The construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway between 1891 and 1916 ended the era of great transcontinental railway building. The Trans-Siberian stretches 5,776 miles between Moscow's Yaroslavsky Station and Vladivostok (6,117 miles from St. Petersburg). It takes a minimum of a week to traverse that distance by train.
The longest railway in the world, the Trans-Siberian project was mired in controversy from the moment Tsarevich Nicholas shoveled an inaugural spade full of dirt into an awaiting wheelbarrow in Vladivostok on May 31, 1891, until the completion of the Amur River Bridge at Khabarovsk in 1916. A technological marvel at the time, it soon bore the reputation of "a monument to bungling." The rails and crossties were too light, causing frequent derailments; the wooden bridges were flimsy; and, since the builders were mostly exiles and convicts, there was justifiable reason to believe that much of the line had been sabotaged.
Moreover, the estimated costs in 1916 U.S. dollars ranged from $770 million to $1 billion, which represented one-fifth of Russia's national debt at the time. During its construction, the Trans-Siberian was a serious drain on the Russian economy and, between 1914 and 1916, on the war effort. Despite the criticism, the great railway more than paid for itself during the twentieth century. Still the only transportation artery to span Siberia and the Russian Far East, the Trans-Siberian has solidified Moscow's hold on Russia's eastern periphery.
Fanatically supported by high-ranking tsarist officials like Count Sergei Witte (1849–1915) and Anatoly Kulomzin (1838–1924), the Trans-Siberian's influence was immediate. The annual number of migrants to Siberia and the Russian Far East doubled (to 88,000) between 1896 and 1904 and then doubled again (to 174,000) between 1905 and 1914. Between 1895 and 1916, a total of 2.5 million land-poor peasants migrated to the region from European Russia. This Great Siberian Migration represented 57 percent of everyone who had migrated to Siberia and the Russian Far East since 1796. Additionally, the Siberian economy, which had been almost nonexistent, exploded. New settlers rapidly cultivated West Siberia's virgin black earth, doubling the sown area. The region quickly became one of Russia's major breadbaskets. Flour mills sprang up like mushrooms. West Siberia's butter industry jumped from nonexistence to becoming the second leading butter exporter behind Denmark. Virtually every railhead had sawmills, stockyards, and slaughterhouses. Without the Trans-Siberian Railroad, Siberia's industrial revolution never would have succeeded.
The Trans-Siberian's principal commodities are coal, oil and oil products, and wood and wood products. Major non-Russian users of the railway, which is now double-tracked and electrified for much of its distance, are China, Japan, and South Korea.
See also: railways; siberia; trade routes
Marks, Steven G. (1991). Road to Power. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Mote, Victor L. (1998). Siberia: Worlds Apart. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Treadgold, Donald. (1957). The Great Siberian Migration. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Tupper, Harmon. (1965). To the Great Ocean. Boston: Little, Brown.
Victor L. Mote