Saturday, 9 November 2013

"To the Edge of the World: The Story of the Trans-Siberian Railway", Christian Wolmar

In the summer of 2008, travelling from Nizhnyy Novgorod to Kaliningrad my Russian colleague dropped me at Nizhnyy Novgorod airport and sent me on my way, apologising for not knowing the airport all that well, laconically opining, "Russian airliners very unsafe, much better to take the train"...

I survived that bumpy flight, but Christian Wolmar's entertaining and authoritative history of Russian railways, focusing on the long ribbon of track between Moscow and Vladivostock, makes the point that travel in Russia may well be better by train. Weaving a compelling narrative, Wolmar tells the story of the railway's evolution, debunking some myths such as the "Tsar's Finger" along the way, and succeeding in locating the railway in wider Russian social and political history, most pertinently linking its construction with the Russo-Japanese War, the 1905 revolution, and the ultimate fall of the Romanov dynasty. 

"To the Edge of the World" is about a lot more than railways. Most strikingly it highlights how the construction of the Trans-Siberian served to create communities along its line, with a common architecture serving to establish something new in the heart of Siberia with 23 new towns emerging along the line in the first decade after its opening, as well as encouraging the growth of towns like Omsk, Irkutsk, and Chita. Applying this to a contemporary context, it will be interesting to see if a similar pattern of community creation occurs with the opening of the Northern Sea Route across the top of Siberia.

Those in search of detail and anecdote concerning the railway will not be disappointed. Accounts of the early trains and attempts to attract a largely Western clientèle are highly amusing. Despite the trains being described as "ambulant palaces of luxury", we read of pianos being used for storing dirty dishes and indifferent food, although one can't help wondering if Baedecker's advice that travellers should pack a revolver and a portable India-rubber bathtub might be a little excessive.

In merging transportation and social history Wolmar has succeeded in providing an entertaining and thought provoking work which in compact form succeeds in making the reader much more informed about how the railway shaped Russia. Perhaps next time in Russia I'll take the train. 

Disclaimer, a review copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Atlantic Books.

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