9,198 kilometres of tracks connect Moscow to the Pacific port of Vladivostok. As the longest railroad in the world, the Trans-Siberian Railway is truly one of humanity’s most impressive engineering feats. But, this symbol of Soviet power has also had an outsized impact on the world at large. Its construction was the catalyst for a war between two superpowers, it transported millions of prisoners to the Gulags, and served as a lifeline during the Second World War.
Why Build a Railroad?
Siberia had been under Russia’s control since the 16th century. But, more than 200 years after its conquest, it still remained a distant and wild land with few inhabitants. Stretching from the Ural Mountains in the West, to the Pacific Ocean in the East, Siberia was a lunar landscape, close to impossible to cross. During the summer months, rivers were the main means of transport. In the freezing winter months, brave explorers attempted to traverse it by horse-drawn carriages.
Czar Alexander III saw Siberia as an unexploited resource. He believed a railway connection would allow Russia to harvest Siberia’s vast natural resources which included wheat, iron, fur and lumber. But more importantly, connecting Siberia with Central Russia was a geopolitical goal. Isolated army encampments in the frozen Siberian outback would be unable to secure the country’s eastern border if the powerful Japanese army were to attack. A railway which connected the far provinces with Central Russia would ensure the rapid movement of supplies and troops in the event of war.
Building a Railroad Across an Empty Abyss
In 1891, Russia broke ground on an ambitious new project which would connect Europe to the Pacific. To reduce costs and avoid lengthy legal battles with land owners, the railroad bypassed existing cities. The line was divided into seven sections, and work proceeded simultaneously on each section with the force of 90,000 men, including thousands of convicts. Labour shortages led to the employment of Koreans and Chinese migrants, most of whom were paid a lower wage than Russian labourers. To pay for its construction, Russia increased taxes, issued bonds, and took out loans from investors in France, Britain, Belgium, and Germany.
Just over eight years later, the railway was complete. It was an immediate success. Local resources were mined and exported from Siberia to Russia and beyond. The railroad also brought more than four million settlers to Siberia from Western Russia and Ukraine. They were tempted by free land on offer from the government. But, Siberia was a barren, cold and isolated world. Life was difficult, farming was near impossible in the permafrost, and there was little settlement more than 50 kilometres from the railroad.
How a Railroad Started a War
As Russia turned its gaze eastward, the Japanese were in for a rude awakening. Japanese policymakers expressed alarm about Russia’s intentions in the East. Their fears were confirmed when in 1896, Russia negotiated a deal with China to expand the railroad through Northern Manchuria, a stretch of land which China, Russia and Japan have sought to exert control over for hundreds of years. In 1900, Russia sent 170,000 soldiers into Manchuria after the Chinese Boxer Rebellion. The movement of such a large number of troops would have been inconceivable without the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Japan was convinced that Russia would continue expanding into East Asia, and even into Korea (Japan formally annexed Korea just a few years later in 1910. Korea would remain a part of Japan until the end of WWII). The wheels were set in motion, and in 1904, Japan attacked Russian ships stationed in Port Arthur, Manchuria. The Trans-Siberian Railway was not yet running efficiently, and was encumbered by the inefficient replenishment of troops and supplies from Central Russia. The Russians were overwhelmed. It was a devastating defeat. Their Pacific fleet was destroyed and they ceded large swaths of territory to Japan. All in all, between 130,000 and 170,000 soldiers were killed in the year and a half war between the two superpowers.
The railway played a leading role in the early years of WWII, serving as a link between Germany and Japan, while Russia maintained its neutrality. Rubber was used to make tyres for military vehicles, and it was in high demand. By 1941, at least 300 tonnes of rubber would arrive in Germany every day from Japan via the Trans-Siberian Railway. Germany and Japan’s stranglehold on the world’s rubber supply led the US and the Uk to work on creating synthetic rubber. While rubber entered Germany by rail, many Jews fled Germany the same way, crossing Russia and then boarding ships from its Pacific coast for the United States. In 1941, when Germany invaded the USSR, the railway was closed to the outside world.
A Road to Nowhere
Soon after the end of WWII, Stalin proposed an extension to the railroad. The Salekhard–Igarka Railway would connect the USSR's easternmost territories. “The purpose of the railway was threefold: to facilitate the export of nickel from neighbouring Norilsk; to provide work for thousands of post-war prisoners; and to connect the deep-water seaports of Igarka and Salekhard.”
In winter, construction was impeded by freezing temperatures, permafrost, and food shortages. Disease and swampy terrain hampered progress in summertime. A severe lack of machinery and materials were a challenge year round. After Stalin’s death in 1953, construction was halted. By that time, almost 700 kilometres of tracks had been laid, at an estimated cost of more than $100 billion in today’s dollars. After the construction was abandoned, the railroad was quickly destroyed by frost and structural failures which arose from poor construction. Today, the route is referred to as the Dead Road because of the estimated 300,000 prisoners who perished building it.
The Trans-Siberian Railway is Russia’s lifeline. It’s arguably one the most important transport networks in the world, connecting China and Europe. In 2020, freight volumes were 85% higher than in 2019, a total of more than half a million 20-foot containers. Even today, this symbol of Soviet power continues to have an outsized impact on the world at large.
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