Railroad to nowhere: Soviet glory or folly?


`Bamovtsi': Workers who built the 2,200-mile Baikal-Amur Railway wonder if their effort and sacrifice were worth it.

September 19, 2004|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TYNDA, Russia - They came from across the Soviet Union three decades ago to the frozen swamps and forests of Russia's Far East to promote socialism, defend the motherland - and build one of the largest railroad projects in history.

Tens of thousands of volunteers cleared trees and slept in tents in a region where winter temperatures can reach minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit. They graded roads, built villages and cities, laid track, dedicating their lives to creating the 2,200-mile Baikal-Amur Railway - or BAM - one of the greatest achievements of the Soviet era.

Today, railroad engines on BAM haul hoppers filled with coal and flatbed cars stacked with lumber through dense forests, over mountains nearly a mile high and across tracts of permafrost that are as big as many nations.

Finished in 1984

But BAM is also the "railroad to nowhere," a boondoggle and a failure. It carries about one-fifth of the cargo it was designed to transport. After BAM was finished in 1984, the region's towns and cities, instead of flourishing, began to shrink.

Some of the once-proud "Bamovtsi" volunteers - who have married, raised children and grown to middle age - wonder what their sacrifice was for. They feel prisoners of a region they helped pioneer. Their achievements, they fear, have been forgotten.

During the official celebrations of BAM's 30th anniversary in July, about a dozen BAM veterans living near Tynda went on a hunger strike while others picketed a train carrying official guests, demanding the resettlement of workers in the "mainland," or European Russia.

Lena Dragutsan, 43, arrived in Tynda - a small Soviet-style city of broad boulevards and apartment-block towers - in 1978 with her husband, Grigory. "When we first came, it was so beautiful," she said. "We were in this romantic mood."

"The romanticism is gone," said her husband, 40, a railroad worker. "A lot of things are being promised. But they're just promises."

The Dragutsans, who live in a cottage on Tynda's outskirts, were sitting by their front garden under a broad blue Siberian sky. They want to move back to their native Moldova, a former Soviet state on the Romanian border, thousands of miles to the west. But they have no money and thus no prospects.

To critics of the Communist system, BAM demonstrated the folly of the Soviet Union's centrally planned economy. To admirers, the railroad remains one of the glories of Soviet era, a monument to what the collectivist spirit could accomplish.

The idea of building a railroad across the taiga of the Far East was first proposed by the Decemberists, the military officers who led an ill-fated democratic revolution in 1825. Tsar Nicholas I exiled them to the Far East.

A century later, Communist Party officials proposed building a "second Trans-Siberian Railway" to the Pacific, calling it BAM for the first time.

Inmates of dictator Josef Stalin's slave labor camps struggled and died to build the first section of BAM, connecting Tynda to the Trans-Siberian Railway, between 1935 and 1942. During World War II, the inmates tore up 200 miles of track they had laid. It was shipped west to Stalingrad, to help defend the city against the Germans.

It wasn't until 1974 that the Communist Party officially launched the construction effort. Soviet authorities drove a golden spike to formally complete the rail line in October 1984, although construction continued on new spurs, bridges, towns and villages. (One tunnel was completed last year.)

Second line

BAM was a second trans-Siberian railway line through harsher terrain several hundred miles north of the original, which was considered vulnerable because it hugs Russia's border with China. But BAM was also meant to open up Russia's rugged Far East to settlement. The volunteers built communities complete with schools, hospitals, colleges and theaters along the railroad's path.

It was an undertaking girdling a region larger than North America. From west to east, BAM begins at the Lena River in eastern Siberia, runs along the northern coast of Lake Baikal - the world's largest body of fresh water - and crosses the resource-rich wilderness. The end of the line is Sovetskaya Gavan on the Pacific coast.

"It was a surprising, wondrous, Russian atmosphere," Sergei A. Yevtushenko, 45, deputy mayor of Tynda, said of the Bamovtsi who built the rail line. "Everyone was involved in the spirit of enthusiasm. People didn't come here for the money. People wanted to prove that they were somebody."

But by the late 1980s, people were no longer paid regularly. Authorities couldn't always supply heat during winter. Even today, despite an exodus of residents, there still aren't enough jobs and decent housing to go around. Eight thousand residents of Tynda live in ramshackle wood-and-sheet metal houses built as "temporary" quarters 30 years ago.

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