The Story of the Bashkir Switchman

A Bashkir switch operator and guard stands next to train tracks in Ust-Katav (1910).

This picture, taken in 1910, showcases a Bashkir switch operator and guard next to train tracks located near Ust-Katav in the southern Ural Mountains. While the image may seem simple upon first glance, the deeper aesthetic, cultural, and political elements within present a much more interesting view.

To start with the picture’s aesthetic value, the main focal point is the Bashkir switchman centered along the left. The worker, dressed in black and wearing a Bashkir style hat, is holding a shovel while smiling for the picture. One can only assume that this event, his picture being taken by Prokudin-Gorskii, was a nice change of pace for a man who most likely worked long hours along the railroad. In addition to the man on the left, the picture’s main backdrop is the front of a mountain which the train tracks trail off into. These train tracks, part of the famous Trans-Siberian Railway, most likely supported countless trains on their journey across Russia’s south. These different elements all contribute to making a breathtaking image that presents how life was for a working man in Bashkir.

In connection with the aesthetic details, the main cultural and political elements center around the aforementioned worker. While the worker’s true identity may be unknown, his ethnicity is not, however, as the Bashkir people, located just north of present-day Kazakhstan, were an ethnic minority of Russia. This group was taken over in the 18th Century by a Russian invasion and “accelerated the economic boom begun in Petrine times…” (Freeze, Russia: A History, pg. 129). The area stayed under Russian control for the next 150 years through Tsar Nicholas II’s reign during which time this picture was taken by Prokudin-Gorskii. Described as being “historically populated by Turkish peoples” (Freeze, Russia: A History, pg. 154), the Bashkir people were integrated into Russian society a played a large role in its history.

I found this picture interesting due to its simplicity and the unknown background of the switchman. While one can assume certain details about his life, his name and personal history are reserved from the viewer which, in my opinion, creates a deeper meaning than if it was given. In addition, this connects to the topics covered in class as the working man in the picture is a member of the large peasant/working class that was present in Russia during this time period. Moreover, the reforms conducted by Tsar Nicholas II impacted his life greatly as they were mostly centered around the peasant class.

 

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: a History. Oxford University Press, 2009.

Prokudin-Gorskii. “Bashkir Switchman.” WDL RSS, Library of Congress, 1 Jan. 1970, www.wdl.org/en/item/5369/#q=Bashkir Switchman.

9 Replies to “The Story of the Bashkir Switchman”

  1. Michael,

    I also find this image pleasing and rather relaxing. The manner of which the tracks smoothly curve off into the distance is just really cool to look at. Right away, I noticed that the tracks do not have railroad ties. Do you think the tracks were incomplete, or do you think railroad ties are more of a western tradition?

    1. Hi Tanner,

      I’m not too sure, but I think that due to the sheer length of the Trans-Siberian Railway, they might have had to utilize available materials in a way different from what we are used to. I do not know if this is fully accurate, but I believe that it may have had an impact.

  2. You did an awesome job of drawing so much out of an image with relatively little content in my opinion. I had no prior knowledge of the Bashkir people and their former takeover by the Russians. I also wrote about the Trans-Siberian Railroad, however I failed to think about the unspoken workers such as this switchman who worked on the tracks even after its construction was completed. Really enjoyed reading it!

    1. Thanks, Rory!

      I think that history often neglects or forgets about the people who actually built empires and instead focuses only on the ruling elites. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. The sheer length of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, that stretched over 5,000 miles over all different types of Terrain, likely required many like him, to guard the line. I haven’t looked too much into banditry on the line, but I would assume that many guards were likely stationed around the line, to prevent bandits from stealing cargo from trains carrying rare metals. In the Far East and in Siberia many rare minerals and materials were transported, I would assume that many guards were employed along the length of the line? I would assume that such a task would require potentially thousands guarding the length of the line, as, when this photo was taken, the Trans-Siberian railroad only had one single line, so transport went back and forth along the line, making sabotage or banditry pose a threat to the trains passing through.

    1. Hey Andrew,

      I think that there were probably some open spaces due to the astonishing size of the Railroad, but that there were also many security posts and guards like the one in the picture. Like you said, since the Railroad stretched far into eastern Russia, it almost certainly had open spaces that were not protected. Thank you for your thoughtful comment!

      1. I think that guard stations were a regular part of railway construction — at switching points, obviously, but also along the route. I’m not sure how far apart they were though.
        You did a wonderful job of relaying your response to and analysis of the photograph! Andrew’s post uses the same image as a jumping off point, but ties the photograph to the broader challenges of modernization and the disastrous war of 1905: https://www.aagrant20thcenturyrussia.com/uncategorized/bashkir-switchman-railroads-in-an-industrializing-imperial-russia-by-andrew-grant/#comment-6

  4. I find this picture really interesting. Not only is it very pleasing aesthetically, but it provides some food for thought about the Trans-Siberian Railroad. When we think about the big railroads, the Transcontinental Railroad being the most obvious to Americans, most of us just think of the images we’ve seen of them being built. The tunnels being blasted through the mountains, the golden railroad spike, that sort of thing. This picture is a cool slice of life after all the glamorous construction work is done and the workers all go home- the day to day of the rest of the railroad’s life

    1. Hi Michael,

      Yeah, I agree that this picture and the Trans-Siberian Railroad as a whole can be connected to what occurred in the United States around the same time. Also, I believe that this picture portrays life for the average Russian worker as you stated. Thanks for your comment!

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