The Trans-Siberian Railway

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 Petersburg 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'C:, or waiting for flooded rivers to subside and the impassably muddy thaws of late spring to end, before he could reach his destination.

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