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

5 Replies to “Bashkir Switchman – Railroads in an Industrializing Imperial Russia : by Andrew Grant”

  1. Andrew,

    I really enjoyed your perspective on the Russo-Japanese War, and how its mere existence showed a need for Russia to modernize. Furthermore, how the acquisition of more territories seems to have lead to a new type of labor force that seemed to seek the ideals of modern times. The dichotomy of Russia wanting to remain true to itself as a nation, while still facing the realization that they cannot compete on an international stage without at least ~attempting~ to modernize, is truly an interesting one to look at.

    1. Kendall Foster (classmate)
      Hello this is Andrew. Thank you for the interesting post on my blog. I chose to focus on the Russo-Japanese war to showcase Russia’s need to modernize that was shown in the very immediate decades preceding the Russian Revolution. The Russo-Japanese War and World War 1 displayed Russia’s backwards military doctrines and war-time industry, as well as its poor infrastructure and poor transportation that was in the beginning stages of modernization within this period, but not up anywhere near to par to match with the Western powers or in Japan’s case a “Westernized power.” Russia had many spectacular defeats within this period that I could have expanded on, but the Russo-Japanese War was amongst the most relevant to the topic of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. In World War 1, Russia had rather poor infrastructure in Poland and poor infrastructure near the German border (though the region was still more industrialized than many other parts of Russia, it could not begin to compete with German industry or infrastructure), the Russians could not mobilize anywhere near as fast as Germany in the First World war. They had a far greater manpower pool, but could not effectively mobilize it, or reinforce their needed fronts. Russia should have learned more from the Crimean War and reformed earlier, if it wanted to retain an edge over their opponents.

  2. I agree with Kendall! Your post connects the modernization campaign and the Witte system to the challenges of delayed military modernization and the political fallout of the Russo-Japanese war really nicely. And I love how you use the Scientific American article from 1905! You’ve also captioned the image perfectly.
    And tell me about the WWI video? Do you know what song that is? I could make out most of the lyrics (they are definitely ironic), but don’t know the song. Thanks for a wonderful post!

    1. Thank you very much Dr. Nelson. I chose the song as it was a comedic war song that was relevant not only to WW1 but to but to late Imperial Russian period in general, and the footage showcases the battlefields in the Eastern front, it showcases how backwards Russian infrastructure and how brutal and devastating the war was for Russia. The video is footage from 1915. Many Russian songs from the Great War period had a comedic or mocking message. This one is a Russian folk song titled “ In the grove or in the garden”, this was a comedy duet that was performed by the comedy duo “ Radunskiy (“Bim”) & Staniewski (“Bom”)” in the period. The song preceded the war, but it was popular during the time of the war. During the war there was another popular song based on the Russian folk song “Korobeiniki”, that was called “War with the Germans” that is similar in its themes, it had a comedic message as well. A lot of songs during the war had comedic undertones.

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