Steppes Away: A Lawrentian’s Siberia

Adam Berey

Few in America recognize the name of Siberia’s easternmost city, and those that do probably noticed it playing RISK when they were trying to invade Mongolia.
Irkutsk is the city where I’m spending the season that happens at the same time as autumn in Wisconsin.
I hesitate to use that same word for the Russian equivalent — ever since the first snowfall in the first week of September there have been a few warm days, but the above-freezing temperatures are starting to fly south.
Of course I don’t mean to be unpleasant, but it is Siberia, after all.
So what’s here? Why Irkutsk?
To be honest, I had hardly any idea before I came, which was the point. Siberia is about as far as you can get from pudgy little Wisconsin, both in distance and in familiarity. The most knowledge any of us really have about this region is a few vague ideas of political prisoners slaving in mines and nomads throatsinging in tents.
At the beginning, it was like a trip to the moon. I didn’t even have a picture in my mind of the city skyline or how its inhabitants dress, apart from the usual Russian stereotypes of fur hats and apartment buildings so big they block out the sun for miles.
I was in for a big surprise — in general, it isn’t so strange after all.
This far away from anywhere, with a 16-hour time difference and all but cut off from my native language, Irkutsk still isn’t too different from Western cities.
Irkutsk has its museums, concert halls, offices and nightclubs like any city anywhere else. Its 600,000 people work through their caffeine-fueled days, cramming into busses and trams. Really, one doesn’t write about it in that magical tone we save for Paris, Venice, and all other well-reached destinations in the world.
In fact, the Irkutians that I’ve asked say that, apart from being near Lake Baikal, there isn’t really anything special about their city.
But that’s not completely true. Visitors from other parts of Russia admire Irkutsk’s architecture, somewhat rustic and a little less blocky than that of their own cities. And Irkutsk, in contrast to the prefabricated, Soviet-era industrial sprawls elsewhere, has a rich history going back almost 400 years. That makes it one of the first Russian settlements in Siberia.
At first a remote imperial outpost, Irkutsk was later known as a destination for exiles, including the Decembrist revolutionaries of “War and Peace” fame. Russia being a literary country, that kind of connection pulls in a fair amount of museum traffic to see the cabins of the very families that were the inspiration for Leo Tolstoy’s most famous work.
During the Soviet era, Irkutsk was a major center for spreading Russian culture to the native Buryats living in the region. They, along with the recent influx of Koreans and Chinese to this area, make for an interesting diversity not seen anywhere in European Russia.
And it’s not just people that are coming in from all over. It’s often cheaper to buy products made for the East Asian market, and the store shelves are like little economic summits of international goods.
Cars imported straight from Japan mean that every other driver here sits on the right side, with a better view of the gutter than of oncoming traffic. The warning placards on buses are all written in Korean.
T-shirts and notebooks sport the embarrassingly poorly translated but often-hilarious English phrases popular throughout Asia. And appliances don’t always fit the sockets, so adapters are a staple of every household.
The deeper idiosyncrasies are gradually becoming clearer, of course, but in the meantime, there’s comfort in the familiarity of such a distant place.