Globalization in the Early 20th Century

How the Trans-Siberian Railroad United Asia and Europe

By Manuel Schneider


[dropcap]B[/dropcap]efore 1916, it was arduous and dangerous to travel from Moscow to Russia’s far flung East. The only significant infrastructure project connecting Europe with Asia was the Great Siberian Route, which allowed people to travel into Siberia by horse, and made it possible to transport a limited number of goods in carriages. During the colder months, goods had to be placed on horse-drawn sledges and travelers had to be prepared to face Siberia’s unforgiving winters.

As a result, exchange between Russia and China, both cultural and economical, was rather limited. Indeed, the Russian Tsars had little interest in expanding Russia’s reach into China, let alone beyond its borders and further into South-Asia.

Contrarily, Russia had been well connected to Europe’s major cities for a long time. Not surprisingly, Fyodor Dostoyevsky lets his main protagonist in The Idiot travel to Saint Petersburg in a comfortable train from Switzerland. Dostoyevsky wrote this book in 1869, by then, travel to European nations had already become relatively commonplace among the country’s elite. Quite the opposite was true for vast swathes of Russia’s own countryside.

In 1890, Tsesarevich Nicholas II went on his Journey Around the World, which would take him around most of the Eurasian continent and eventually into Japan. Only three days after his departure from Gatchina, north of Moscow, he would arrive in Italy. The last leg of his journey was from Vladivostok back to Saint Petersburg. This rather mundane in-land trip would take Nicholas II a full two months. Given that one of the wealthiest individuals of 1890 took two months to complete the journey from Eastern to Western Russia, it is evident that even prosperous Russians had little hope to visit large parts of their country, let alone China. As a result, China and Russia remained largely isolated from each other over the 19th century.

That would change in 1916, with the arrival of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. The Trans-Siberian was the first major infrastructure project connecting the Western and Eastern world. Its completion had significant effects beyond the borders of Russia.

One of the most visible examples of the impact of the Trans-Siberian Railroad is the northern Chinese city of Harbin. Harbin as it exists today is a direct product of the Russian Railroad’s expansion not only into eastern Russia, but also into northern China. Between 1898 and 1970, after the completion of the Trans-Siberian, the Chinese Eastern Railway was built on Russian initiative and under Russian leadership. With the railroad project, a significant number of Russian workers came to China. Before the arrival of these workers, Harbin, while rich in history of small settlements, was a small village of little importance within the greater China and abroad.

The Rain Sofia Cathedral in Harbin’s city centre represents Russian influence on this Chinese city.

The arrival of Russians and other European immigrants, which now had easy access to China, resulted in Harbin’s revival as the Paris of the East. Most exotic goods from Europe now had to pass through Harbin before arriving in the metropoles of Beijing or Shanghai. Furthermore, a significant Russian population settled down in the city after the Communists had taken control of the Russian government. The Russian influence on the city of Harbin is still visible today, as the city hardly displays any traditional Chinese architecture, but instead buildings similar to those found in Moscow or Saint Petersburg. Indeed, much of the material and architectural style to build Harbin was brought in from Russia, an endeavor made possible in its full scale only after the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railroad.

As the Russians settled down and transportation to and from Harbin became ever more convenient, more settlers from Europe arrived. Very unusual for the time, only about 12% of all people living in Harbin had actually been born in the city according to Olga Bakich’s account in her article “Émigré Identity: The Case of Harbin”. Furthermore, many other immigrants from Europe would follow the Harbin Russian’s lead and the number of spoken languages in Harbin eventually far exceeded that of even major Asian cities of the early 20th century.

While Harbin is a good visible example for the Trans-Siberian Railroad’s impact on Chinese society, the railroad had more significant, but less tangible, effects on China and Russia, but also Asia and Europe. Suddenly, information could travel from Beijing to Paris in a matter of two weeks rather than two months. Trade was intensified, which led to an increase in prosperity in both Russia and China. What might have been a smallish, remote Russian town would grow into an international city proud of hosting some of the most diverse international travelers after a Trans-Siberian train station was erected in its midst. Maybe most importantly, culture and ideas now made their way to Moscow or Beijing quickly. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to suppose that the Trans-Siberian might have played a role in establishing Communism in China, simply because Moscow and Beijing were suddenly much more interconnected. Surely, communist ideas and the news of the October Revolution’s success made their way to China much more quickly because of the Trans-Siberian.

Today, the Trans-Siberian remains one of the life-lines of the Russian economy, with 30% of Russian exports being transported on its tracks. The Trans-Siberian railroad, with its maximum speed of 50 mph is a relic from Russia’s Imperial past and has only very recently been electrified on its entire length. At its time, the Trans-Siberian railroad was a groundbreaking step towards a more globalized world. With the inauguration of its tracks the travel time between Europe and Asia was cut from an imposing two months to a mere two weeks. All of a sudden Europe and Asia had truly become connected.


Manuel Schneider ‘20 is in Ezra Stiles college. Contact him at