A survey of an underrated railway line that helped Russia become a world power and also contributed to several revolutions.
British transportation specialist Wolmar (The Great Railroad Revolution: The History of Trains in America, 2012, etc.) certainly knows his stuff, and he asserts that the construction of the Trans-Siberian, the longest railroad in the world, had repercussions across the world—indeed, “it was the railway line that did most to create today’s geopolitical system.” Although imperial Russia came to the idea of building a railroad rather late in the game (England’s Liverpool-Manchester line was the first, in 1830), due to the country’s undeveloped economy and political system, Czar Nicholas I approved an initial, highly successful short line between St. Petersburg and Tsarskoye Selo, his summer residence, in 1837, followed by a St. Petersburg-Moscow line. Czar Alexander III embraced modern technology, and though a huge drain on the government coffers, the notion of Russia’s catching up to the West became irresistible; however, it took finance minister Sergei Witte to galvanize forces in 1892. His overarching vision of a Trans-Siberian railroad would help populate Siberia, aid in the transport of resources and troops, and industrialize the country. Witte saw the railroad as the key to economic success and to show that “Russia was the equal of the great powers of Europe.” Wolmar demonstrates how the railroad was built (with much American know-how) over an astonishingly short amount of time—slicing through Manchuria and arousing the ire of the Chinese and Japanese, leading to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904—as well as how officials cut corners by taking curves too sharply and skimping on materials. Nonetheless, it was completed in 1916 and also served to contribute to the Revolution of 1917.
A comprehensive, proficient history of “a tale of remarkable engineering stimulated by imperial ambition.”