Bashkir Switchman – Railroads in an Industrializing Imperial Russia : by Andrew Grant

Bashkir Switch Operator guarding the Samara-Zlatoust Railroad (a part of the Trans-Siberian railroad) near Ust-Katav taken by the Russian photographer, Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, in 1910.

Russia in the late 19th and early 20th century was experiencing numerous societal and economic changes, Russia had historically been viewed as “backwards”, and during this time period attempted to modernize to catch up to other great European powers like Germany and Britain. This need for modernization was shown through their defeat at the hands of modernized Western Europeans in the Crimean War, and through their defeat at the hands of Japan in 1905, in the Russo-Japanese War, which was the first time that a European colonial power was defeated by non-Europeans in that era. Russia suffering many great humiliations in the 19th century from their complacency and arrogance in their military doctrines, worked to achieve some degrees of modernization.

The image above perfectly displays Russia during this time period, having a backwards traditional and agrarian society, that was working to achieve modernization. The modernization brought about societal changes, many new occupations became available as traditional agrarian jobs were being replaced by manufacturing and service jobs. The man shown, in the image above, was a guard on the Trans-Siberian railroad, he was a native Bashkir wearing a felt hat, and traditional styled clothing. His job was to operate the switches and protect the railroad from bandits. This man was born into an ethnicity in a more sparsely populated part of the Russian Empire, the rail brought his people and many tribal peoples throughout Russia more into contact with the metropole, and brought many new employment opportunities borne of “modernization” and the new rail network being built to connect Russia.

The Trans-Siberian railroad traversed a vast distance of the Russian wilderness, and guards were posited along the lines to protect and to operate the switches. The railroad, when this photo was taken, was still under construction. It was built with the intention to connect the major population centers of Russia in the West to the Far East. The railroad was one of Russia’s major attempts at modernization, building infrastructure to connect its sprawling and vast empire. This particular portion of the railroad was built in a sparsely populated area, in the background we can see cliff-faces, mountains, and sprawling wilderness. Much of the railroad extended through areas like these, as much of the Russian interior had not been fully tamed and civilized.

The railroad was intended to connect newer possessions in the far east and fully integrate them within Russia. Shipping and transportation within Russia, could take many months, the railroad would rapidly decrease the time required for travel. The Far-East was rich and offered many resources, and the railroad could connect the riches of the East with the metropole of Russia in the West. The railroad had not only a great consumer potential, but offered great military potential, allowing soldiers to be transported to the Far East to protect the Russian possessions there. Russia in the 19th century had greatly expanded to become one of the largest empires in history. It had acquired the Steppes of Asia, Outer-Manchuria, the Caucuses, and many new regions. The rail was constructed to connect Russia’s empire from the Baltic to the Pacific. (Military Aspects of the Trans-Siberian Railroad pg. 308-309)

By 1904 much of the main rail had been completed. At that time it was a single line, that connected the East and West. That year a war erupted between Japan and Russia over their competing spheres of influence in the Far East. The importance of railroads in furthering military aims in the Far East was demonstrated in the war. The war was fought in Japan’s backyard, most of Russia’s troops were in Europe, there was few in the Far East, Japan waged a war attempting to overwhelm the Russians stationed in Manchuria and ensure a quick victory. Russia’s rails were not yet fully completed, there was only the one line, transportation of the vast number of troops required to fight the Japanese would take many months. Russia lost horrifically against the Japanese in the initial stages, if the war had been longer, mobilized men from the West could have turned the tide, but domestic troubles brewing at home like the 1905 revolution had distracted from the war effort and the crippling defeat of the outdated Russian navy at Tsushima had forced Russia to the negotiation table (The Russo-Japanese War pg. 434). The war showed the importance and continued need for modernization. Russia needed a more extensive rail-line and needed more industry to compete against modernized nations like Japan. The war also showed the need of the Russian fleet to modernize, building a new fleet, largely from scratch.


Military Aspects of the Trans-Siberian Railroad.” Scientific American, vol. 90, no. 16, 1904, pp. 308–309. JSTOR, 31 Jan. 2020

“The Russo-Japanese War.” Pacific Strife, by Kees Van Dijk, Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 2015, pp. 417–438. JSTOR, 1 Feb. 2020

Hello I’m Andrew Grant

Hello there, I’m Andrew Grant and this is my Soviet History Blog. I am a History major with a Russian Area studies minor. This is a class that I aim to enhance and showcase my knowledge of Soviet history. I have a particular interest into Soviet guns and tanks, and the Great Patriotic War. With this blog I aim to focus on the story and heroism of the Soviet people in their fight against the Germans in the Second World War.