A fascinating account of a trip through Russia that will intrigue Russophiles, travellers, history buffs and adventurers alike. The author traces his journey from Saint Petersburg via riverboat and the Trans-Siberian Railway, to his destination, Vladivostok.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, Western Europe had experienced the effects of the Industrial Revolution for several generations but developments eastwards were slower and it would be several more generations before there was any notable economic development in Russia. It wasn’t a revolution in the usual sense of the word but it was a series of developments that transformed economic progress. The term was only used some time after the events, when commentators looked back at the progress made. The first recorded use of the term ‘Industrial Revolution’ is attributed to Louis-Guillaume Otto who was a French diplomat who used it in a letter dated 6th July 1799.
There isn’t a specific starting date but the developments that contributed to the Industrial Revolution appeared in different countries at various times but started in the mid-eighteenth century in England. The textile industry in northern England had been characterised by the ‘putting out’ system, whereby artisans working on their spinning wheels from home collected their raw materials at the start of the week, and returned semi-finished or completed materials at the end of the week.
This was a slow and laborious process and not particularly efficient. Britain was a major trading nation with a large navy and a large merchant navy that traded widely with its empire. It brought raw materials from abroad and exported finished products. But trade was dominated by trading by ship so trading centres were either sea ports or major navigable rivers. Thus, much of Russia was left out of this trade, as it is a major land mass with only a few rivers. With increasing trade, there was increasing demand for raw materials and labour, with business owners looking for ways to increase production and therefore profits.
Several entrepreneurs and inventors developed new machinery and processes such as power looms, cotton gins, flying shuttles, the spinning jenny and the spinning mule. No longer were there skilled artisans working from home but large factories and mills were built to house the new machinery. The skilled individual manual steps needed in any manufacturing process were mechanised. The skilled artisan whatever his trade using hand tools, was replaced by purpose built machines.
These new mills needed more than muscle power and were situated next to the rivers flowing off the northern hills to harness water power to drive the machinery. Later even more power was needed which was satisfied by the introduction of steam power. Inventors such as Thomas Newcomen and James Watt plus others, improved steam power to make it more efficient and economic.
The increase in power of the steam engines allowed pumps to pump more water from mines so deeper deposits could be mined. Developments such as Sir Humphry Davy’s invention of the safety lamp were also important both in terms of safety and giving illumination to allow deep mining to occur. Coal and limestone for flux and iron ore occurred geologically near each other, so iron and steel industries were developed to produce the iron needed for the machines. Various processes were improved and the use of coke introduced. The local blacksmith was replaced with large blast furnaces.
Coal is heavy and difficult to transport so canals were built. In the mid-eighteenth century the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, Francis Egerton owned several coal mines and built the Bridgewater Canal specifically to transport his coal from his mines to the growing industrial centre of Manchester. Canals soon gave way to railway development as the steam engines performance improved to move goods and people across the country.
The textile industry also promoted the development of the chemical industry. The increase in textile output also needed more dyes and in many other branches of industry, the expanding economic development required chemicals, such as in glass making and paper production. Therefore, there was development across many different industries which were complementary to each other. The Industrial Revolution started in northern England and soon spread across the country. Belgium developed coal and iron industries where their raw materials occurred together. Germany developed a large chemical industry and so on, as industrial development spread across western Europe.
At the same time, there was an agricultural revolution which occurred at about the same time. The country’s population changed from a widely spread rural population to large concentrations in growing cities and urban areas. The population was also increasing and therefore agriculture needed to be developed to feed the growing population and to produce and transport food from the farms to these new urban areas. Improved threshing machines, ploughs, seed drills and the like contributed to increasing production. Research into improved varieties of several crops, especially wheat that allowed output per field to increase. Increased mechanisation also liberated what had been a very labour-intensive industry to provide labour for the new factories and mills.
The effects of industrialisation were spreading eastwards but by the mid-nineteenth century, Russia was still a rural economy surviving on subsistence farming. The country covered a vast area but that vast area was a hindrance as transport was still by horse and the large distances made transport expensive. There were vast rolling steppes and millions of hectares of impenetrable forest. The population was large but the density of the population, spread over such a large area, was low compared with other European countries.
Looking at any map of the time it emphasised Russia’s size as it dwarfed other countries and although even then it wasn’t the size that it is today, it was still the largest country in the world. Russian rule didn’t stretch as far eastwards and south as it does today but even the European area of Russia was formidable compared with other European powers.
The extent of reliable knowledge about their big neighbour was not very extensive but most European politicians and generals had a grudging respect for their Russian neighbour. They might not have been as advanced economically, politically, or militarily as other European powers but they had so many potential men under arms even though many were illiterate and poorly trained, that they posed a major threat.
Political cartoonists were popular in the penny broadsheets of the time that were the nation’s most popular method of acquiring news before the days of radio, TV and social media. Every broad sheet would have political cartoons based on the major stories of the day. Part of their repertoire of resources were popular preconceptions of various nations. The British would be depicted by a lion with a crown. Sometimes the British might also be displayed as the large waist coated John Bull character. France was characterised by a frog, the Chinese by a dragon and the Prussians by a person dressed in a military uniform wearing a monocle. The Ottoman Turks were characterised by a person wearing a flowing kaftan style of dress with a Fez and the Russians by a bear.
These were all stereotypes by which readers could instantly see which nation was being depicted. How or why these emblems came to represent various nations is hard to pinpoint. Russia’s depiction as a bear, it seems, was for a multitude of reasons. The bear represented the country’s enormous potential strength. But it also represented both its cunning instinct and unpredictability, while at the same time suggesting a hint of being clumsy but due to its strength and being at the top of the food chain, a total disregard for others. This is even though whilst England’s crest of arms included the noble lion, Russia’s national symbol was the tsar’s double-headed eagle but the bear was chosen by those early political cartoonists to represent Russia.
European history is littered with wars between various countries as each sought to exert influence and control over areas that were subject to conflicting aspirations. Spain, Britain, France, Sweden, Prussia, the Austro-Hungarians, Russia and even the Ottomans in Turkey, with their aspirations in the Balkans had all formed alliances and had even changed sides in pursuance of their own interests.
Britain, Spain, Portugal and France had their historical empires. Britain and the Netherlands were large trading nations and the Netherlands had established colonies to boost their trade potential. Belgium was a recently created country as it had broken away from the Netherlands in 1830 and had its independence recognised by the Treaty of London in 1839, but they had also seen the benefits of creating an empire and had grabbed an area of Africa now known as the Congo but then referred to as the Belgian Congo.
The United States of America had their land grab as they exerted their influence southwards and across the Caribbean and southern America and they were battling Mexico for the inclusion of Texas into the US. Germany and Italy were both a collection of small kingdoms and fiefdoms that would each eventually unify in the late nineteenth century but they were both belatedly out to gain territorial acquisitions and to build their own empires in Africa.
Russia was also in the game for a land grab but their acquisitions did not conflict with other European powers in their thirst for land in Africa, the Caribbean or South America. The Russian expansion centred on land acquisition to the south and east of the existing territories under their control. Establishing colonies were often a source of rivalry and conflict between mighty empires especially in Africa. However, Russia only had to deal with local military and political entities in Asia until their expansion threatened the British Empire and their influence in India and Pakistan.
Throughout much of the late nineteenth century period, railways featured as a major part of the country’s development and the Trans-Siberian Railway was a major piece of infrastructure that affected Russia’s development. The Crimean War was a folly of a war but left us with much to remember. It was fought with soldiers in Napoleon era uniforms and tactics but with much improved weapons. It emphasised the importance of logistics, organization, firepower and trenches for protection. New inventions and developments that had evolved out of the new economic development were widely used such as the telegraph, underwater mines and armoured ships. There was more media coverage, more journalists, together with photography and the use of the telegraph which allowed for daily dispatches back to newspaper offices in London and Paris in just hours.
Medical knowledge had increased over the centuries but military medical facilities were still rudimentary and had yet to be modernised or centralised. Here was where notoriety and fame found Florence Nightingale and the less widely known Mary Seacole, who both have fascinating stories of their own to tell. It is suspected that more deaths occurred from sickness and disease from insanitary conditions than actual warfare and took a great toll on the fighting strength of the armies. British losses were 21,000, three quarters from disease and France lost 95,000, two thirds from disease. In comparison, total Russian losses were more than 450,000.
The Victoria Cross was introduced as the highest military decoration awarded for valour in the face of the enemy, to members of the British armed forces on 29th January 1856 during the Crimean War. It is a popular assertion that the metal for the medals comes from bronze cannons captured from the Russians in 1855. This is partially correct as the cannons concerned were captured from the Russians but were of Chinese manufacture.
Clothing gets a mention in the history books and in popular culture. The troops were not equipped for the harsh winter conditions and there was much improvisation. That knitted and buttoned item of clothing known as the cardigan was named after James Brudenell, the 7th Earl of Cardigan, a British Army Major General at the Battle of Balaclava. This battle also led to another item of clothing being invented, a woollen head covering called the balaclava although more modern names include buff or snood.
The Earl of Cardigan also made an indirect contribution to culture. Due to a catastrophic clash of personalities and to poor miscommunication of an order, and ignoring the obvious suicidal nature of the order, on 25th October 1854, he led his Light Brigade of cavalry against overwhelming superior Russian forces which is commemorated by Alfred Lord Tennyson’s well-known poem ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. A French general, Marshal Pierre Bosquet commented on the futility of the action and its reckless bravery and is quoted as saying, ‘C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre’, translated ‘It is magnificent, but it is not war’ and the less often quoted comment of, ‘C’est de la folie’, translated ‘It is madness’.
It is also remarkable as Britain allied itself with France, its traditional enemy for hundreds of years and it was the first time that the two countries fought together on land. It was less than forty years after most of Europe had been at war fighting Napoleon. He had invaded Prussia, defeated a joint Austro-Hungarian and Russian army at Austerlitz, fought through Spain and Portugal against Wellington in the Peninsular Wars and had invaded Russia, capturing Moscow briefly after the Battle of Borodino, the single day’s bloodiest battle ever in modern history in terms of casualties. He was defeated but returned from exile and was only finally defeated by the British and Prussians and contributions from other allies at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.
World attention moved to America with the American Civil War whilst England and France competed to expand their empires and colonies. The exploration of Africa and the interior expanded looking not just for land but also for trade and slaves. Not to be left out the recently created country of Belgium took control of the Congo whilst Germany expanded in German East Africa. Cecil Rhodes created his own country and named it after himself as he expanded his territorial interest’s northwards from the Cape. His plans were hampered by local European settlers and resulted in the Boer Wars and the introduction of the first concentration camps.
Russia had its own problems. The huge losses in the Crimea added an impetus for reviewing the army and its military. In the economy, entrepreneurs saw massive potential and set about an industrial revolution. Railways started to spread through the landscape to cover the vast expanse of their country. But even the Russians realised that they could not rule such a vast area effectively.
They sold Alaska to the Americans in 1867 for $7.2 million as it was remote, undeveloped and far from effective control in Moscow. It was too expensive and remote as the most westerly state, for the Canadians to be interested. As it was, British Columbia only joined the confederation in 1871. The purchase was criticised for its cost at the time in America and was referred to as Seward’s Folly after Secretary of State William H. Seward who negotiated the purchase. The purchase price at today’s equivalent cost of $124 million (about 2 cents per acre) and given its rich resources, seems to be the greatest bargain ever made in history.
The Imperial Army was part of Russia’s own expansion of their empire. Russia already stretched from Europe across northern Asia through tundra, taiga and steppes to the Bering Sea and across it to Alaska. After the Crimean War, they actively expanded south and east into Central Asia and conquered more land.
They didn’t have an unchallenged expansion and there were several battles and wars but they gradually expanded their control of Central Asia. This would bring them into conflict with Britain and its interests in India and Pakistan, although this didn’t result in direct conflict between the two, but an intense diplomatic effort followed to secure influence in ‘The Great Game’.
Russia had always felt threatened as it had a vast land mass but little access to the sea. Its northern waters froze over winter. The Baltic is narrow in places and surrounded by potentially hostile neighbours. Russia had fought wars with the Prussians and the Kingdom of Sweden and later would fight a disastrous war with Finland. Russia had wanted a warm water port and it was a long held military aim. They had ports on the Pacific in the Far East but it was a long way away, difficult to reach, only a small population and their generals feared that it was difficult to defend effectively.
The most widely used system of transport was the river systems with long wide and deep rivers throughout the country allowing easy transport of heavy goods. Ships could use canals and inland waterways and travel from the Arctic to the Caspian Sea. It was only in the early eighteenth century that Peter the Great captured an area of land from Sweden that would later become Saint Petersburg on the Baltic Sea. But in Russian Asia the rivers flowed north from the mountains to the Artic but not east west. There were no alternatives other than to travel over poor roads to get to the Far East.The Russians did have Vladivostok but ice closed the port in winter. Their expansionist policies clashed with Japanese ambitions in Manchuria and Korea and the two went to war in the Russo Japanese War which lasted from 8th February 1904 to 5th September 1905. This was a humiliating defeat for the Russians. They had expected to win against Japan who had only recently entered the world scene after a lengthy period of self-imposed almost feudal like isolation. And the lack of an extensive integrated railway system caused huge logistical problems and was partly responsible for their defeat.
Meanwhile there had been some social reforms such as the Emancipation of the Serfs and economic expansion was racing ahead but from a very low base, and the population wanted more. There was social unrest, strikes and mutinies which culminated collectively into what was called the 1905 Russian Revolution. Further reforms were started and included the establishment and empowerment of the Duma or Russian parliament.
The first railway in Russia was the St. Petersburg-Tsarskoye Selo Railway built in 1836. The Tsar had sent his engineers to London to study the railways where they were shown the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. There was a misunderstanding or a mis-translation problem and the Russian word for station even today is a corruption of Vauxhall, so a railway station in Russian is called ‘vokzal’ in Latin script.
The Saint Petersburg to Moscow railway was completed in 1851. By 1866 nearly 5,000 kilometres of track had been laid throughout the country. By 1899 there was 53,200 kilometres of track. In comparison, Britain had about 30,000 kilometres of track for a country with two percent of the same area. In 1891 Tsar Nicholas II authorised construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway which would link Moscow to Vladivostok in the Far East. However, it would only be completed in 1916 and far too late to aid the Russian army in their fight with the Japanese. It now stretches over 9,288 kilometres with branch lines into Mongolia and China plus freight lines to mines, oil production facilities and is used to move timber and timber products to market.
An interesting aside is the Russian naval involvement in the Russo Japanese War. The Far East Fleet had suffered serious losses so the Baltic Fleet was sent to assist. The plan was to sail out of the Baltic, south through the Atlantic around Africa and on to Japan. En route they came across some British trawlers on the Dogger Bank in the North Sea and mistaking them for Japanese torpedo boats opened fire and killed three sailors.
When they arrived in the Far East, they engaged elements of the Japanese enemy fleet off the east coast of Korea and were defeated at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905. Some politicians and military strategists might not have noticed at the time, but this showed that Japan had modernised very quickly from being a closed mediaeval society just decades before and would be a formidable opponent in just decades to come.
The entire world was plunged into war with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on 28th June 1914 in Sarajevo when he was shot dead by Gavrilo Princip. Armies mobilised and took up positions. On the Western Front, Germany invaded Belgium ignoring their neutrality and tried to encircle Paris as per the Schlieffen Plan but Paris was saved. War became bogged down with both armies digging trenches that stretched from the Channel on the Belgium coast all the way to Switzerland. The front lines would hardly change except for a few miles at a time and only with vast numbers of casualties on both sides over the next four years.
On the Eastern Front in Europe, fighting was more fluid and battle lines flowed back and forth. The Ottoman Empire joined the war on the German-Austro-Hungarian side and fighting broke out in Palestine and Mesopotamia. There was also fighting taking place between Russia and the Ottoman Empire in the Caucasus. Russia was fighting on two fronts against Germany and their Austro-Hungarian allies on a long front in Europe and the Ottomans in the Caucasus.