Stalin’s “Railway of Bones”

It was doomed to be an unfinished project that would claim almost 15,000 lives.  Today the remains of Stalin’s vast railway, which was set to run within the Arctic Circle from Salekhard to Igarka, can be found rusting in the icy tundra.  History would later remember it as the “railway of bones”.

The decision to begin work on the ambitious 750-mile railway was officially announced in 1949, although construction actually started in April 1947.  Stalin wanted to improve access to the Bering Strait, the easiest route at the time to reach the Soviet Union’s new adversary – the United States.  In doing so, he is reported to have said:

“We must take the north in hand… labour, power and resources will be no problem”.

Work was divided into two areas – Projects 501 and 503 – which, at the zenith of its activity in 1951, relied on the hard labour of 85,000 prisoners.  Project 501 went east from the north Siberian town of Salekhard and 503 west from the port of Igarka.  Furthermore, Salekhard is believed to be the only town in the world located on the Polar Circle, while Igarka is 163 km north, offering an indication of how unbelievably cold and brutal the conditions must have been.

It is thought that at least 10 people died each day laying down the incredible 435 miles of track that was completed.  Aside from temperatures of 50 below zero, the main killers were working accidents, diseases like scurvy, and disputes between rival criminal elements of the workforce, which guards apparently turned a blind eye to. The workers’ accomodation (second image from the top) was wood-built with flimsy walls that provided next to no insulation.

Revival Plans

The Guardian newspaper reported in 2005 that Russian officials are actually weighing up the feasibility of completing Stalin’s notorious railway of bones!  The Kremlin reportedly sees its global influence hinging on the abundance of natural resources in Arctic Siberia and may complete the railway in order to link the region’s prosperous gas fields and metal mines to Europe.

According to the paper, Sergei Ivanov, deputy head of Russia’s massive state rail company, said there was potential to extend the railway to the nickel-rich town of Norilsk, responsible for 2% of Russia’s GDP. A local engineer added that he had been instructed to revisit the plans for the railway, considered to be “technically excellent” – an accolade that comes too late for those who died involuntarily in the zealous pursuit to strengthen Russia’s post-Second World War economy.

It remains unclear at this point what progress, if any, has been made, or indeed whether the project is still considered viable.  But if it does happen, it’ll be interesting to see how much of the current infrastructure can be retained. 

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