A Railroad for War

"Prisoner of War Barracks near the Segezh Station - World Digital Library"

Seen above is a photograph taken by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii in 1915 during his journey through the Russian Federation. With Tsar Nicholas II and the Ministry of Transportation’ backing, Gorskii was able to travel through Russia from around 1909 to 1915.  His adventures brought him back home with a vast photography portfolio of the Federation that has since been able to provide the world with context into what was happening within Russia in the late Imperial Period.  This photograph in particular highlights the construction of the Murmansk railroad, which lasted from 1914 to 1917.  According to the image’s description on the World Digital Library website, the railroad system was meant to connect Saint-Petersburg to Murmansk.  However, since construction lasted through much of the duration of the First World War, a shortage of laborers arose.  To supplement the issue, German and Austrian prisoners of war were forced to work on the railroad’s construction from 1915 to 1917.  In this photo, the on-going construction of the rail bed can be seen in the foreground, with a pine-log barrack in the background.  A renewed support for Gorskii’s adventures led him on this path, where he took a vast amount of photographs of prisoner of war work camps.

What seems to be particularly interesting about this photograph is the fact that the railway didn’t really prove useful to Russia in the First World War due to its delayed completion.  However, once World War II caught international fire, the Murmansk Railroad became a means for lend-lease shipments to be successfully shipped.  For those unfamiliar with the Lend-Lease program, I will briefly explain its concept.  According to an article written by Mark Seidl for the FDR Presidential Library and Museum, the program began as a cooperation between the United States and the United Kingdom.  In order to aid the UK in the fight against the Nazis amidst growing economic instability, the Lend-Lease Act was created to lend military supplies to Britain.  As the war pushed on, the Soviet Union, China, Australia, New Zealand, and others were added to the list of those receiving physical military aid by the end of 1942.

Aside from the railroad’s significance in WWII, what is particularly interesting here is how this image directly relates to Sergei Witte and his “Witte System.”  As discussed in class, Witte, who was Minister of Finance from 1892-1903, was attempting to implement state-sponsored capitalism in Russia.  One of his big points within his self-named system was the construction of railroads.  It was in his opinion that railroads could be completely transformative for economics within the nation, and usher in a new understanding of economics. One of the main examples of this endeavor was the Trans-Siberian Railroad.  However, I think it would be a fair assumption to make to say that the construction of this railroad led to a serious shift in economics and politics within Russia and in its relations with other nations, primarily in WWII.  Furthermore, the use of POWs as a means to complete the construction of the Murmansk railroad speaks largely about how Russia has approached the socialities of war.

"Barracks for Prisoners of War along the Murmansk Railway - World Digital Library"