The land of Siberia is known for its natural resources, diverse ecologies, mystery and silence. Near the center of its southern part, at the Angara River, lies the city of Irkutsk that is a center of culture and education, important for economic development. Irkutsk is a linking hub, which connects Russia's great cities in the west with not only its strategically important Far East, but also connecting with the great economic markets of Asia.
The Irkut River, from which the town takes its name, is a small river that joins the Angara directly opposite the town. The main portion of the city is separated from several important landmarks—the monastery, the fort, and the port, as well as its suburbs by the Ida, (or Ushakovka) River.
Being a Siberian city, Irkutsk has a subarctic climate, characterized by high variation of temperatures between seasons. Temperatures can be very warm in the summer, and brutally cold in the winter.
Irkutsk grew out of the winter quarters established in 1652 by Yakov Pokhabov for gold-trading and for the collection of the fur tax from the Buryats. The town gained official city rights from the government in 1686. The Russian expansion of the 17th century was driven by a desire for increased resources and improved trade routes, notably to China and the Central Asian states. The area around Irkutsk was relatively quickly developed and integrated to Russia both politically and culturally.
The first road connection between Moscow and Irkutsk – the Siberian Road – was built in 1760. The city benefited economically from this railway road a lot. In that time, many new products, often imported from China, became widely available in Irkutsk (including gold, diamonds, furs, wood, silk, and tea). The Trans-Siberian Railway, constructed between the years 1891 and 1916, allowed for much faster transport and opened the possibility of exporting agricultural goods from Siberia.
In the early 19th century, many Russian artists, officers, and nobles were prisoned in Siberia for taking part in the Decembrist actions against the Emperor of Russia Nicholas I in 1812. The Decembrists are probably the most famous, and romantic, of Siberian exiles, which was common for this area and have greatly influenced on the culture and the development of the city that became a cultural and educational center of Eastern Siberia. They built schools, hosted balls, and held open discussions in their homes on a range of topics and issues. Their migration, though forced and restricted, established an intellectual and cultural link between the western Russian cities and the Siberian territories. The Decembrists are still fondly remembered in Irkutsk and two house-museums, the former residences of the Volkonsky and Trubetskoy families are still immaculately kept as tributes to these people and their contributions to the city's history.
In the 20th century Stalin would again put Irkutsk and its surrounding regions to use as a location for prisoners, setting up several gulags near the city.
During the Soviet era, the Russian government developed Irkutsk into an industrial capital.
Nowadays Irkutsk is an attractive city with a population of about 620 people. The current population of Irkutsk and the surrounding land is comprised mostly of ethnic Russians and native tribal groups. The Buryat Nation is the largest cohesive entity among these groups. There is Ust Orda settlement – the administrative and cultural center of Ust Orda Buryat National Region, situated 70 km from Irkutsk.
Irkutsk attracts not only foreigners but also many Russian as well for magnificent scenes of its the world-famous Lake Baikal – "Blue Pearl of Siberia", which is Irkutsk's greatest attraction. It is located between the Irkutsk and Buryat Oblast and has as much water as all of North America's Great Lakes combined — 23,600 km³, about one fifth of the total fresh water on the earth. Having 636 kilometres long and 80 km wide, Lake Baikal has the largest surface area of any freshwater lake in Asia (31,494 km²) and is the deepest lake in the world (1637 metres, previously measured at 1620 metres). The water and surrounding forests are home to myriad animal and plant species including the ring seal, sturgeon, and brown bears, many found nowhere else on earth. Because of the lake's fragility, beauty and uniqueness, a few small ecotourism programs have begun operating in the region.
Another reason to visit Irkutsk is its architecture, which includes not only the onion-domed cathedrals for which Russia is famous, but also the intricate wooden architecture that is becoming harder and harder to find in the faster-growing cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg. The other attractions are: Irkutsk Znamensky Convent with graves of the Decembrists, founded in 1683; Decembrists' Memorial Complex; Yuri Gagarin Boulevard with monument to the Emperor of Russia Alexander III; Irkutsk Museum of Regional Studies, appeared in 1782; Sukachev's Fine Arts Museum, founded in the 1870s etc.