Completion of the Trans-Siberian Railroad Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Inaugurated in 1891 and constructed in sections, the last of which was completed in 1916, the state-initiated and -financed Trans-Siberian Railroad connected European Russia with Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean. Poor engineering and lack of development along most of its 4600 miles length limited its strategic and commercial value.

Summary of Event

In the seventeenth century, the Russian Empire expanded into Siberia, and established settlements were created on the Pacific coast, but much of that vast territory remained inaccessible well into the latter part of the nineteenth century. Russian officials realized that a railroad network would provide the link on which Russia’s development as a modern industrial nation depended, but there were many obstacles to construction. In Britain and the United States, private companies built railroads because past experience had shown that passengers and freight generated profits. However, in Russia, longer distances and lack of industry made this model’s implementation unrealistic. Trans-Siberian Railroad[Transsiberian Railroad] Transportation;railroads [kw]Completion of the Trans-Siberian Railroad (1916) [kw]Trans-Siberian Railroad, Completion of the (1916)[Trans Siberian Railroad, Completion of the (1916)] [kw]Railroad, Completion of the Trans-Siberian (1916) Trans-Siberian Railroad[Transsiberian Railroad] Transportation;railroads [g]Russia;1916: Completion of the Trans-Siberian Railroad[03900] [c]Transportation;1916: Completion of the Trans-Siberian Railroad[03900] [c]Engineering;1916: Completion of the Trans-Siberian Railroad[03900] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;1916: Completion of the Trans-Siberian Railroad[03900] Witte, Sergey Yulyevich Alexander III Nicholas II [p]Nicholas II[Nicholas 02];Trans-Siberian Railroad[Transsiberian Railroad] Vyshnegradsky, Ivan Stolypin, Pyotr Arkadyevich

Czar Nicholas I initiated Russia’s first railway, the Moscow-St. Petersburg line, as a state enterprise in 1842. Completed in 1855, the line had more psychological and strategic than commercial value. Attempts to extend the system throughout western Russia met with indifference from foreign investors and domestic Russian firms, and without state subsidies, private companies could not operate. By 1881, when Alexander III ascended the throne (following his father’s assassination), Russia had become committed to state development and control of railroads.

The first railways to penetrate Siberia ran from Perm to Ekaterinberg (completed in 1878) and Samara to Ufa (completed in 1890); they connected mining areas in the eastern Urals to water transport via the Volga River and its tributaries. Between the Ekaterinberg and Vladivostok on the Pacific coast—a distance of 4,500 miles—there was a single unpaved, frequently impassible road that required months to traverse.

Vladivostok’s growing importance as a naval base focused attention on this communications impasse. Maintaining and expanding a presence on the Pacific solely through oceanic transport left Russia at the mercy of the British, who controlled the Suez Canal, and the Japanese, who were direct rivals in Manchuria. For defense purposes alone, being able to transport men and materials expeditiously to the Far East was becoming critical.

Furthermore, Alexander III favored railway expansion. Best known for his commitment to autocratic rule and his retreat from the liberal social policies of his predecessor, Alexander possessed sound judgment in matters of economics and international relations. Working with Ivan Vyshnegradsky, the conservative minister of finance, Alexander ordered surveys of possible routes, and in July of 1890 he presented the council of ministers with outlines for a proposed route from Ufa through Tiumen (also called Chelyabinsk), Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk, along the Amur River to Khabarovsk, and then south to Vladivostok.

The project commenced on March 17, 1891, when Alexander issued an imperial edict against the recommendations of Vyshnegradsky, who considered the project fiscally impractical. Sergey Yulyevich Witte, Vyshnegradsky’s replacement, believed that railroads were key to economic development, and he thought that a railroad across Siberia would embody Russia’s nationalistic aspirations. To head the enterprise, Alexander III appointed his son and heir, Nicholas II. Returning from a tour of Asia, Nicholas inaugurated construction efforts by turning up the first spade full of earth in Vladivostok.

Work proceeded over several sections simultaneously. In western Siberia, the section from Chelyabinsk to the Ob River opened in 1895. This section presented the fewest logistical difficulties: It traversed level terrain, was closer to sources of rails and machinery, and was able to draw laborers from the Volga region. Problems mounted further east: Engineers confronted hundreds of watercourses, increasingly mountainous terrain, and permafrost, and they struggled with primitive equipment and a lack of familiarity with local conditions as they tried to meet deadlines set in St. Petersburg. Convicts supplied the bulk of the labor force, which worked under brutal conditions that contributed to the frequent accidents and high rates of disease that killed many.

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The builders cut corners on nearly all aspects of engineering, from the depth of ballast to the use of unseasoned softwood railroad ties, lightweight rails designed for spur tracks, wooden bridges vulnerable to floods, excessively steep grades, sharp curves, and inattention to landslide risk. Poor engineering led to excessive wear on locomotives and rolling stock. Long stretches of single track meant a breakdown or obstruction blocked traffic in both directions. The journey from Moscow to Vladivostok, which theoretically should have taken two weeks, seldom took less than six. Unreliability resulting from poor construction limited the usefulness of the railroad for both civilian and military purposes.

The section between the Ob’ River and Irkutsk was completed in 1898, and a short section from Lake Baikal to the upper Amur River was finished in 1900. Meanwhile, the Russian and Chinese governments signed a treaty in 1896 that authorized the construction of a railway line across Manchuria to Harbin (a city in central Manchuria now located in China’s Heilongjiang Province) and Vladivostok, and the Chinese Eastern Railway Chinese Eastern Railway opened in 1903. Its operation helped establish Russian influence in China in the face of competition from Britain and Japan.

Working from the other end, Russia built a railway line northward along the Issuri River from Vladivostok to Khabarovsk. This left two significant gaps in the Trans-Siberian Railroad as it had originally been envisioned, but rather than tackle the sheer cliffs surrounding Lake Baikal, Russia purchased a massive train ferry from Britain and shipped it piecemeal to Irkutsk. For several years, trains were decoupled and ferried across the lake for the run to Vladivostok. Passengers and freight to Khabarovsk traveled on the Amur River.

Japan’s attack on Manchuria in 1904 was timed to coincide with the freezing of Lake Baikal, and it highlighted the railroad’s inadequacies. To move troops and weaponry, rails were hastily laid across the frozen lake, but the normal hazards of the brutal Siberian winter coupled with the sudden increase in traffic created massive delays. Some historians maintain that the outcome of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905)[Russojapanese War] would have favored Russia if the Trans-Siberian Railroad had been complete and fully functional. After the war, Russia mounted a renewed effort to complete both the section around Baikal and the 1,200-mile stretch along the Amur River. The Chinese Eastern Railway’s vulnerability to Japanese attack made completing the Amur section a high priority. Chinese and Korean laborers and American equipment helped the Russians complete the enterprise’s most complex engineering work.

Following the Russian Revolution of 1905, Pyotr Arkadyevich Stolypin, Russia’s reform-minded chairman of the Council of Ministers, encouraged colonization of Siberia. From 1892 to 1914, the Russian government paid for more than a million people to resettle from European Russia to Siberia. The opening of Russia’s “wild east” met with mixed reactions from those already living in Siberia, including an estimated million indigenous Siberians whose tribal way of life was still comparatively intact. The settlement campaigns also met with resistence from descendants of religious minorities who had immigrated to Siberia in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to escape persecution.

Significance

Early in 1917, shortly after the Amur section was completed, the United States assumed control of the Trans-Siberian Railroad in order to ensure that military aid destined for the eastern front (on Russia’s western border) reached its destination. At the time, the czarist government was on the verge of collapse and was unable to maintain the tenuous link with its eastern provinces. Revolution soon followed. During the Russian Civil War (1918-1921), Russian Civil War (1918-1921) rival factions of “Whites” and “Reds” battled each other as the whole region descended into anarchy.

Fortunately, the kind of dependence on modernization envisioned by Witte and Stolypin had not penetrated far into Siberia by 1917, and most people were able to survive by reverting to a subsistence economy. In fact, Russia’s poorly planned development efforts in Siberia—of which the most notable example was the Trans-Siberian Railroad—had the unexpected benefit of preserving the region’s native populations. The impetus for Siberian development did not regain its momentum until World War II forced evacuation of Russian industry to western Siberia.

No “golden spike” signified the Trans-Siberian Railroad’s completion. Rail service through Manchuria commenced in 1903, but by the time a continuous rail line on Russian territory existed, Russia’s mounting political instability was already reaching untenable levels. The problems caused by the drain on czarist Russia’s slender treasury probably outweighed the modest gains to the nation’s economy, but the railroad’s status as the most ambitious engineering feat undertaken by any nation in the late nineteenth to early twentieth century continued to be a source of great national pride. The Trans-Siberian Railroad was sometimes cited as an example of the inferiority of state-run command economics to private enterprise, but the project was unlikely to have ever been undertaken had it been left to private enterprise and foreign investment. Trans-Siberian Railroad[Transsiberian Railroad] Transportation;railroads

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hardcave, Sydney. Count Sergei Witte and the Twilight of Imperial Russia. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2004. Biography of the man behind the Trans-Siberian Railroad; overview of late-imperial politics and finances.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Haywood, Richard Mowbray. Russia Enters the Railway Age, 1842-1855. Boulder, Colo: East European Monographs, 1998. Focus on the Moscow-St. Petersburg railway; considerable background information on economic and political barriers to railway development.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hookham, Hilda. “Builders of the Trans Siberian Railway.” History Today 26, no. 8 (1976): 528-537. Illustrated account of the laborers and the hardships they endured.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marks, Stephen G. Road to Power: The Trans Siberian Railroad and the Colonization of Asian Russia, 1850-1917. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991. Covers political background, engineering aspects, and economic impact.

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