Road of Death: The Salekhard-Igarka Railway

This is the first entry of a three-part series regarding three major infrastructural projects created during the era of the Soviet Gulag system. Part two can be found here; part three can be found here.

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Remains of a Gulag camp near Salekhard.

Some fifty years after it was officially dissolved, it is still stunning to describe the size and extent of the USSR’s labour camp system administered by the Gulag (the Russian acronym for ‘Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Camps and Colonies’). How many people passed through the Gulag between 1929 and 1953 remains a matter of conjecture: Robert Conquest puts the number of prisoners that passed through the camps, colonies and settlements at around 22 million; Anne Applebaum put it somewhere around 28.7 million; both numbers are astounding regardless. The Gulag was greatly reduced after Stalin’s death in 1953, but the organisation was not officially dissolved until 1960, and of course imprisonment of political prisoners was carried out all the way into the reign of Mikhail Gorbachev. 476 separate camp administrations were in existence during the time of Stalinism, where criminals and political prisoners were put to work in harsh conditions. Conquest produces a death toll of 1 600 000 prisoners during the existence of the Gulag system, and other estimates run well into the 2 millions.

The topic of the Gulag system is so large and crosses so many subject areas that it would be impossible to handle properly within the confines of this blog. I have chosen instead to simply take very brief snapshots of three major infrastructural projects undertaken with the use of Gulag labour and the imprints these projects have left on the landscape. Economics were key to the Gulag system ; most camps were located in the isolated Arctic, Far East, and steppe regions of the Soviet Union, where the regime was looking to develop infrastructure in order to exploit resource wealth (it also left anyone prisoners trying to escape utterly isolated, and helped to remove the prisons from public view). The Gulag camps provided a cheap, readymade, concentrated workforce that could be ordered to work on any project on a whim, and literally worked to the bone or into the grave if need be. The rapid industrialisation of the Soviet Union was built on the backs of prisoners’ forced labour, and the results of their toil are omnipresent to this day.

Transpolar_magistral_map_Dutch

Source: Csman, http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8f/Transpolar_magistral_map_Dutch.png.

One of the infrastructural projects that was the most unnecessary and futile was the infamous Salekhard-Igarka Railway of northwestern Siberia, variously nicknamed the ‘Railroad of Death’, ‘Road of Death’, and ‘Dead Road’. Located in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, the planned 1 297-kilometre railway was to be part of Stalin’s Transpolar Mainline, a grand plan to build a northern transcontinental rail link across northern Siberia and thus transform the region. It was found that Salekhard, the planned Arctic port city on the Ob River, was too shallow for large ocean-going vessels to access from the Arctic Ocean, so authorities decided to use a new port 1 300 kilometres east on the Yenisey. The railway would join Salekhard to the new port city at Igarka on the Yenisey in order to tie them into the greater Russian rail network and thus make it easier to export materials northward from western Siberian factories up the rivers (at that point and to this day, the rail system from the south ended/ends opposite Salekhard at Labytnangi). As well, this would help tie the large nickel mines at Norilsk, north of Igarka, to the rail system. The catch, of course, is that there was no real demand for this rail service; Siberian factories were already satisfactorily serviced by the existing southern rail lines, and the Yamalo-Nenets region itself was too sparsely settled and isolated to generate demand.

Essentially, then, this was a make-work project for approximately 60-120 000 labourers (mostly political prisoners). Starting in 1949, camp 501 would build eastward from Salekhard; camp 503 would move westward from Igarka.Rather quickly, the challenges of building a permanent rail line so far north became apparent, as new tracks became embedded in permafrost or damaged by frost heaving. The conditions for the labourers were almost beyond comprehension: everything was built by hand with very little mechanical construction equipment (it was just too difficult at the time to transport the needed equipment to a place so remote). In summer, the marshes and swamps so prevalent in the area gave rise to millions of mosquitoes, gnats, and parasites. Come winter, temperatures often plummeted to -60°C, and blizzards struck down many of the workers. This was on top of the relentlessly bleak labour camp conditions. The isolation of the region also made it difficult for authorities to monitor construction progress and quality. Most edifices other than the rails themselves (much of which was salvaged from other lines damaged in World War II), such as bridges, pipes, and buildings, were all made of wood. The rail lines themselves were not reinforced to deal with the permafrost in any way. In typical Gulag fashion, those workers who survived were not enabled to work properly in such conditions, thanks to punishment methods such as drastically underfeeding prisoners for not meeting the nearly-impossible work quotas, which only served to amplify the spiral of death swallowing the project. Unsurprisingly, the quality of the work was poor as a result of all of this; this allowed nature to destroy and reclaim much of what had been constructed in the tundra rather easily via washouts, heaving, and soil settlement once construction halted. Today, the remains of the railway are slowly fading back into the taiga.

Transpolar_Railway_between_Salekhard_and_Nadym
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Photos used under terms of the GNU Free Documentation License 1.2.

We will never know how many people died during the construction of the Salekhard-Igarka Railway (one source says 300 people for every month of the project), but it is safe to assume a large percentage. Between 1949 and 1953 (when the project was finally deemed unnecessary and discontinued after Stalin’s death), 573 kilometres of track were constructed in the tundra, tied to nothing, at a cost of 3.3 billion rubles. The western half of the line between Salekhard and Nadym (about 350 kilometres) was the only part of the rail line that ever saw use; it was shut down in 1990 and partially recycled for steel scrap. Recently, though, there has been talk of rebuilding the line, as modern building techniques and the increased values of oil and gas reserves in the region make such a railway much more feasible; the portion between Salekhard and Nadym, using the old corridor, began reconstruction earlier this year and is expected to be rebuilt by 2014.

View a photo gallery of some of the ruins here.

Further Reading

Applebaum, A. (200). Introduction. In Gulag: A History, 1-21. New York: Doubleday. Available at http://www.siteground206.com/~anneappl/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2008/11/gulag_ahistory_introduction.pdf. Accessed 11 November 2010.

English Russia (2007). Stalin’s Lost Railway. English Russia, 22 August 2010. Available at http://englishrussia.com/index.php/2007/08/22/stalins-lost-railway/. Accessed 12 November 2010.

Ershova, A.(2009). The Dead Road. Sever-Press. Translated from Russian at http://www.yamal.org/501/index_e.htm. Accessed 12 November 2010.

Haywood, A.J. (2010). To the Frozen Ocean and Stalin’s Railway of Death. In Siberia: A Cultural History, 92-103. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ivanova, G.M. (2000). The Camp Economy. In Labor Camp Socialism: The Gulag in the Soviet Totalitarian System, 69-126. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe.

Kizny, T. (2004). Gulag: Life and Death Inside the Soviet Concentration Camps. Richmond Hill, Ontario: Firefly.

Plis, A. (2009). Railroad of Death. Yamal Peninsula – Western Siberia, 18 November 2009. Available at http://yamal-siberia.blogspot.com/2009/11/railroad-of-death.html. Accessed 12 November 2010.

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3 thoughts on “Road of Death: The Salekhard-Igarka Railway


  • Thank you for reminding, Kuschk.
    = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

    Ludwik Kowalski, a retired nuclear scientist and the author of a free ON-LINE book entitled “Diary of a Former Communist: Thoughts, Feelings, Reality.”

    http://csam.montclair.edu/~kowalski/life/intro.html

    It is an autobiography illustrating my evolution from one extreme to another–from a devoted Stalinist to an active anti-communist. This testimony is based on a diary I kept between 1946 and 2004 (in the USSR, Poland, France and the USA).

    Why am I distributing these books on-line, instead of selling them for profit? Because I want to share what I know and think about communism. The more people know about proletarian dictatorship less likely will they experience is. Please share the above link with those who might be interested, especially with young people, and with potential reviewers. Thank you in advance.


  • Hi there

    This is an amazing article, really interesting. I am looking to get hold of the photograph of the buckled railway (am i right in thinking it is damaged by permafrost?)for use in a TV documentary. Could you tell me where you got this image from? Or is it your own? It is a great photograph. I am at benryder@thegammaproject.com or 00447912667173

    Thanks very much

    Ben

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