January 01, 2011

Baikal and Irkutsk a Century Ago

One bright sunshiny morning in early December, from the crest of a high hill on the Verkholensk road, we got our first view of the east-Siberian capital: a long compact mass of wooden houses with painted windowshutters; white-walled buildings with roofs of metallic green; and picturesque Russo-Byzantine churches whose snowy towers were crowned with inverted balloons of gold or covered with domes of ultramarine blue spangled with golden stars. Long lines of loaded sledges from the Mongolian frontier could be seen entering the city from the south; the streets were full of people; flags were flying here and there over the roofs of government buildings; and from the barracks down the river came faintly the music of a regimental band. Our driver stopped his horses, took off his hat, and turning to us, with the air of one who owns what he points out, said, proudly, “Irkutsk!” If he expected us to be impressed – as he evidently did – he was not disappointed; because Irkutsk, at that time and from that point of view, was a very striking and beautiful city. We, moreover, had just come from the desolate moss tundras and wild, lonely forests of arctic Asia and were in a state of mind to be impressed by anything that had architectural beauty, or indicated culture, luxury, and wealth. We had seen nothing that even remotely suggested a city in two years and a half; and we felt almost as if we were Gothic barbarians gazing at Rome. It did not even strike us as particularly funny when our Buryat driver informed us seriously that Irkutsk was so great a place that its houses had to be numbered in order to enable their owners to find them! To us, fresh from Gizhiga, Penzhina, and Okhotsk, a city with numbered houses was really too remarkable and impressive a thing to be treated with levity, and we therefore received the information with proper awe and in silence. We could share the native feeling, even if numbered houses had once been known to us.

Twenty minutes later, we dashed into the city at a gallop, as if we were imperial couriers with war news; rushed at break-neck speed past markets, bazaars, telegraph poles, street lamps, big shops with gilded sign-boards, polished droshkies drawn by high-stepping Orloff horses, officers in uniform, grey-coated policemen with sabres, and pretty women hooded in white Caucasian bashliks and finally drew up with a flourish in front of a comfortable-looking stuccoed hotel – the first one we had seen in more than twenty-nine months….

At Irkutsk, we plunged suddenly from a semi-barbaric environment into an environment of high civilization and culture; and our attempts to adjust ourselves to the new and unfamiliar conditions were attended, at first, with not a little embarrassment and discomfort. As we were among the first Americans who had been seen in that Far Eastern capital, and were officers, moreover, of a company with which the Russian Government itself had been in partnership, we were not only treated with distinguished consideration, but were welcomed everywhere with warm-hearted kindness and hospitality….

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