To the Edge of the World

The Story of the Trans-Siberian Express, the World's Greatest Railroad


By Christian Wolmar

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To the Edge of the World is an adventure in travel — full of extraordinary personalities, more than a century of explosive political, economic, and cultural events, and almost inconceivable feats of engineering. Christian Wolmar passionately recounts the improbable origins of the Trans-Siberian railroad, the vital artery for Russian expansion that spans almost 6,000 miles and seven time zones from Moscow to Vladivostok. The world’s longest train route took a decade to build — in the face of punishing climates, rampant disease, scarcity of funds and materials, and widespread corruption.

The line sprawls over a treacherous landmass that was previously populated only by disparate tribes and convicts serving out their terms in labor camps — where men were regularly starved, tortured, or mutilated for minor offenses. Once built, it led to the establishment of new cities and transformed the region’s history. Exceeding all expectations, it became, according to Wolmar, “the best thing that ever happened to Siberia.”

It was not all good news, however. The railroad was the cause of the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War, and played a vital — and at times bloody — role in the Russian Revolution and the subsequent Civil War. More positively, the Russians were able to resist the Nazi invasion during the Second World War as new routes enabled whole industries to be sent east. Siberia, previously a lost and distant region, became an inextricable part of Russia’s cultural identity. And what began as one meandering, single-track line is now, arguably, the world’s most important railroad.




There were many reasons for Russia not to have built the Trans-Siberian Railway – and very few to build it. While by 1869 America boasted a transcontinental railway and Canada, more relevantly, followed suit sixteen years later, Russia was different. Unlike most of Europe, which had embraced liberalism to accommodate the needs of industrial growth, Russia remained an absolute monarchy ruled by a conservative tsar through a political system that made no concessions to democracy. Travel was circumscribed by the state to such an extent that rail passengers needed internal passports to travel around the country. Compared with the United States and Canada, Russia was a primitive country, based on inefficient agriculture and boasting little industry. The territory of Siberia – the vast area east of the Urals through which the railway would pass – was sparsely populated and its climate was far harsher than the western regions of Canada and the United States, which had begun to be settled thanks to their transcontinental railways. It seemed to offer little to attract potential immigrants who would be needed to justify the massive cost of constructing the line. Given the likely poor demand for travel the need for the line could, therefore, be questioned.

Then there was the sheer scale of the enterprise. The railway would have to stretch across the whole of Siberia to the port of Vladivostok, a distance of some 5,7501 miles – 9,255 kilometres – from Moscow, since it made no sense to stop halfway, given its military rationale was to serve the ports on the Sea of Japan and reinforce the ties between the centre and the most disparate parts of the Russian Empire. As a comparison, the First American Transcontinental, which linked an already well-developed network of lines in the American Midwest with California, required only 1,780 miles of new line when work began in California in 1863. Given Russia’s poverty and its feudal, rather than capitalist, economy, neither private firms nor the state seemed in a position to embark on such an ambitious and costly project.

Yet Russia – or rather the tsar – did decide to build the line. The reasons for this momentous decision, as we shall see, were not rooted in any rational assessment of the economic benefits of building the railway, but rather in the tsar’s personal motivations and his assessment of its military and political value. The advantage of being an autocratic leader with no need to consider public opinion or pay too much regard to the parlous state of the Treasury, was that he had the power to make such things happen. His word was law and fortunately he had able aides, most notably Sergei Witte, his finance minister, to carry through the work.

This was a familiar pattern. After all, it was a previous tsar, Alexander’s grandfather, Nicholas I, who had brought the iron road to Russia in the first place on equally untested reasoning. While the first lines had been laid in both the UK and the US in 1830, Russia was hesitant about joining the railway age. Yet Russia desperately needed railways as the nation was a transport nightmare. The lack of investment and the size of the country resulted in lengthy, heroically difficult journeys, and the severe climate meant that sleighs rather than wheeled vehicles had to be used in winter. There was a scattering of good roads in Russia, notably the St Petersburg–Moscow highway, completed in 1816. One of its early travellers, Princess Maria Volkonsky – the wife of Sergei Volkonsky, one of the instigators of the attempted coup against the tsar of December 1825 – took five days to cover the 450 miles between the two cities when she journeyed east to join her husband in exile. That suggests it was certainly among the better roads of the age in Europe. This was the first of a series of highways that Nicholas had built to link the major towns, but minor routes could be travelled only on dirt roads, which became quagmires when the snow melted in the spring or the rain fell in the autumn.

Despite Russia’s primitive economic state, there was a well-organized system of passenger transport on these main roads. The fastest form of transport was that of government diligence, stagecoaches usually drawn by four horses abreast, which carried four passengers inside and three, paying lower fares, outside, together with the conductor and driver. There were, too, slower and cheaper public diligences which carried up to a dozen people, while more affluent families had their own vehicles. The operation of the roads was dependent on the government, which strictly controlled people’s movements. Horses had to be changed at government-run post stations located every ten miles or so and supervised by a stationmaster who ‘was bound to give preference to travellers on government service. The ordinary traveller might therefore have to wait hours or days for horses to become available, but his trials could be lightened by skilful bribery.’2

In Siberia travelling in the sleighs used in winter was infinitely preferable to the summer equivalent. This was normally a tarantass, which was rather like a large, shallow basket that rested on flexible wooden poles attached to the axles. The tarantass, drawn by two horses, carried up to four people with a seat for the driver but no benches for the passengers, who simply made do with finding space alongside their baggage and loose belongings. The smaller, single-horse-drawn telegas, little more than a slightly modified farm cart, was an even more uncomfortable conveyance, used mostly only for baggage, but at times brought into service when tarantasses were not available. The one advantage of not travelling in the winter was that large sections of the road could be avoided in the short, ice-free season by using the ferries that plied their trade along Siberia’s huge rivers and which, in some parts flowed in an east–west direction. By the mid-nineteenth century large paddle steamboats were also available to passengers, providing reasonable accommodation during voyages that could last 1,000 miles or more.

Indeed, before the arrival of the railways, the rivers had been the backbone of Russia’s transport system, even though they were only sufficiently ice-free to be used, at best, for five months of the year. Short river crossings were made on flat-bottomed rafts or barges moored to a chain anchored in mid-stream, but at times large queues developed at key crossing points because there were not enough of them. Nor were these little boats particularly safe or reliable. There were dangers from sizeable ice floes – mini-icebergs, in effect – in the spring, which could send the boat’s occupants flying into the water or even sink the craft with invariably fatal results. At times the sheer volume of these floes stopped the service altogether. Indeed, the elements posed an ever-present danger to progress. If the rivers dried up, the large steamboats could become marooned in the shallows for days or even weeks, while after prolonged rain the rivers became too swollen or fast-flowing for safe navigation. Oddly, bridges, too, posed considerable danger. These structures were often crumbling and rotten, and yamschchiki, the tarantass drivers, excited by what they saw as a challenge, would often accelerate to cross a bridge, judging that they would outpace any collapse – which did not always prove to be the case.

Given the rigours of the journey, optimistic travellers would seek comfort and rest at post houses, which were located about every ten or twenty miles throughout the route, when they could no longer face another night of being thrown around in a tarantass. They were invariably disappointed. These government-run post houses normally consisted of living quarters for the postmaster and his family and a common room for travellers, which was ‘about twenty feet by eighteen feet wide, the two sections being heated by a huge brick oven in the dividing wall’.3 There were a few chairs and tables, but no beds and the ‘guests’ would sleep where they could on furs and coats, lying on uncarpeted filthy floors inhabited by cockroaches and their predators: large, hungry rats. There were no sanitary facilities, which rarely troubled the local travellers, who did not believe in washing on these voyages, as they thought that ‘soap and water sensitized the skin and increased the dangers of frostbite’.4 A British visitor, Harry de Windt, remarked that while the Russian peasant women would not find it a hardship to remain unwashed for months at a time since that was their custom, the aristocratic ladies who travelled to join their husbands in Irkutsk or Vladivostok found it unbearable: ‘The prettiest looked hideous in the early morning hours, with tangled hair, disordered dress and pale, pasty faces, while their diamond rings served to show off the blackness of their hands and nails, which they had probably been unable to wash for days.’5 With typical Victorian gallantry, he omits to tell us what the less pretty ones looked like.

The first part of the trip from Moscow to Siberia, the route to the Urals – the natural as well as official barrier between Europe and Asia – was relatively easy since the roads were in reasonable condition, but thereafter the going got tougher. Steven Marks, the historian of the genesis of the line, sums it up neatly: ‘Siberian transportation west of Lake Baikal was bad, and east of the lake it got worse.’6 The historic route through Siberia, rather grandly titled the post road – a ‘flattering misnomer’7 according to foreigners who ventured on to it – was known locally as the trakt and had been improved in the eighteenth century (using the labour of exiles) to a width of twenty-one feet. For the most part it was merely a line of tall posts or clumps of birch trees to indicate the route through the steppes, just enough for two tarantasses to pass safely. There was not only the problem of mud in the wet seasons, but the sheer remoteness of the route meant that any breakdown led to lengthy delays to find replacement equipment. In the winter the sleighs gave a smoother ride, though the danger then was from storms that could trap the unwary between the post houses which would have provided shelter – albeit crude. There was, too, a hidden danger for unwary drivers. Rocks partly covered by snow could shatter sleigh runners, which would be impossible to repair on the spot and leave travellers spending nights by the roadside in freezing conditions with only the furs of the tarantass to keep them warm. Traffic, too, could be heavy on parts of the route in winter as the road was ‘often blocked by hundreds of one-horse sledges loaded with hide-bound boxes of tea and all roped together to form a single file perhaps a mile long’.8 It was customary for the drivers in these long chains to fall asleep, given they had nothing to do as they were connected to the next wagon; and therefore the horses, left to their own devices, tended to drift towards the centre of the road – to the annoyance of any traffic coming in the other direction.

Tarantasses were limited to a maximum of 8 mph, which was strictly enforced by the government’s agents, but this safety measure was not sufficient to prevent accidents, which were more frequent at night. Since passengers in a hurry would be driven at night as well as day in order to cover the huge distances, sleepy or, more often, sozzled drivers would doze off with inevitable consequences. And if the condition of the road and the flimsiness of the carriages were not dangerous enough, travellers lived at constant risk of attack from runaway convicts, who, particularly in the summer, would form into groups, lying in wait near post stations. With little to lose, they were particularly violent and after robbing their victims of money, clothes, weapons and sometimes even the passports that might enable them to return to the west, would often slaughter travellers to prevent them bearing witness.

Given these difficulties it was hardly surprising that it could take a year and sometimes more to reach Vladivostok, the main port on the Pacific that would eventually be the terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway. In the right conditions, and with money for bribes, the journey could be undertaken much more quickly, but there were never any guarantees about travelling through Siberia. The unexpected mishap was always to be expected.

The term Siberia is, in fact, a rather loose description of the region east of the Urals with a landmass equivalent to the whole of North America, including Canada and Alaska, and Europe put together – some five million square miles, a number that seems almost impossible to grasp – with a population today of forty million. Broadly, it takes in the Asian land mass north of a line drawn between Kazakhstan and Korea, including China and Mongolia. The eastern shores stretch between the Sea of Japan and the Bering Strait, both of which are parts of the Pacific Ocean. Maps barely do justice to the scale of this land mass, because to fit on a page they are generally on a larger scale than representations of other countries, which is justified by the scarcity of towns and villages of any description. It is only by realizing that Siberia encompasses seven time zones,9 compared with four across the US mainland, that the scale begins to be understood.

The standard Western European assumption of equating Siberia with freezing-cold temperatures is not entirely accurate. The southern parts of Siberia through which the railway runs is broadly on the same latitude as central England and has a humid, continental climate with cold winters – typically averaging –15°C in January – and fairly warm summers. It is, though, the more northern, drier areas where the freezing temperatures that are synonymous with Siberia can be found with, typically, January figures averaging –25°C or worse.

Vladivostok, which is tucked away in the southernmost corner of Siberia near both the Chinese and North Korean borders, is almost ten degrees of latitude south of London. While Vladivostok has a legendary feel to it, like Timbuktu, as if it were some unimaginably distant place, it is, in fact, by no means the furthest point from Moscow. To the north-east there are several thousand miles of land mass, ending in the peninsula of Kamchatka, which scowls across the Bering Strait at Alaska, famously sold to America for barely the price of a tsar’s summer residence.

There is an entertaining, if perhaps apocryphal tale that illustrates the scale of the Siberian lands. In the eighteenth century the Empress Elizabeth Petrovna invited half a dozen virgins from Kamchatka to visit her in the capital, St Petersburg. Escorted by an imperial officer, these supposedly chaste maidens were, by the time they reached Irkutsk near Lake Baikal, which was about halfway on their journey, already carrying children fathered by their military chaperon. According to Harmon Tupper, author of a 1960s account of the railway, the Lothario was replaced by a supposedly more reliable fellow, but ‘nevertheless, by the time the young mothers reached St Petersburg – nearly 9,000 miles from Kamchatka – their firstborn had half-brothers and -sisters’.10

Siberia, of course, remains synonymous with the phenomenon of exile. With justification, since the numbers suffering that fate were remarkably high. Exile to Siberia became a punishment as early as the late sixteenth century, but initially only a few criminals were sent there. At the time, Siberia was the lenient option. The Russians had a penchant for particularly unpleasant and cruel treatment of anyone who transgressed the law or challenged the autocratic rule of the tsars. It seemed a feature of the Russian rulers to devise particularly intricate and painful ways to despatch their victims. Men were impaled on sharp stakes, hanged or beheaded for minor crimes, while flogging and branding were commonplace. Mutilation – such as amputation of limbs or cutting out tongues – was also sanctioned, until, in the mid-eighteenth century the empress Elizabeth Petrovna, the daughter of Peter the Great, decided that the barbarity had to end. She abolished the death penalty and largely replaced it with exile to Siberia. While the death penalty was later partly reinstated, it was used only sparingly and instead most criminals found themselves being sent east. It was not always a blessing for the hapless transgressors of the criminal code. In fact, such were the depredations suffered by many convicts, a swift death in a prison yard might have been preferable.

Broadly, there were two categories of exile: the common criminals and the political activists, who, for the most part, were more affluent and well-educated than the lawbreakers and made up a tiny minority, perhaps one or two per cent. The overall number of people sent to Siberia, though, was quite extraordinary as the system had a dual purpose. While primarily exile was a form of punishment, it also helped to populate the tribal areas of Siberia with Russians in order to solidify the tsarist regime’s hold over its eastern lands. That, too, of course, would motivate the construction of the railway. The pace of deportations increased greatly in the early nineteenth century and a reliable estimate is that at its peak in the mid-nineteenth century, up to 12,000 people were sent each year, many bringing their families with them, so that overall, between 1800 and the outbreak of the First World War, around one million people were exiled.

Of course, while being sent to Siberia seems a particularly cruel punishment, the French and British had their own exile systems during the nineteenth century, sending people to far-off colonies rather than internally to a distant part of the same nation. After a hiatus during the First World War and the Russian Revolution, hundreds of thousands were sent during Joseph Stalin’s rule, which lasted until the 1950s.

During the early part of this period, exile was, for the most part, a sentence of death. According to Tupper, ‘Exiles were herded on foot to Siberia and died by the thousands for lack of food and shelter.’11 The relatively liberal Tsar Alexander l began to improve conditions for the exiles, establishing stockaded rest houses – étapes, as they were known, since French was the language used by the ruling classes – which offered some protection and respite to the travelling deportees. Nevertheless, the conditions remained brutal. Those sentenced to hard labour were sent to the mines beyond Irkutsk, in deepest, north-eastern Siberia (not salt mines, as myth has it, but silver and gold), where some, dreading a lifetime of incarceration and suffering from the brutality of the guards, committed suicide by drinking water in which they had soaked the poisonous heads of matches. Those sentenced to hard labour and a second group, ‘penal colonists’, were exiled for life, but could become settlers after serving a sentence ranging from four to twenty years.

Despite this, the exile system failed miserably as a way of increasing the population. There is a bit of a mystery here. The numbers being exiled to Siberia suggest that the population should have grown rapidly in the nineteenth century. But census figures suggest it did not. The reason was that most exiles were relatively old – typically thirty to fifty – which meant that by the time they were released to settle they were beyond the age when they could be expected to raise a family. Moreover, there was an inbuilt sexual imbalance resulting from the far greater number of male than female exiles. There was, too, a high death rate, even after various sets of improvements were introduced in the rare brief periods of more liberal rule. While the figures on prisoner numbers suggest that many lived a long time, the jailers who controlled the penal colonies and the mines were effectively a law unto themselves, since they were so far from the capital and therefore routinely failed to report deaths, because they could continue to draw rations and allowances on the part of these deceased prisoners. This was corruption on a grand scale. According to a British Foreign Office report, large numbers of prisoners ‘existed only in official lists of the Siberian authorities, who prolonged the lives of thousands of exiles on paper in order to put the money received from the government for their support into their own pockets’.12 Indeed, that provided almost an incentive to despatch prisoners or encourage them to escape to eke out a miserable existence as a bandit unlikely to survive the winter. The census, however, reveals the real story. The modest increase in the Siberian population during the nineteenth century was, in fact, almost entirely the result of settlement by freed serfs after the abolition of slavery in 1862. There were, too, numerous tribes who had lived there for time immemorial. These were a disparate group, several of whom were nomadic, who had little connection with the Russian state and had their own languages and customs.

The unattractiveness of transport in Siberia to all but a few hardy settlers was, therefore, one of the spurs to the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway. However, it took a leap of imagination to set out to build a 5,750-mile line, far longer than any other in the world, when Russia’s railway system was much less developed than its counterparts in Europe and North America. Russia’s first steps to joining the growing number of railway nations were tentative – hardly surprising, given the conservative and authoritarian nature of rule by Tsar Nicholas l. The construction of railways began to be mooted for the first time in Russia in the mid-1820s. As in Britain and continental Europe, man-hauled wagonways had been used for some time in mines and the first horse-drawn railway – a 1.2-mile line carrying silver ore from a mine at the Zmeinogorsk works in the Altai region of south central Russia, near what is now the Kazakhstan border – was built in 1809 by Pyotr Frolov. This line was notable not only as the first to use horses – who could haul three wagons each carrying eight tons of ore, far more efficient than any previous method – but ‘for many cuttings and tunnels built to ease gradients, and for the replacement of angle rails, as used elsewhere, by cast-iron convex rails matching corresponding grooves in the wheels of the wagons’.13 It was, in other words, a very sophisticated railway by the standards of the day, but unfortunately it was in such a remote area of the country that even the tsar was unaware of its existence. It took another twenty-five years before Russia’s first steam engine was built, and it was – as in Britain, where the Stephensons, George and Robert, were the main developers – the work of a father-and-son team. The Cherepanovs, Yefim and his son Miron, were mechanics at the iron works of Nizhny Tagil in the Urals, who had previously produced a series of steam engines used to supply power to pumps and over a period of fifteen years had greatly improved their efficiency. In the early 1830s Miron was sent to England, at the time the world’s leading trailblazer on steam technology, to learn how to produce an efficient steam locomotive. By 1833 they had produced their first engine, but – just as with similar pioneering efforts in Britain – it was not very successful. Indeed, the boilers of the first two locomotives they produced both exploded, again a common feature of early locomotive development, but the third, completed in 1835, proved relatively efficient, ‘able to move faster than a horse, even if it could pull only a smaller load’.14 It is a measure of the state of Russia in the early nineteenth century that both Cherepanovs were actually serfs, effectively owned by the factory for which they worked. Sadly, their efforts were in vain as the first Russian railways used foreign locomotives.

Hence the elements of building a railway were available in Russia relatively early, just as railway mania was sweeping the European continent and, indeed, the United States. The political will, however, was lacking, despite the entreaties of the small, forward-looking minority of the aristocratic ruling elite, who realized that the railways were the only viable transport option for a vast nation like Russia with the extremes of climate that made roads impassable and rivers unnavigable for large parts of the year. This group of modernists knew that transport costs were an insuperable barrier to the country’s economic development. For example, the price of some agricultural produce would be three or four times greater in the major cities than at the farm gate, an increase almost entirely attributable to the high cost of river transport. The development of the nascent iron industry, located near the mines in the Urals where Europe meets Asia more than 1,000 miles from Moscow, was greatly handicapped, as the price of iron products from the region was so high in the major cities that firms found it easier to import goods from Britain or France. The unreliability of the transport system was an added burden. In winter when the rivers were frozen, land transport was possible in theory, but in practice roads were often blocked by heavy snow and ice. The effect of this poor transport network went far beyond simple economics: ‘A consequence of this slow rate of movement was that a bad harvest in one province could rarely be compensated by grain shipments from a more fortunate region; hence the frequency in Russia of localized but deadly famines.’15

Numerous proposals for horse-drawn railways were put forward in the 1820s, but rejected by the monarch. Support for railways grew following the opening of the world’s first modern railway line, the very successful Liverpool & Manchester in 1830, which stimulated the development of rail travel across Europe. While the main long-distance mode of transport in Russia, the waterways, was improving thanks to dredging, the construction of canals and the introduction of steam boats, it was clear to the modernizers that the railways represented the future: ‘In the final analysis, Russia’s transport needs could be adequately met only by an integrated network of railways.’16

It took an outsider, a German, Franz von Gerstner, to convince the tsar to support the building of the country’s first railway, the fifteen-mile-long line between what was the then capital, St Petersburg, and Tsarskoe Selo, the tsar’s summer residence. Originally, von Gerstner’s aim had been much more ambitious. He had put forward a plan for building a network of lines across Russia, and tried to appeal to the tsar by emphasizing that the system would be ever ready to send troops around the country at great speed. There were, too, other influential opponents of the railways in the government. Nicholas had surrounded himself with advisers of a similar conservative bent, such as Count Yegor Kankrin, his long-term minister of finance, who, like many senior officials of the time such as von Gerstner, German. Kankrin, an economist, argued that such a large enterprise would divert capital away from agriculture, where it would do far more to improve people’s lives. He also worried about the effect on the traditional carters carrying goods along the highways and on the forests, which would be depleted for locomotive fuel, a rather unconvincing argument given the size and scale of Russian woodland. Nevertheless, his arguments prevailed. Given such powerful opposition, it was no surprise that von Gerstner’s proposal was rejected, but the tsar, who had thwarted a coup attempt by the Decembrists in 1825, was ever alert to the military potential of the iron road. He had noticed that there had been a swift transfer of troops by rail from Manchester to Liverpool during one of the perennial Irish emergencies17 and the parallels between England’s tenuous hold over Ireland and Russia’s difficult relationship with its Polish province were all too obvious.


On Sale
Apr 5, 2016
Page Count
320 pages

Christian Wolmar

About the Author

Christian Wolmar is a British writer and broadcaster. He’s the author of 20 books, including a series of eight classic books of railway history. In 2021, Wolmar was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He has lectured several times at the online One Day University and has twice spoken at the Pennsylvania Railroad Museum, as well as at numerous other venues in the United States, including the Brookings Institution. His books have been widely translated into numerous languages including Italian, Spanish, Polish, and Mandarin. He's based in the UK.

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