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History of Russian railways based on the Presidential Library’s materials

2 August 2020

Traditionally, on the first Sunday of August, this year - the 2nd, Russia celebrates the Day of the Railwayman - a professional holiday which honors employees of the railway industry. The Presidential Library’s portal contains a large number of rare materials devoted to the development of this type of transport in Russia - electronic copies of rare publications, historical documents, atlases and photographs, video lectures and documentaries on this topic.

The history of the holiday is associated with the name of Emperor Nicholas I, who is rightfully called “the founder of the railways in Russia”. It was during his reign that the construction of railways began in our country. The tsar, who received an engineering education, understood very well what the development of communications for Russia means. His invaluable contribution to this undertaking is especially noted in such rare publications on the Presidential Library's portal as "Emperor Nicholas I and His Reign" (1859), "Emperor Nicholas" (1894), a cartographic atlas of Russian Railways (1918), etc. 

At the beginning of the reign of Nicholas I, there were practically no reliable means of communication - in spring and autumn, in muddy roads, movement on dirt roads almost stopped. And then the question arose: how to develop communication between cities? There was a serious discussion about this in the technical literature and journalism of those times.

In his work "The First Railway in Russia" (1925) from the Presidential Library’s collections, I. Rosenfeld rightly asks the question: "Why did backward Russia borrow its newest invention, railways, from advanced England?" The book "A Few Words about Railways in Russia" (1836) even casts doubt on the economic feasibility of building railways in favor of "highways and canals": the author refers to the opinion of authoritative engineers who advocated "the benefits that can be obtained for our Fatherland, from those enormous natural paths that nature has used for our country”. They demanded not to build railways, but "to correct the flow of rivers, unfavorable for navigation".

There were also those who believed that the entire railway industry should be outsourced to concessionaires. However, the publication "A Few Words about Railways in Russia" objects to the unconditional transfer of such an important state project to the hands of joint-stock companies: “Many have concluded that such enterprises in the hands of private people can be produced much more profitably than under the direct influence of the Government. This is just sophistry! ... All the work under the watchful eye and the active hand of the Government is done extremely cheaply".

The video lecture "A Train Rushes in an Open Field: the Beginning of Railway Construction in Russia" spotlights the resistance that the idea of ​​developing a new type of transport met. And it was not only the high cost of locomotives and railways. "Most statesmen of that time saw something revolutionary in the railways, which could not only undermine the people's well-being by violating the existing order of distribution of labor and the abolition of certain branches of earnings, but also shake the foundations of state independence", - we read in the rare edition "Historical Sketch of the Development of Railways in Russia from their Foundation to 1897 inclusive. Issue 1" (1898).

The controversy was ended by the Decree of Emperor Nicholas I of March 21, 1836 on the construction of the Tsarskoe Selo railway. The first public railway connecting St. Petersburg and Tsarskoe Selo, which was initially considered nothing more than entertainment, was the beginning of large-scale railway construction. “The opening of the road took place on... October 30, 1837, and very solemnly, in the presence of high officials and the masses of the people, and after the prayer, the first train of eight cars was sent... From January 30, 1838, the daily departure of trains to Tsarskoe Selo on horses began, and from April 4, 1838, exclusively by steam locomotive traction", - the publication "Historical Sketch of the Development of Railways in Russia" reports.

Later, the Nicholas’s railway, linking St. Petersburg and Moscow was built. The official opening of the highway between the two largest cities of the Russian Empire took place on November 1, 1851.

From 1865 to 1875, the average annual growth of Russian railways was 1,500 kilometers. The Index of Russian Railways, issued in 1887, included 61 railway lines that connected Moscow and St. Petersburg not only with Russian, but also with foreign cities.


The construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway, the Great Siberian Way, from the Urals to the Pacific Ocean, began under Alexander III in 1891. The electronic copy of the rare edition "The Guide to the Great Siberian Railway" (1900) contains the text of the message of the Emperor to Tsarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich during the stay of the heir in the east of the Russian Empire: "Having now ordered to begin the construction of a continuous railway across all Siberia, which has to connect the abundant gifts of nature Siberian regions with a network of internal rail communications, I instruct you to declare such my will, upon entering the Russian land again, after observing the foreign countries of the east. At the same time, I am entrusting you with laying in Vladivostok the laying of the permitted for construction... the Ussuriysk section of the Great Siberian Railway".

Starting with Nicholas I, almost all representatives of the imperial family actively supported the construction of the Russian railway network. Thus, for example, being the heir to the throne, the future sovereign Alexander II headed the railway committee for the organization of the Nicholas’s railway, the future emperor, Nicholas II, was appointed chairman of the Siberian Railway Committee, at that time he was also the only the heir to the throne. By a fatal coincidence, the path of the family of the last emperor of Russia into exile and imprisonment, towards death, passed through places familiar to Nicholas II not by hearsay...

The library’s collections contain digitized copies of books on the work of railways in wartime: S. Buturlin “On the Military Significance of Railways and their Particular Importance for Russia” (1865), P. Dmitrenko and V. Tsygulsky "A Brief Outline of the Activities of Russian Railways in the Second Patriotic War" in two parts (1916), L. Punin "The railways during the wartime" (1931). “Railways protect the country better than fortresses”, - we read in Punin's book, which studies railways as a strategic object in wartime.

One can also learn about the history of the development of railways in Russia thanks to such digitized rare publications as “Siberia and the Great Siberian Railway: with adj. maps of Siberia" (1893), "The First Russian Railway in Central Asia and its significance for Russian-Central Asian industry and trade" (1891), "The English railway in Balaklava during the Crimean War" (1931), "Northern Manchuria and the Chinese Eastern Railway" (1922), video lectures "Stanovoy Range of Russia (Trans-Siberian Project and Development of Siberia)", as well as other materials.