Irkutsk is Heaven



The Siberian city of Irkutsk stands on the banks of the Angara River, approximately 45 miles downstream from its source, Lake Baikal. The lake, 25 million years old, is the oldest on earth. It is the planet's largest body of freshwater, with more volume than all of North America's Great Lakes combined. Baikal is also the world's deepest lake, at places more than a mile from the surface to the bottom.

irku2jpg(photo by Laurie and Andrew Knutson)

Irkutsk, with a population of approximately 600,000, is one of the largest cities in Siberia. Founded in 1662 Irkutsk adopted its Coat of Arms in 1690, a siberian tiger with a sable in its mouth. Siberian tigers disappeared from the area by the 1800s but Irkutsk persisted. After the Decembrist Revolution against the Tsar in 1825 the perpetrators who weren't shot were sent into exile in Irkutsk. For the remainder of the 19th century Irkutsk, like many cities in Siberia, became known as an exile city, a place one was sent to to be both punished and disappeared.

The construction of the Trans Siberian Railway in the 1890s, and the inclusion of Irkutsk as one of the main Siberian stops, dramatically altered both its character and perception. Beginning in Moscow and ending in Vladivostok located on the Sea of Japan, the railway stretches 5772 miles. The distance from Moscow to Irkutsk is a modest 3202 miles in comparison. By 1905 Irkutsk was being referred to as "The Paris of Siberia". Culture, music, theater. Even electricity. These halcyon days ended abruptly with the overthrow of the Tzar and the Russian Revolution. Irkutsk became the Siberian battleground between the Reds and the Whites. Seventy years of oppressive Soviet rule followed and beginning in 1991 a slow rebound.

irku12jpg (photo by Laurie and Andrew Knutson)

In  January 2014 the US national bandy team arrives in Irkutsk to compete in the World Championships. The reader will no doubt find it necessary to google Bandy to see what it is all about. Briefly they will find that it is a winter sport, played on an ice rink the size of a soccer field, with 10 skaters and a goalie on each team. The players use field hockey like sticks as they try to shoot the ball into a 7 foot high, 11 foot wide goal. Bandy is far older than ice hockey and in Russia it is the national winter sport. In brutal cold Siberia bandy is especially at home as the low temperatures allow for natural ice from mid November to early March. On the morning of February 2, 2014 the sun does not rise over Lake Baikal and Irkutsk until 9:52am. The temperature is minus 24 fahrenheit and it is a blustery day so the wind-chill stands at minus 55 fahrenheit.

irku7jpg (photo by Laurie and Andrew Knutson)

This level of intense cold would shut down entire cities in the rest of the world. But, this is Irkutsk, this is Siberia. And there is a world championship bandy match to be played between the USA and Belarus. The two countries have already met in the round robin on January 26, the US winning 7-4, only 18 hours after making the 40 hour trip from Minneapolis to Irkutsk. Now the two countries are meeting again in the consolation round. 

It has been an extremely cold week. Each team has already played 4 games in the martian like temperatures. But at minus 55 fahrenheit windchill this is the coldest day. Even so over 1500 Russians have come to watch the game. During the match something happens that has never been seen before. It is so cold that at one point when the ball, made of a cork center and hard plastic cover, is struck, it splits in half. 

The game comes to a brief stop as players and referees laugh in amazement and have their photo taken with the ball. The game ends with the US prevailing 3-2. The next day they will play Norway for 5th place. The temperature at Norway game time is a balmy, summer like minus 15 fahrenheit, and the wind is taking a rest. In the round robin the two teams have tied 5-5 but this day it is Norway with a 6-3 victory.bandyjpg (photo by Laurie and Andrew Knutson)

After the game the US boards their team bus to head directly to the championship match between Sweden and Russia at Trud Stadium. Our bus is escorted through security and we are dropped off directly at the player entrance. The game is already under ways when we join the 30,000 spectators filling Trud. The temperature has skyrocketed to minus 9 fahrenheit so most of them are sitting. The second half is interrupted when one of the referees catches his skate in a crack in the ice and tears every ligament in his knee. His screams of agony reverberate around the suddenly quiet stadium. After an ambulance removes the referee from the ice the crowd awakens, and so does the Russian team. They win the game 3-2 and with it the world championship. 

Of the 30,000 spectators, perhaps 29,500 are Russian, and they are now experiencing the tribal euphoria that only comes from triumphs in war and sports. The US team boards their bus for the drive back to their hotel, but there is a sea of joyous Russians to navigate through. Ever so slowly the bus moves forward. The crowds part, but as they do they see the large American flag on the front window of the bus, announcing that it is the US team inside. As the bus passes by the people enthusiastically smile and wave. 

irku9jpg (photo by Laurie and Andrew Knutson)

They applaud. They clasp their hands together and raise their arms above their heads. They give the universal sign of approval, the thumbs up. The genuineness of their actions is written on their faces. It is among the most powerful of experiences the players and coaches of the US team have ever had. Pure, unmitigated, warmth and acceptance. This must be what it is like passing through the pearly gates and being welcomed into heaven.  (photo by Laurie and Andrew Knutson)

*CHRIS MIDDLEBROOK (He is a lawyer, was a professional bandy player and is also the author of a collection of 118 short stories - "The Bandy Chronicles-My Pursuit of a Forgotten Sport." As a US National Bandy Team player, coach and the current President of The American Bandy Association he has traveled extensively in the Nordic Countries, The Soviet Union and Russia as well as Central Asia and China. He currently resides in his hometown of Minneapolis together with his wife of 36 years, Cathy)

click here and give us a like on Facebook

click here to retweet our stories

click here to follow us on Linkedin

click here to share our contents on Instagram

and... click here to subscribe our newsletter