A LITTLE MORE than one hundred years ago, two elements were introduced into Russia without which the Russian Civil War would not have been so consequential or so deadly. One element was the Czecho-Slovak Legion, which quickly emerged as the most disciplined fighting force in that conflict. The other was the Trans-Siberian Railway. According to Harmon Tupper’s history of the railway, “The Trans-Siberian is inseparable from the history of this bloodshed.”
Virtually completed as the war dawned over the neighboring continent of Europe, the Trans-Siberian was designed chiefly to move settlers and soldiers across distant lands Russia first claimed in 1582, when Vasily Timofeyevich, the Cossack known as Yermak, embarked on an expedition beyond the Urals with an army of 840 men. Although Yermak was paid by the wealthy Stroganov family, he claimed Siberia for Tsar Ivan the Terrible, with whom he hoped to make amends for past crimes. Siberia gave the tsarist kingdom at Moscow the world’s largest land empire and the reach and resources of a great power, without which she would have remained just another European power on a par with France or Italy.
The Trans-Siberian infused this empire with a thin metal spine that extends from the Ural Mountains to the edge of the Pacific, stretching almost five thousand miles. Siberia’s 5 million square miles are bounded by the Urals in the west and the Bering Sea, the Sea of Okhotsk, and the Sea of Japan in the east. To provide perspective, Siberia could contain the United States (including Alaska) and all of Europe (excepting Russia) and still have 300,000 square miles to spare.
In 1891 Tsar Alexander III’s ministers announced their intention to build the Trans-Siberian Railway, and the heir apparent, Grand Duke Nicholas—the future Tsar Nicholas II—broke ground for the rail line at Vladivostok on May 19, 1891 (OS). The line would connect Vladivostok with Chelyabinsk, the frontier town on the eastern slopes of the Urals, which was already connected with European Russia’s rail network. To save money, the designers adopted building standards far below those used elsewhere. Plans called for only a single track of lightweight rails laid on fewer, and smaller, ties and a narrow, thinly ballasted roadbed, while timber was used for bridges crossing three-quarters of the streams. All this parsimoniousness raised safety concerns, though Italian stonemasons built the massive stone piers supporting the steel bridges over Siberia’s widest rivers, most of which still stand. While most Siberian towns and cities were built on rivers, further cost saving dictated that the Trans-Siberian cross those rivers at their narrowest point, which placed most train stations one to fourteen miles from towns. Three miles outside of Chelyabinsk, construction of the eastbound route was begun on July 19, 1892, eventually linking the city with the cities (west to east) of Omsk, Novosibirsk, Tomsk, Krasnoyarsk, and Irkutsk.
Discouraged by the rough terrain between Sretensk and Khabarovsk—where steamships along the Shilka and Amur rivers filled a gap in the railway, but frequently ran aground—the Russians in 1896 negotiated a loan and treaty of alliance with China to build a line from Chita to Vladivostok across Manchurian China, reducing the length of the rail journey by 341 miles. China surrendered a strip of land more than nine hundred miles long to the Russian-controlled Chinese Eastern Railway Company and construction began in 1897. The Chinese Eastern lines connecting Chita with Vladivostok, through the city of Harbin, and a branch line south from Harbin to Port Arthur, opened in 1901. With the start of regular traffic on the line in 1903, the Trans-Siberian Railway was complete—except for a 162-mile missing link around the southern tip of Lake Baikal.
Russia was still putting the finishing touches on that link on February 8, 1904, when Japan opened a torpedo-boat attack on Russia’s naval squadron at Port Arthur. Competing with Russia to dominate Manchuria and the Korean peninsula, Japan decided to strike at Russia before the completion of the Trans-Siberian would allow for easier shipment of Russian troops into China—due to the gap at Lake Baikal that was not yet closed. In the peace treaty signed on September 5, 1905—mediated by US president Theodore Roosevelt, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts—Russia had to surrender to Japan its lease of the Chinese Eastern’s branch line south from Harbin to Port Arthur; the southern half of Russia’s Sakhalin Island, which sits north of Japan; and an exclusive sphere of influence in Korea. Fearful that Tokyo might one day seize the Chinese Eastern Railway, Russia later built the stretch of the Trans-Siberian between Sretensk and Khabarovsk. The five-thousand-foot-long bridge across the Amur at Khabarovsk completed this stretch in October 1916, as well as the original dream of a railway crossing Russia entirely on Russian soil.
21 August 2016
Trans-Siberian Railway to 1916
From Dreams of a Great Small Nation: The Mutinous Army that Threatened a Revolution, Destroyed an Empire, Founded a Republic, and Remade the Map of Europe, by Kevin J. McNamara (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2982-3019: