Imperial Russia’s Westward Expansion

     At the turn of the 20th century the Russian empire was undergoing an economic transformation. One of prominent industries was the Trans-Siberian Railroad.  Construction on the nearly 5,800 mile long railway began in 1891. Tsar Alexander III believed the railroad system was a cornerstone in imperial ambitions and wanted to connect European Russia with the far east. This picture, taken by Prokudin-Gorskii was taken around 1910 at Zlatoust Station, Chrysostom in what is todays Chelyabinsk Oblast in the Ural Mountains. By this point there were no railroads linking European Russia with the east. Chrysostom was the start point of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. This picture shows the major pivot Russia was taking in its efforts to industrialize. This photo also brings to life Tsar Alexanders ambitions of a far east empire. The Ural Mountains in the background give a little insight on the geographical obstacles engineers and workers would face while building the railroad. When the construction started, Alexander sent his son Nicholas to lay the first brick in Vladivostok in the far east, where the railroad was suppose to end.

The men responsible for building the railroad came from all over Russia as well as workers from China and Europe. Many Russians were eager to leave their farms and villages to work on the railroad. Workers were at the mercy of bitter heat as well as the unbearable Russian winter. Siberia was mostly uninhabitable and likely felt like they were in a wintery hell. Parts of the railroad went underground while other parts went under mountains.

By 1905 revolution had gripped many parts of the empire after government troops fired into an open crowd of workers protesting the Tsar. Social unrest lead to riots, workers unions and mutiny within the ranks of the military. Many workers as well as soldiers working on the railroad joined in the strikes against the government. By the end of 1905 Russia had also suffered a humiliating loss to the Japanese in the far east, a war that started over each nations territorial ambitions. This defeat only furthered the divide between the Tsar and the people.

This picture shows in detail the forced labor of the railroad in the far east that would eventually link with the Trans-Siberian Railroad. The Russian army was tasked with building a new city to connect Russia to the Pacific Ocean. The connection between east and west by the railroad was referred to as the “Russian Steel Belt”.  The city of Vladivostok, the final destination on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, was almost like a frontier outpost like many Americans thought of when the United States started its westward expansion into unfamiliar territory.


Beskhlebnaya, Natasha. Russian Life. Nov/Dec2011, Vol. 54 Issue 6, p52-57. 6p. 3 Color Photographs, 4 Black and White Photographs.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Trans-Siberian Railroad.”   Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 14 Nov. 2019,

Lonely Planet. “History in Trans-Siberian Railway.” Lonely Planet,


5 Replies to “Imperial Russia’s Westward Expansion”

  1. It is very important for us to remember those who built this railroad for the ambitions of the Tsar. These photographs represent the extreme amount of labor these people had to endure. Out of curiosity, approximately how many people worked on the Trans-Siberian railroad?

  2. What a great discussion of the trans-Siberian and one of my favorite towns! Zlatoust refers to “Golden Tongue” and Saint John Chrysostom (which means “Golden Tongued” in Greek). Interestingly, Zlatoust is near the site of a major nuclear disaster and a recent meteor hit (search: Cheliabinsk, meteor, dashboard camera, and / or Daily Show). It’s pretty wild.

  3. Hello, this is Andrew Grant here. The Trans-Siberian railroad showed a move towards industrialization. Russia with the Trans-Siberian railroad had a great potential to further mobilize troops and could have defeated Japan in 1905, with the sheer number of troops that could be mobilized and deployed to protect Russian assets in Manchuria and the Far East, the complete humiliation of the Russian fleet at Tsushima, really humiliated Russia and brought about civil unrest, Russia and Japan negotiated a peace that heavily favored Japan, but if the war had gone on longer, Russia could have potentially defeated Japan over a period of time. What would have really helped Russia would have been more transcontinental lines, and a better communication between high commands. The same errors were seen in WW1, the poor Russian infrastructure and poor state of modernization, greatly hampered their war effort. Russia had one of the largest armies in Europe, but couldn’t effectively mobilize it, the Trans-Siberian railroad, and the construction of projects like it, were a step in the right direction, but it was not until massive Soviet extensions and expansions of the rail network, where the power of modernization was shown. In 1914, Russia was humiliated by the Germans at Tannenberg, two armies encircled and destroyed in East Prussia, the poor level of technology and modernization in military strategy, communications, and the extraordinarily poor logistics, greatly hampered their war effort. Due to modernization and the extension of the Trans-Siberian Railroad and the better logistics and mobilization, the Red Army in 1945 managed to defeat the Japanese in 2 weeks, a sharp contrast to 1905, a far more mechanized and strong force contributed to their quick advances, extending the rail network allowed the Soviets to mobilize massive amounts of troops in the Second World War, from the East to West, and later when the war in Europe was done, allow the Red Army to swarm through Manchuria in the summer of 1945.

  4. I think this picture helps show the similarities between all nations of the world in terms of their struggle to industrialize. Though obviously Russia took a drastically different path than the rest of the world it is clear that whether the people are American, British, or Russian every people struggles with the stress of rapid change.

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