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The Trans Siberian History

Trans-Siberian Railway

A short history of Russia and the Trans-Siberian Railway

To some extent air travel has reduced the importance of the Trans-Siberian Railway but its original social, economic and political impact was huge. In some respects it was the railway that pulled the Russian nation together socially and culturally. If you are planning a trip on this iconic railway you might be interested in it history.

Muscovy and the threat from the east

Siberia (“Sibir” in Tartar) wasn’t originally part of Russia. Medieval Russia didn’t extend even to the Urals Mountains (nowadays the first day of the 8-day journey to Vladivostok) the eastern lands were the home of many different asiatic peoples. Some of these peoples have survived to this day on their native lands, but many have been displaced by wars – often between each other. Others have disappeared entirely – with no written languages or histories, they are known only from obscure period references.

Russian medieval chronicles recount that Russian cities were regularly raided by their Eastern neighbours – usually only for pillage. But in the 13th Century a Mongol-led army (in fact consisting 70% of non-Mongolian Siberians, conquered along the way) invaded Russia with the intention of conquest and remained as overlords for two centuries.

The rulers of Russia were the Khans of Siberia who were primarily asiatic Tartars by nationality. It was only when an internal dispute over the Mongolian succession occured back in Mongolia itself that Russia was able to rise up against their Mongolian overlords and throw them out.

The Russian conquest of Siberia

Inspired by the ease with which they had expelled the Mongolians – and the Tartars, who acted as viceroys and tax-collectors for the Mongolians – the Russians decided to follow them deep into Siberia and crush their power “at source”, to prevent any further invasions… but this expedition quickly turned into a colonisation of Siberia by the Russians.

From the 1580s onwards, the Kingdom of Muscovy (which would later become the modern state of Russia) began fresh raids on Siberia with the intention of taking and holding these Siberian lands. These expeditions did not have royal approval (technically the Princes of Muscovy were at peace with the Siberian Khans) and were led by a notorious pirate-turned-conquistador, Yermak who was in the pay of the rich Stroganov family of nobles. Yermak reached Tyumen, the capital of the Siberian Khans, and smashed it. However, he chose to build a fresh Russian city nearby (Tobolsk) in a bid for a Royal Pardon for leading the illegal invasion, he built Tobolsk as a copy of 16th Century Moscow. The Tsar pardoned Yermak and all his men, and sent him a fine suit of German-made chain-mail armour. However, Yermak was later attacked by local asiatic people during a river crossing. He fell in the water, and sank under the weight of his armour!

The Russian Tsars sent more expedition forces, more heavily armed, and with the intention of colonising Siberia permanently. The first maps were made and were astoundingly inaccurate, showing oceans in the middle of Russia, presumably having heard about Lake Baikal. Since the Tartars had been the local rulers, Siberia was referred to as “Greater Tartary” on these first European-printed maps. The resistance put up by the Manchus, however, was considered too fierce to be worth fighting, and Russian expansion into what is now China was halted at Nerchinsk, by Treaty. Although the Central-Eastern Siberian lands were mostly barren, their value lay in control of the Trade Route to Imperial China.

The Great Siberian Trakt

The Russians consolidated their hold on Siberia by a series of military bases, garrisoned in large forts (ostrogs). Small towns, initially of the wives of children of the soldiers, but soon expanding to including shops, crafts, churches etc – sprang up around these forts, and the route from one to the next became established as an informal “road” – The Great Siberian Trakt. -more of a “route” than an actual road at first.

In the 1770s the Russian Emperors adopted a new policy on Siberia, determined to bring this network of forts into the civil structure of the country. The “Siberia Acts” were intended to encourage mass immigration and colonisation of Siberia’s lands. The most controversial was a change in the law which permitted runaway serfs to start a new life in Siberia, provided they could avoid capture by their former masters for a year-and-a-day. The new laws also quietly “winked” at those who refused to follow the Russian Orthodox Church – many religious minorities (Protestant sects, the “Old Believers” Brethren, and most numerous of all, Jews) who faced persecution at home chose to emigrate to Siberia, where normal rules did not apply. For the first time huge numbers of civilians were travelling across Siberia, and the Great Siberian Trakt was made into a real road able to cope with carriages. But an even bigger attraction quickly brought many more Eastwards – a Gold Rush began at the end of the 18th Century.

Pressure for a railway to the east

The Great Siberian Trakt was in poor condition, and it was not until the late 19th Century that it was brought into a reasonable state ; the misery of travel along it was a constant source of complaint and disatisfaction. But there was little realistic alternative, since Sea Transport to Russia’s Far East was itself quite miserable – the Arctic Route was only navigable for a few short months each summer, before refreezing. This led to a strange and unsatisfactory situation in which the European part of Russia (from which the Tsar controlled his Empire) was often not in contact with the Pacific seaports of Vladivostok and Magadan for up to half a year at a time. Citizens in Vladivostok might be praying for a Tsar who had been several months dead. Part of the rationale for improving the Siberian Trakt was to make the country governable as one entity. But another growing impetus was trade, particularly the tea trade which involved enormous amounts of both goods and cash. The telegraph (the original suggestion) would not, alone, solve the problem.

Russia’s lack of a rail network in general was also bringing into question its claim as a world power. The country’s disastrous performance in the Crimean War, 1854-55, was in part due to it almost non-existent railway system. Contemporary warfare was as much about efficient logistics as it was good soldiering and the war demonstrated that a large nation like Russia needed railways. Whereas Russia’s enemies, France and Britain, were able to transfer their forces across Europe in just a few weeks, Russia’s huge army had to use pack animals to transport their supplies across 100’s of miles of steppe because there were no rail lines south of Moscow!

The Imperial Charter 1899

 Several propositions and applications were made to build a railway that would span Russia’s vast extent, but all depended on Royal Assent which for political reasons was withheld. Progress was made during the rule of the reformist Tsar Alexander II – who signed the original Patent to build the railroad. he was was regarded as a great reformer and developer and the the railway was, in many ways, his legacy to the nation. Sadly for Russia he was assassinated in 1881, while the initial feasibility studies and route-prospecting were still being undertaken. Perhaps if he had survived further socio-political reforms might have prevented the eventual downfall of the Imperial family.

 In 1889 an Imperial Charter On The Building Of A Trans-Siberian Railroad was signed by the Tsar Nicholas However, rail routes that led eastwards had already been built and were operating and it was decided to utilise existing track, even if it went slightly off-route, to minimise the costs of construction. In any case, the role of the new railway was to link existing Siberian settlements, rather than blaze a new trail so effectively it followed the routing of the Great Siberian Trakt, although built in parallel. Sergey Witte (who would later become Russian Prime-Minister) was placed in charge of the project, and its Patron was the Tsarevich and Heir to the Throne – the future Nicholas II.

A huge engineering project

The Russian talent for phenomenal levels of bribery and corruption excelled itself, in a project which was the largest civil engineer operation ever undertaken. Towns would bribe the Railways officials to have the route diverted to their town, bringing wealth, as they hoped. Other towns actively hoped the railway would be kept away from them along with the drunkeness and bad behaviour they expected it might bring.

Tomsk, to this day, is not on the main Trans-Sib route, and is served by a spur-line built as an afterthought. As a result, Tomsk has remained a provincial backwater, dwarfed by the small hamlet of Novonikolaevsk, that became the railway hub-town of Novosibirsk… Russia’s third city.

The final plans for the railway proved immensely more expensive than even the wildest forecasts. Government pressure was intense to make cut-backs notably to build the railway only to railheads at Siberian rivers, and to use river-going ferries for long sections, to cut costs. But the rail builders were adamant – it had to be one single railway, if it were to carry goods efficiently (passengers were a secondary concern by this stage).

The only concession was in crossing Lake Baikal. It was decided to avoid the cost of building track around the Lake, by putting the train onto a ferry across the Lake and the entire train would be taken across this way, but during winter rails would be laid over the frozen Lake. It was the winter operations – and the thin ice which made the plan inoperable, and finally a Circum-Baikal Line replaced the disastrous ferry idea.

The ferry still exists, and is moored on Lake Baikal as a floating museum. The initial route was built from Perm’ (to where there was already re-usable railtrack) to Khabarovsk… the final Khabarovsk-Vladivostok section was also already in existence. So the true “Trans-Siberian Railway” is only the middle section of the route. The first train was hauled on the route in 1898.

Beyond Vladivostok?

New trade agreements with China created demand for a route through Manchuria to Beijing. However, this route became less popular when the Trans-Mongolian Route was opened as one of the first Five-Year-Plan projects of the new USSR, in 1927 – reducing the Moscow-Beijing distance from 9870km to 7661km, and trimming nearly 36 hours off the previous journey-time.

At 9286km, the Moscow-Vladivostok route remains the longest rail journey in the world, taking 8 days to complete, and running through 11 time-zones. However, there is now the possibility that the route may become longer. There is intense commercial interest in extending the route through North Korea to Seoul, primarily driven by the commercial haulage possibilities for Asian-manufactured consumer goods.

A passenger service Moscow-Seoul seems likely too, although it is not the primary consideration . The new track is already being laid in North Korea (at Russian cost). Political disputes between North and South Korea are currently the primary obstacle to the new route opening – test operations for the track have already been completed.

During the Second World War (or the Great Patriotic War as the Russians know it) Joseph Stalin planned to undertake secret tunnelling from Vladivostok to the Kuril Islands, and from there to invade Japan by troop-trains brought under the ocean. The plan was not a mere day-dream – prisoners of war, and prisoners from the soviet gulags, were put to work on the project. The approach-tracks were built, along with the descent to below sea-bed level and the first four kilometres of undersea track.

The death-tolls in explosions and tunnel-collapses were allegedly massive. At that point the war came to an end, and – according to unconfirmed records – the prisoners killed their guards and deserted the project. In 2002 the Russian Railways Ministry announced a feasibility study into reopening the project on a commercial basis, presumably this time with the knowledge and acquiescence of the Japanese this time. No report was ever published.

Neil McGowan 2010 with additional material by Simon Flower. Sources include Russian Railway museum in St. Petersburg and the Trans-Siberian Railway museum in Ekaterinburg. Also see Paul Kennedy “Rise and Fall of the Great Powers”.

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