A Sociological Autobiography: 51 – Irkutsk

By | August 26, 2015

We awoke on Friday 10 August not to flat Siberian wastelands but to a largely unchanged landscape. An unannounced halt caused our toilets to be locked as breakfast approached, so we staggered sleepy-eyed to the restaurant car. This required negotiating several spaces between carriages, which always struck me as a more precarious business than it doubtless was. It involved stepping onto and across overlapping, highly mobile metal plates. Although it would have taken some ingenuity to step through the spaces to each side of the plates, it was not an arrangement that would have appealed to rail inspectors in some other parts of the world.


An enthralling mid-morning 25-minute stop occurred at Omsk, second largest city in Siberia with a population of just over a million. Omsk is mainly industrial, for all the attempts to make it green and picturesque. We were now 2712 kilometres outside Moscow. In what was becoming a recognized pattern, piped music throughout the train greeted our time in the station: at Omsk it was Russian rap. What was interesting about our stop was not Omsk itself, of which we could see relatively little, but the opportunity it gave us to leave the carriage and wander. Annette’s return was a bag of mixed fruit, which we immediately washed, peeled and ate. Lunch was quite appetizing, in a Russian kind of way. I enjoyed the beetroot soup, and the chicken that followed it more so.


There was a remarkable uniformity to Russian buildings, I guess because of the state monopolies. Not only the apartment blocks, but the station and trackside constructions clearly belong in the same family. It is the vendors, now on as well as off the train, who ad local colour and difference. We were between Omsk and Novosibursk, word is the busiest freight line in the world. Locomotives pulling an average of 70-80 trucks rattled and bumped noisily by. It was well after our evening meal, around 11.30pm, that we crossed the Ob over its 870-metre bridge and entered Novosibursk, more impressive by far that Omsk. With a population of 1,600,000, it lies 3335 kilometres from Moscow. The terminal itself was elaborately decorated. Another pattern: while in stations, most insistently in the larger ones, the disembodied voices of announcers grudgingly and brusquely part with their information. Not infrequently, two enter into what seems like a tetchy dialogue. Out of such mundane minutiae lasting memories are constructed.


Saturday 11 August: we were due to reach Irkutsk in the early hours of Sunday morning, so this was out last full day on board for a while. Respite from the journey was, I suspect, eagerly anticipated, a chance to recharge batteries after hour upon hour of rhythmic, uneventful travel. Maybe it suited my temperament, this gentle, assiduous motion. ‘Doing nothing’ has always appealed to me. Tedium can be under-estimated.


The landscape grew richer, the grass and trees more lush, the houses more solid and adorned. There were a number of stops. We ate our final repast at 6.30pm: salad, chicken and coffee. Eva collected $5 from each of us to say thank you to the head cook for feeding us on the Moscow-Irkutsk lap; and vodka, if not our singing, was required to celebrate the train director’s 40th birthday. The director’s assistant remarked, or so Eva translated, that we were the friendliest British group he had encountered in six years.

The night was fitful. On Sunday, 12 August, and now five time zones outside of Moscow, none of us knew quite how we stood, or were expected to stand, in relation to the now incongruous Muscovite hours. We were due to reach Irkutsk, the ‘Paris of Siberia’, about 5.45am Moscow time, or 10.45am Irkutsk time. In fact, we arrived late by more than two hours, the train having made good time but only between stoppages. Once in Irkutsk the transfer to Hotel Baikal went smoothly enough, a small coach ushering us through imposingly wide streets. An initial impression was of faded grandeur, of an expansive city that had known better days. At the hotel, Eva, trying to redeem herself for the hitch over the distribution of cabins, loudly insisted that lunch be provided ‘immediately’ (we had in fact missed out on breakfast). In full swing she also protested that the next morning’s tour should depart from the hotel at 9am rather than 10am. This was advocacy with a vengeance but without consultation: instead of the hotel organizing us, Eva was. Her demands were greeted with expressionless Russian stoicism; but they were met. And the three-course lunch was in the event very welcome. Our room, 824, was fine, although it lacked hot water. Rather to our surprise a couple of phone calls and a trek to reception remedied this.

Our small group decided to explore Irkutsk with a view to finding a restaurant. It was something of an anticlimax. The city was as grand as we had suspected, but each broad highway was lined with buildings now as crumbly and rundown as they were doubtless once majestic. Moreover it seemed largely abandoned, relief in the form of shops, cafes and restaurants being rare. Was this because it was Sunday? Surely not in this old atheists’ outpost. In the end we chanced upon a possible eating place, postponing a final decision until later. In the interim we sought refuge in a café: not only open but friendly, an oasis in this slightly disconcerting desert. We bought cheap beers and coffees while two young Russians, a man without gift or ear serenading his girlfriend, then a woman shyly rendering a folk song prompted by words on a screen. If ever karaoke could be endearing, it was here in Irkutsk. Again, lasting memories are fabricated out of fortuitous interludes like this

By 8pm we were back in Hotel Baikal and again pondering the evening meal. Feet aching and a tad disenchanted with that segment of the city we had walked, we opted to eat at the hotel. It was a decent meal in an almost empty restaurant. When the others retired I found a quiet bar to read. I finished a volume celebrating Berlin’s eloquent but wishy-washy liberalism and started Stockman’s Understanding Chinese Society. Holding forth at an adjacent table was an American academic, three young Russian acolytes hanging on his words. He was, I think, a linguist. Paraphrasing Chaucer, I suspect he sounded further up himself than he was

Monday 13 August: Irkutsk had its genesis as a military outpost in 1952. Gradually it developed into a centre for Siberian trade, notably fur and pelts, with tea caravans from China also regularly passing though. By early in the nineteenth century it was consolidated as the administrative capital of Siberia, its governor presiding over an area twenty times the size of France. About the same time it was struck by ‘gold fever’, acting as a magnet to opportunists and gamblers. It was this growing, heterogeneous and cosmopolitan population that the exiled ‘Decembrists’ were to join. Initially, after their failed coup in St Petersburg in 1825, the disgraced assembly of aristocrats – which, incidentally, had only excluded the poet Pushkin because he was deemed by the conspirators to be overly passionate and therefore indiscrete – was dispatched to the harsh wilderness of Lake Baikal and its environs. Only later, in the 1840s, did those who had survived make it to Irkutsk. These included the so-called ‘Princess of Siberia’, Maria Volkonsky, to whom Pushkin in his youth had addressed more than one of his poems. Against the advice of Tsar Nicholas and the entreaties of her family, she had opted for exile herself to be with her husband, Sergei; and it was in Irkutsk that her spirit left its most tangible traces. Her house survives, one of the few wooden structures to escape the fire that swept through the city in 1879. Later, having read Sutherland’s The Princess of Siberia, I wish I had found it; but at least we passed by Maria’s memorial.

The rail link to Irkutsk was established in 1898. By the time of our visit in 2001 it was a populous city (where were they on Sunday?). At 9am on this Monday morning we gathered to head off as members of the ‘22’ to see more of it. A coach took us to the 64 kilometres south to Lake Baikal. Lake Baikal is the world’s oldest and deepest lake, 1637 metres or 5371 feet deep at its mid-point. Astonishingly, it contains in excess of 20,000 cubic kilometres of water, that is, approximately a fifth of the world’s freshwater supplies. Bryan Thomas’ excellent Trans-Siberian Handbook informed us that it could support the entire population of the globe for 40 years. It is smaller than the North American Lakes but exceeds them in volume.

We took time to gaze out over the lake and to do our best to capture on celluloid the dancing, glistening surface of the vast waters, hazy mountains forming the perfect backcloth. I came up with a teaching analogy. While the eye can allow us to absorb the sheer wonder of sunlight on rippling water, the camera lens cannot. Similarly, while our minds can spontaneously grasp the mundane but extraordinary dynamic complexity of the social worlds we inhabit and feel at home in, the meta-language the sociologist must deploy to theorize it is necessarily inhibiting: we cannot say, all at once as it were, what we may sense or know to be the case. The sociologist here is representational of course. The mind is the eye, and all meta-languages the camera lens. Prudently, I kept all this to myself.

Down the road we stopped once more, at the oldest Russian settlement in Siberia, a village called Listvyanka. Annette and I sauntered through its mix of old wooden cottages and new brick dwellings to the old church, then detached ourselves from the ‘22’ to return to gaze out over the lake. We dipped our feet in the cold water. A limb submerged, Anna had told us, bestows an additional five years of life.


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