"The Paris of the East" is what Irkutsk was called at the beginning of the 19th century by its admiring visitors. Today you can still get an impression of the former splendour here and there if you take your time and walk the city with open eyes.
A stroll through Ulitza Bolshaya will give you an idea of the old glory. Sooner or later you will come to ask yourself how such a European-style city - with boulevards, theatres, churches and big colourful houses - could have developed so far in the East, where it doesn't resemble any of the other towns in this area.
One of the reasons for Irkutsk's establishment was the strategically cleverly chosen location - directly at the trading route between the East and the West of the Russian Empire. Since its foundation in 1661 Irkutsk was steadily growing and proliferating. The construction of the Transsiberian Railway was another factor that supported the role Irkutsk was playing as a reloading point between East and West.
However, the most important reason for the appearance of Irkutsk today is found in one of the dark chapters in the history of Russia - the practice of the czars to banish all political and other enemies to Siberia. It might appear as the irony of history that of all things this forced movement of the country's intellectual elite helped Siberia to develop and gave important impulses for the establishment of Irkutsk. Particularly the Decabrists, a group within the aristocracy of Russia, that were banned to the region around Irkutsk after an attempted coup, had a great influence on the development of the city. After they had finished their detention, many of them moved to Irkutsk and supported trade, culture, science and even agriculture. After the October Revolution in 1917 Irkutsk remained an important city to drive forward the systematic development of Siberia. The opening of the university and several research centres as well as the extension of the industry gave the backup for Irkutsk to remain the intellectual and economic centre of Western Siberia.
Having this historical knowledge in mind, a stroll through Irkutsk becomes an exciting journey into the past during which there are many interesting details to be discovered.