This essay was published in 2000 as part of the original Meeting of Frontiers website.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, Russia underwent a period of extensive rail development that culminated in the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Akin to the great railways to the Pacific in both the United States and Canada, Russia's transcontinental line was intended to supply and populate Siberia as well as deliver raw materials to the burgeoning industries west of the Urals. Working against an ambitious timetable and under severe conditions of climate and terrain, the Russians effectively united the European and Asian parts of the empire by completing this herculean project.
Plans to build a railway across Siberia had circulated within the highest levels of the Russian bureaucracy for years before construction finally began in 1891. The project had strong backing from Emperor Aleksandr III and other notables. The heir apparent, Grand Duke Nicholas, served as chairman of the Siberian Railroad Committee and performed a variety of ceremonial duties connected with the project, including turning the first spadeful of earth near Vladivostok to start the construction. The real force behind the project, however, was Sergei Witte, the indomitable minister of finance to both Aleksandr and later Nicholas.
In order to begin rail operations on parts of the line as soon as possible, Witte set firm deadlines for the completion of various sections of the project. With the schedule under constant threat of slippage from the difficult working conditions and remoteness of Siberia, Witte insisted on adhering to his plans and cajoled subordinates to maintain the pace. This pressure contributed to accidents, as well as supply and equipment breakdowns. As disease and exposure took their toll on the labor force, the state turned to prisoners in great numbers to finish the job. The costs of construction eventually reached over $250 million, twice the original estimate. Witte remained resolute in his goal, however, recalling in his memoirs, "I devoted myself body and soul to the task."
Like other rail lines throughout the empire, the track used on the Trans-Siberian was wider than the standard European gauge—5 feet 3.5 inches as opposed to 4 feet 8.5 inches. The engineering plans provided for the sequential construction of six basic segments. In order of completion, these branches were the West Siberian line from Cheliabinsk to Novonikolaevsk (the future city of Novosibirsk) on the Ob River; the Ussuri line from Khabarovsk to Vladivostok; the mid-Siberian line from Novonikolaevsk to Innokentievskaia near Irkutsk, with a spur line to Tomsk; the circum-Baikal line from Irkutsk to the eastern side of Lake Baikal; and the trans-Baikal line from Lake Baikal to Sretensk. A sixth section, the Amur line from Sretensk to Khabarovsk, was not completed until 1916. Before its completion, Russia was able to establish a link to the Pacific by negotiating an agreement with China to run track across Manchuria via the Chinese Eastern Railway.
The Amur Line
Although initial plans for the Trans-Siberian Railroad envisioned a track running across Russian territory all the way to Vladivostok, difficulties in the construction eventually altered the route. East of Lake Baikal, the rugged landscape presented enormous complications for building the Amur section of the line from Sretensk to Khabarovsk according to the original timetable. In response, the Russian government temporarily shelved this part of the project and negotiated an agreement with China to run track through Manchuria from just east of Chita to Vladivostok. The alternate line, which was known as the Chinese Eastern Railway, shortened the route by five hundred kilometers and saved enormous costs.
The problem with this solution, however, was that it made Russia's link to the Pacific vulnerable to political developments in China, which were increasingly affected by pressure from an assertive Japanese Empire. Defeat in the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War weakened Russia's already tenuous foothold in Manchuria and threatened the integrity of the new railroad. The tsarist government thus was forced to revert to its original and far more expensive plan to build a line through the watershed of the great Amur River. Suspended in 1895 at an early stage of work, construction on the Amur line began anew in 1908. Establishment of the roadbed across the regional mountain chains and rivers made the completion of this branch highly problematic, a situation complicated by the outbreak of World War I and resultant supply and manpower shortages. By 1916, however, the Amur line was completed, for the first time allowing for an all-Russian route to Vladivostok.