsk?
A: It is a nice city to spend one day in. Walk to the Angara embankment and look at the original architecture of the city’s wooden houses. But try to spend the rest of your trip at Lake Baikal.

— Alexander Bratersky

A ride on a diesel train outfitted for tourists on the Circum-Baikal Express takes 12 hours, returning to Irkutsk at 9 to 10 p.m. Alternatively, hop into a retro-style train car pulled by a steam-puffing locomotive from the early 20th century for a two-day, two-night adventure.

Tickets can be booked with numerous online travel agencies or in Irkutsk. The local Baikal Explorer travel agency (+7 9025-60-24-40; Baikalex.com) offers the one-day excursion with a guide but no meals for 2,200 rubles ($75). The Lake Baikal Travel Co. (+7 9086-47-48-62; Lakebaikaltravel.com) charges $250 for adults and $125 for children under 10 for first-class tickets on the retro train.

If you want to stay in Irkutsk, rent a bicycle (Skiwalker, 13 Ulitsa Kultukskaya; +7 3952-76-76-05; Skiwalker.ru; 150 rubles/hour or 1,000 rubles/two days) for a more intimate look at the city. The city center is surprisingly concentrated in a relatively small area.

What to do with the family

Children might want to fall asleep in museums, but don't count on it at the Irkutsk Regional Museum (13 Ulitsa Karla Marxa; +7 3952-33-47-53; Museum.irkutsk.ru). Don't be put off by the name. The museum, which opened in 1782, offers an Indiana Jones-like archeological adventure through 300,000 exhibition pieces about life in Siberia from the Stone Age through the present.

The outdoors are also a sure bet during the Irkutsk summer months. Book a fishing trip on Baikal with any of the host of local tourist agencies or take a ferry to Olkhon, Baikal's biggest island, populated by a colony of Buryats, a Buddhist people of Mongolian descent. Visitors can spend a night in a comfortable guesthouse on the shore. (See Visitbaikal.ru for details.)

Nightlife

Irkutsk offers a vibrant nightlife for hipsters, business executives, gays, classical music lovers and everyone in between. Panorama (102 Ulitsa Dekabrskikh Sobitii; +7 3952-53-36-28; Clubpanorama.ru) is one of the city's most trendy nightclubs and known for a burlesque-style ballet show. With two dance floors and space for 1,200 people, the club offers ample space for booty shaking and serves as the prime venue for Russian pop stars touring the city.

Another popular option is Barracuda, which attracts a mixed crowd of hipsters and businesspeople (70A Ulitsa Krasny Put; +7 3952-66-51-91; Club-barracuda.ru).

For a quiet evening, visit the Philharmonic Hall (2 Ulitsa Dzerzhinskogo; +7 3952-24-11-00; Filarmoniya.irk.ru) to relax to the music of the Irkutsk Philharmonic Orchestra, founded in the 1850s and possibly the best in Siberia. Since 2009, the orchestra has been headed by the prominent Latvian conductor Ilmar Lapinsch, who said he was "bored" in his native Riga and moved to Irkutsk because he wanted a challenge. If you chat with regular concertgoers, be sure to praise the city for being the birthplace of Denis Matsuyev, a world-famous pianist.

Alternatively, stop by the grand Irkutsk Okhlopkov Drama Theater (14 Ulitsa Karla Marxa; +7 3952-55-04-61; Dramteatr.ru), one of the oldest Russian theaters that got its start in 1859 when a traveling professional troupe decided to settle down in Irkutsk. The theater itself was built in 1897.

Where to eat

For MT

Vladimir Lee,
Managing director of Nezhny Buldog (Tender Bulldog), a restaurant visited by President Dmitry Medvedev in April 2011.

Q: Why did President Dmitry Medvedev decide to visit your restaurant?
A: It is hard to say. We were not alerted in advance as is usually done, when senior officials bring their own chefs. Our restaurant is often visited by local officials, including Governor Dmitry Mezentsev, so I think it was he who recommended us. The president sampled blini and creme brulee ice cream.

Q: What is the main challenge facing Irkutsk?
A: We have enormous, growing potential. But the infrastructure is aging, and the tourist industry is not developing fast enough.

Q: What places would you recommend seeing in Irkutsk?
I would strongly advise to go to the Irkutsk Okhlopkov Drama Theater. I think that Irkutsk is the only city left in Russia where people still value the theatrical arts strongly, and you will be able to spot women wearing evening dresses in the theater. Or just take a boat trip on Baikal; there are many trips available.

— Alexander Bratersky

President Dmitry Medvedev praised the blini at the Nezhny Buldog, or Tender Bulldog (11 Bulvar Gagarina, +7 3952-74-36-36; Byldog.ru), when he visited the city for a State Council session in April. But the restaurant actually specializes in imported steaks, including a one-kilogram Meat Board consisting of three types of meat prepared in front of the diner and served on a hot marble slab for 2,100 rubles. There is no mention of blini on its European and Japanese menus. Medvedev did not elaborate on his bill, but generally a dinner for two with a bottle of wine costs about 3,500 rubles.

Local businessmen prefer Starina Fikhtel (46 Ulitsa Lenina, +7 3952-24-04-68), a German-themed restaurant in the historical part of the city where diners like to discuss their business plans over draft beer and plates of sausages. Dinner for two — sans wine, of course — costs 3,000 rubles.

For a slice of history, try the Czech bar U Shveika, or At Svejk's (34 Ulitsa Karla Marxa, 7 3952-24-26-87), named after the 1923 satirical masterpiece "The Good Soldier Svejk" by Jaroslav Hasek. The book, a hilarious and scathing diatribe against the imperial bureaucracy of old Austria, is a perennial hit in Russia (which can relate), and many cities boast their own U Shveika. But Irkutsk has an edge over them because Hasek actually spent time in the city during the revolution and was even elected to the local revolutionary council.

Where to stay

Zvezda (1 Ulitsa Yandrentseva; +7 3952-54-19-87; Zvezdahotel.ru) is a cozy and stylish three-star hotel that resembles a historical mansion. Rooms range from 3,500 rubles for a single to 12,000 rubles for the presidential suite, which has won praise from socialite Ksenia Sobchak.

The Yevropa (69 Baikalskaya Ulitsa, +7 3952-29-15-15, Europehotel.ru) is located in a grandiose building that became an instant landmark when it opened in 2005.

Guests have included jazz musician Igor Butman, artist Nikas Safronov, singer and actress Larisa Dolina and conductor Vladimir Spivakov. Rooms start at 2,700 rubles for a standard single and top out at 8,900 rubles for a studio-style apartment.

Conversation starters

The magic word "Baikal" is a surefire way to set off a discussion on related historical, political or environmental topics. The lake, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a centerpiece of endless Siberian myths and legends.

Old timers recall that the city was once actually the seat of the Russian government, although not a fully legitimate one. Admiral Alexander Kolchak, a commander of the Whites during the Civil War, made Irkutsk his stronghold in 1918. Two years later, he was executed by victorious Bolsheviks near the banks of the Angara River. The city raised a memorial to him in 2004 on the spot where he was shot by firing squad.

How to get there

Four airlines offer flights between Moscow and Irkutsk International Airport (+7 3952-26-62-22; En.iktport.ru), including Aeroflot and S7, which has a hub in Irkutsk. Because of its location near the Angara Reservoir, the airport has foggy weather for much of the year. A recent online search for tickets for the 5-hour, 30-minute flight from Moscow found summer fares starting at 16,000 rubles round trip.

A more radical option is to take a train from Yaroslavsky Station for a four-day trip on the Trains-Siberian Railway that is actually more fun than it sounds.







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Irkutsk: Libertine Legacy by the Lakeside

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