Who Built the Railroads?: The Laborers on the Trans-Siberian Railway
This series that I have entitled “Who Built the Railroads?” focuses on the laborers who built the transcontinental railroad in the United States and the Trans-Siberian Railway in Russia. Part 1 was an introduction to the immigrant workers who comprised the majority of the labor force. Part 2 addressed the forces that gave rise to the need for a Trans-Siberian Railway. Part 3 will pick up where we left off and discuss the laborers who build Russia’s transcontinental railway.
The Laborers on the Trans-Siberian Railway
Sergei Witte’s Committee of the Siberian Railway was aware that each section of the railroad would require thousands of laborers for its construction. As much as possible, the government wished to use Russian labor, including “convicts, soldiers, and freely hired workers from Siberia and European Russia.” The vast manpower needed required the government to transport Russians from throughout the country to Siberia. Between 1891 and 1914, some five million Russians, Ukrainians, and Belorussians immigrated to Siberia at the encouragement of the Committee. These migrants served as the primary laborers and also as a stabilizing force for the region. The presence of Russian workers discouraged illegal immigration from neighboring countries, though many Asian immigrants already inhabited significant parts of eastern Russia. 
According to a census taken in 1897, foreign laborers comprised twenty-seven percent of the Siberian Railway’s total labor force, or 15,700 people. Russians were somewhat startled by this rise in non-domestic labor, as the project had only begun six years prior to the census. Some small immigrant groups existed from Germany, Italy, Korea, and Japan; meanwhile, the Chinese comprised the single largest non-Russian group with 9,500 workers in 1897. Although initially tentative about the idea, the railroad administration recruited some laborers from Japan and China. There were among the recruits, skilled masons, carpenters, and joiners, although most were deemed to be unskilled. “The unskilled laborers, recruited through Chinese sub-contractors, arrived aboard overcrowded steamers in Vladivostok, from whence they were conveyed to construction camps.” Asian foreign workers were subject to the control of the sub-contractors who hired them, rather than Russian law or the railroad administration. Asian laborers made lesser wages than did Europeans, and out of these wages were taken payments for necessary documents, such as passports and poll taxes, which accounted for 10-12% of their earnings. By charging for the provision of food and tools, sub-contractors also absorbed another one-third of the workers’ wages. Only Russian prisoners earned less than the foreign laborers. In one day, Russian workers earned one rouble and seventy-six kopecks, while Asians made only sixty kopecks with food or eighty-five without. The Chinese were, for the most part, unable to respond to and were often ignorant of receiving lower wages because they relied on their sub-contractors to serve as interpreters. Also, they were intentionally segregated from Russian workers.
The Russian government justified giving Asian workers lower wages because they were less productive than Europeans. Reports from one particular section (Ussuri) indicated that Russian navvies (or unskilled laborers) cleared an average of 4.73 meters of land per day while their Chinese counterparts cleared approximately half that. The disparity does not reflect an inherent inability in the Chinese laborers. In the first years, the Chinese were reduced to using inferior methods. Rather than shovels and wheelbarrows, the sub-contractors relegated the Chinese workers to using hoes and sacks for the removal of earth.
Looking at the labor force in each of the administrative units individually can provide an even better grasp of the immigrant as-compared-to domestic labor status. By 1882, 15,000 Chinese immigrants resided in Russia’s Amur region as compared to only 41,500 Russian citizens. In the Ussuri region, aside from several thousand unregistered Chinese residents, the approximately 30,000 Russians outnumbered the Chinese by fewer than 20,000 people. These regions and those around them experienced huge influxes of immigrants during the 1880s and 1890s, due to both a gold rush and the construction of the Siberian railway.
In 1895 and 1896, the Chinese made up twenty-one percent of the work force along the Transbaikal region. Because of the spotty and seasonal domestic labor, almost all of the craftsmen used in the Transbaikal had been imported from European Russia, Finland, and Italy. Local labor was used when available in the following forms: Cossacks were used to haul and Buriats as carpenters.
Chinese laborers were the largest contingent of workers along the Ussuri section. Asians, including not only Chinese but also Japanese and Koreans, comprised sixty percent of the labor force in the Ussuri and Transbaikal regions. Also along the Ussuri section, 3,000 soldiers, approximately one-quarter of that unit’s work force, helped lay track. The vast majority of these soldiers were later transferred to the Baikal region following the Chinese Boxer Rebellion of 1899. In Vladivostok, the easternmost sector of the Siberian railway, a trainload of 600 prisoners arrived in 1891 to be used on the Ussuri line. Despite escapes (which encompassed only one percent of the prisoner population throughout their tenure) and ensuing chaos created in a few nearby towns by some prisoners, their work on the railroad continued. Prisoners were rewarded for their work by receiving reduced sentences to the following effect: a prisoner could work one year and have two years taken off his sentence. Initially, prisoners were only paid thirty percent of what an average European laborer would make, but their pay was later raised to equal other laborer’s wages. Eventually, some 9000 prisoners and 4500 exiles came to work on the railroads.
On the Central and Western lines from Irkutsk to Cheliabinsk, the expected number of navvies required to build the earthworks was approximately 30,000. The entire work force in the region, for both skilled and unskilled workers, amounted to roughly 50,000. Local peasants provided four-fifths of the unskilled labor on the western lines, as this area was already densely populated. The availability of this source of labor was not consistent throughout the year, however, because many returned home for harvest. Additionally, because of pervasive fears and local superstitions arising the gloomy forests on the Central Siberian line, many laborers refused to work in the area, despite the higher wages. All of the skilled labor in the central and western regions (except for carpenters) was imported from Europe and European Russia. Of the 2,000 stonemasons that were required, sixty percent were European Russian, twenty-five percent Italian, and the rest varied in nationality.
The workers on the Trans-Siberian railway were as varied as the landscapes it traversed. Central Europeans, eastern Asians, Russian peasants, prisoners, and exiles worked together to lay the track that now spans Russia. The nearly 5,000 miles of railroad took twenty-four years to complete and the efforts of many thousands of people, both imported and domestic.
Part 3: The Laborers on the Trans-Siberian Railway
This article first appeared in the Vulcan Historical Review (2010) under the title: “Transcontinental: A Comparison of Labor Sources Used in the Construction of the First Transcontinental Railroads in the United States and Russia”.
 Lewis Siegelbaum, “Another ‘Yellow Peril’: Chinese Migrants in the Russian Far East and the Russian Reaction before 1917,” Modern Asian Studies 12 (1978), 311.
 Marks, 155-6; Valentin Borzunov, The Proletariat of Siberia and the Far East on the Eve of the First Russian Revolution (Moscow: Nauka Publishers, 1965), 23; “The Work Force in the Construction of the Siberian Mainline Railway,” Istoricheskie zapiski 70 (1961), 158-160; Charles Wenyon, Four Thousand Miles Across Siberia on the Great Post-Road (London: Robert Cullery Publishers, 1909), 11-12.
 Siegelbaum, 312-314; Borzunov, The Proletariat of Siberia and the Far East on the Eve of the First Russian Revolution, 104, 119.
 Harmon Tupper, To the Great Ocean: Siberia and the Trans-Siberian Railway (London: Secker and Warburg, 1965), 125 (Quoting: Borzunov, The Proletariat of Siberia and the Far East on the Eve of the First Russian Revolution, 85)
 Marks, 181.
 Siegelbaum, 310-311.
 Marks, 180; Siegelbaum, 312.
 Marks, 181-182; Borzunov, The Proletariat of Siberia and the Far East on the Eve of the First Russian Revolution, 34-35.
 Marks, 179-180.
Photo by Boccaccio1.