Many people consider the words “Irkutsk is situated near the Baikal” to be at a stretch, because the distance from Irkutsk to the Baikal is more than 50 km. But if you come to the shore of the Irkutsk Reservoir or to the dam of the hydroelectric power station and you see how the purest Baikal water flows here, feel gentle fresh wind, and get the impression you feel the Sacred Sea. For Irkutsk and Shelekhovo citizens it is very significant to realize that the tap water they drink, wash and take a bath in is the Baikal water taken from the Irkutsk Resevoir. Moreover when you can see in the horizon the highest picks of the Khamar-Daban on that side of the Baikal (from Tankhoy to Baikalsk) from the high places near Irkutsk and in it (for example, from the hills in the Melnichnaya Valley) and sometimes even from the dam during transparent weather of spring, autumn or winter, this impression gets even stronger. There is a proverb concerning it: “In Siberia 50 degrees below zero is not frost, 50 kilometers is not a distance”; and it points out the close position of Irkutsk to the Baikal. The writer A. Zlobin is even more categorical. Firstly, he provides the local figurative expression “The Baikal flows into the Angara”, secondly, he claims that “The Irkutsk Reservoir is just a bay in the Baikal, and the Angara became 70 kilometers shorter hence”. One more thing is that in 2006 the Russian Federation Government included Irkutsk to the Baikal nature territory, or rather, to its atmosphere zone.
Since the time Irkutsk was built, its destiny has been inextricably interwind with the Baikal in economic and strategic points. First, any travelling to the east, no matter what road you take – across Siberian or Far Eastern plains, or to Asian countries, or the famous Great Tea Way – since the XVIIth century up to now all these roads pass by the Baikal (we do not consider the road to Okhotsk and Kamchatka across the Lena in Yakutsk). Second, some branches of economical and commercial industries in Irkutsk are connected with the Baikal this or that way; they are fishing industry, shipbuilding, component production for ships, rope production, etc. Third, every sitizen feast his eyes with the Baikal, a mighty Father, and his daughter beautiful Angara River. Even in the 19th century journeys from the Baikal to Irkuts were very popular. B. Dybovsky wrote about it: “Sailing in a light boat upstream the river and using oars only in the river stretches where the shores were low and the bed was broad we covered the whole distance from the Baikal to Irkutsk in six hours and a half. A boat trip up the Angara was one of the most pleasant excursions, it started at the place called the Angara Gates… Here the river flows out the bosom of the lake in all its beauty and power, just as the Greek goddess going out from the head of the Thunderer”.
Sometime ago Irkutsk coat-of-arms was approved to be the image of a tiger carrying a sable in its mouth. This tiger was called “babr” (in Turkic it denotes a sort of a snow leopard) by local people; it harbored in China, and it was a kind of “guest” from China in these places. In China it harbored in the mountains between Beijing and the half-desert steep of Goby where the Great China Wall goes through. In the Baikal taiga babr was met in the XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries, but afterwards it was annihilated as a genus. Thus, in 1709 G. Shelekhov’s servant, Yakov Smith wrote to his master from St. Petersburg: “The 10 babrs and 60 sables that you have sent to me are delivered”. But in the following lines in this and other letters Y. Smith writes about beavers (it sounds in Russian like “bobr”), and it is difficalt to suppose what he really meant.
As many other Siberian cities Irkutsk was treated in different ways by newcomers, especially foreigners. On the one hand, in the 50 – 60s of the XIXth century Irkutsk was treated as an Asian town (because of the great amount of people with the Mongolian type of face, “half-blooded”), rather poor and mud, dull, nothing of the ordinary, with wooden houses made of the Baikal cedar and long fences made of boards. In the town there were almost no trees, but there were vegetable-gardens; there were no places where people could walk, and the most beautiful districts, for example, the quays of the Angara, were heavily littered. This unwelcoming picture was amplified by the fact that in the town and its districts there were a lot of criminals who “wandered around” having escaped from Nerchinsk and other prisons and hard labor plants; in winter a huge amount of workers and servants who worked at gold mines in summer streamed into the town as well. But in the last third of the XIXth century the town changed profoundly. “The positive progress changes happened rapidly, but as the result of the fire (1879, A.K.) that totally destroyed at least two thirds of the buildings in the town, and then Irkutsk suddenly began to revive and just as a fairy Phoenix raised up from the ash younger, more beautiful and clean”.
This second discription of Irkutsk image we find in the novel by J. Vern “Michael Strogov”. Though the writer had never been to Irkutsk the impression he shows in his work was the impression of some of his friends, who have been to Siberia and, of course, this impression was extensively broadened by the writer’s imagination. The town was shown to a reader as an original, picturesque town where educated people live: “With its pointed as minarets bell-tower steeples and roundish as Japanese vases church domes the town has a bit oriental look. But this impression dies as soon as you enter the town. A Byzantine-Chinese city becomes an European one thanks to its streets with gravel surfacing, pavements, channel with huge birches along it, thanks to its buildings made of bricks and wood, among which there are some many-storied ones, thanks to the animated movement of equipages and not only tarantasses and carts but also carriages and whirlicotes, and finally thanks to the pretty big amount of citizens who keep up with the fashion and for whom Paris latest novelties are not something like a wonder”. In the town as J. Vern described there were two wooden leaf bridges built on piles (perhaps, that reminded him St. Petersburg).
We can speak about a range of impressions that “the capital city of Eastern Siberia” makes because even today its image is composed of absolutely contrast pictures of the ancient “savagery” with its old log huts of the XVIIIth century pattern, and the European elegancy with its stone buildings of the XIX – XXth century, and modern tendencies as well. But what Irkutsk is sure to have lost recently is its Oriental culture features, the signs of its interaction with such countries as Mongolia and China. In Ulan-Ude and Chita we find such features in datsan buildings, Buddhist stupas and so on, but Irkutsk lacks such signs of oriental look. There is only one lamaktsky temple situated far from the center of the city in the suburb Rabochee. It seems to me today it is necessary for the city and its districts to revive rapidly not only the image of the Russian look with its wooden old houses but also the Oriental one that will make these places more attractive for tourists from different countries.
But more important for the Baikal region life is the fact that despite the common context, that people who come to Siberia were mostly ignorant and unlucky, Irkutsk has created the image of the city with strong social opinion. Firstly, it was facilitated by its location on the crossroad of new roads to the North and East of Russia; very interesting people, inquisitive minds, who contributed to the development of Russia, came here to exchange their innovative ideas. Secondly, there were always a lot of political exiles in Irkutsk, and they all were strong, willful personalities with an uncommon outlook and unhacked thinking. P.A. Kropotkin stated that Irkutsk is notable for lively conversations and education, which resulted in the desire to set up new clubs according to their beliefs: “In any city you can find different clubs, but they are clubs set up according to the social position and status of its members; in Irkutsk, on the contrary, there are signs that these clubs are set up according to their members’ beliefs” [178, p. 53]. This historically conditioned social position and desire to plead for it presupposed the fact that since the middle of the 50s of the XXth century Irkutsk became the initiator of the struggle for the Baikal protection, which gave rise to the Russia ecological movement.
The rich natural and energy resources in the neighboring lands made Irkutsk the center of the well-known building area in the country. Together with the Irkutsk Hydroelectric Power Station, the turbines puddles of which whirled the waters of the Angara and Baikal, the new towns Angarsk and Shelekhov grew up. Here are the words from a well-known song:
The native home near the Moscow-river
We have left for good and took a bow,
For new plants here in the taiga
And new cities here to grow.
These words sounded in unison to the mood of many people, who came from different regions of Russia. For example, young people from Orel and Kaluga, Leningrad and Kalinin, Voronezh and Moscow came to build the aluminum plant in Shelekhov; those who came to build the petrochemical plant in Angarsk presented almost the same geography. The Baikal land welcomed them all. Here is only one of these people memories: “We didn’t expect such a welcoming reception that the Irkutsk people organized to us. It was 3 a. m. We had already been reconciled to the fact that we had to spend the night at the railway station. But at that moment the train stopped and we saw… the railway station flooded with light of numerous search lighters. People meeting us hold an ocean of Siberian flowers up above their heads. Thunder of applause sounded in unison with the march. The excited hearty welcome made us friends in a moment. We felt very warm and pleasing at heart, Siberia was not scary anymore. Siberia made us feel happy from the first minutes” .
Describing the impressions of the first builders of the town Shelekhovo about the welcome on the Siberian land, we cannot but speak about the person who this town is named after and the memory of whom will always be stamped on the tables of the Russian land history, not to mention the Baikal Siberia; this person is Grigory Ivanovich Shelekhov. Within the context of our book we should do it because this man deep in his heart had a respect to the aborigines not only of the Siberian region but also of the far away regions of north Asia and America. In the light of the fact that some archeological evidences on Island Olkhon prove that the American Indians came from Siberia, the given facts turn to have special value. I will start my story with one non-trivial episode.
In the spring of 1787 Irkutsk was shaken by an exotic and colourful picture. Horses, bulls, deer carrying packs, tens of dogs pulling sleighs with people were rising from the Angara right to the Sobornaya Square. The American Indians were especially noticeable among the whole diversity of the comers, as it turned out they wanted to get acquainted with Russia (having no idea that they are drawn to their historic homeland). They stood out by strange tattoos on their faces and out-of-the-way bright clothes. Tunguses (Evenks) and Yakuts escorted this procession. The famous Russian seaman, a man who devoted his intentions and energy to the study of the north-western coast of America, the Irkutsk merchant Grigory Ivanovich Shelekhov with his wife, Natalya Alekseevna, were sitting in the first carriage.
Shelekhov organized the first Selenie Ross, a fortress in Island Kodiak in the Bering Sea that has become the center of Russian America, the New World; he persuaded the rich merchants Golikovy to establish the fur and hunting company in the New World. Afterwards he organized the North-East American Company and became the director and the manager of it. After his death the company was taken under the patronage of the government and was renamed as Russian-American. Grigory Ivanovish explored Island Kodiak, the southern coast of Alaska up to the Kamyshansky Gulf; he also discovered Island Afognak and other islands of the Kodiak Archipelago. The new islands of this archipelago, the Kopaysky and Chugaysky Bays and the coast of Alaska were mapped. Grigory Shelekhov described the nature of these regions and the population of the lands discovered by him very thoroughly. Unlike Americans who exterminated the aboriginal tribes at that time, Russians wanted to live in peace and agreement with Aleutians and Indians, they inveigled them into the exchange trade, exchanged their experience of surviving. G. Shelekhov explained his successful interaction with the natives by the fact that a lot of Russians’ household things seemed to be a wonder to aborigines, and that Russians started to share these wonderful things with them. Houses building, gardening, nets and tricks for more productive hunting and fishing (apart from armory that aborigines was prohibited to keep), delicacies, gingerbread and candies, bath-houses, clothes and other items attracted aborigines. “I attracted their hearts so that they called me Father”, wrote Shelekhov.
Shelekhov was known to be as it is called today highly humane to the aborigine people of Siberia and America. He demanded the participants of different expeditions “not to offend the “wild” aborigines on pain of death”, “to treat them nicely, not to demand or take anything”, “those who are not subject to anybody should be offered to take out nationality assuring that they will be protected from the neighbors”. Having established the relations with one of the local tribes, Kosha, a Kodiak Eskomos tribe, in Russian America he ordered his people: “The natives, working in the company should be well treated, fed, dressed not only by word of mouth but also practically… the offenders among ours must be penalized without partiality”. Naturally, such treatment of aborigines returned a hundredfold, the aborigines were very friendly to Russians.
As for the episode with the visit of Indians and Islanders representatives to Irkutsk described above, G. Shelekhov describes the preceding and the following circumstances like this: “Speaking about traditions of people living in Russia I rose people’s curiosity so much that 40 of them, both men and women, got a wish to see Russian settlements with their own eyes: among them were children, who were given to me by wild natives, so that at least they (the children) could see the places as their parents could not do this themselves; and all the above-mentioned people came with me to Okhotsk, and only fifteen of them came to Irkutsk, all the rest had been sent back on my ship, and they were dressed up and presented with numerous gifts”.
G. Shelekhov showed all his essays to G. R. Derzhavin during his visit to St. Petersburg and with the help of the latter he published the book “The Notes of Shelekhov, His Travelling in the Eastern Sea”. Later on his “Notes” were translated into many foreign languages. G. I. Shelekhov died suddenly in July, 1795, and was buried in Irkutsk Znamensky Monastery. On the monument one can see the poem of G.R. Derzhavin starting with the lines “There is buried the Russian Columbus!”
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