The Development of Russian Railways

Steam Engine “Kompaund” with a Schmidt Super-Heater

Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii, “Steam Engine ‘Kompaund’ with a Schmidt Super-Heater” (1910). Permanent record.

Photograph Background

Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii made several trips around the Ural Mountains where he photographed railway installations and other urban scenes. Pictured above is a “Kompaund” (Compound) locomotive of the Ab132 type, meaning it was produced at the Briansk locomotive factory, today Russia’s largest locomotive enterprise, in 1909. These locomotives were some of the most powerful produced in Russia in the early 1900s and their top speed was 115 kilometers per hour which allowed them to cover Russia’s expansive landmass in reduced time. Although the exact location where this photograph was taken is unknown, it is estimated that it occurred on the Ural Railway Line somewhere between Perm and Yekaterinburg. Lastly, the yellow railway car seen in the back of the photograph is guessed to be Prokudin-Gorskii’s mobile development lab where he used his ahead-of-the-time color process to produce his vivid images.

Economic and Social Development

Before 1855, the only railway line in Russia ran between the two capitals of St. Petersburg and Moscow which meant that key resources, such as iron ore and coal, and markets could not be linked in an economically feasible manner. However, as statewide growth began to accelerate through the 1880s, transportation exploded. According to Gregory Freeze in Russia: A History, “the total of railway lines increased nearly thirteen fold (from 2,238 versus in 1861 to 28,240 versus in 1887)” (216).

This exponential increase in railways coincided with the rise of Alexander the Third’s rule, where he implemented the primacy of state leadership and autocracy. As Russia’s railways developed, it allowed the State’s economy to divest itself from its reliance on foreign technology and goods because supplies from the far reaches of the nation were able to be transported to previously inaccessible regions. Furthermore, as Freeze notes, the railway connected previously separated ethnic groups and Alexander the Third used this to his advantage; in his effort to “Russify” the Baltic Germans, he was able to connect them to St. Petersburg and demand that Russian be the language used in state offices and schools, that the imperial justice system be adopted, and that a German university be renamed. Lastly, the advent of the railway system in Russia was beneficial for military purposes; command and control issues had been rampant over the course of the Russo-Japanese War in large part because it was difficult to maneuver the large number of troops necessary in distant parts of Manchuria, but with increased interconnectedness came less stress on military commanders and supplies could be moved more efficiently.

Freeze notes further that in 1892, the “Witte Era” began which “were the years marked by the influence, if not full political dominance, of the controversial but eminent Minister of Finance, Sergei Witte (Vitte), the former railway executive whose provocative developmental economic policies raised the ire of so many gentry and caused so much friction within the government itself” (237). Further, a recession set in around 1900 which discredited Witte’s system but to Marxists, it was viewed “not as a sign of the weakness of Russia’s economy…but as further evidence that a capitalist Russia was now enmeshed in the international business cycle” (248), a necessary step if the country was to progress toward its final socialist end goal. Finally, when the 1905 strikes and revolution occurred, it originated with Moscow workers but then formed “its central nervous system along the railway lines of which Witte has been so justly proud, with the old Moscow–St. Petersburg line as the network’s spinal column” (253). As such, it is obvious that Russian railway lines and their founders played a contributing, and sometimes explicit, factor in the progression toward revolution which may have not been possible without them.

hammer-keyboard-2This post earned a spot in “Comrade’s Corner” from the editorial team.


Briansk Locomotives.

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

Russo-Japanese War Facts. 

World Digital Library.



5 thoughts on “The Development of Russian Railways

  1. While the car and planes have somewhat supplanted the railroad in today’s world, it can’t be understated how vital they were to countries all around the world – the American West, England, and Russia to name a few. They connected countries in ways that had never been done before, including economics, travel, settlement. I think you did a great job examining the political and military impact these railroads had on Russia. Railroads were vital during wartime in this era, allowing armies to move quicker than ever before.

    Evan also wrote about this topic –

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I wrote about this topic as well, so it is good to see a different focus. When it came to the problems with the railroads, I looked more at the strategic problems during World War I. like how you looked more at the Marxist responses and the 1905 Revolution. It goes to show that the roots of the 1917 Revolution(s) go back much farther than may be immediately obvious.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You’ve got good comments from Andy and Parker here, so I’ll just second what they said and note that the site you found for the contemporary locomotive plant is pretty interesting! Also really appreciate the formatting you’ve incorporated here (the headings, html citation to the image source). Nice work.
    Looking forward to talking more about industrialization and marxism next week!


  4. It is very fascinating how the development of the railroad system in Russia was meant to unify the country and expand the economy, but also had a big impact on bringing about Revolution. It was also interesting how the Czar used the railroads to russify the German Baltic and also showing just how diverse Russia was at the time.


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