Other than the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, it would be hard to envision a national transportation project that was less about daily efficiencies and more about psychological conquest than the Kremlin’s effort to build a railroad across Siberia.
The guiding principle of the Trans-Siberian Railway was not about the routine moving of people from place-to-place, but sticking a pair of iron rods into bleak territory that had strategic importance in defining Russia’s role in the Far East. The road was more geopolitical than economic, and it took a wildly profligate financing scheme to pull it off.
At the beginning of the 1890s, Czar Alexander III worried about pressure from Germany in the west as well as the possible expansion of Chinese influence into Siberia – then a barely-populated gulag region mastered only by tigers and bandits. He decided the best way to reaffirm Russia’s dominance in the East and even into Manchuria, as well as strengthen its internal economy through natural resources, would not be through posting isolated army divisions in the frozen wilderness but by creating a mechanical link between St. Petersburg and the far provinces, which were rich in iron, fur, and lumber.
The Russian Minister of Finance, Sergei Witte, was not worried about long-term currency inflation. He told the czar that the best way to build up the national treasury was to spend “lavishly” on public works and let the corresponding revenue make up the difference – a strange reverse-echo of the famous “Laffer Curve of U.S. Republican faith which says that tax cuts pay for themselves through increased payments. “European know-how and capital will find for itself an extensive new field of employment for the exploration and development of the natural riches of the Eastern nations,” he wrote. It was an audacious gamble whose only real major-scale comparative – the building of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railways across the American West – had too many of its own idiosyncrasies to serve as a useful model.
Construction began in 1891 with an increase in taxes and the money supply to pay for wages and equipment, and Witte put the ruble on the gold standard six years later. He also opened the economy to unprecedented levels of foreign investment particularly from France, Britain, and the United States.
With the help of forced prison labor and the diversion of a third of Russian iron reserves, the railroad pushed steadily east into terra incognita, even as crews started westward from Vladivostok in hopes of meeting on the taiga within a decade. The construction camps were beset with malaria, cholera, and starvation. The ties and some bridges were made of immature green wood that buckled and created maintenance headaches all along the 5,772-mile route – about a fourth of the circumference of the earth – that would not be tied together until 1901.
The railway’s strategic value – or at least, its potential – would be made apparent by the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, in which troops were sent closer to the combat zone more rapidly than by ship or by crossing the tundra on foot and sled. But the single track that had been completed suffered traffic jams and cut off the flow of Siberian wheat back to European Russia.
Even in peacetime, goods sat on the docks at Vladivostok for months at a time, awaiting a break in the snarled logistics window. The railway would function smoothly in the 20th century only after an infusion of American cash and construction expertise, as well as the peace that came after the Russian Civil War. Up to five million settlers were eventually persuaded to give up the meager comforts of the west and make the journey out to the frontier to become farmers of the permafrost on free land given by the government, and outpost cities like Novosibirsk, Tomsk, and Irkutsk developed into manufacturing hubs in the era of the USSR.
As for the aggressive and visionary Witte, he got sidelined by the court of Nicholas II and left government fearing – correctly – the imminent collapse of the monarchy in the face of growing revolutionary sentiment. The Trans-Siberian Railway proved that heavy borrowing and crash building can pay dividends. They just might not be enjoyed by the current regime.
Tom Zoellner is an Associate Professor of English at Chapman University, Politics Editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Author of "Train: Riding the Rails that Created the Modern World, from the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief".
This article is part of our Big Questions Series.