Magazine article History Today

The Trans-Siberian Railway

Magazine article History Today

The Trans-Siberian Railway

Article excerpt

Igor Slepnev on the fin de siecle project that yoked together the Russias of Europe and Asia.

In 1891 an extraordinary picture was reproduced in newspapers all over the world. Far from imperial St Petersbrug the Tsarevich Nikolai, the young heir to the Russian throne, was depicted pushing a wheelbarrow full of earth while his suite looked on with calm, even joyful approval. The date was May 19th, and the place, Vladivostok: construction on the Trans-Siberian Railway had begun.

In an edict directed at his son and heir, Emperor Alexander III emphasised that with this step Russia had begun to bring its eastern territories into active exploitation. When a monument was later unveiled to the `Creator of the Great Siberian Way' in St Petersburg, Alexander was not wearing the regal garments of the Tsar of All the Russias, but a railway-conductor's uniform.

The global scale of the empire's vast territorial extent had long given a distinct cast to the Russian mentality. It was publicly recognised as the most important factor affecting the country's historical development. The slowness with which socio-economic processes unfolded was attributed to these enormous distances, which made social change dependent on natural and geographical conditions. Until railways appeared, season and weather had a crucial effect on the speed of communications and travel. When an official was sent in the 1630s from Moscow to the north-east of Siberia to become the new military governor in Yakutsk it took him three years, sitting out cold spells of up to -50 [degree]C, or waiting for flooded rivers to subside and the impassably muddy thaws of late spring to end, before he could reach his destination.

After the reforms of Peter the Great, things began to move a little faster. The courier bringing the news of Pavel's accession to the throne in 1796 covered the 6,000 versts (the pre-Revolutionary measure of distance, equal to 1.07 kms) between St Petersburg and Irkutsk within five weeks. His average daily speed of 180 versts greatly exceeded the seven versts accomplished by the seventeenth-century governor of Yakutsk.

Yet by the time work began on the Trans-Siberian Railway little had changed east of the Urals. When Chekhov made his famous journey to the island-penitentiary of Sakhalin it took him almost two months to cover the 4,000-plus versts separating Tyumen in western Suberia from Irkutsk. It was, he declared, `the longest and most unpleasant' journey in the world. A century earlier Catherine the Great had remarked: `The Russian empire is so extensive that any forms of government other than autocracy would harm her, being more tardy in execution of their decisions ...' Her words remained relevant to Chekhov's contemporaries in the late nineteenth century.

The earliest plans for building railways in Siberia dated back to the 1830s. The first `iron roads' were then being laid in Russia (Moscow and St Petersburg were finally linked by rail in 1851), and there were numerous opponents of the new form of transport. The most varied objections were offered: among other consequences, they threatened, it would lead to the democratisation of the country. The stately existence of the empire would be disrupted and an undesirable dynamism introduced into public life. Some found it hard to believe and against all common sense, that one could stimulate agricultural output and a growth in towns and cities, old and new, simply by laying two iron rails across the land. Yet others promoted the virtues and cheapness of water transport, which they insisted was much more suited to the present economic condition of the Russian empire.

By the time the decision to build the Trans-Siberian Railway was taken, not a trace of these conservative objections remained. In provincial Russia they already understood all too well that if the railway passed their region by, then trade would stagnate and agricultural production and urban life would gradually fall into decay. Towns, local self-governing administrations and major landowners all therefore used every means of influence at their disposal to persuade and attract the authorities and the railway companies.

In 1889 at the annual Nizhny Novgorod Industrial Fair Russian merchants submitted a humble petition to Tsar Alexander, expressing the hope that the projected Trans-Siberian railway would invigorate trade with the 400-million strong Chinese population and the 35 million inhabitants of Japan.

In this way, they suggested, Russia would not only benefit from sitting astride the shortest trading route between Asia and Europe but also could make good use of her position as a major producer of industrial goods and consumer of oriental wares. Several years later, the Finance Minister, Sergei Witte, emphasised the important economic consequences of the project. Despite the enormous costs of construction and the insignificant returns its use would initially bring, the new railway was intended to quicken the flow of settlers from Russia's `land-hungry' over-populated European regions, give a major incentive to the development of agriculture in Siberia and a stimulus to mining -- and particularly gold-mining -- there and, finally, to help raise Siberia to the same cultural level as European Russia. In political terms, Witte believed, the railway would strengthen Russia's ties with the East and the United States.

The track was laid in record time and radically changed established ideas about the insurmountable obstacles posed by the Siberian expanses. In the space of fifteen years the Trans-Siberian Railway advanced 7,416 kilometres, from Chelyabinsk, east of the Urals, to Vladivostok on the Pacific coast. It stretched across the coniferous forests of the Taiga, vast areas of bog, open steppe and permafrost. Dozens of tunnels were cut through mountainous regions and bridges were thrown across the great Ob, Yenisei and Irtysh rivers, as well as innumerable other rivers, large and small.

Exhibits describing progress in the construction of the Great Siberian Railway were to be found at the late-nineteenth-century World Exhibitions, those apotheoses of industrial civilisation. In 1893 at the Columbus Exhibition in Chicago it was noted that, symbolically, almost four hundred years separated the European discovery of America and the beginning of work on a railway that was destined to bring Old and New Worlds closer together. Contemporaries expressed the hope that the Trans-Siberian Railway would help significantly to boost the level of human development, both in material and non-material terms, and thereby play a major role in the evolution of a world community.

Visitors to the 1900 Paris Exhibition looked with interest at a series of maps and photographs of the railway, at models of the temporary steam ferry that crossed Lake Baikal, at the enormous bride spanning the Yenisei and at other construction. They were particularly attracted by the panoramic water-colour depiction of scenes along the railway that were exhibited on a continuous roll of paper, a thousand metres long. The painted roll was wound from one cylinder to another, allowing visitors to also make the trip across Siberia in their imagination. International recognition for these Russian achievements in engineering and construction led to the award of the prestigious Grand Prix to several of the structures along the Great Siberian Way.

Construction had barely begun before everyone in Europe was reading Jules Vernes' novel, Claudius Bombarnac. The `Great Trans-Asiatic Highway' was described in the most thrilling terms: `It was a challenge to nature by human genius, and victory fell to the latter'. Jules Vernes recorded just how much the railways had altered the way people thought:

The thoughts of someone riding

on a horse differ from those that

come to him when he is walking.

The difference is greater still

when he travels by railway. The

associations, ideas and shifting

impressions are so accelerated

that the thoughts spin in his

head with the speed of the

carriage's wheels.

Like those speeding wheels, articles, sketches and opinions about the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway flashed by in the world press. European and American newspapers were full of superlatives: `colossal', `gigantic', `grandiose', `enormous', to describe `the spinal chord of the Russian giant'. The press, in Russia and abroad, rapturously announced that the railway would not surpass the Canadian Pacific, but would also exceed in length the line linking San Francisco and Chicago to New York. As a result it would be possible to reach the Pacific Ocean from any European city in half or a third of the time it would take by sea, sailing via India. And it would cost much less.

In Germany stress was laid on the cultural significance of the railway, which would permit the vast expanses of the Asiatic East and Siberia to be `Europeanised'. Unlike Russia, noted the German newspapers with some bitterness, Germany had not conserved its vital young forces, but solved its demographic problem by letting them emigrate to America.

Western business circles were particularly interested in the opportunities a colonised Siberia might offer as a new and convenient market for their agricultural produce, steam engines, railway wagons, instruments and tools. The Americans held the greatest hopes of seizing the still vacant Siberian market. Cheap seafreight charges and convenient access across the Pacific Ocean, they believed, would help them to compete successfully with European industrial goods. With true American pragmatism their newspapers pointed to the advantages to be gained from Russia's opening up of Siberia. Their own rich colonial experience left the Americans in no doubt that the Siberian Railway would invigorate the extensive and richly endowed territories, and create favourable conditions for American exports. The hope was that the `Wild West' would itself develop as it began to meet the needs of those who were ploughing up the fertile land of Siberia and exploiting its rivers, forests and mineral deposits. Supplying their requirements and the necessary railway wagons and engines to move them, the American West would shift from its agricultural and extractive economy to a manufacturing, industrial base.

Characteristically, the British were more concerned about the political consequences of the new railway. Some argued it would make Russia a self-sufficient state that no longer worried about the Dardanelles or the Suez Canal. There was concern that when the Trans-Siberian Railway was completed, British maritime trade would suffer and British interests in China and throughout the Far East might be undermined.

One indication of the change in Russian attitudes as a result of the railway was the abolition in 1899 of exile to Siberia as a punishment. An article of the time reflected this shift in public opinion:

When the whistle of the steam

engine had dispersed the

gloomy and savage legend of the

snow-covered Siberian wastes

where only the howling of the

wolves and the clanking of

convicts' chains disturbed the

silence, there arose before the

eyes of humanity a magnificent

country that promised, in the

near future, to become the

granary of the Old War.

Without equal its grandiose construction, the railway not only opened a dependable route to the Pacific Ocean but was also the key to the miraculous natural wealth of Siberia and the Far East.

New towns grew up along the railway, and for tens of hundreds of versts on either side the land was steadily colonised with free settlers from European Russia. In trains travelling at 25 versts an hour, the centuries-long peasant legends of the empty, unbelievably fertile lands beyond the Urals at last became a reality. Instead of months spent facing numerous privations and dangers, would-be colonists suddenly found distant Siberia well within reach. As a result, in the first decades of the railway's existence the population east of the Urals almost doubled.

Many ordinary inhabitants of the Old and New Worlds felt that they also could now travel across the expanses of Eurasia, and the unity of the world ceased to be a theoretical concept. With this went the common idea that railways were the symbol of progress and that History itself was an irreversible `Iron Road', leading ever forwards into a better future.

Igor Slepnev is researcher at the Russian History Institute, the Russian Academy of Sciences. He specialises in late 19th-century and early 20th-century Russian History. Translated by John Crowfoot [c] Rodina

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