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May 11th 2007
Published: August 6th 2007
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A couple of days roaming round Irkutsk eating cabbage and chasing marshrutky (russian minibuses) pass by pleasantly enough. The town is nice and fairly relaxed, has some nice tree-lined streets with wooden lace architecture, a couple of mad-looking Russian Orthodox churches, a lively market and a lot of kamikaze maniac drivers. That last also includes our bus driver from Listvyanka to Irkutsk - a master of multitasking: if he wasn't counting wads of notes from one hand to the other while steering with his elbows and talking into his mobile he was smoking, turned right round in his seat the better to continue his deeply engrossing conversation with his friend and driving confidently around blind corners on the wrong side of the road. And, of course, the moral of that story is never sit in the front seat of the bus, if the driver doesn't kill you, the terror and stress will. Sit down the back and enjoy the ride😊

As for things to do in Irkutsk, well there aren't a huge amount of obvious sites to visit (Rome needn't feel threatened), more just a case of eat and people-watch - which is always good for me. We go to an art gallery which is filled with appalling tat on the ground floor and a fair amount of the same upstairs but also a very nice collection of icons and a few portraits which I really like too.

Next stop is the Volkonsky house which I am really interested in, having read the 'Princess of Siberia', the biography of Maria Volkonsky. The house is a large, grand stone building painted pale blue in a dusty, dandelion-filled courtyard on a quiet street near the town centre.

Maria was the vivacious, beautiful daughter of the famous General Raevsky and Pushkins muse who spent almost 30 years in exile in Siberia for love of her rebel husband. Her story is as follows - she was the wife of one of the Decembrists, rebels who attempted to overthrow the tsar in December 1825 with the aim of implementing liberial social reforms and abolishing serfdom in Russia. When the rebellion failed and her husband, having escaped the hangman, was sent into servitude and exile in Siberia along with over 100 other rebels, Maria determined to follow him and was given permission to go by the tsar on the condition that she leave her
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Irkutsk Art Gallery
baby son behind in St Petersburg.

On arriving in Irkutsk after the arduous journey across Russia in the grip of winter she was given a document which stated that if she continued on her journey she would lose the right to return to Russia, and therefore to her family and son. She signed it without reading and rushed to the silver mine where her husband was serving his hard labour, demanding to see him at once. She realised afterwards the consequences of her actions and in a letter to her sister said that she was glad that she had not known what she was giving up because the decision would have been an impossible one.

Maria was not the only woman to make this harrowing decision and the term 'Decembrist wife' in the Russian language has come to symbolise the devotion of a wife to her husband. When her husband's 20 year prison term completed they were sent to continue their exile first to a Siberian village then to this house in Irkutsk and it is here that Maria became known as the Princess of Siberia for her work with orphaned children and the arts. Almost 30 years
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One-time home of Maria Volkonsky, 'Princess of Siberia', Irkutsk
after the Decembrist uprising, the tsar died and his son freed the Decembrists from their bitter exile. Maria and her husband returned at last to St Petersburg, leaving the house and Siberia forever.

The house is worth a visit although unfortunately all the exhibit descriptions are in Russian so if you didnt know the story beforehand you would leave fairly clueless, so essential to have done a bit of prep reading. Happily, I manage to identify the little piano (there are 3 in the house) which one of Maria's relations hid among her luggage as she passed through Moscow on her way to Siberia and is very nice to see. That woman fairly knew how to pack.

That's about it for Irkutsk - back on the train to Ulan Ude, our last stop in Siberia...

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Stuffing face again

Irkutsk, Siberia

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