‘K’ is a very bright and knowledgeable individual; a Russian historian who speaks English like (or even better than) a native. Frankly, I’ve heard worse diction from some of my fellow countrymen.
True, I have not yet had the opportunity to test him on classic horror films or the merits of vintage synthesisers, but as far as rail history in the Ekaterinburg region goes, he’s a veritable gold mine.
The anniversary alluded to in the heading of this article is the 100 year mark since the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway. It’s a little more involved than first appearances suggest, as various stages of the railway were completed at different times; as finances and technology allowed.
“Built as a testament to national pride and also to unite the vast Siberian territory with existing Russian trains, the Trans-Siberian network took many years to complete. The undertaking was a colossal one that took place in some incredibly punishing landscapes.”
So, this year marks the completion of the final, final section; the stretch of line that facilitated the crossing of the Amur River. Although surely an important landmark (in both senses of the word), there is surprisingly little fanfare about this particular achievement today. The fireworks were all spent in 2001 to celebrate the centenary of the completion of the first version of the Tran-Siberian Railway. This had been completed in sections, allowing a connection (originally) between Chelyabinsk in the West and Vladivostok in the East. However, the crossing the Amur also allowed access to Vladivostok, so what is going on?
Looking a vintage map (thanks K) of the Trans-Siberian, it all becomes clear: the Baikal-Vladivostok link got there first by traversing Northern China following a deal with the Chinese government. The Russians even forced through their preference of a wider line gauge than the Chinese used domestically, making the railway a truly all-Russian affair.
However, establishing an alien object in a foreign land is always risky, especially when xenophobia or nationalism rears its head. Sure enough, the late 19th Century saw an anti-foreigner movement within China, and what better target than a foreign construction established purely for Russian convenience (that paid no heed to Chinese norms of functionality)? Militant damage to this iron interloper convinced the Russians that another way was needed, literally.
The only solution was to circumnavigate Chinese territory altogether by diverting the rail route North over difficult ground that not only required over 2000km of new track to be built, but the crossing of the mighty Amur River itself. This feat was achieved through the construction of complicated bridges across rivers in the area including a 2km span across the Amur itself.
So, why no Amur-rail celebration? Well, although significant (especially in terms of civil engineering), it was ultimately a correction of something that had been achieved before: that crucial link to Vladivostok. It was also born of necessity rather than desire, and added 600Km to the journey as-the-crow-flies (the remaining length of track was for required for route diversion). So, more of a correction then than anything, with the physical achievement standing luminous in the background.
Ultimately, no one cares how clever the bridge builders were if, even through no fault of their own, they add 600Km to the journey, right?
More rail tales next time.