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February, 03, 2017

The Capital of Eastern Siberia: Who “Babr” Is and Whence the Tank Came

Irkutsk has celebrated its 350th anniversary since the city’s foundation. The city has served as the gateway of Lake Baikal for more than three and a half centuries and is an important cultural and economic center of Eastern Siberia.

In the year 1661 the pathbreaker Yakov Pokhabov with a detachment of Cossacks set up a jail on the right bank of the Angara River opposite to the mouth of the Irkut River. The place was well chosen: it was surrounded by the lands suitable for cattle breeding and agriculture; and the river had a tuned traffic from the Yenisei River to Lake Baikal.

 The settlement grew, and in 1682 it became the center of Irkutsk province (“voivodship”), four years later it was granted a status of a city. According to the remaining “count list”, it is known that about 1000 people lived there by the beginning of XVIII century.

The history of the Irkutsk coat of arms is interesting enough. The coat of arms was granted to the city in 1690 and depicted “a “babr” in the silver field running on the green grass to the left of the shield and holding a sable in its jaws”. It is believed that “babr” is the old name of tiger, but a mistake was made when creating the coat of arms of the Irkutsk province in 1878: the Department of Heraldry mistook the word “babr” for “bobr” (a Russian word for “beaver”) and the artist added beaver’s tail and membraneous paws to the tiger on the picture. Thus one of the symbols of the Irkutsk became a fairy-tale beast called “Babr”. Today the sculpture of “Babr” is installed at the entrance to the 130th city district.

A huge role in the development of the city has been played by the trade with China. After the conclusion of the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689 caravans started to go through Irkutsk to the East: furs were transported there, and silk, sugar, tea were brought back. The community of the Irkutsk merchants formed by the middle of XVIII century took a very active part in the city life. The representatives of the famous Irkutsk merchants’ dynasties (Trapeznikovs, Sibiryakovs, Medvednikovs and many others) were often elected to municipal posts and were actively engaged in charity. Their funds were used to build and maintain churches, libraries, schools, hospitals, orphanages and cultural institutions.

In late XVIII - early XIX century Irkutsk more and more resembled the “intelligent city” described by A.P. Chekhov in his “Letters from Siberia”. The city had police, a firehouse, educational institutions, archives, a printing house. More than 50 stone houses and a dozen white stone cathedrals added to wooden buildings. The population increased tenfold over 100 years. Irkutsk became an unconditional leader among the cities of Eastern Siberia.

XIX century was a golden one for the culture of the new “Siberian St. Petersburg”. 

The heritage of Irkutsk includes the Local History Museum, the Drama Theatre (now bearing the name of N. P. Okhlopkov), a public library and other cultural institutions. The exiled Decembrists arrived in the city in August of 1826 and enriched the cultural life of Baikal, influencing people’s education. The City Mayor V. P. Sukachev gathered an impressive collection of paintings in his fine arts gallery. It became the basis for the Irkutsk Regional Art Museum — the richest treasury of fine arts in Siberia.

The upcoming XX century welcomed Irkutsk with the screams of locomotives: the first train arrived in the city through the Trans-Siberian Railway on August 16, 1898. In the next 100 years the fate of the capital of Eastern Siberia was full of dramatic changes, severe difficulties and great achievements.

The events of the Civil War were happening in Irkutsk from November 1917 to March 3, 1920. On November 18, 1917 the Bolsheviks took the power in the city. Next summer they were replaced by the Czechoslovak Corps soldiers. The new Supreme Governor of Russia A.V. Kolchak transferred his government to Irkutsk. Here he was shot on the night of February 7, 1920 on the ice of the Ushakovka River.

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The Soviet government transformed the city into a major industrial center of RSFSR with a developed machine-building industry. The following major Irkutsk enterprises have been built during the years of industrialization: the Machine-building Plant named after V.V. Kuibyshev and the Aircraft Factory which is still considered one of the leading enterprises of Russia.Текст

During the years of the Great Patriotic War Irkutsk actively participated in the work of rear areas. Workers performed not less than 180% of production rate. A column of tanks “Irkutsk Komsomolets” was built at the Aircraft Factory at the expense of the Komsomol members (young communists) of the entire region. A monument to the T-34 tank is erected at the intersection of the 1st Sovetskaya Street and Dekabrskikh Sobytiy (“December Events”) Street. A total of about 200 thousand people passed through Irkutsk military enlistment offices and went off to the front. Almost half of them never returned.

Large-scale construction projects were launched after the war. The Irkutsk HPP started to operate on September 24, 1959. It was the first such facility in Siberia which gave an impetus to the development of industry in the region. New neighborhoods were actively constructed in Irkutsk: Solnechny, Yubileynyi, Sinyushina Gora, Novo-Lenino, Akademgorodok (“Science Campus”)…

After the collapse of the USSR Irkutsk having a rich historical heritage and an economic potential has remained one of the most important cities in Siberia and the unofficial capital of its eastern part.

Today, in the new millennium, after three and a half centuries since the foundation of a small jail on the bank of the Angara River, the residents of the city proudly call themselves “irkutyans” (the natives of Irkutsk), honoring their birth city and its history.

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