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The Trans-Siberian Railway reshaped world history

A Trans-Siberian Railway train delivering supplies to Russian troops during the Russo-Japanese war.
(Ullstein Bild/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

The Trans-Siberian Railway is one of the most impressive engineering feats in modern history. Begun in 1891 and completed 100 years ago today (per Google Doodle), it’s the longest railroad line in the world. The 5,772 miles of track connect Moscow to the Pacific port of Vladivostok.

It was also the cause of a major war, which turned into one of Russia’s most humiliating defeats: the Russo-Japanese War starting in 1904. The war marked the first time a non-Western power defeated a Western state in the modern era, and helped give rise to the US-Japanese rivalry that culminated in the Pearl Harbor attack.

This lesser-known war, with such far-reaching consequences, started with the Trans-Siberian Railway.

“This military conflict was the first significant outburst in the Russo-Japanese rivalry that started during the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway,” wires Eva-Maria Stolberg, an associate professor in Russian history at the University of Duisburg-Essen, in her scholarly work. “The Russo-Japanese War cannot be understood without the Siberian background.”

How a railroad kicked off a war

The Trans-Siberian Railway was the pet project of Sergei Witte, an influential minister in the Russian government. Witte believed that political power came from economic power, and saw Siberia as an underexploited region of the Russian Empire. A railway, he thought, would allow Russia to settle Siberia, harvest its natural resources, and expand trade with East Asia.

Witte’s ideas dovetailed with those of Czar Alexander III, who saw the growth of a Russian population in Siberia as a way to secure the country’s eastern border. So in 1891, Russia broke ground on a railroad that would connect one side of its immense bulk to the other.

This, from the Japanese point of view, was quite alarming. Prior to the Trans-Siberian Railroad, Russia seemed like it was mostly focused on European affairs. The more the country turned its eyes east, the more worried Japanese policymakers became about Russian intentions.

“As long as Russia’s center of gravity remained well to the western, European part of its territory, it posed no threat to Japan’s territorial ambitions,” scholars Felix Patrikeeff and Harry Shukman write. “But when Russia embarked on the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway … Japan was alarmed.”

Witte made things worse in 1896, when he negotiated a deal with China to expand the railroad into the northern Manchuria region. The proposed expansion, called the Chinese Eastern Railway, would shorten the length of the Trans-Siberian Railway by 800 miles. It would also make it easer for Russia to trade in Manchuria.

Japan interpreted this as a sign that Russia had designs on Manchuria, territory Japan wanted for itself. This suspicion turned into full-blown certainty in 1900, when Russia sent 170,000 troops into Manchuria and occupied the entire province (in response to the Boxer Rebellion in China).

This move would not have been possible without the Trans-Siberian Railway.

“Before the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway, Siberian infrastructure for a military and economic expansion to the Pacific shores was poor. Especially in Eastern Siberia, roads were impassable and, therefore, could not be used for troop transfers,” Stolberg writes. “Only with the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway by 1891 could Russian geopolitics in Northeast Asia be realized.”

This, ultimately, precipitated the Russo-Japanese War. The Japanese became concerned that the Russians would keep expanding throughout East Asia, even into Korea. The Russians, who saw their presence in Manchuria as an essential bulwark against a Japanese attack on Siberia, refused to budge. This created a slow-motion crisis, one that both sides came to believe would end in war.

“In the face of Russia’s strong need for Manchuria, the years from 1901 to 1903 were filled on both sides with a growing sense of impending doom,” Dale Copeland, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, writes. “It was becoming increasingly clear that finding any negotiated solution to the impasse would be difficult.”

In 1904, war finally broke out: Japan attacked Russian ships stationed at Port Arthur, in Manchuria. The resulting conflict was a devastating defeat for the Russians — due, in part to the incomplete state of the Trans-Siberian Railway. The poor state of the railway made it hard for Russia to transfer troops and materiel from the west, thereby allowing Japan to overwhelm the Russians.

“After Russia’s disastrous debacle, Russian war minister Aleksei Kuropatkin recognized that the technological condition of the Trans-Siberian Railway contributed to Russia’s weak defense in Northeast Asia,” Stolberg explains.

The war killed between 130,000 and 170,000 soldiers and transformed East Asian geopolitics. Russia ceded significant amounts of territory to Japan, and its Pacific fleet was devastated. This led to the emergence of Japan as the dominant military power in East Asia, which allowed Japan to seize more territory in East Asia and expand its imperial ambitions.

Japanese imperial growth, of course, created immense tensions with the United States — an Asian power in its own right that saw Japanese imperialism as a threat to its own ambitions.

So the Trans-Siberian railroad project, which Sergei Witte saw as an entree to a new era of Russian greatness, resulted in the rise of a very different empire.