Transportation during war


Hello and welcome to my first ever blog! I am Matt and I’m effectively a junior but this is my first year at Virginia Tech. I’m an International Exchange student from London, here to study for one year. My major is History and I chose African American Studies for my minor. Being that I am from England, please excuse my occasional spelling mistakes, I will have to get used to spelling words like labour without the ‘u’.

Now on to the assignment, I chose this photo, taken by Prokudin-Gorskii, as I wanted to focus on the troubles that Imperial Russia had with locomotion and transportation, which was particularly evident when the nation was at war. The gentleman in this photograph seems to be holding a shovel, indicating that he may be involved in the construction of this railway line, as well as being a switch operator, which may suggest some inefficiency in the railway system, if he was involved in multiple roles. It does look like a particularly basic railway line, considering this was a mainline and the photo is from 1910.

In the late 19th and early 20th century Russia at war only had negative connotations. Russia lost the Crimean War, which took place between 1853-1856,  they opposed the French Empire, the British Empire, the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Sardinia. This defeat was especially poignant as it dissolved the great myth of Russian might, shattering the legacy of 1812. A big cause of their defeat was the limited transportation system, which was particularly ineffective at efficiently mobilising Russian troops and supplies across the huge nation. The opposing empires were far better than Russian when utilising their railways. My native news website, the BBC, nicely summarises the implications of the war defeat by saying that ‘the shock of defeat forced Russia to adopt a programme of sweeping internal reforms and industrialisation under Tsar Alexander II. Although this is a rather simplistic view it is arguably the most common line of argument for this period and does seem to be mostly accurate. The historian Freeze talks of Russia’s transportation backwardness when stating that their military forces were supplied by ox cart because of Russia’s late start into railway building. The overarching theme of this period is Russia’s failure to compete with the West’s modernisation which was highlighted by the war. Russia also established a passion to industrialise and catch up with the west.  Interestingly this was the war which made Florence Nightingale’s work famous.

The Trans-Siberian was a direct response to Russia’s industrial backwardness. The construction began in 1891 and it was completed by 1904. The poor railway system also was an important factor in the humiliating defeat in the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-1905. This war developed out of the rivalry between Russia and Japan for dominance in Korea and Manchuria. An article on reveals that although the Trans-Siberian railway had been built, Russia still lacked an efficient transportation infrastructure to appropriately reinforce its limited army in Manchuria, with soldiers and supplies. This defeat to a supposedly weak nation reinforced the notion that reform and modernisation was vital. Both wars were met with social unrest, more so after the war in Japan as it led to the 1905 revolution.


Freeze, Gregory L. Russia A History. 3rd ed. Oxford University Press, 2009. 199-233. Print.


2 thoughts on “Transportation during war

  1. Welcome, Matt! We will forgive the occasional anglicism in your prose ;-). Thanks for this insightful discussion of the importance of railways to Russia’s modernization efforts. Tell us more about this photograph of the Bashkir switchman. Where was it taken?

  2. What I do not understand about the Russian Empire at this time is why they wanted to hold onto such a vast amount of land when they could not even utilize it correctly. Better to build up a small plot of land and make it impenetrable than have a huge plot and not be able to cover it all effectively. It surprises me that with all their victories against all those powerful nations such as France and England they did not strive to stay on top of the game and continue their military dominance of their region. One would think that their leaders would have some common sense and try to keep up with the west and modernize. But as they say better late than never.

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