- By Alexander Bratersky
- May. 22 2011 00:00
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.
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.
Mayor Viktor Kondrashov (+7 3952-20-05-22;
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;
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.
Irkut (3 Ulitsa Novatorov; +7 3952-32-29-09;
Founded as a small lab with Irkutsk State Technical University, TOMS (83/1 Ulitsa Lermontova; +7 3952-79-87-00;
Irkutsk Mineral Water Bottling Plant (17 Ulitsa Kashtakovskaya; +7 3952-78-04-40;
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.
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;
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;
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;
What to do if you have two days
Take a picturesque trip around Baikal on the Circum-Baikal Railway (
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;
If you want to stay in Irkutsk, rent a bicycle (Skiwalker, 13 Ulitsa Kultukskaya; +7 3952-76-76-05;
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;
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
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;
Another popular option is Barracuda, which attracts a mixed crowd of hipsters and businesspeople (70A Ulitsa Krasny Put; +7 3952-66-51-91;
For a quiet evening, visit the Philharmonic Hall (2 Ulitsa Dzerzhinskogo; +7 3952-24-11-00;
Alternatively, stop by the grand Irkutsk Okhlopkov Drama Theater (14 Ulitsa Karla Marxa; +7 3952-55-04-61;
Where to eat
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;
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;
The Yevropa (69 Baikalskaya Ulitsa, +7 3952-29-15-15,
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.
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;
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.