Watching the news this morning I was surprised to see that Russia is promoting the need for further environmental controls of its massive freshwater supply in Lake Baikal by arranging an ice hockey match on the lake. In addition to its beauty, the lake has played an important part in the ability of the Russians to manage the vast territory of Siberia and Russia’s drive to create a rail system linking all areas of the country.
For a long period of its history, Russia lagged behind many of the other nations in Europe in the building of an efficient rail network. The first major Russian rail line was begun in 1837, when Peter built a rail link between the new capital at St. Petersburg as far as Tsarskoye Selo, fourteen miles away. In 1851 this link was extended to Moscow. Although there was talk at this time of building a rail link across Siberia there was nothing done about it until the end of the century.
Geography of Siberia
The political climate of Russia and the extraordinarily harsh climate of Siberia were the primary causes of the lack of initiative in building railroads. Russia was blessed with an extensive network of navigable rivers, including the Don, Dnieper and the Volga in the West. In Siberia the Ob, Yenisei, Lena and Amur Rivers offered unlimited opportunities for travel and cargo transport. The normal form of land communication in Siberia was performed by the "Trakt", the Great Siberian Postroad. This was, in effect, the “Wells Fargo-" of Siberia, where post riders and post wagons/sleighs travelled between small post houses located every 10-20 miles between Moscow and Irkutsk (on the banks of Lake Baikal). There, horses could be changed, wagons repaired, and cargo and passengers picked up and delivered. These post roads were frozen in winter requiring the use of sleighs and bogged down in mud in the spring where vast tracts of marshland had to be crossed on makeshift bridges.
Siberia can be described as naturally divided into three distinct climatic zones, the tundra, the taiga, and the steppe. In the far North is the tundra. This is an area above the timberline with a climate which is one of the harshest on Earth. It is a vast expanse of frozen marshes, whose only vegetation is lichens, mosses, dwarf trees, shrubs, and coarse grasses. The ground is permanently frozen ('permafrost') which makes any working of the soil impossible. In the short summer's slight thaw, the melting snow and ice create giant swamps where huge and voracious insects breed in vast numbers. In the winter this freezes again and is covered by a thick blanket of crusted snow.
To the south of the tundra can be found the area of the taiga. This zone of taiga comprises about 4.6 million square miles of Siberia and extends about 4,600 miles from east to west and between 600 to 1,200 miles north and south. This area is covered primarily by enormous tracts of virgin timber interspersed with huge swamps. In the transitional zone between the tundra and the taiga the land is mostly frozen all year long and is covered by widely-spaced trees. In the north these trees are primarily pine, larch, cedar, birch, and cherry while in the southern reaches of the taiga the trees are mostly elm, aspen, poplar and maple. In the winter, the taiga is frozen solid and covered with a thick blanket of snow. In the late spring and summer, it is a vast swampy marshland in which scores of insects breed. Temperatures in the taiga, although generally less cold than in the tundra, often reach -50o F and have been known to reach an all-time low of -90o. Travel is only possible in the winter when the ground is frozen.
The most southern area of Siberia is the steppe. There the northern ranges of the steppe, vast rolling grasslands, are interspersed with heavy stands of timber which disappear as one goes further south. Although a very cold winter dominates the steppe for six or seven months it is comparatively free of snow. The weather of Siberia is essentially cold and dry. Because of the mountain ranges in the south (Sayan and Yablonevy Ranges), the warmer southern air never reaches Siberia and the north-south pattern of mountain ranges in the north (Verkhoyansk and Chersky Ranges) channel cold Arctic air down into Siberia. The Urals of the West and the range of mountains which border the Pacific virtually enclose Siberia in a ring of mountains. Enclosed in this wilderness of taiga is the largest freshwater lake in the world, Lake Baikal. covering over 12,000 square miles of water, stretching some 395 miles north to south and about 18 to 50 miles in width.
Colonisation of Siberia
Siberia first came into the hands of the Muscovy tsars after the defeat of the khan, Kuchum, in 1582 by the Cossack, Yermak. Despite the incursions of Russian explorers like Beketon who founded the city of Yakutsk in 1632; Moskvitin, who travelled to the Sea of Okhostk in 1639 to found the first Russian city on the Pacific in 1640, there was little actual settlement of Siberia. Gradually forts were built across Siberia and fort towns like Tomsk and Tyumen became major trading cities. In the late 1600's a great walled trading town, Mangazeya, was established in the Arctic Sea to which England and Holland regularly sent merchant vessels to trade in the summer months when the water was free of ice. This arrival of foreign merchants soon frightened the Tsar who closed the port and the town and trade died. This town also traded with China through smaller vessels which plied the river route of the Yenisei; trade with Moscow was by ship from Archangelsk and the Kara Sea.
Under Ivan IV (1533-1584) a thirst for scientific exploration led the tsars to encourage travellers to Siberia to write up tales of their travels and by 1629 there were detailed sea maps prepared. In 1643 Vassily Poyarkov crossed Siberia overland from the west, reaching the Pacific via the Amur River. In 1648 Semyen Dezchev sailed from the west through the Bering Straits proving that there was a sea route direct to the warm water ports of the Pacific. Eight years later, Vitus Bering sailed to make detailed charts of this region. The next year, the intrepid Yerofei Khabarov led an expedition down the Amur to where the city of Khabarovsk is now located. Under Peter the Great (1682-1725) more expeditions were sent, and the settlement of Siberia was encouraged. The large bulk of those who settled Siberia were convicts and political prisoners who were sent out to establish villages in Siberia. These were joined by escaped serfs and the occasional Cossack seeking free land in the East. In 1861, with the freeing of the serfs by Alexander II, settlement of Siberia was accelerated by the offer of free crown land to all settlers.
A mass resettlement of serfs in Siberia began in 1862. Then large migrations from the Ukraine and from central Russia trekked across Siberia, attracted to this 'Green Land' by three benefits: exemption from the poll-taxes, exemption from billeting of soldiers and exemption from recruitment for military service for ten years. Soon the Russian State offered free travel to settlers. Arriving by sea each year from Odessa were 2,000 families setting up home in new cities like Vladivostok, Blagovochensk and Khabarovsk. In addition, settlements on Sakhalin Island and the Kamchatka Peninsula were established using criminals and political prisoners. These settlers began to carve out farmlands from the steppe. They were joined by fur trappers in the taiga whose depredations virtually wiped out most of the fur-bearing animals of the region. The discovery of gold in the North led to a Gold Rush in Siberia and the introduction of steam and packet boat traffic on the major rivers and on Lake Baikal.
The Demand for Transport Links to Siberia
This burgeoning population and the discovery of the vast mineral resources of Siberia demanded a link between these remote mining centres and settlements with the consumers in the West. At the turn of the century Russia embarked on the massive project of building a rail link through Siberia to its military outpost at Vladivostok. The appearance of British railroad contractors engaged by the Emperor of China to build massive rail links across China gave added impetus for this line. The Tsar appointed a Trans-Siberian Committee. Under the supervision of the Finance Minister, Serge Witte, the Committee divided the work into three separate subtasks. The work would commence on each section simultaneously supervised by the local committees. The West-Siberian section stretched from the Urals at Chelyabinsk to the Ob River at Novosibirsk; the Mid-Siberian from Novosibirsk to Irkutsk at the southernmost tip of Lake Baikal at the banks of the Angara River; the Trans-Baikal eastwards to Sretensk; the Amur which leads to Khabarovsk; and the Ussuri Line which runs north-south from Khabarovsk to Vladivostok. Work commenced simultaneously on these lines in 1892-1893. The most difficult area of a number of difficult areas was the Trans-Baikal section. Lake Baikal is ringed by giant granite cliffs on all sides, rising to 5,000 feet and periodic huge winds whipping up fifty-foot waves across the lake. The first solution was to build three packet steamers to sail across the lake. The first built was the 'Baikal' which was built in Britain and transported in pieces to the lake where the pieces were reassembled into a vessel. It was late 1899 when the 'Baikal' was assembled and put into service. The following year a slightly smaller ship, 'Angara', was put into service. However, the ice-breaking capabilities of the 'Baikal' were overrated and during midwinter the railroad company laid rails on the ice across the lake, occasionally with disastrous effects.
Transport Beyond Lake Baikal
By 1904 the need for good Trans-Siberian communication was urgent as the war between Russia and Japan had begun. A crash program to build a Circum-Baikal Line was begun and over 33 bridges and 200-plus tunnels were constructed to connect the rail lines across the southern tip of Lake Baikal. This cost, in those days, was a staggering 250,000 roubles per mile to build, but it was completed within seven months of the Japanese attack. Workmanship was poor and the first train was derailed ten times. In 1950 Russian engineers built a new dam on the Angara River. This had the unplanned effect of drowning a major section of the Circum-Baikal Railroad. A new, 84-mile section built to replace the submerged sections of the railroad was completed in 1956, connecting Irkutsk to Port Baikal.
The Russians are highly skilled technicians, but they are very poor planners. If everything had to be done by a committee the end product usually looked as if it were produced by a committee. When they built the giant dam at Krasnoyarsk on the Yenisei River which produced masses of hydroelectric power for the aluminium plant and the national grid; it was the second largest dam in the world. The only thing they forgot when building it was that the Yenisei is a navigable river. The dam blocked the river. The Russians then had to build a floating dry-dock on the dam which lifted boats 97 meters in the air and deposited them on the other side of the dam so that the river was navigable again. This was an engineering practice common in Russia. When a planning error interfered with the success of a project brute force was brought to bear and the problem solved, however expensively. There was a serendipitous effect of the Krasnoyarsk moving dry-dock, however. On a hill on the south side of the dam newly married couples would come to celebrate their nuptials by watching the boats moving up and down the dam. The symbolism of erectile function was not lost on the observers.
The Trans-Siberian Railroads
Work progressed in the East. However, the Japanese had attacked China in 1894 and seized control of Port Arthur and Tallenwan. In addition, Japan demanded heavy indemnities from China. Under pressure from Russia, Austria, Prussia and England, Japan agreed to give back the ports in exchange for further indemnities. China was unable to pay these indemnities and concluded a secret treaty with the Tsar in which Russia would give China the money to pay Japan in exchange for the right to build a railway across Manchuria, linking Baikal with Ussuriysk (a few miles from Vladivostok) This had to be done in secret under the fiction that this was a purely Chinese railroad. It was called the Chinese Eastern Railway Company. Construction of this 600-mile rail link began in 1897 and, in order to help defray the enormous cost of this construction, China signed a secret treaty with Russia in 1898 to cede Port Arthur to the Russians on a long-term lease. This was the final incident which sparked the xenophobic Boxer Rebellion of 1898 in China. In the violence of this rebellion much of the lines already built on this railway were destroyed. After the Great Powers restored order in China this line was completed and opened to service in 1903. This is why many Russians consider that the Great Chinese Eastern Railway is a Russian rail line, albeit of a different gauge than the wider Russian rail lines.
In 1904 the Japanese struck against Russia. The vulnerability of the Great Chinese Eastern Railway to attacks from the Japanese in China revived the plans to complete the Amur section of the Trans-Siberian Railway and construction began in 1908. The 1,200-mile-long section was completed only with great difficulty as the climate only allowed about four months of the year as possible work periods. In those four months of the year when the earth was soft enough to work, the workmen were plagued by swarms of hungry insects which bred in the permafrost pools. Many of those who survived the ravages and disease spread by the insects suffered from malnutrition. About 75% of the workmen suffered from scurvy and other dietary diseases. The work was completed in 1913 with the completion of the 22-span bridge over the Amur River near Khabarovsk. In that year it was finally possible to take a train from Moscow to Vladivostok.
The Baikal-Amur Railroad
The Civil War which followed the revolution in 1917 had a major impact on the Russian Far East. The Great Powers, the U.S. and Japan became embroiled in the Civil War and sent troops to Russia. The US and Japan were active in the Far East which was a key theatre of conflict. During the period 1918 to 1922 the Japanese and the Americans controlled Vladivostok, Khabarovsk and Northern Sakhalin Island. General Groves, the US general led the occupation of the region. It was not until the Bolshevik victories at Volochaevka and Spassk which led to the withdrawal of the occupying forces and the imposition of a ‘Cordon Sanitaire' that the Russian Far East returned to control by Moscow. The new government considered the Far East an area ripe for development and sent many of its best educated and most talented citizens to these areas to construct new towns and factories. These new settlers were not often given the choice of where they were to go as they came primarily as political prisoners sentenced to nation-building the hard way. Occasionally, as in 1932, the government persuaded a group of idealistic young people to volunteer to found a new city. One such town is Komsomolsk-on-Amur where the Komsomol youth movement furnished the volunteers to build a new city on the banks of the Amur above Khabarovsk. The desperate famines in 1932-34 which starved almost half the population of Kazakhstan and the Ukraine, led to a further wave of immigration to Siberia.
The Russian railroads were the primary focus of the First Five-Year Plan (1928-1933) as the key to industrialisation of the new nation. In the course of the Second Five-Year Plan, it was decided to build the needed supplementary rail line which runs north of Lake Baikal. This Baikal-Amur Railway (or as it is now known as the 'BAM') was started in 1933. About 112 miles of the BAM were built, linking the BAM station on the Amur through a line running northwards to the town of Tynda. However, events overtook this endeavour. When the Germans threatened the Soviet State at Stalingrad in 1942 the government ordered the dismantling of the BAM. Its steel rails were transported westwards where they were melted down into armaments for the war effort in the West.
Construction of the BAM was recommenced in 1974 and fully completed ten years later. It runs at a distance of about 250 to 400 miles north of the Trans-Siberian Railroad and extends from the Sea of Okhotsk town of Sovetskaya Gavan and its seaport Vanino 2,700 miles westward to its terminus at Taishei in Eastern Siberia. It links with the Trans-Siberian Railroad at several points with north-south links. The BAM was built in atrocious conditions. Almost 40% of the BAM runs across permafrost whose frozen grip on the earth reaches down some 20 metres. In winter, the temperatures dropped to -50o to -60o C. The workers were harassed by blood-sucking insects and malnutrition. The builders had to construct over 3,000 earthworks in this snow-covered frozen stretch of permafrost. Virtually all the work done on this railroad was completed by prisoners and convicts, although some young volunteers were also a part of the building programme. No one knows how many people died in the construction of this line but there are reliable estimates that the human cost of constructing the Siberian railroads claimed the lives of about sixty-five people for every mile of track laid. Even more died during the prisoner transport through the Russian Far East to Magadan and Sakhalin and north to Vorkuta and Norilsk. In the forced settlement and construction of the Siberian region there were well over one and one-half million deaths since 1932, and countless dead before.
The Climate Crisis
There are new and highly problematic developments in Siberia. The first signs of the effects of global warming on the economy were the large numbers of explosions in Siberian mines due to the release of methane gas due to global warming after 2017. An explosion in the Severnaya coal mine, in Vorkuta, left four people dead and twenty-six stranded some eight hundred meters below the surface; another explosion, three days later, killed six rescue workers and condemned to death the miners in the inaccessible shaft. A Russian government commission investigating the disaster said that they would authorise the flooding of the mine to extinguish the methane-induced fire. They agreed to flooding it with water and figured that it would take sixty to eighty days to extinguish.
The explosion at the Severnaya mine was not unique in mine disasters. There is a long history of mines exploding due to sudden increases in the amount of methane in the air underground. That is why miners have traditionally carried canaries into the mines in the knowledge that poisonous gases like methane, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide would kill the canaries first; thus, giving the miners’ some chance of escape before they too were poisoned.
However, the volume of the methane released in the Severnaya mine was so intense that no canary would have given the miners sufficient warning to escape. Safety procedures in Russian mines have never been adequate or comprehensive. For seven decades at least most of the miners were zeks; prisoners in forced-labour camps. They were expendable. The Russian mineworkers’ unions which were allowed to form outside the closed circle of the ‘official union’ structure have campaigned hard for improvements in mine safety with little governmental or corporate support.
As a result of global warming vast swathes of marshland in Siberia are starting to emit greenhouse gases thirty times more potent than carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The threat comes from permafrost bogs around the size of mainland France which absorbed carbon dioxide over thousands of years before freezing over during the last Ice Age. Now for the first time in 11,000 years, the thick permafrost under these bogs is beginning to thaw rapidly and form lakes. Temperatures are rising at twice the global rate in Russia’s coldest region because of warming, and this is likely to continue in the future,