The Enigmatic and Curious History of the Irkutsk Synagogue—Seemingly the Oldest in Russia

Translated to English from an article by Vadim Palko at Verbludvogne.ru

In the spring of 2020, the Synagogue of Irkutsk, became one of the first religious institutions of the city to shutter itself due to the effects of the COVID19 pandemic.  Historically, this by far not the first time that the synagogue—which has recently celebrated its 141 anniversary—was forced to interrupt its activities due to external circumstances. Questions relating to the building’s history are as numerous, as they are interesting and mysterious—including whether this synagogue can truly claim the title of being the oldest one currently standing on the territory of the RF.

Unification of Two Disparate Jewish Communities, Construction, and Destruction by Fire

The Jewish community of Irkutsk, almost from the very moment of its foundation, was divided into two discordant groups; the so-called “soldiers’” and “merchants’” factions. The former was mainly composed of Jewish servicemen of the Imperial Russian Army and their descendants, while the latter mainly of merchants and traders, whose business activities brought them to the city. This latter group of Jews, had far more economic resources at their disposal than their military-minded brethren and at the outset were able to set up their own house of prayer.

Notwithstanding this fact, it was the “soldiers’ faction” of the Jewish community that initially submitted a request to the Irkutsk city council to authorize the construction of an officially consecrated synagogue within the city. Not to be outdone, the “merchants’ faction” rapidly submitted their own such request.

The request of the first group was granted by Russia’s Minister of Internal Affairs, in April of 1878. The request of the second group was denied. The basis of the denial, was stated to be the fact that the request of the first group was already granted and as far as the authorities were concerned—one Jewish house of worship was “more than sufficient for Irkutsk”.

Ironically, having secured official permission for their endeavor, the “soldier Jews” immediately realized that they lacked the funds necessary for its completion. Their comparatively humble economic status simply did not allow them the financial resources required for the erection of a proper, stone building. The irony was completed by the fact that while the “merchants’ faction” did have the money for the construction of a proper house of worship, they lacked official permission. The solution was obvious: the hitherto rival factions had to unite as one in order to make their common dream a reality. A united committee was formed in order to oversee the entire building and design process.

The building, whose site was chosen to be on Salomatovskaya street, was completed with surprising rapidity. The design plans were officially finalized on the 10th of May of 1878, and already on the 5th of April 1879 the new synagogue’s opening ceremony was held, followed by the first liturgical service.

In a bitter twist of fate, the construction process was completed just two months before the Great Fire of Irkutsk—which destroyed most of Irkutsk’s historical city center and gutted the building of the recently completed synagogue, leaving only the external walls standing.

As Irkutsk’s citizens began the process of rebuilding their city, so did the Jewish community begin the process of rebuilding the synagogue. The first meeting to discuss the synagogue’s restoration was held by its congregants in January of 1881. Points discussed at this meeting included the obvious question of funds needed for the restorative works, as well as what architectural design the renovated building should have. While it was decided that the architectural composition should mirror the original building, nonetheless some significant novelties were incorporated into the restorative plans—such as the addition of a domed roof and the removal of two side entrances, in favor of one main entrance at the front. The rebuilding plans were finalized on the 30th of May of the same year.

Restoration and New Challenges

The precise date of the completion of the restorative works has been lost to history, however it is known with certainty that by the end of 1882, the Jewish house of prayer was already functional.

In 1886, a Jewish theological school was established on the synagogue’s upper floors, which until then was housed on the premises of the old mansion of the Jewish merchant—Yaakov Dombrowski.

Subsequently, during the 1890’s a Jewish library was founded inside the synagogue—which by 1915 housed more than 4.2 thousand scholarly tomes and manuscripts—many of them very rare and valuable. So valuable were in-fact many of the books housed inside the synagogue’s library, that the overall value of the collection was estimated to be some 6.5 thousand rubles—a staggering figure considering that at the time, the overall value of the synagogue’s building was estimated at 65,000 rubles.

The life of the city’s Jewish community underwent dramatic changes shortly after the Bolsheviks came to power. The changes began with renaming of the street the synagogue was located on, from the historical name of Salomatovskaya, to Liebknecht street—in honor of a little-known German socialist—Karl Liebknecht. The synagogue’s building on the property it was located on was “nationalized” and made public property. As a consolatory measure, the community was granted the right to “perpetual rent-free use” of the premises. In effect, the community was given the dubious right to “rent-free use” of the very building they themselves paid for and built, and were the rightful owners of.

In 1929, Soviet authorities began to raise the question of abrogating the above-mentioned “right to use”, and transferring the property to complete municipal use and control. These plans were finalized in 1931 and the community was forced to accept a series of confusing and contradictory compromises. The authorities proposed for the congregation to move into a building located at №20 Red Army street (currently no building with such an address exists within the city). As part of this “compromise” the Jewish community was forced to agree to pay for the restorative works of the crumbling building out of their own pocket. By 1933, there officially no longer was a Jewish house of worship on Liebknecht street. The congregation did move into the building on Red Army street, but already by 1938, the city council of Irkutsk decided to permanently liquidate all Jewish places of worship within the city, in their entirety. This decision was approved by the Supreme Council of State in 1939.

Only in 1947, the Jewish community was again allowed limited use (confined only to the upper floor) of the original synagogue building. Following the pattern of senseless contradictions, Soviet authorities again banned any religious use of the building in 1958. From that point onward the building saw little-to-no use—standing idle for nearly three decades and slowly falling into decay and disrepair.

By the 1980’s Soviet society began to change, and religious minorities were once again quietly allowed to conduct modest religious services. In this context, Irkutsk’s municipal authorities allowed for some restorative works to be done on the synagogue’s now crumbling structure. As the decade wore on, Irkutsk’s Jewish congregation was once again allowed to hold services inside the building and in 1990 it was officially restored to the ownership of the Jewish community.

One of the latest trials the synagogue went through was once again fire—which happened in July of 2004. This time the resulting damage was far less extensive than the one that occurred 125 years before, but the restorative process was far more demanding and took much longer than in the previous century—requiring no less than five years for the building to be operational once again. Finally, after a great deal of lengthy, remedial work—the synagogue once again opened its doors to congregants in 2009—coinciding with its 130th anniversary.

The Mystery of the Architect

According to a majority of modern publications, the architect contracted by the community to oversee the restorative works was Vladislav Kudelsky. Additionally, it is well documented that it was he that helped to finalize and implement the post-fire improvements in the synagogue’s design described above. Unfortunately, no documentary evidence exists that architect Kudelsky also participated in drawing-up the designs of the original, pre-fire structure, leaving this aspect of the synagogue’s story a mystery.  

Kudelsky—a graduate of the Imperial Academy of Arts of St. Petersburg—arrived in Irkutsk in 1860 and almost immediately began his professional activities. Just a few short months after his arrival in the city, architect Kudelsky was commissioned to oversee the construction of a parvise that connected the main building of the Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross with its northern side-chapel, providing an elegant passageway between the two, capable of shielding congregants walking between the two buildings from the elements.

Over the next three decades, Kudelsky oversaw the completion of a large number of buildings in Irkutsk, which today are well known to city’s inhabitants and are considered to be gems of Irkustk’s historico-architectural heritage. Among these are buildings such as the former Trapeznikovsky Technical College—which presently houses the faculty of Biology & Soil Tilling of the Irkutsk State University, as well as the mansion of the Kolygin merchant family—currently known as “The Officers’ House”.

Today when one looks at these historical structures and compares them with the synagogues, one can’t help but wonder; are these architectural masterpieces not all works of the same master?

Another curious detail of architect Kudelsky’s biography, seems to be that the man who oversaw construction of both Jewish and Orthodox houses of worship in Irkutsk, himself did not belong to either one of those confessional groups. Judging by circumstantial historical evidence it appears that architect Kudelsky was Catholic. The evidence to suggest this, goes beyond the seemingly Polish-sounding origin of his surname. It is known that after his death in 1893, Kudelsky was buried specifically in the Catholic section of the municipal cemetery.

During the Soviet era, the authorities of the time decided to turn the cemetery into a municipal park and the central section of the cemetery was paved over to make way for the Central Park of Recreation and Culture—obliterating the historical tombstones and monuments to the deceased in the process. Suffering the same fate as the others, the final resting place of architect Kudelsky became forever lost.

The Oldest in Russia?

Above the synagogue’s main entrance is a commemorative plaque dated 1879— which corresponds to the year that the very first liturgical service was held inside the newly constructed house of worship.

The Chief Rabbi of Irkutsk—Rabbi Aaron Wagner—has stated that the synagogue of Irkutsk is in-fact the oldest, still-functioning synagogue in Russia. This may surprise many of Irkutsk’s residents, as conventional wisdom holds that Russia’s oldest historical sights are overwhelmingly located in its European part—chiefly Moscow and St. Petersburg—while Irkutsk, in the best case scenario, can only claim to be home to some of the oldest buildings in Siberia. Nonetheless it remains a documented fact that the synagogue of Moscow was constructed between 1887 and 1891, while the St. Petersburg synagogue was built between the years 1883 to 1893—making the Irkutsk synagogue (slightly) older.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that today on the internet, it is possible to find many conflicting claims about which synagogue precisely can rightly claim the mantle of the oldest in Russia. For example, a recent news article about the restoration of the synagogue of Nizhniy Novgorod, claimed that this Jewish house of worship is in-fact the oldest in Russia. However, just a bit of cursory research reveals the construction dates to be between the year 1881 and 1883—making the assertion above erroneous.

On the other hand, the claim to primacy by the Irkutsk synagogue is not without nuance. In the city of Rostov-On-Don, the recorded construction date for the city’s own “Soldiers’ Synagogue”, is 1872—which at first glance seems to say that the one of Irkutsk is in-fact not the oldest. The nuance lies in the fact that while the original Rostov-On-Don synagogue was indeed constructed at an earlier date than the one of Irkutsk, in 1905 the Rostov-On-Don Jewish community suffered a tremendous tragedy. A horrific pogrom occurred in the city and the original synagogue building was almost entirely destroyed. A few years after these tragic events, a decision was made to rebuild the Jewish house of worship and when work was finally completed in 1914, the resulting structure had nothing to do with the original one. In effect, an entirely different structure was built on the spot where the original synagogue stood. 

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