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Imagine me stood in front of a whiteboard, ‘Trans-Siberian Railway’ written on it in massive letters. I’ve got a marker pen in one hand and I’m wearing a dark blue pullover, sleeves rolled up. I’m your cool history teacher, or so I like to think, and you’ve all been looking forward to my class because I’m young and I don’t like shouting so I let you sit next to your friends and talk while you’re doing work and I pretend that I don’t notice when you eat crisps under your desk. Today, class, we’re going to learn about one of the greatest feats of engineering of all time – the Trans-Siberian railway! Quiet at the back.
In the beginning
In the late 19th Century, Russia, under the leadership of Emperor Alexander III, wanted to expand. Luckily for them, they had the entire expanse of Siberia to the east. Unluckily for them, they had no efficient way of getting there. The solution they came up with was the Trans-Siberian railway; a huge railroad stretching from west to east, covering a whopping 5,772 miles. To put that into perspective, it’s about 600 miles from the top of Scotland to the bottom of England.
Construction began in 1891 and it wasn’t completed until 1904. They started at both ends – Moscow and Vladivostok – and worked inwards. It’s hard to know how many workers it took to complete the railway – anywhere between 60,000 and 300,000 men, according to estimates. It’s no easy feat, building the longest railway in the world. Especially not in Russia and Siberia, what with the swamps, dangerous rivers and mountainous terrain. Not to mention the freezing cold temperatures. And Siberian tigers. And bears. They’re only a lion away from an ‘oh my’.
Jokes aside, the Trans-Siberian railway is a ridiculous achievement, and it’s mind-blowing to think about. Thousands of men working tirelessly and endlessly out in the dangerous wilderness, making and shaping history. They did it in record time too, averaging 600km built a year!
The impact of the Trans-Siberian railway
Russia now had its route east. Europe’s trade with East Asia was made a lot easier. It opened up so many opportunities for commerce, travel and expansion. Expansion caused issues, though. When doesn’t it? For example, and this is a very simple explanation, it helped kick off the Russo-Japanese War. Russia expanded eastward and Japan, quite understandably, felt threatened. Tensions rose, one thing led to another, and war broke out. The railway, thrown up so quickly, was poorly equipped to deal with the numbers of Russian troops being sent east.
Japan won, and it’s hard to comprehend how embarrassing that was for Russia. It was the first time an Asian country had defeated a Western power in modern times. Japan rose up as a dominant power in East Asia and then started beefing with the USA. I won’t go into detail now, but a terrible, terrible Ben Affleck film was born of it. Meanwhile, in Russia, civil unrest following the defeat resulted in the 1905 Russian Revolution, which Lenin referred to as ‘The Great Dress Rehearsal’ for the 1917 one. Now, I’m not saying the railway caused communism, but you know. I’m not not saying that. It played its part.
The Trans-Siberian railway in World War 2
The railway played its part in World War 2, too – for both sides. At the start of the war, Russia and Germany had a non-aggression pact, so the Germans were able to use the railway to trade with East Asia. Through the Trans-Siberian railway, they traded with Japan for rubber – Japan had access to about 90% of the world’s natural rubber resources (I didn’t even know rubber grew on trees. Thought they made it in factories. You learn something new everyday.). Rubber was proper valuable during the war – it was used for gas masks, tyres, life rafts, boots, and loads of other supplies. I don’t know how much you know about World War 2, but to put it mildly Germany and Russia fell out and the Germans lost their railway privileges.
There was a much more positive use of the Trans-Siberian railway during World War 2. It was an escape route for Jews and anti-Nazis fleeing Europe. Imagine the relief that was felt as the train travelled east, knowing that with every passing minute you were getting further and further away from the Nazi regime. Further away from persecution, further away from terror, further away from death. A train ride to freedom. The railway took them from Europe to Vladivostok – from there, they could board a ship and sail across the Pacific to the safety of the USA. The railway possibly saved many, many lives.
The rich history of the railway is fascinating. It was such an impressive feat when it was built, and it continues to be so to this day. Blows my mind.
Nowadays the railway’s mostly used by Russian domestic passengers. It’s still hugely important for the economy, with around 30% of Russian exports coming through the railway. Probably just a mountain of vodka. It’s also a huge attraction for tourists. And is it any wonder? It’s got the fantastic history I’ve just described here coupled with stunning landscapes and breath-taking scenery. It’s a man-made wonder of the world. There’s so much to do along the route; so many stop-offs and incredible experiences.
You can even choose between a couple of different routes, depending on what tickles your fancy. The Trans-Manchurian route takes you through Russia and China, or, if you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, the Trans-Mongolian goes through Russia, China AND Mongolia. Plenty to do wherever you want to go. It’s an alluring adventure with an old-world, romantic charm. Would you like to travel it?
If it’s something that you think you’d be interested in, good news! I’ve written a blog helping you get started with the process. It talks you through, and guides you to, the visas you’ll need to travel the railway. If you’re intimidated by visas, don’t be. You’re in safe hands! I’ve written a beginner’s guide here. Have a little read through that, then have a look at the Trans-Siberian blog here. It’s a bucket list item for many people, myself included. Why not just go for it? It’s never been easier. But I digress. Oop, is that the time? Sorry, didn’t realise I’d rambled on for that long. Class dismissed!