In 1960, Irkutsk was set to be visited by President Eisenhower. The visit did not take place, due to the fact that an American spy plane was captured in the USSR airspace. However, Irkutsk had already thoroughly prepared for it. The fountain, which is still on the Kirov square, was created in preparation for the presidential visit. A paved road from Irkutsk to Lake Baikal was also constructed for the arrival, which never took place. Now tourists have a much easier time traveling in and out of the city.
In a country the size of Russia, the infrastructure is bound to be an issue. In fact, it has been a major problem for every administration since the earliest days of the Russian Empire. In practice, that means that Irkutsk has always been a bit out of the loop. The very first asphalt roads in Irkutsk appeared in 1946, and the first small electric power plants were constructed in 1901.
Because of its proximity to Mongolia and China, Irkutsk has been a hub of cultural exchange. The very first Chinese shop in Irkutsk opened in 1863. The exchanged slowed down significantly when China was under Mao’s rule, and leaving the country for any purpose was nearly impossible. It picked up again under the next Chinese administration when the inhabitants of poorer Chinese provinces would come to Irkutsk to trade at the Chinese market. Now Chinese middle-class tourists are taking the entire region by storm, bringing in as much as a billion dollars each year.
Irkutsk is roughly halfway between the easternmost parts of Russia and St. Petersburg. Many locals take pride in that, claiming that Irkutsk is the geographical heart of the country.
There is a city in Chile called Punta Arenas. It is the furthest city south of the 46th parallel south. It is also the antipode of Irkutsk: it is located diametrically across from it.
Michael Strogoff, believed by many critics to be Jules Verne’s best novel, is set in Irkutsk. It tells a story of Michael Strogoff, a courier of the Tsar, who was sent to Irkutsk, which had been seized by Tartars. His task was to warn the local governor about a traitor inside the city. On his way, he met the love of his life and got captured.
Irkutsk, the biggest city in Siberia, has been Russia’s capital of political repression for centuries. Political prisoners were sent this way to labor camps throughout the nineteenth century. Many of the forced labor camps of the GULAG system were located near to Irkutsk as well. The most famous group of political prisoners sent to exile were the leaders of the Decembrist uprising. Some of the released prisoners chose to stay in Irkutsk. As a result, a significant Polish minority settled in the region and now have become entirely naturalized.