Trans-Siberian Railway

The vast territory of Russia often made it difficult for the empire to fully unite as a modernized, economically secure, and culturally homogeneous nation. The inability of the Russian government to connect with Siberia caused great concern as it would be unable to quickly and efficiently help in cases of invasion or famine. In addition to these societal factors, the desire of Moscow and Tsarevich Nicholas to ensure that the far eastern parts of the empire would not break away led to the development of a transportation system that would make travel quicker and unite the empire.[1] The picture below by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii ca. 1907-1915 of a portion of the Trans-Siberian railway near the Ural Mountains Region in Russia demonstrates the desire to connect the Russian Empire. This image shows that the builders were willing to go across and through natural boundaries to build the only connecting transportation system in Russia.

Trans-Siberian Railway Metal Truss Bridge on Stone Piers, over the Kama River near Perm, Ural Mountains Region

Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, “Trans-Siberian Railway Metal Truss Bridge on Stone Piers, over the Kama River near Perm, Ural Mountains Region,” World Digital Database. 20 Jan. 2018.

The apparent need to unite the more prosperous Western part of the Russian Empire with Siberia via railway began with the Tsarevich Nicholas’s father, Alexander III in the late 1800s when the Empire was attempting to maintain its status as a dominate power in the Pacific region, while also competing with the local powers of China and Japan and the expansive power of the British Empire. The first hints of desire for the Siberian railway began shortly after the start of construction of the Manchurian Railroad in 1886, which received European backing. The capabilities of the Manchurian Railroad to move troops and its proximity to the Russian border near cities such as Blagoveshchensk and Pos’et created fear for the Russian government, as it saw a great potential for invasion by the Chinese and other foreign powers.[2]

Tsar Alexander III approved of the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1891 despite its large cost because of its potential. He notes in a letter to Grand Duke Czarevitch sent on May 14, 1891 that, “’Your participation in the achievement of this work will be a testimony of my ardent desire to facilitate communications between Siberia and the other countries of the empire, and to manifest my extreme anxiety to secure the peaceful prosperity of this country.’­”[3] The need to secure the Russian Empire against threats led to Tsar Alexander III commencing the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway on May 19, 1891, beginning the creation of the world’s longest railway of 4,776 miles across the Empire from Cheliabinks to Vladivostok.[4]

The fear of direct invasion from Asian powers was also combined with a fear of the Russian Empire losing its influence in the Pacific region, as Japan had begun to strengthen its control over the Sea of Japan and held one of the regions strongest naval powers. Japan’s power and its ability to directly affect Russia’s trade with the Pacific influenced the Russian government’s decision to build the railroad, as it would allow for it to strengthen the Russian presence and potential on the Pacific Coast. The increase in Russian presence was directly connected with its need to be able to transport large quantities of troops and supplies within the Empire at any time, but especially during times of war.[5] The Empire’s urgency to be able to do this is directly connected with its history, as other railroads it had used in previous conflicts such as the fight against the Afghans proved that the mobility of troops alone would be a justifiable reason for the Trans-Siberian railroad.

The Trans-Siberian Railway was not only a connection for the large Empire for military purposes, but also for matters of unity and self-reliance. It is estimated that over 3 million peasants from Russia and Ukraine migrated to regions in Siberia during the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway to work the land.[6] This migration aided in the development of Siberian infrastructure and settlements along the railway, which resulted in numerous cities and towns being created. These peasant settlements and farms helped in expanding the domestic production of grains, which before had solely been focused on the rural regions West of the Ural Mountains. This drastic increase in grain production helped in decreasing the rates of starvation throughout the Empire with over 25 percent of Russian grain production coming from two main Siberian towns, Tomsk, and Tobol’sk.[7] The results of these migrant settlements were the result of the Trans-Siberian Railway. It pushed workers to move east in search of economic gain and the ability to own and farm previously unworked land.

The creation of the Trans-Siberian Railway also helped with the russification of the Far East regions of the Empire, as ethnic Russians were able to move east.[8] With Russification, the development of a purely Russian identity was pushed and established in order to prevent the collapse of the eastern regions of the Empire. The historical treatment of Siberia as a colony of the Russian Empire was another important reason for the Trans-Siberian Railway, as it allowed for the mass migration to and from both sides of the Ural Mountains. The ability for people to migrate and for the military to quickly move eastwards in times of war and potential separationist attempts were a factor in the Tsar’s decision to construct the Trans-Siberian Railway. The regionalist attitudes some in Siberia held greatly affected the decisions of the government officials in Moscow, as Siberian intellectuals produced literature promoting the issues of Siberian separation and the creation of it as its own nation.[9] The Trans-Siberian Railway helped to quell the fears of the Russian officials and aided in the integration of Siberia into the politics of the Russian Empire.


[1] “Trans-Siberian Railway,” Encyclopedia of Russian (January 21, 2018).

[2] Steven G. Marks, Road to Power: The Trans-Siberian Railroad and the Colonization of Asian Russia 1850-1917, (New York: Cornell University Press, 1991), 38.

[3] Scientific American, “Military Aspects of the Trans-Siberian Railway,” Scientific American Vol. 90, no. 16, (1904): 308.

[4] Ibid., 308.

[5] Marks., 41.

[6] Victor L. Mote, “The Cheliabinsk Grain Tariff and the Rise of the Siberian Butter Industry,” Slavic Review Vol 35, no. 2, (1976): 305.

[7] Ibid., 306.

[8] Marks., 46-47.

[9] Ibid., 49-50.



Marks, Steven G. Road to Power: The Trans-Siberian Railroad and the Colonization of Asian Russia 1850-1917. New York: Cornell University Press. 1991.

Mote, Victor L. “The Cheliabinsk Grain Tariff and the Rise of the Siberian Butter Industry.” Slavic Review. Vol 35, no. 2. (1976): 304-317.

Prokudin-Gorskii, Sergei Mikhailovich. “Trans-Siberian Railway Metal Truss Bridge on Stone Piers, over the Kama River near Perm, Ural Mountains Region.” World Digital Database. 20 Jan. 2018.

Scientific American. “Military Aspects of the Trans-Siberian Railway.” Scientific American Vol. 90, no. 16. (1904): 308-309.

“Trans-Siberian Railway.” Encyclopedia of Russian (January 21, 2018).

3 thoughts on “Trans-Siberian Railway

  1. I think you chose a really beautiful photo, and I really liked your analysis of it. Many posts have focused on the diversity of the Russian empire, but I like how you focused on the efforts that they made to try and unite this vast, diverse empire. The trans-Siberian railroad was extremely important in Russian history, and I like how you added information about how it changed the demographics of the empire. Great work!


  2. It’s a really simple and beautiful photo of something we really take for granted, commercial transportation. With how large Russia is it would be basically impossible to move from one end of the country to the other. It’d be hard for Russia to be truly diverse instead of a multitude of separate cultures without the ability to quickly and efficiently travel.


  3. That is a truly stunning photograph. I was unaware of all of the difficulties that Siberia posed for the Russian government, and I think it’s interesting how you connected those to the need for a railway. I would be interested to know if having a railroad did make any significant difference in that respect.


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