Salekhard–Igarka Railway: Stalin’s Railroad of Death

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On the outskirts of Salekhard, the capital of the Yamal Nenets Autonomous Region, Russia, on the edge of the Arctic Circle, lies the disused remains of the infamous Salekhard–Igarka Railway, known variously as the ‘Railroad of Death’, ‘Road of Death’, and ‘Dead Road’. This planned 1,300-kilometer railway was to be part of Stalin’s Transpolar Mainline, a grand scheme to connect the eastern and western parts of Siberia, stretching from the city of Inta, in Komi Autonomous Republic, through Salekhard to Igarka, on the Yenisei River. The line was never completed, yet tens of thousands workers forced on the project perished while attempting to.

Most of the workers were derived from the Soviet gulag system, where citizens convicted of political offences were sent to. A “political offense” could mean anything from turning up late for work, to writing politically incorrect poetry, to spending time as German prisoners-of-war, or stealing beetroots to feed their children. The authorities branded them “enemy of the people” and sent them to gulag camps where they were subjected to untold miseries and torture.


Prisoner-workers building the Salekhard–Igarka Railway. Photo from the book "Gulag" by Tomasz Kizny.

The original plan was to build a port at Salekhard on the Ob River, and transport supplies from factories on western Siberia, such as the large nickel factories at Norilsk, via the river system. But when the Ob estuary was found to be too shallow for the deep water vessels, a new port was built at Igarka on the river Yenisey, and it was decided to connect Salekhard to Igarka by a railroad, with the possibility of a further extension to the South-East to link with the Trans Siberian Railway.

But aside from fulfilling Stalin’s ambitious plans to conquer the Arctic, there was no real demand for the railroad. The Siberian factories were already satisfactorily serviced by the existing southern rail lines, and the Yamalo-Nenets region itself was too sparsely settled and isolated to generate demand.

Nevertheless, construction of the railroad began in 1947. The Gulag camps provided Stalin a cheap and expendable workforce that he could assign to any project. An estimated 80,000 to 120,000 prisoners were enslaved in the building of the railroad, but some sources claim figures as high as 300,000.


Photo credit: ComIntern/Wikimedia

Working conditions were brutal. In winter, temperatures plummeted to -60°C and blizzards chilled the body to the core. In summer, mosquitoes, gnats, and parasites brought diseases and death. Life was cheap and beatings were common. Only the most resilient of workers survived.

The immense technical challenges of laying a line over permafrost were never effectively overcome. Lack of machinery, poor logistics and shortage of materials ensured that the quality of the work was sub-standard. Bridges collapsed, melt and rain water washed out embankments, and the bogs swallowed the railway tracks.

Construction came to an end after the death of Stalin in 1953. By then a total of 698 km of railway were completed at an estimated cost of 42 billion 1953 rubles (or $10 billion in 1950 dollars).

It will never be known how many people actually died because no accurate records were kept. Some say, one-third of the total number of workers perished.

In 2010, a section of the railway from Igarka to Norilsk, a distance of about 220 km, was rebuilt following much of the original corridor, to support the nickel and petroleum industry. The line, now renamed the Northern Latitudinal Route, was opened in 2015.


Photo credit: CharlyVJN/Panoramio


Photo credit: CharlyVJN/Panoramio


Photo credit: CharlyVJN/Panoramio


Photo credit: CharlyVJN/Panoramio


Photo credit: CharlyVJN/Panoramio


Photo credit: CharlyVJN/Panoramio


Photo credit: CharlyVJN/Panoramio


Photo credit: CharlyVJN/Panoramio


Photo credit: CharlyVJN/Panoramio


Photo credit: CharlyVJN/Panoramio


Photo credit: CharlyVJN/Panoramio


Photo credit: CharlyVJN/Panoramio


Photo credit: CharlyVJN/Panoramio

Sources: Wikipedia / Basement Geographer / BBC

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