The Trans-Siberian Railway

When Princess Maria Volkonsky sped across Russia from Moscow to join her husband in exile in 1827, it took 23 days before she saw the churches of Irkutsk, the capital of eastern Siberia, looming out of the snowy atmosphere. That was extremely fast by contemporary standards, and she had traveled night and day on the trans-Siberian Trakt—a crude road that was easier to travel in winter. At other times of the year, when the road was muddy, travelers could take up to nine months to reach Irkutsk, which was barely two thirds of the way to Vladivostok, the port on the Pacific that would become the terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Siberia had long been equated with exile and little else. It was a distant part of Russia, a huge region encompassing all Russia east of the Ural mountains. A spartan land, its small population was concentrated on a few river and road arteries, and was mostly employed to maintain the Trakt or guard the territory. They were supplemented by two types of exiles: criminals sent to Siberia as an alternative to prison or execution; and political exiles like Prince Sergei Volkonsky, Maria’s husband, who had been involved in a failed coup attempt in December 1825.

The terrible transportation situation between Siberia and European Russia provided the impetus to build the Trans-Siberian Railway, which was by far the most ambitious railroad project ever attempted. Russia had first established a base on the Pacific as early as the 17th century, but its control of the land between the Urals and the ocean was maintained only tenuously. Indeed, Russia’s ability to retain its vast Eastern territory began to look tenuous in the mid-19th century, as the development of efficient steamships in the 1840s and the completion of the Suez Canal in 1869 made it easier for its European rivals—France, Britain, and Prussia—to access the Pacific. The completion of the first American transcontinental, also in that year, followed in 1885 by its Canadian equivalent, raised fears among the Russian elite that an invasion from the East was imminent.

There had been discussions about a possible trans-Siberian line as early as in the 1850s, and a succession of plans and projects were presented to the Russian government over the following decades. Several were madcap ideas dreamed up by foreigners intent on making a fast buck by exploiting what they perceived to be Russian naivety, but others were sane and realistic suggestions. Some of the tales of these projects may have lost accuracy in the telling. A favorite is the idea that a British gentleman going by the name of Mr. Dull was the first to suggest a trans-Siberian railroad. Unfortunately, the truth is more prosaic, or, rather, duller. The individual was in fact Thomas Duff, an adventurer who went to China and returned to St. Petersburg in 1857, where he knocked on the door of the transportation minister, Constantine Chevkin, and suggested the construction of a “tramway” from Nizhny Novgorod, 265 miles (426km) east of Moscow, to the Urals. The line would be horse-drawn, and some of the four million wild horses that roamed western Siberia could be enlisted to provide the traction.

Duff was quietly shown the door, as was a succession of both Russian and foreign entrepreneurs. Even Nikolay Muravyov-Amursky, the governor-general of eastern Siberia, who had managed to establish Russia’s control over previously disputed territory and who wanted to build a line connecting the Pacific Ocean with the Siberian interior, had no better luck than Duff. Neither did three Englishmen (about whom little is known except that they were called Sleigh, Horn, and Morrison), nor Peter Collins, an adventurer from New York, who was reportedly the first American to cross the entire breadth of Siberia. Collins also suggested a line in eastern Siberia, from Chita, 250 miles (400km) east of Lake Baikal, to the navigable section of the Amur River, which flows into the Pacific.

Despite rejecting all these suggestions, controversy raged within the Russian government throughout this period about the need for a trans-Siberian line. While there were many reasons not to build the line—such as the expense and the technical difficulties of creating a railway 5,750 miles (9,250km) long between Moscow and Vladivostok—the supporters of the project eventually won the argument on both military and nationalistic grounds. The military motives for the line were both defensive and offensive. It would not only allow a much quicker response to any attack on Vladivostok but, and this was not discussed openly, it would also make it easier for Russia to establish control over its vast but at the time very weak southern neighbor, China.

Consequently, in 1886, after some three decades of prevarication, the czarist government, despite being ruled by the very conservative Alexander III, took the radical step of deciding to build the line. The immediate catalyst for the decision seems to have been a fear that large numbers of Chinese were infiltrating Transbaikalia, the region around Lake Baikal. In fact, this had little basis in reality, but somehow it was the crucial development that finally made the government decide to give the go-ahead to the plan.

Inevitably, finding the money and getting the unwieldy Russian government behind the plan delayed the start of construction for a further five years. Finally, however, the czar dispatched his son, the future Nicholas II, to Vladivostok, where on May 31, 1891, he wielded a shovel to fill a wheelbarrow with clay soil, which he emptied onto an embankment of what would become the Ussuri line. Having done so, however, there was still no agreement on how to complete the work, or how it could be funded. What the project needed was a man of vision and drive to see it through to its completion—and that is just what it received. His name was Sergei Witte, and he was briefly transportation minister in the Russian government, but was finance minister by August 1892. Normally such posts were held by people of limited vision, with an interest only in keeping the purse strings tight—not so with Sergei Witte. Using his skills as a math graduate, he both managed the country’s finances with acumen and ensured that there were plenty of funds for work on the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Born in the Georgian capital, Tblisi, Witte came from a minor aristocratic family that had fallen on hard times, and he had to work as a railway clerk—a very lowly task for a man of his birth and ambition. His ability was soon recognized, however, and he was swiftly promoted to manage a railroad company, and then obtained a senior government post in St. Petersburg. When he became finance minister, work on the railroad had come to a halt due to a famine in the Volga region and lack of funds. Witte’s masterstroke was to create a Committee for the Siberian Railway, headed by the young czarevitch (heir to the Russian throne) Nicholas, which effectively guaranteed that the project would enjoy the continuing support of the monarch. Witte thus became the father of the railroad. He took a constant interest in its progress, ensured that money was available, fought off any resistance to the project within government, and appeased the Chinese, who were highly suspicious that the line would be used against them.

The difficulties facing the railroad’s builders can hardly be exaggerated. Although the terrain the line had to cross was not as difficult as the Alps (see Crossing the Alps) or the Andes, nor as barren as the American deserts, the sheer length, the extreme temperatures, and the absence of a local labor force made the railroad’s construction an unprecedented challenge. To illustrate the scale of the task, the 5,750-mile (9,250-km) route was 2,000 miles (3,200km) longer than the Canadian transcontinental—and the US equivalent was not only shorter overall, it only required 1,750 miles (2,800km) of new track, since a great deal of railroad had already been laid in the east. By contrast, Russia’s railroads only reached as far as the Urals, and so the Trans-Siberian Railway needed an entire 4,500 miles (7,240km) of new track.

Although there were no enormous mountain ranges in the way—the Urals and the Siberian ranges were relatively easy to get through—there was no shortage of other difficulties. In the vast steppe, neither stone for ballast nor wood for ties could be sourced locally, so materials had to be brought from afar, mostly by river. The rails, too, had to be transported from factories in the Urals and eastern Russia, as did the steel for the bridges, which had to cross the massive Siberian rivers. Then, two-thirds of the way from Moscow, was the biggest obstacle of all—Lake Baikal, Russia’s biggest lake by volume and the deepest in the world. The northern shore was too much of a detour and the southern one was lined with steep cliffs right to the water’s edge, which meant that a shelf for the railroad had to be blasted out of the stone.

Time was at a premium, with the Czar intent on seeing the project completed within a decade. As a result, the surveys of the route were cursory, carried out only on a narrow belt that had been drawn thousands of miles away by St. Petersburg bureaucrats who had never been to Siberia and had only inaccurate maps. The ethos behind the construction was to “muddle through,” since it was reckoned that building the perfect railroad would simply take too long. That strategy worked well in terms of ensuring that the job was done on time, but the result was a very basic railroad that could only carry a handful of trains per day and was dogged with technical problems in its early years.

For construction purposes, the railroad was divided into three main sections, each of around 1,500 miles (2,400km)—the western, the mid-Siberian, and the far eastern—and it was the latter that had the most difficulties. Work started first on the western section in 1891, from Chelyabinsk, the easternmost point of the existing railroad, and the main difficulty was a lack of local workers. It was estimated that some 80,000 men would be needed to build the first two sections, so workers were recruited not only from western Russia but as far afield as Persia, Turkey, and even Italy. The work was onerous, but well paid—agricultural workers could earn far more than they did on the fields, but even then they would often return to their villages at harvest time to help their relatives. Oddly enough, the main shortage of material on this section was wood—the local lumber was deemed unsuitable—and supplies had to be brought in from western Russia.

Construction on the mid-Siberian track began in 1893, and the labor shortage was so acute that it proved necessary to call on an obvious local source of workers—convicts who had been exiled to Siberia. This proved to be an excellent decision, for they were keen workers, not least because a year of their sentence was remitted for every eight months they worked on the railroad, and they had access to tobacco and even occasionally alcohol in the work camps.

Conditions were harsh for the workers, but they were generally better than those of other 19th-century railroad projects—largely because workers were in short supply and their employers had to keep them happy. In the summer months, between May and August, the hours were long, with men being expected to work from 5am to 7:30pm, broken only by a lengthy lunch period of an hour and a half. In the winter, work was confined to the daylight hours, but since the line was quite far south—roughly on the same latitude as London, Berlin, and Prague—this still meant a seven- or eight-hour day in mid-winter.

The work was dangerous, too. The death rate was calculated at around two percent, which was less than on other projects such as the Panama railroad and the never-completed Cape to Cairo railroad (see Cape to Cairo: the Railroad that Never Was), but it is still shocking by today’s standards. The most perilous work was constructing the major bridges, which was particularly perilous in winter, when men had to perch high above the rivers with no safety equipment and were dangerously exposed to the elements. Often men became so cold that they fell unconscious and plunged to their deaths in the icy waters.

The two western sections were completed by 1899, enabling trains to reach Irkutsk, but the eastern section proved more difficult. Witte agreed to a fateful change in plan—to run the eastern section through Manchuria, part of China, rather than building the planned Amur Railway, which would have kept it on Russian soil (the Amur line was eventually built between 1907 and 1916). The Manchurian route was shorter, but it was dangerous politically. Although the Chinese government acquiesced to the arrangement, it would prove politically troublesome and eventually lead to the Russo-Japanese war, which broke out in 1904, soon after the completion of the line.

After the opening of the Chinese Eastern Railway in November 1901, there was still one section left to be built. This was the 110-mile- (180-km) long Circum-Baikal Railway, along the southern shore of Lake Baikal, which presented the most severe difficulties. Work did not start until 1895 and, because of the need to create a shelf in the cliffs, it did not finish until 1905. Until then, passengers traveling east of Irkutsk had to take a train ferry across the lake in summer, or a sleigh over it in winter. In fact, it was not until 1916—when the Amur Railway, which required the erection of the longest bridge on the line at Khabarovsk, was completed—that the whole journey from Moscow to Vladivostok could be undertaken entirely on Russian soil.

Even the most optimistic promoters of the railroad could not have anticipated the impact that it would have on Siberian—and indeed Russian—history, and it has not all been good. Not only was the line the catalyst for the Russo-Japanese war, but it also played a key role in several other conflicts, most notably two world wars. Also, the czarist regime that created it paid a heavy price. By concentrating so many of its limited resources on the project, it neglected other areas of spending, and this imbalance helped trigger the revolution that led to the overthrow of the monarchy in 1917. This also led to the execution of Nicholas II and his family at Ekaterinburg, which, ironically, is one of the main stations on the western section of the line. Nevertheless, the project must be counted as a success, despite its cost, and the sometimes unusual conditions endured by its early passengers. The Trans-Siberian remains the main artery between Siberia and the rest of Russia. It is a double-track, electrified line and is heavily used by both freight and passenger trains. It is the longest railroad in the world, and arguably the most important.