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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


Rail Travel Getting Old? Just Getting More Advanced!
By Natalia Shuvalova

This year Russian Railways will celebrate its anniversary of 170 years. Celebrations include various exhibitions all over Russia (some at railway stations), publishing of new books, postcards and Kremlin “parties” (for the railway ministry employees). The ministry has promised to launch new high-speed trains. And that’s not all. In July, the Russian Rail Way Football Cup was played in the Locomotive Stadium in Moscow.

A Railway Exhibit is already installed in the Historical Museum. The exhibition is quite intriguing. It paints a vivid picture of railway history from the early 19th century, and it is an interactive show with music, installations, videos, and lots of historical items, including personal things such as traveling suitcases of famous Russians, Soviet posters, and a gift that the railway workers gave to Brezhnev on his birthday.

First, there was an expat.

It is hard to imagine Russia without railways. The fact is that back in the 1830’s it was not easy to convince Tsar Nikolai I to build them. Actually, it wasn’t the royal family who were not interested in the idea. The opposition consisted of businessmen, scientists, and even the press. The newspapers were writing that building a rail transport system could harm the horse industry and destroy the forests, concluding, “after all, it is very dangerous for one’s health – to go at a speed of 22 km per hour!”

It is only thanks to the constant efforts of a foreigner, that the first rail line came into existence. His name was F. von Gerstner. Obviously, he knew the great benefits a railroad could bring. The United States, as well as several European countries, was already enjoying the railway boom. The major problem was very basic – a lack of money. Tsar Nikolai I could not take big risks and agree to the major projects. But von Gerstner got His Royal Highness’ consent on the construction of the first line between St. Petersburg and Tsarskoe Selo. These 23 km cost Russia 5 million rubles. The grand opening took place in November of 1837.

Another surprise is that for several decades the railways served no other purpose than as entertainment, as a sort of modern straight ahead merry-go-round. It operated only on week-ends and holidays, was absolutely free for the people, and they stuffed themselves into the cars to enjoy the ride.

Steam-engine (XIXth century),
Vladikavkaz railways

The business elite were not inspired to invest their money into the railways, while the Royal Treasury had no extra funds. Nevertheless, five years later (after more efforts by von Gerstner), the decision was made to connect Moscow and St. Petersburg. However, Europe, already well experienced in the railway construction, is taken aback by the enormous expenses this Moscow to St Petersburg road requires. And the reason is simple: Russian illogical ways! When the roadbed for the rail line was being discussed, the Tsar got so tired of the endless discussions that he just took a ruler, put it on the map between the two capitals and drew a line: “Like that”, was his fi nal order. Some say that this part of the railway has a little curve, as when he was drawing the line, his thumb got a bit in the way. As a result, they carried out the construction works according to his “rule”; even through the marshy areas that could have been easily avoided.

Soon after, the nation began to be connected by the new transportation system. And private investments grew, especially after one of the share holders became a millionaire almost immediately when his railway contracted to transport bread from the south of Russia. In 1881, when Alexander III became Tsar, he was frustrated to discover that most of the railways were private. By that time, rail transport proved its efficiency as well as being the source of the constantly growing income (the historians describe the owners as the most influential people in the country) of the nation.

“As every true Muslim cannot but go on pilgrimage to Mecca, no true Russian would miss taking the train directly from the capital city to the Far East.”  S. Vitte

The construction of the Great Siberian Railway began in 1891. It was constructed from both the eastern and western areas of the nation. S.Vitte, a remarkable politician and minister, wrote: ”As every true Muslim cannot but go on pilgrimage to Mecca, no true Russian would miss taking the train directly from the capital city to the Far East”.

It is worth mentioning that the beautiful architecture of the Moscow railway stations is not an innovation. The very first stations were designed as entertainment halls, with restaurants, music, and theater. In one of them, Pavlovsky, which is not far from St. Petersburg, Johann Strauss gave several concerts.

Agitation on the Iron Wheels

At the beginning of the 20th century, trains became an inseparable part of our history. The train takes the Royal family away from the capital and into the Urals; the train brings Lenin in from his exile (the car he arrived in from Finland can be still seen at the Moscow railway station in St. Petersburg).

During war times (all of them: the First and the Great Patriotic War, as well as the Civil) the major war activities were centered on the railways. During the Great Civil War trains were no longer a mere means of transportation, but a permanent residency for some of the leaders. For instance, Lev Trotsky. He literally spent 2 1/2 years of his life living on a train, crossing the country with his agitation speeches and such trains got the name of “agitpoezd”, or “agitation train”. But there is no reason to feel sorry for Mr. Trotsky, since the train had everything: A secretary, typing and telegraph services, its own electro-station, a radio, library, wheeled garage and even a banya. And for protection, it was ironclad and was equipped with machine guns.

In 1919 the new government arranged “literature-instructional trains” for “establishing a connection between the center and remote places, to spread agitation, information and literature.” These trains could not be missed. They were painted with pictures that were used in Soviet posters. Besides, each was equipped with cinematography equipment, filmstrip projectors and gramophones.

The Road to the Concentration Camp

Memorial steam-engine

Today, taking a comfortable seat on the train and enjoying the scenery along the way, the thought of how it was possible to carry out the construction a century ago hardly comes to mind. But when the USSR Council of National Commissars signed the papers approving construction of the Baikalo-Amursky Railway (notoriously known as BAM), in 1932, they soon realized that they did not have the required manpower to carry out the construction. The problem was cruelly solved. The so-called BAMlag, in other words, a concentration camp was created to supply labor for the construction... By 1938 the number of the prisoners had increased from 3,800 to 200,907. The conditions that these “laborers” were kept in were more than horrible. Amazingly, one of the supervisors had the courage to draw Stalin’s attention to their “unsatisfactory, and in some cases, unbearable conditions.” There is no use saying that no reforms of the railway “gulag” were instituted. The construction was stopped in 1941 due to the beginning of the war. In 1972 the construction continued and it was finished only in 2003. The final part was the opening of the Severo-Muysky (Northern-Muysk) Tunnel with a length of 15 km, 343 m. which has no counterpart in the rest of the railway system in its complexity.

If you ever decide to take several days off and spend them traveling to the Far East of Russia, you will be offered various classes of service. One of the best trains is the “Golden Eagle”. And as you head east keep in mind that there is also an excursion train which circuits around Lake Baikal in the summer months; a nice chance to experience Lake Baikal to its fullest.

If the Tran Siberian Express is too much for you, you may spend only a night traveling to St. Petersburg or Helsinki.

To get information about all the available trains in Russia check They have an English version webpage and the most complete information on the subject.

Rail Upgrade Planned

New High Speed Electric Train
at the platform “Aeroport-Vnukovo”

The Cabinet is expected to approve in November a plan to invest $506 billion to upgrade Russia’s railways by 2030. Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov said Russian Railways must improve its strategy with proposals such as charging less for train tickets to regions with booming resource extraction industries, Interfax reported.

Cheaper tickets would attract manpower to these areas, he said.

More improved railroads will lay the groundwork for long-term economic growth.

High-speed trains will deliver passengers from Moscow to St. Petersburg in just two and a half hours, he said.

Under the plan, more than 20,000 kilometers of new railroad will be built by 2030, states Vladimir Yakunin, President of the Russian Railroad Corporation.

“For comparison’s sake, in the Soviet period, which lasted more than 70 years, about 30,000 kilometers of new railroads were built in Russia,” he said.

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