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NORTH AMERICAN REVIEW.
THE GREAT SIBERIAN RAILWAY.
BY M. MIKHAILOFF.
THE immense and sparsely populated country of Siberia was for a long time merely an accidental adjunct of the Russian Empire. Its sole importance to the latter lay in the fact that it supplied valuable furs and precious metals. In spite of its enormous extent, its fertility and its various natural resources, it attracted very few Russians who possessed land in their own country. The population consequently increased but slowly.
The first emigrants to Siberia were men who were at variance with the conditions of life in their native country, and were obliged to leave it either of their own free will, or otherwise. To the majority of Russians, Siberia remained an inhospitable land, and its very name called up no other thought than that of cold, exile and dreary drudgery. Time, however, slowly but surely effected an improvement in the relations between Siberia and the mother country. On the one hand, the increasing population of Russia in Furone required more room, and this was to be found in the uninuabited parts of Siberia. On the other hand, the propagation of more exact information about its natural wealth and great fertility soon modified public opinion, and what had seemed but a land of exile began to exercise the allurements of a land of promise. At that time the community of interests between Russia proper 38
VOL. CLXX.-NO. 522.
Copyright, 1900, by THE NORTH AMERICAN REVIEW PUBLISHING COMPANY, All rights reserved.
and its colony became daily more distinctly felt, and Siberia began to be of more vital importance to the former. Side by side with this slow economical evolution, a radical change took place, in the middle of this century, in the views of the governing bodies concerning Russia's political interests in Siberia. Simultaneously with the annexation of the Amur, Primorsk and Usuri territories, and the opening of Japan to foreigners, Russia firmly established herself on the shores of the Pacific and took steps to consolidate her power there. The time had now come when the Government had to face the main obstacles which prevented closer intercourse between the two countries, retarded the solution of Russia's political problems in Asia and stood in the way of the normal development of the region. These obstacles were time, distance and the vast extent of Siberia.
The only way to overcome these obstacles was by the construction of a railway throughout the whole extent of Siberia. This idea was first mooted about 1850, but the Russian Government for a long time hesitated to undertake the execution of this project, through apprehension of the immense expense it would entail. However, the present Minister of Finance, M. Witte, had the requisite faith in Russian financial resources. Being appointed Minister of Ways and Communications at the beginning of 1892, he rapidly conducted surveys of the railway line; and then, becoming Minister of Finance at the end of the same year, he insisted on the immediate construction of the great Siberian Railway.
According to the original plan, the direction of the Siberian Railway was to be as follows:
From Chelyabinsk to Omsk, West Siberian Railway..
318 1,076 2,132
Some time later, two very important changes were made in this original scheme.
In consequence of the great technical difficulties presented by the Baikal line, and in order to accelerate the construction of a continuous railway through Siberia, it was decided to make a straight line from Irkutsk to Lake Baikal. The train was to cross the lake on special ice-breakers, similar to those in use between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan in America. In consequence of
even greater difficulties presented by the Amur line, permission to construct and exploit a railway in Manchuria, connecting the Baikal line with Vladivostok, was obtained by the RussoChinese Bank from the Chinese Government. Thus the estimated length of the Siberian Railway was reduced by about 550 kilometres. In March, 1898, the Chinese Government permitted the construction of a branch to Port Arthur and Ta-lien-wan, and in this way the Siberian Railway acquired two outlets to the Pacific, of which one is free from ice all the year round.
Though the project of constructing the Amur Railway was now left in abeyance, yet the junction of Vladivostok with Khabarovka was effected, and thus Russia will soon have both an uninterrupted railway route through Manchuria and a combined railway and waterway in the direction of Irkutsk, Stretensk, Shilka, Amur, Khabarovka, Vladivostok. The construction of the railway is very rapidly advancing, and the West Siberian, Central Siberian and Usuri lines actually are completed and opened for traffic. On the other portions, work is being carried on very energetically.
Let us now glance at this country, of which so little is known, and consider the present and prospective results of the construction of the railway. Siberia occupies 5,000,000 English square miles in the northern part of Asia. Its natural features are very varied. The western and northern parts of this enormous country consist of a level plain: in the north, the lifeless swamps (tundra) merge into a large tract of virgin forest. Further south, this is succeeded by rich steppes, which resemble the pampas, and extend to the mountains which occupy the southern and eastern part of Siberia.
The polar tundra zone occupies all the space north of the sixtyfourth degree of latitude. It is a swampy plain covered with moss and bush and frozen during the greater part of the year. Its soil never thaws to a greater depth than one foot, and consists of alternate layers of frozen earth or pure ice. Anything approaching civilized life is out of the question in this desolate land. Its sole inhabitants are a few nomadic tribes, who eke out a living by fishing, hunting and the breeding of reindeer.
The region between the fifty-seventh and the sixty-fourth degrees is covered with thick virgin forest, consisting of ancient cedars, larches, pines and other species of firs. Further south we find, in addition to these, birch, poplar, aspen and even linden