The Trans-Siberian Railway

By Slepnev, Igor | History Today, November 1996 | Go to article overview

The Trans-Siberian Railway

Slepnev, Igor, History Today

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. …

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