The Paris of Siberia. Russia's window on the East. The timeless refuge for the intelligentsia, Decembrists, czariots, liberal democrats, Leninists, Stalinists, idealists, Mongolians, Chinese, a sprinkling of Japanese, an occasional American or two, anyone and everyone who chose not to integrate with "modern" Russian society - the term "modern" being distinctly relative.
In 1917, as Lenin led the Bolsheviks to power in Petrograd (later Leningrad, and now St. Petersburg), the czarists based their quasi-successful resistance here for three long years.
During the rule of Stalin and afterward, the intelligentsia and liberal democrats congregated in Irkutsk, most of them either implausibly released from the GULAG prison camps or children of those who perished needlessly in their hellish conditions.
In the early 1990s, after a failed hard-line communist coup, Irkutsk attracted the last Marxist-Leninist utopian idealists, while Boris Yeltsin, somewhat ridiculously, rode a tank in Moscow to victory and a new and "glorious" Russian future.
Irkutsk was built on the idea of escape and exile. Its history has been one of looking from the outside in - looking in on characteristic Russian affairs and shaking its head in wonderment. If Moscow is symbolic of modern Russia, Irkutsk is its counterpoint, the anti-establishment, the anti-history.
Today, Irkutsk still thrives on its romantic and resistant tradition. But throughout Russia, apathy, bitterness and insensitivity have become entrenched. Russian citizens are jaded about the prospects of capitalism and democracy as the correct system for their nation. A third way is sought, but no third way is in sight.
The cafés of Irkutsk - where debate and invective tend to flow freely, once buzzing with the next great idea, participants pondering where the next great revolution was lurking - are now ominously silent. No revolution is waiting in the wings here. Having led Russia through a communist revolution, purges, perestroika and a dithering democratic-capitalist transition, the intelligentsia has lost its clout in Russia. Its ideas no longer resound with the people. Revolutionary zeal has given way to the humdrum of a revolution long since dead.
'Tis a shame.
Today's Russia needs the spirit of revolution, if not its turbulent ways. Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, has consolidated most of the power into the hands of the Kremlin, smoking out any semblance of independent media, shuffling his spineless legislators in the State Duma into one party - United Russia - creating a rubber-stamp parliament that remains far from the interests of the people. Last year, Putin announced sweeping electoral reform: No longer would regional governors be popularly elected, rather, they would be appointed by the president.
In May, when a massive power outage brought Moscow to its knees, the head of the state electricity commission, Anatoly Chubais, went on public radio to blame Putin personally for underinvesting in electrical infrastructure. An hour later, Putin announced a criminal investigation into the power outage. An hour following, Chubais went back on air to publicly apologize for his previous comments and the power outage.
It is this atmosphere of strong-man rule that pervades Russia today. Very few in Russia appear willing to struggle once again. Theirs is a people awfully tired of struggle.
Irkutsk can only watch from afar and remain disappointed. After all, its cafés inspired the masses to struggle before. Its cafés are now the ones intellectually and socially bankrupt.
On Thursday, Russia acknowledged the one-year anniversary of the massacre at Beslan, coined Russia's 9/11. Some 331 children and their teachers were killed as Russian special forces bumbled an ill-planned storming of Beslan School No. 1 to free the hostages seized by Chechen terrorists that morning. Criticism of Putin's leadership (or lack thereof) that day has been conspicuously absent.
To mark the tragic anniversary, a patriotic campaign was in full swing around Moscow with T-shirts and posters in the metro stations. Imprinted upon a black background were the words "Bez slov" - "Without words."
Without words, indeed. No one is talking in today's Russia.
Matt Stone is an international studies and economics junior studying this semester in Irkutsk, Russia, in central Siberia. He can be reached at email@example.com.