Archive for February 15th, 2009

Stalin’s death railway

Sunday, 15 February 2009


Salekhard – Igarka Railway abandoned 0-8-0 locomotive

This is the tale of the Salekhard – Igarka Railway or Stalin’s ‘Death Road’. The construction of this line, which was never completed, killed tens of thousands of its construction workers. Nearly all who worked on the railway were prisoners. Some 80 percent had been convicted ‘political’ offences. It was enough to have spent the war in a German prisoner of war camp, or to have turned up 15 minutes late for work, to have been classed an ‘enemy of the people’ and sent to the railway. On Stalin’s death in 1953, the building work stopped; some 100,000 people were released from the project, though not necessarily to enjoy their freedom, and much of the railway was abandoned.

Proposals for a railway network in the far North of Russia date back to the 19th C. However, it was not until in 1943, that a survey of the Salekhard to Norilsk route was carried out, along the route. Then in 1947, a decision was made to build a a major port on the mouth of the river Ob and to link it to the existing railway to Vorkuta.  In 1948, the first section of that line (also built by prisoners) had reached Labytnanghy on the bank of the Ob. While the railway was being built it became clear that the Ob estuary would be too shallow for the deep water vessels that the new port was intended to accommodate. In 1949, Stalin decided to move his new port to Igarka on the river Yenisey and to build a second railway from Salekhard (on the other bank of the Ob from Labytnanghy) to Igarka with the possibility of a further extension to the South-East to link with the Trans Siberian Railway.

Work started in the spring of 1949 all along Salekhard-Igarka highway. Two ferries were ordered from abroad for the crossings of the Ob and the Yenissey. When the rivers were frozen solid trains crossed them on temporary embankments built from ice. Salekhard became the HQ for the administration of the work camps. Stalin set 1952 as the completion date. There were shortages of materials and machinery. Most of the work had to be carried out hand. The only commodity that was not in short supply was prisoners and the work camps were ‘topped up’ with new prisoners at the rate of 5-7,000 per year.

In winter, frosts dropped down to minus 60° C, blizzards struck down people and blew down buildings. Swarms of gnats and mosquitos attacked prisoners and guards. Conditions for prisoners were appalling. Life was cheap and beatings and far worse was common. The progress demanded by Stalin was achieved at enormous human cost. In the time made available it was also impossible to engineer the line properly. The consequences showed up fast: bridges collapsed, melt and rain water washed out embankments, bogs swallowed the railway track.

In 1952, work on the project slowed. People and resources were allocated elsewhere. Construction was stopped completely in 1953 after Stalin’s death. A total of 434 miles (699 km) of railway had been completed at an official cost of 260 million rubles, later estimated to be near 42 billion 1953 rubles (about US $100 billion  today).  Only the Salekhard – Nadym section was opened. Further East, 11 steam engines  and many items of rolling stockwere abandoned in the tundra. Until 1976, the phone line established by the railway builders along the intended track of the line from Salechard  to Igarka remained in use. About 350 km of track between Salekhard and Nadym was operated from the 1950s to the 1980s. However in 1990 the line West of Nadym was closed and the first 92 km of railway to the East of Salekhard was dismantled shortly thereafter.

Abandoned remains

“The Dead Road”the people who built the line

Map of the railwayTranspolar Magistral map