In April, 2014, I took a trip to Irkutsk. The purpose of this trip was twofold. First, I would perform a routine check on our regular programs in Irkutsk. Second, I also wanted to check on a special project we were assisting with, in which a group of 11 students, led by their professor, were all studying at Irkutsk State Linguistic University, participating in internships, and living in homestays as part of a customized group program.
(Update: as Russia reforms its universities, several of the country's larger, more prestigious institutions are being consolidated into new, larger, federal universities. Thus, this summer, ILGU became EALI, Eurasian Linguistic Institute - a branch of Moscow State Linguistic University. This article, written before the change, refers to it as ILGU.)
I hadn't been to Irkutsk in several years. I was pleased to find that much of what I had loved about the city is still very much in place. As a small, regional capital, Irkutsk is highly navigable either on foot or on the city's extensive bus system. It is literally jam-packed with art and culture, with museums, theatres, social organizations, and universities around nearly every corner. The city is quite youthful – with many young Siberians migrating here to study or seek economic opportunity.
Nearby Lake Baikal and its surrounding nature contributes greatly to the local culture, providing hiking and camping opportunities and serving local culinary palates with revered local fish.
Most of all, however, after the bustle of Moscow, which has been my adopted home city of the last 11 years, the slower pace of Irkutsk is refreshing. People have more time to stop and talk, and, as Americans are something of a novelty here, it is very easy to meet locals as they will often strike up the conversation themselves after hearing English or accented Russian.
These 11 students came as a group with their professor for a long-term study abroad session in Irkutsk. SRAS helped with the logistics of arranging their studies, homestays, internships, and cultural program. Here they are on the shore of Lake Baikal.
Students on our regular programs, with whom I had the opportunity to have dinner at a small Georgian restaurant near the dorms said that they had chosen Irkutsk over other destinations in order to access the local outdoor adventure and/or to surround themselves with friendly locals who are less likely to speak English. They had not been disappointed in their decisions.
Castro is a local coffee shop that now has multiple locations in Irkutsk.
Our special project, with the group of 11 students, had posed several challenges. It turned out well, however, in large part due to the friendliness and accommodation of the people of Irkutsk. All students reported extraordinary hospitality at their homestays. They were well-fed, invited to outings, and actively engaged in conversations in Russian. While we had worried about placing all students in meaningful internships in a smaller city like Irkutsk, supportive hosts were found in abundance at local museums, environmental and intercultural organizations, and other locations. Students researched, wrote, translated, taught, and performed other tasks for their hosts, gaining experience, professional skills, and insight into local culture. You can read about some of their experiences at Students Abroad.
The staff at ILGU was excited to show me renovations made to the dorms and to the city itself. When I had visited many years ago, the dorms was concrete blocks inside and out. They were drab in the greyest sense of the word, but still functional. Students that did not see the dorms before will be less excited about the upgrades made – which are largely cosmetic and which mostly affect the rooms themselves, leaving the outside of the building and the hallways/staircases still very drab but functional. The rooms are large, quite comfortable, with fresh paint and new furniture. Even the shared showers and toilets have been spruced up. However, overall, while students are likely to be comfortable here, "pretty" is not likely a word they will later use to describe their accommodations.
A renovated pedestrian streen in Irkutsk. Most of the city still retains its "old" charm.
The main change that I noticed about the dorms was to the surrounding area. There are now several more grocery stores and respectable yet affordable eateries, indicating that indeed the local economy is developing and there is hope for more improvements made to the area.
A major pedestrian street in the central part of Irkutsk was reconstructed in 2011 in celebration of the anniversary of the town's founding. Several other major squares, city monuments, and the airport have also had major work to improve their appearance and functioning. Further, while much of the city still retains a sort of "post-soviet" charm with many aging buildings still to be seen, the more I looked around Irkutsk, the more new business I could see. During my previous visit, I had noted that coffee shops were nearly non-existent and that reasonable cafes offering quality food were hard to find. Today, many local establishments have sprouted up to fill these niches. Franchises are still rare, but are also beginning to find their way into the central part of the city. Perhaps even more welcome was the affordability of Irkutsk. The bills presented to me there were often 30-40% lower than what I would have expected to see in Moscow.
Irkutsk is a great location and I'm glad that SRAS has an outpost here. This is an especially good destination for intermediate and advanced students looking to seriously build language skills, save some cash, and to get out and be active with friendly locals.
SRAS's Library of Irkutsk Photos from students and staff throughout our history there