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The Imperiia Project: a spatial history of the Russian Empire

Overview: The Pinnacle of Siberian Urbanism

The concept of an ‘urban Siberia,’ left on its own, sounds much like a paradox. Historiographical interpretations of the vast land, spanning three-quarters of the territory of the modern Russian Federation despite only containing a quarter of its citizens, focus on the negative space between civilization. Mostly, the former peasants and Cossacks who migrated to Siberia in the nineteenth century settled sparsely, allowing themselves ample territory to farm the land. But larger outposts slowly aggregated as well. After all, the Tsar needed to have somewhere for his bureaucrats to make sure that Orthodox Churches could be seen and the Russian language heard as far away as the Pacific Ocean. Thus began Irkutsk. The settlement was founded in 1661 by plundering Cossack marauder-types, and by the early nineteenth century the Governor-General for all of Siberia took up residence here.

As a major center of authority in East Russia, Irkutsk ultimately also became a hub for thugs and criminals. The city was home to Siberia’s largest prison, and many exiles from Moscow and Saint Petersburg were sent here to serve out their sentences in a land from which it was nearly impossible to escape back to home. The most famous of these exile groups was the Decembrists, political rebels who staged an attempted coup against Tsar Nicholas I and were subsequently imprisoned, shot, or sent to Siberia. Remarkably, after their exile period finished, many of them stayed in the region, specifically in Irkutsk. Wealthy and cultured metropolitan citizens, they established theatres, archives, ballrooms, museums, and institutes for education in their new home. By the mid-nineteenth century, Irkutsk was one of the most famed and well-regarded cities in Russia, and certainly the crown jewel of Siberia. With the construction of the Trans-Siberian railway between 1893-1916, the late Imperial period in the city was especially marked by increased wealth and positivity.

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