One day, while preparing the project, I realized that if an Italian delegation comes to Irkutsk, they would definitely ask me if there were any historical ties between Italy and Irkutsk, and I wanted to find such information. About a week passed without any attempt on my side to search for the information, but the Universe was helpful as always – in a local magazine I came across an interesting article about Italians in Irkutsk. And it encouraged me to search for more information.
So, here are some facts of incredible and often extreme adventures of Italians in Irkutsk and at Lake Baikal. This historical information is limited, and I realize that a deeper research demands time. It would be good to learn more about these historical facts, as many questions arise, and I hope that you can help me to find out more facts, and we can get a better coverage of this topic together.
The story began at the end of the XIX century.
In late 1899, construction of the Circum-Baikal Railway, as a section of the Trans-Siberian Railway, commenced. Some segments of the railway were constructed by Italians who came from the Apennines peninsula upon conclusion of contracts with the Russian Department of Railroads. The Italians were known as the worlds’ best stone dressers and mosaic workers and were thus invited to do breast wall masonry and to construct tunnels and galleries. The neatly-bricked breast walls still remain in a perfect condition, and you can enjoy the view of the stone structures on the Circum-Baikal Railway tour.
Almost 1000 workers and engineers arrived in Siberia, and the local people were amazed to hear beautiful Italian names – Pagani, Andreoletti, Colina, Indri, Floriani, Rittzolatti. For unique qualification and skills, the Italians were paid more than other workers. Masonry works were completed by August 1904. In 1905, the Russian-Japanese war began, and all foreigners were dismissed from the strategic object.
Many of the Italians decided not to go back to their home country. They settled in Siberian cities, married to local women, started private businesses, such as photo studios, cinemas, small retail shops. The largest Italian diaspora among other Siberian cities settled in Irkutsk.
On the eve of 20th century, Irkutsk was a progressive town. Especially it was known for photographic business: there were dozens of photographers in Irkutsk, and the turnover of photo studios was similar to that of the city of Odessa, the main photography center of Russia. Irkutsk citizens organized a photographic society, arranged regular exhibitions and conducted educational lectures on the art and technologies of photography.
In the1920-30s, Jovanni Minizini was the most popular photographer in Irkutsk. He was a 10-year-old boy, when his family came to Siberia; his father worked at construction of the Circum-Baikal Railway. As a teenager Jovanni worked as a cashier at the booking office and then as an organ-grinder at The Illusion, the electric cinema owned by Antonio Michele Donatello, who also came to Irkutsk from Italy.
The Illusion’s windows displayed a permanent exhibition of photos illustrating hot topics of the Irkutsk day-to-day life. The cinema theatre included a movie-making factory which produced more than 20 documentary movies. After the revolution of 1917, Donatello left Russia, and a little was saved in his cinema theatre.
The time of trouble for Italians came after the period of NEP (New Economic Policy) ceased in 1937, when many private businesses were nationalized. According to the resolution issued by the RSFSR Government, citizens of Italy had to leave Russia, and most of them were repatriated to Italy.
The Italians are remembered in Irkutsk and at Lake Baikal – arches and walls, corners and cordons from neatly hewed stones, tunnel arches of the Circum-Baikal Railway skillfully made from rubble stone of indefinite forms remain in place and in perfect shape. At the portals, numbers are visible: 1902-1904, they show the construction dates.
In the building of the Theatre College in Irkutsk, the mosaic floors remind us about Francesco Fontana who made the floor.
A modern cinema theatre which is located in the Illusion building is now called “Don Otello”, and the Irkutsk citizens believe that this name is given in the memory of Antonio Michele Donatello. It is pity that its owners fail to maintain the correct spelling of the name. Anyway, we should be grateful to them for keeping the cinema in this historical place (rather than converting it into another retail point…, which may be selling shoes from Italy though!).
For those who would like to visit places related to the Italian history of Irkutsk, the following program is recommendable:
- One-day tour of the Circum-Baikal Railway, 89km long railway along the southern shore of Lake Baikal. The total length of its 38 tunnels is 9,063m. The architectural wonders are 15 stone galleries with a total length of 295m and 3 ferro-concrete galleries with apertures, 248 bridges and viaducts, and 268 retaining walls. The Circum-Baikal is unique in its richness of engineering constructions. Its tunnels and stone galleries were designed and constructed as complex structures in extremely complicated mountainous area. Upon reconstruction in late 1990s, the initial design developed by architects and engineers of the beginning of the 19th century was maintained. The section of Circum-Baikal railway from Station Baikal to Station Kultuk is an architectural- landscape reserve under the state protection.
- Half-day city tour in Irkutsk (along the Karl Marks Street): The Khudozhestvenny cinema theater,The Illusion building (now the Don Otello cinema theatre), etc.
- Lunch (or dinner) at a restaurant offering the Italian cuisine – Prego (15a Karl Marx Street, www.pregoitaly.ru), Antico Borgo (1 Lapin Street, www.antico-borgo.ru), Marciano (15 Karl Marx Street).
The author is grateful to Elvira Kamenshchikova, the author of “Italians at the Lake Baikal shores” (Irkutsk, 2003) and “In search of Minizini” (Irkutsk, 2005), as some of the facts referred to above were published in these books.
Photo: Tatiana Baksheeva.