It was during the reign of Csar Alexander II that the original plans to construct the Trans-Siberian Railway, a route which would connect the Russian capital St Petersburg with the Pacific ocean port of Vladivostok, were first approved. The idea had been bandied about since the 1850's as a solution to the non-existent transport infrastructure and inhospitable climate of Siberia, but found no government support until the 1880's, after the assassination of the Csar, when his son and heir Alexander III, admitted: " I have read so many reports from the Siberian governors that now I can admit with sadness that the government did almost nothing to satisfy the needs of this rich but neglected region. It is time to correct this mistake."
Siberia, Turkic for "sleeping land", is synonymous with involuntary exile. Before it was linked by the construction of the railroad to the rapidly industrialising Russia of Nicholas III, Siberia was used as a prison colony for those deemed neblagonadiózhni or untrustworthy, by the government. It is estimated that around 1.2 million prisoners were deported to Siberia during the 19th century.
In 1885, American explorer George Kennan undertook a journey to the region. At the outset, Kennan, who began his working life at the age of twelve, in the employ of the Cleveland and Toledo Railroad Company telegraph office, was profoundly supportive of the Tsarist Russian government and its policies, but changed his mind when he made the acquaintance of exiled dissidents during his travels. Many of these meetings are documented in his book Siberia and the Exile System, first published in 1891.
Alexander II was apparently liberal – it was he who proposed the emancipation of the serfs with the statement, "It is better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait for the time when it will begin to abolish itself from below", and his vision which first saw the need to develop the natural resources of Siberia by building a railway. But he was for the most part ineffectual, governed by the over-arching greed of the nobility. He could not hand over land to the serfs without ruining the ruling classes and could not free the serfs without giving them land – a catch 22 which led to strengthened support for populist movements like Narodnaya Volya, the People's Will, ultimately responsible for his assassination, after four failed attempts, on 13 March, 1881. His heir, Alexander III, adopted policies intended to correct what he considered the excessively liberal tendencies of his father's reign. He sought to strengthen and centralise the Imperial administration, and to bring it under his personal control. The practice of exile remained firmly in place, as Keenan notes in his book, executed at the whim of the administration, often with no grounds for punitive measures: " ... no man knows at what moment he may be seized and cast into prison or doomed to exile without even a hearing."
The Trans Siberian Railway was officially completed on July 21, 1904.
Photograph: Portrait of Sophia Nikitina, a young girl who was attending school in Kiev when she was banished by "administrative process" to one of the remote provinces of Eastern Siberia. In the winter of 1884-1885, Nikitina contracted typhoid fever and died in a lazaret, or hospital, in Áchinsk, 3 000 miles from home. Her story was recorded by George Kennan in his book Siberia and the Exile System .
Image Credit: George Kennan Papers, Library of Congress