A Trip Through Putin Country

VLADIVOSTOK – Russia’s Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) railway “can be hardly named as a popular tourist attraction,” says one tourist website of the some 2,000-mile railway traversing Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East. “Most people even never [sic] heard of it.”

The BAM’s older rival, the Trans-Siberian Railway, is certainly more popular. Since opening in 1916 it has attracted many big names, including the travel writers Peter Fleming, Paul Theroux, and Colin Thubron. But it is the BAM – this unloved northern spur, initiated by Stalin in the 1930s, and completed under Leonid Brezhnev in 1984 – that offers the more useful window onto the Russian mood outside of cosmopolitan Moscow and St. Petersburg. Today, BAM land is overwhelmingly Putin land.

I was inspired to take the BAM across Siberia by Dervla Murphy’s book, Through Siberia by Accident, even though Murphy, an intrepid Irish grandmother, broke a leg slipping in the train car’s primitive toilet. I was further motivated by the fact that my great-grandfather had built the far-eastern section of the Trans-Siberian Railway in the 1890s, yet I had never been to its terminus, Vladivostok, where my father was born. So three friends joined me on an improbable two-week railway adventure across Siberia.
The BAM – like the Motherland Calls statue in Volgograd, the eternal flames at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Victory Park in Moscow, and the giant hydroelectric plants that line the train’s route – is a symbol of the once-mighty Soviet Union. It was the regime’s last great thrust into the Far East.

As Brezhnev put it, the BAM was “the construction project of the century,” pushing, cutting, and tunneling its way through thousands of miles of rivers, forests, and cliffs usually covered in permafrost. Today, it endures in the mythology of the Soviet Union chiefly as a monument to collective effort.

Tynda is a typical BAM town. Across from the station stands a statue of a heroic young woman enveloped in machinery; in the park lay an ancient engine; and beyond there, rows of featureless apartment blocks stretch into the distance. A forlorn job application on a large signpost reads, “Nice girl, gentle without bad habits, will sell cement.”

The BAM museum in Severobaikalsk is full of mannequins and photographs of BAM workers, their medals, and the machinery they used, including the giant metal samovars in which they made their tea. Pride of place goes to Fedor Fedorovich, the generic unsung hero whose task it was to prevent accidents by banging the rails and wagon couplings with a hammer to check for faults.

To Tatiana Nicolaevna Vetrova, the museum’s curator, the BAM was a symbol of unity. The stations along its route – some quite striking – were built in the architectural style of the nations of the Soviet Union that had joined together to complete this mighty project.

I asked Tatiana whether the museum had a brochure for tourists. “There are many academic treatises on the subject,” she replied. I persisted, requesting again a short guide for tourists, but she, too, was immovable, stating that there are too many facts to fit into a short space.

Finally, Tatiana sold me the story of BAM, written in verse, for 350 rubles ($6). The railway was, the story said, “the roll-call of our youth.” BAMovstsy (as the construction workers are called) did not make much money, nor did they expect to. Instead – in an obvious criticism of capitalism – they worked for their country, and for one another. “How to make friends as we did then, that is what we teach our children.”

The tone is overwhelmingly elegiac: back then, comrades came together to build a new world. In Tatiana’s words, the BAM was “a labor of love and heroic sacrifice built by the dedicated workers, for the sake of their children and grandchildren.” Like the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945, the horrors fade, but the flame never dies.

Yet the horrors were plentiful. Tatiana insisted that BAM construction was started in 1974, the politically correct date, after which “clean labor” was used. But the railway’s first section – initiated by Stalin to offer an eastern route that ran farther away from the Chinese border – was built by forced labor, including Russian inmates and German and Japanese prisoners of war, herded together in so-called BAMlags, now ghost towns.

Even when volunteers were used, they were not nearly as enthusiastic as official accounts claim. Lacking adequate housing and electricity, few re-enlisted, and many deserted before completing their term.

Nonetheless, the Brezhnev-era BAM construction showed what that dying Soviet system was still capable of achieving. Indeed, the railway’s completion amounts to an asterisk on the conventional assessment of how decrepit the late Soviet Union really was.
The truth is that Siberian Russia – still home to 20-30 million Russians – benefited significantly more from the Soviet system than the European population centers did. The heart of Russia, we were often told by those we met during our BAM journey, is rural, not urban. In fact, the Soviet state sustained the Tsarist policy of subsidizing Russians to move east. Only now are they returning to Europe, replaced partly by an influx of Chinese and Uzbeks.

Our journey on the BAM furnished poignant reminders of the region’s previous prosperity. One that stuck in my memory was a deserted kolkhoz (collective farm) on Lake Baikal, which once thrived on fishing and fur. The village, still inhabited and well maintained, consists of a few people growing vegetables, keeping chickens and the odd cow, and selling trinkets to visitors like me. At the same time, rusting fishing boats line the shore like beached whales.

In the village, as we enjoyed a homemade lunch of soup and pancakes, our hostess praised Putin, whom she credited with restoring Russia to health after the Soviet Union’s disintegration. “Why is the West so down on Russia?” one of our fellow travelers asked. “Don’t they understand that a chaotic Russia is a much greater threat to the world than a united one?” It is hard to get a hearing on international law in BAM land.