The Russian railway network was one of the wonders of the industrial age


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A history of the Russian Railroad. I found it interesting so sharing here. This is the third in a series of Saul Herzog books that I have devoured. This excerpt is all background and eye opening for me at least. Shows how far we have come and how lucky we are to be in this day and age.

All from: Herzog, Saul. The Target (Spy Thriller Book 3) (p. 102). AuthorContact. Kindle Edition.

The Russian railway network was one of the wonders of the industrial age. It connected some of the most far-flung inhabited outposts on the planet, stretching from the remote borders of China and Mongolia and North Korea, to the very doorstep of Europe. Of the earth’s twenty-four time zones, the Russian railway stretched across eleven of them.

The distance from Port Nakhodka, east of Vladivostok at the head of the Sea of Japan, to somewhere like Pskov, just inside the Latvian border, was greater than the distance from New York City to Honolulu. The railway lines were unimaginably vast, unimaginably lonely. There were times when the train passengers were the only human beings within literally hundreds of square miles of territory. The lines crossed eighty mountain ranges. Of the one hundred longest rivers in the world, they spanned twenty-five. Calling them a wonder was no exaggeration. And they were achieved at a human cost that was almost beyond reckoning. The cost in terms of human life made the Russian rail network one of the deadliest industrial undertakings in history. There were wars that had cost fewer lives. And there is one word that made it all possible. Slavery.

That singularly dark blot on the history of mankind. And Russia was not alone in utilizing it. The briefest of surveys would show that the absence of slavery was, in fact, far rarer than its presence. And no one was aware of the fact more than Joseph Stalin. He boasted that he had more slaves than were used in the Egyptian Fourth Dynasty to erect the pyramids. “Pharaoh had a quarter-million,” he would say, and laugh. In the United States census of 1860, the last one conducted before the Civil War, there were four million men, women and children enslaved in America. In 1944, when the Nazi forced-labor system was at its height, and the Reich kept detailed receipts of the payments made by German corporations for the use of slave labor, the tally came to six-and-a-half-million.

Stalin loved statistics. They drove his enormous, ruthless Five Year Plans. He had a statistic for everything. And he was proud of them above all else. He knew how many people were dying under his regime. And he also knew the tonnage for steel production, coal mining, grain production, and rail construction. Everything had a number. And privately, one of his favorites was the Soviet slave count. On that metric, he had outstripped every other nation and empire on the planet, whether of the past or of the present. Under the Gulag system, Stalin secretly bragged that he owned more slaves than all documented past regimes combined. For most of his rule, there were over thirty-thousand forced-labor camps across the Soviet Union, with the largest of them holding more than twenty-five thousand inmates. Those inmates worked on many projects, but laying rail was the biggest.

Projects such as the Baikal-Amur Mainline, the Krasnoyarsk-Yeniseysk Mainline, the Amur Railway, the Primorsky Railway, the Sevzheldorlag Northern Railway, and the Eastern Railway could never have been completed without them. Just one of those projects, the Tayshet to Bratsk portion of the Baikal-Amur line, would have taken, it was estimated, over two hundred years if voluntary labor, paid a regular wage, was used. On the infamous Trans-Polar Mainline, three-hundred thousand enslaved dissidents worked ceaselessly on a thousand-mile stretch of rail to link the far-north outpost of Salekhard, on the Arctic Ocean Gulf of Ob, to the remote town of Igarka, a hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle. The workers, men and women, slept in canvas tents on the track and worked in temperatures below negative fifty degrees Celsius. Over a hundred thousand died, hauling ballast and laying steel on the line that would never be completed.

Never used. A hundred thousand lives, lost for a line that went, quite literally, nowhere. The guards, to maintain order and, presumably, pass the time, came up with some of the cruelest punishments on record. One of their favorites was to tie a prisoner naked to a post and leave him. In the winter, death came mercifully quickly, but in summer, the prisoner died by being devoured by the millions of voracious, over-sized mosquitoes that hatched in the marshes. A man could be transformed into a clean, chalk-white skeleton in a matter of days. Another line, one that was actually completed, was the line from Moscow to Archangel. That thousand-mile stretch traveled due north from Moscow’s famed Belorusskaia Station, with one departure per week making the twenty-three-hour

journey through Yaroslavl, Vologda, and some of the remotest territory in the country. About two hours before the train arrives at Archangel, a strategically important port on the Arctic Ocean, it passes a port of a different kind. In 1957, at a site called Plesetsk, two-hundred kilometers south of Archangel, the Soviets built an intercontinental ballistic missile launch site. By 1961, four fully functional R-7 missile complexes were combat-ready at the location. The missiles were designed to carry a five-megaton payload, using rockets fueled by liquid oxygen and kerosene. It could hit targets five and a half thousand miles away with an accuracy of about three miles. The closest they ever got to being fired was during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when one of the rockets was fully fueled and loaded with a live warhead. The missile was then wheeled to launchpad 41/1, where a single mechanical trigger would have sent it on a non-recallable, one-way flight to Minot

Air Force Base in Ward County, North Dakota, where the new US Minuteman ICBMs were stationed. For the time the missile sat on the pad, when a spark from the flint of a Zippo lighter would have been sufficient to send it on its way, it was, and remains to this day, the nearest the planet has ever come to nuclear war.