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In 1652, Ivan Pokhabov built a zimovyo (winter quarters) near the site of Irkutsk for gold trading and for the collection of
fur taxes from the
Buryats. In 1661, Yakov Pokhabov built an
ostrog or small fort nearby.
 The ostrog gained official town rights from the government in 1686. The first road connection between
Moscow and Irkutsk, the Siberian Road, was built in 1760, and benefited the town economy. Many new products, often imported from
Kyakhta, became widely available in Irkutsk for the first time, including
tea. In 1821, as part of the
Speransky reforms, Siberia was administratively divided at the
Yenisei River and Irkutsk became the seat of the Governor-General of East Siberia.
In the early 19th century, many Russian
artists, officers, and
nobles were sent into
exile in Siberia for their part in the
Decembrist revolt against
Nicholas I. Irkutsk became the major center of intellectual and social life for these exiles, and much of the city's cultural heritage comes from them; many of their wooden houses, adorned with ornate, hand-carved decorations, survive today, in stark contrast with the standard
Soviet apartment blocks that surround them.
Epiphany Cathedral and central Irkutsk in 1865
By the end of the 19th century, there was one exiled man for every two locals. People of varying backgrounds, from members of the
Decembrist uprising to
Bolsheviks, had been in Irkutsk for many years and had greatly influenced the culture and development of the city. As a result, Irkutsk eventually became a prosperous cultural and educational center in
In 1879, on July 4 and 6, the palace of the (then) Governor General, the principal administrative and municipal offices and many of the other public buildings were destroyed by fire, and the government
library and the
museum of the Siberian section of the
Russian Geographical Society were completely ruined. Three-quarters of the city was destroyed, including approximately 4,000 houses.
 However, the city quickly rebounded, with electricity arriving in 1896, the first theater being built in 1897 and a major train station opened in 1898. The first train arrived in Irkutsk on August 16 of that year. By 1900, the city had earned the
nickname of "The
Paris of Siberia."
Russian Civil War, which broke out after the
October Revolution, Irkutsk became the site of many furious, bloody clashes between the "
Whites" and the "
Reds". In 1920,
Aleksandr Kolchak, the once-feared commander of the largest contingent of anti-Bolshevik forces, was executed in Irkutsk, which effectively destroyed the anti-Bolshevik resistance.
Irkutsk was the administrative center of the short-lived
East Siberian Oblast, which existed from 1936 to 1937. The city subsequently became the administrative center of Irkutsk Oblast after East Siberian Oblast was divided into
Chita Oblast and Irkutsk Oblast.
During the Communist years, the industrialization of Irkutsk and Siberia in general was heavily encouraged. The large Irkutsk Reservoir was built on the
Angara River between 1950 and 1959 in order to facilitate industrial development.
Epiphany Cathedral (built in 1718–1746)
The Epiphany Cathedral (left), the governor's palace, a school of medicine, a museum, a military hospital and the crown factories are among the public institutions and buildings. The
Aleksandr Kolchak monument, designed by
Vyacheslav Klykov, was unveiled in 2004. On July 27, 2004, the Irkutsk Synagogue (1881) was gutted by a conflagration.
In December 2016, 62 people in Irkutsk
died in a mass methanol poisoning.