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How the Trans Siberian Railway Changed the World

The Trans-Siberian Railway is arguably the backbone of Russia’s transport infrastructure.

Stretching literally over 9,000 kilometers from Moscow’s Yaroslavsky Terminal, the

6-day train ride passes through Perm, Tyumen, Omsk, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk, Ulan

Ude, branches off to the Chinese Eastern Railway, Khaborovsk, and finally ends in Vladivostok,

only 125 kilometers from the border with North Korea. The railway was inaugurated in 1916

and is still the longest railway line in the world, but construction had taken a quarter

of a century and was fraught with worker deaths, delays, and overall carnage that likely played

a part in ending the empire it sought to connect.

If there’s anything basically anyone knows about Russia, it’s that Russia is big--

hell, I remember first learning about Russia as a kid just because it was the biggest country

on Earth-- and yet Siberia is incredibly spread out and many of Russia’s cities are some

of the most remote in the world, even to this day. In the late 19th century this posed a

major problem to the Russian Empire, since it would often take months for commands from

St. Petersburg to arrive on the Pacific coast, by which time these possessions could have

theoretically been captured by Japan or another proximal power. Russia first conquered these

lands to protect their heartland, but now found themselves needing a way to protect

these territories. By this time, many countries had connected themselves by railway, Britain

and Germany had already done it for decades, and the United States and Canada had also

connected major population centers, including trans-continental railroads connecting the

Atlantic with the Pacific in 1869 and 1885 respectively, each crowning achievements for

these vast nations. At the time Siberia was barely connected through

roads barely suitable for stagecoaches, which obviously would not do for such a vast territory.

Russia however was somewhat behind Western Europe and North America when it came to railway

technology however. Nonetheless, construction started in 1891 under orders from Tsar Nicholas

II, the project managed by Sergei Witte. Witte divided the project into multiple sections,

much like the similar projects undertaken in North America, but with a few differences.

The most notable difference was that Russia wasn’t nearly as rich as the US or Canada,

meaning that Witte had to take drastic cost-cutting measures, notably with the rails themselves,

which used cheaper iron rails on ⅔ the amount of ties normally used, and crossing rivers

on bridges made of wood, with stone and iron only being used for the toughest river crossings.

On these rails, trains were expected to only reach a top speed of around 25 km/h.

The project experienced huge roadblocks (or I guess railblocks) from swamps and mountains

to completely half-assed land surveys, but one notable obstacle was Lake Baikal, being

way too wide and deep to cross by bridge and too long to simply go around at this stage.

The initial solution was to build a boat that would ferry the train across the lake to continue

its journey. The ferry that would take this task was the SS Baikal, and my god was it

a cluster… oh right I don’t swear on the channel anymore… clusterfrick? Does that

work? The SS Baikal was built in Newcastle upon Tyne, and although the vessel was very

much seaworthy, there was one major problem: Lake Baikal isn’t connected to the sea.

This meant that the ship had to be disassembled and put onto the existing sections of the

Trans-Siberian to be hauled all the way over to Lake Baikal. Unfortunately, although the

vessel was indeed seaworthy, it was quickly proven that seaworthy and Lake Baikal-worthy

are two very different things, since Lake Baikal was rougher and froze much thicker

than originally thought. With this, it was decided “Screw this, let’s just go around”.

After traversing Lake Baikal, the project was granted permission from China to build

through Manchuria, splitting into two sections in Harbin, with one finally finishing in Vladivostok,

and the other going to the warmer water port at Dalian, where Russia would station a crap-ton

of troops. This final section would be revised later on after the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05,

prompting Russia to downgrade the amount of troops in Dalian (wait did I say downgrade?

I meant upgrade), and build the Amur Railway going around Manchuria instead.

The railways essentially had two opening dates, with the first edition in 1904 through Manchuria,

and then the second in 1916, the railway this time wholly within Russian territory. This

was right in the middle of World War I however, and the Tsar barely had time to enjoy this

new railroad before the revolutions of 1917, when Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik Party stepped

onto the scene. This prompted the Russian Civil War, in which the new railway would

play a big part, even if it couldn’t carry all that much at that point. It became a vital

line of communication for the White Movement fighting against the Bolsheviks… until many

important bridges were blown up, severing these delicate lines.

During the Second World War, the railway initially served as an important link between Germany

and Japan-- since Germany’s westward access was more or less cut off by the end of the

30’s-- until demonetizing-boy himself Rudolph Hodor invaded the Soviet Union and completely

screwed that whole thing up. During this time though, the railway had also been used by

those trying to escape Germany, who used the railway to board US-bound boats in Vladivostok.

It also became vital connecting the US and USSR, seeing as crossing the Atlantic was

a lot more dangerous as Germany and Britain would sink ships from neutral countries heading

toward their enemies, something Japan didn’t do to enemy ships, more or less leaving Soviet

ships alone. After the war, the line branched out to serve more Siberian cities not on the

line, and was also rerouted along the Baikal-Amur Mainline.

Today the Trans-Siberian continues to serve its original purpose of connecting the cities

and settlements of Siberia to the rest of Russia and the outside world, and now serves

as a beacon to YouTubers. A one-way ticket for the six-day journey will set you back

around €500 for a second-class bed, but the price is of course a lot lower if you

just want to go from Moscow to Novosibirsk or Irkutsk to Ulan Ude, as is more often done.

Even then, while today it might just be quicker and cheaper to fly from Moscow to Vladivostok,

the railway also plays an irreplaceable part in freight transport, effectively forming

the backbone of all Siberian industry, connecting Russia’s vast and expansive territory.

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