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.
This post received a “Red Star” on the Motherblog.
February 3, 2020 @ 6:36 pm
Hello Kendall! The photograph that you chose is very interesting in the context of the materials we have discussed in class and read about. Being able to see an example of the conditions and projects inspired by the policies of Sergei Witte and his predecessors gives unique perspective into the condition of the Russian Empire at the time of this photograph. Aside from that, I did not know that the Russians used prisoners of war for labor in the First World War. I only knew about the extensive use of POW labor during and in the 10 years after the Second World War. I also did not know that the USSR was a beneficiary of Lend-Lease during WWII.
Overall, I think that the photographs you chose to analyze are very useful in understanding the size and extent of Russian industrialization in the early 20th Century.
February 3, 2020 @ 6:50 pm
Thank you for your response! I’m happy you found the information regarding the photograph interesting! Aside from the UK, I was also completely unaware of Russia’s ties to the Lend-Lease program, much less the other countries that were listed above. I really appreciate your feedback, and I’m glad you found the photograph’s ties to Witte’s policies enlightening!
February 3, 2020 @ 2:58 pm
Your take on the this picture of the Trans-Siberian railroad is interesting on its usefulness during World War II by mentioning the Lend-Lease act. You highlight very well the vast, even rapid stance the Russian Federation was taking to industrialize their nation. I as well was unaware that the Russians used these POWs as their workforce during the construction of this railroad. Your posts reminds to us all that there is more than meets the eye on how things were built, and its important that we do not forget that history.
February 3, 2020 @ 3:25 pm
Thanks for commenting! The use of POW labor was news to me as well in my research of the picture. And I completely agree, we must all be aware of how the success of our present and future rests on the backs of those who have come before us.
February 3, 2020 @ 4:41 pm
I love the way you used railway construction as a jumping off point to talk about so much more than the photograph! Your post does a terrific job of highlighting how key the railways were to the modernization programs of the late Imperial period (Witte), the course of WWI (and the revolution and Civil War that follow), and of course, Lend Lease and WWII. You’ve got some great comments here as well, and I hope lots of people read your post.
February 3, 2020 @ 4:46 pm
Thank you for your response! I’m glad you enjoyed the photograph and the analysis along with it. I truly appreciate your feedback!
February 3, 2020 @ 7:05 pm
Hello there I am Andrew. I have a very strong interest into the Great War, the Russian front is not very talked about, but is rather interesting. From 2014 to 2018, I watched this channel on YouTube called “The Great War”, it did regular uploads simulating the battles as they occurred 100 years before. Every knows about Verdun, the Battle of the Marne, etc. but not as many discuss Tannenberg, the Brusilov Offensive, or the Eastern Front, the Russian Revolution and the Russian Civil War dominates the discussion of Russia during that time period. Russia was backwards in its infrastructure and rail networks (as your post discussed) and suffered many humiliating defeats at the hands of the Germans but it did score massive victories against the Habsburgs and the Turks. They did poorly against the heavily industrialized German war machine, but they did score great victories against the Austrians. They captured hundreds of thousands of Austrian prisoners in that front, the Austrians called upon the Germans to help them in Galicia. One of my favorite generals of World War 2 fought on this front, against the Russians, he was sent to fight alongside the Austrians, I bet you have heard of him? Erwin Rommel. Erwin was a great tank commander in World War 2. The Germans in 1914 were very much afraid of what potential Russia had, they realized Russia was modernizing, and that the only advantage the Germans had was technology and their modern equipment at that period, Russia had one of the biggest armies in the world, but was backwards and couldn’t effectively mobilize them. I could imagine a very different war if the war had just occurred a few years later, as many rails were under construction, it could have made a very strong and formidable Russia. The failures in the Great War and the devastation of the Russian civil war halted Russia’s potential there.
February 3, 2020 @ 8:11 pm
I really appreciate your comment and perspective about Russia and her many roles in the wars in which she found herself entrenched. Although I’ve heard of him, I do not know very much about Erwin Rommel and his capabilities. However, your perspective about the potential Russia had to be a significant figure in war times is an interesting one to think about. The fact that Russia was slower in modernizing has clearly seemed to play a role in their capabilities during times of crisis, and even further, their success in those endeavors. It is interesting to ponder what a few more years of construction and preparation would have done for Russia and her role in the social, political, and economic spheres.
February 3, 2020 @ 7:06 pm
I really like the way you wrote this blog, it was super informational! I had no idea that they used prisoners of war to help with the construction of the railroad, or that Russia was a recipient in the Lend-Lease program. I love the way that your blog flows, and that you looked at the content from many different angles. I never would have guessed that there would be so much behind these pictures, but I am so glad that you were able to bring it to light.
February 3, 2020 @ 8:01 pm
Thank you so much for your interest and response! I was surprised of the ties to the Lend-Lease program as well. I appreciate your feedback and am happy you liked the structure of my blog post, as well as the history behind the photographs.
February 3, 2020 @ 8:01 pm
After reading your blog I felt even more informed about this particular aspect of Russian life with that of course being the railroad. What I think you do really well in this post is explore the significance of the Trans-Siberian Railroad and its role throughout the various conflicts that Russia experienced in the 20th century. Keep up the good work!
February 3, 2020 @ 8:13 pm
I’m happy you found this post informative! Thank you for your feedback and kind words!
February 3, 2020 @ 9:23 pm
Your post covered many different details and was very interesting to read! I also chose a picture that included the Trans-Siberian Railroad and I was blown away by the size and magnitude of the project. In my research, I did not know the role that the Railroad played in WWII in helping the Ally Lend-Lease program. All in all, I really enjoyed reading your post!
February 4, 2020 @ 10:38 am
Thank you for your compliment! It’s very interesting to see how extensive the Trans-Siberian project was and what its implications were. I think you and I, along with many of the other commenters on this post, were surprised at its role in the Lend-Lease program.