This is the second of several posts about the Trans-Siberian. The first post, “China and the Trans-Siberian Railway,” discussed the international aspects of the railway and gave an overview of its construction. Below I repeat a map used in that post, with the addition of a few more place names mentioned in the current post.
First, a scene of travel across Siberia shortly before the railroad started construction.
At the age of 30, Anton Chekhov journeyed across Siberia to Sakhalin Island to visit and write about the penal colonies there. It was 1890, the year before Tsar Alexander III ordered work to begin on the railway. None of Chekhov’s biographers can say for sure what motivated him to make the trip.
A practicing physician, he’d published short stories but had not yet earned fame as a writer. At Sakhalin Island he interviewed thousands of convicts and wrote about their health, their personal histories, and what he could gather about their inner lives. He compiled their stories into what would become his only nonfiction work, and it’s said the book resulted in some slight improvement in conditions at the camps.
He describes in the book how it takes him three months to cross Siberia. He starts in May, when spring has arrived in European Russia but here “the forests are bare, there is dull ice on the lakes, and snow still lying on the shores and in the gullies.”*
His horse-drawn sledge bumps along over a muddy, rutted road that freezes hard every night. He and his driver pass groups of migrant peasants trudging along beside carts heaped up with belongings. They hope for better lives in this unknown region.
Chekhov occupies himself by looking at individuals and guessing whether or not they will make a success of it. Seeing a sensitive-looking man carrying two violins, he concocts a whole story: the man, he speculates, is a misfit bachelor who follows along with his brother’s family because he has no place else to go.
They pass gangs of prisoners walking along, their leg shackles jingling, guarded by soldiers with rifles. They look exhausted, and the convicts still have seven miles to the village where they will spend the night, bedding down on pallets swarming with bedbugs.
Chekhov’s sledge reaches the bank of a broad river they will have to cross by ferry, but the boat is not to be seen. As the sky grows dark and Chekhov’s feet freeze in the damp air, he and his driver yell across the river. After a half hour of yelling, they hear the splashing of oars. Five oarsmen appear on a barge, all swearing at each other and at Chekhov for no reason other than being in a foul mood. He writes, “The gentlest and most inoffensive piece of abuse with the oarsmen is ‘A pox on you!’ or “Pox pustules in your gob!… Only one thing remains in life for them—vodka, sluts, more sluts, more vodka.”
A few days later, as Chekhov rides in a small carriage, a mail troika (drawn by three horses abreast) gallops past, and the carriage-driver just manages to swerve out of the way. But then comes a second mail troika, and it veers straight toward them. There is a tremendous crash, cases and bundles strewn everywhere, the shafts snapped, the horses’ harnesses broken. Then comes a third troika thundering along, and a fourth and a fifth. Chekhov yells at them to stop. It turns out that the first driver was hurrying along much too fast, and the other four drivers had simply fallen asleep, allowing their horses to follow along blindly.
Is it any wonder, then, that Chekhov opted to return to Moscow by sea, going via Hong Kong, Ceylon, and Egypt?
To save money on the Trans-Siberian, it was decided to build only a single track, using lightweight rails and a smaller number of ties (or sleepers, as the British call them). The ties were made of crudely hewn logs, not treated with any preservative. The single track would become a critical limitation in moving troops and equipment during the Russo-Japanese War.
Wherever possible, planners called for the route to avoid construction of tunnels and sidehill blasting, resulting in a path far from linear and consequently limiting the travel speed of trains: 10 to 15 mph was the fastest they could move in the railway’s early years. Bridges over streams were built of wood; steel and stone were reserved for the largest river crossings.
The Ob River presented a significant challenge. At the thriving city of Tomsk on a tributary of the Ob, the river was wide and bordered by marsh. It was considered impractical to build a bridge there, so the rail line was routed to cross the Ob further south, at the village of Novonikolaevsk. Even though a spur line was eventually built to Tomsk, that city’s growth stagnated with the bypass by the railway, while Novonikolaevsk grew into the major city of Novosibirsk, now the third largest city in Russia.
Lake Baikal presented an even greater challenge. In terms of total volume of water, it is the largest freshwater lake in the world, more than 400 miles long and 5,200 feet deep. A remarkable natural feature, it is home to many endemic species, including a freshwater seal and varieties of fish specially adapted to life at a mile below the surface. Unfortunately for the railway builders, Lake Baikal is surrounded in many places by mountains that plunge down directly at the shoreline. This necessitated the construction of 33 tunnels and 200 bridges and trestles. The work proceeded so slowly that it was not completed until 1904.
In the meantime two icebreaker ferries were built, the larger one named “Baikal” capable of carrying a train and the smaller “Angara” to serve as a backup and a supplemental carrier of passengers and freight. The two vessels were constructed in England, each part stamped with an identifying number and letter, and broken down for reassembly in Russia. The fifteen boilers of the “Baikal” could not be transported to the lake until the rail bridge at Yenisei was completed, as they were too large and heavy to be carried by wagon.
The westernmost portion of the railway was built by workers recruited from European Russia, Turkey, Persia, and Italy. But as the distance increased from Europe, it became difficult to obtain laborers. The scattered population of local peasants did not yield many willing recruits.
So the mid-Siberian section utilized convict labor from a prison near Irkutsk. To provide an incentive, eight months of railway labor counted as a year off a prisoner’s sentence. A small daily wage allowed for the purchase of sugar, tobacco, and vodka.
Once the rail line was completed as far as Lake Baikal, contractors were able to transport hired labor from Russia. Convicts were used again east of Baikal—many of them workers in Siberian mines. Perhaps the rail construction seemed slightly more pleasant. They were given the same incentives as the Irkutsk prisoners. For the easternmost Ussuri line, Chinese laborers were imported.
Much of the route lay across marshy steppe dotted with ponds and lakes. Clearing and grading the route could not be done until the ground thawed, which occurred mid-May in western Siberia but not until July further east. The winter months were used for construction of bridges and stations, and for the transport of materials such as stone blocks and steel beams by horse-drawn sledge, which could move faster on frozen ground. Once the thaw came, the ground turned to mud and the air teemed with clouds of biting insects. Drainage canals had to be dug, which themselves became breeding grounds for mosquitoes.
Work was done with simple tools such as picks, shovels, and wheelbarrows. At the end of a day of hard labor, the men gathered in huts made of sod and railroad timbers. Dinner consisted of something like a meat-and-potato stew served in a giant kettle into which the men dipped wooden spoons.
Sickness and injuries were common, as well as knife wounds from brawls. I imagine a quarrel might have easily erupted when a person took the best piece of meat from the pot. Qualified medical attention was generally available only at stationary projects such as the major bridges.
Landslides and floods damaged portions of the line just recently completed, for instance demolishing more than 200 miles of track along tributaries of the Amur during torrential rains in July 1897. Engineers planning the line between Khabarovsk and Vladivostok overlooked the regular seasonal flooding of the Ussuri River. They soon found that newly laid track became submerged, forcing its relocation to higher ground.
But despite the enormous obstacles, the Trans-Siberian, together with the Chinese Eastern Railway that made a shortcut across Manchuria (as described in the last post), was done with the completion of the Circum-Baikal line in 1904, pushed along by the exigencies of the Russo-Japanese War. The next post will describe how the railway’s limited capacity caused problems for Russia in that war. And, as earlier described, Russia lost the use of the Chinese Eastern Railway when the Japanese won the war. And that forced Russia to build the long section of line to Khabarovsk along the Amur River.
*Anton P. Chekhov, Sakhalin Island. Cambridge, UK: Ian Faulkner, 1963.