Russia train museum is window to history

Posted: Sunday, March 10, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- The scores of steam engines, diesel and electric locomotives on display in St. Petersburg's converted Warsaw Railway Station provide an unusual window into Russia's history.

Here are the S-68 steam engine, the type of locomotive that transported the first Soviet government from St. Petersburg to Moscow in 1918; the first diesel locomotive in the world, designed in 1924 on the order of Soviet Founder Vladimir Lenin; and the very last passenger steam engine built in the Soviet Union in 1956.

The occasional train whistle and slightly bitter smell of diesel fuel wafting in from the neighboring Baltic Railway Station help bring Russia's largest museum train collection alive.

''I feel as if I'd suddenly found myself in 1903 and come to see off someone in this wagon,'' says Valya Smirnova, 14, standing in front of a pre-revolution green car with small wood-framed windows and half-drawn curtains.

''I feel as if in a second I might see some graceful lady in a small, veiled black hat who could have been sitting behind the glass a century ago.''

The Museum of Russian Railroads is a particularly apt prism through which to view the history of Russia, a huge expanse that even today takes eight days to cross by rail. Like the United States, much of Russia was made accessible only when the country's rail system was built in the 19th century.

The first Russian train started from the then-capital St. Petersburg on Oct. 30, 1837. The first national railroad was 19 miles long, connecting St. Petersburg with the suburb of Tsarskoye Selo (Tsar's Village).

The first Russian main line connected the country's two leading cities, St. Petersburg and Moscow, in 1851. It took a year and a half to build the 402-mile route between the two cities, one of the straightest railways in the world.

The first train to try the new line set off from St. Petersburg and spent almost 22 hours en route to Moscow. Nowadays, it takes less than four hours for the Sokol (Hawk) speed train to cover the same distance.

The oldest of the approximately 85 engines on display at the museum dates back to 1897: a 46.2-ton steam engine that could cover 20 mph. With huge red wheels and a black, round body, it worked into the 1980s in the Chechen provincial capital Grozny.

Another cargo steam engine, the FD, carries the initials of Felix Dzerzhinsky, one of the Soviet leaders, who became head of the first post-revolution secret police and of the railroads. Between 1932 and 1941, the country built 3,211 similar units, each displaying a red star in front.

''Head To Communism!'' calls the slogan painted across the front of a diesel locomotive built in 1948 to mark the 30th anniversary of the Soviet youth organization, the Komsomol or Young Communists' League.

The museum includes foreign-made trains as well.

A brown cargo car was built in New Glasgow, Canada, back in 1915. Over the next six years, Canada and the United States built 20,000 similar wagons for the country. Later on, the design of these cars strongly influenced national projects of carriage-building.

Another car on display was built in 1942 in Germany. Soviet Army troops brought it home as a trophy during the World War II.

The collection includes armored locomotives and artillery units that were used in World War II. There are also various railway appliances, such as a snow remover that could clear snow up to 3 feet deep and 15 feet wide, a handy tool in much of Russia's frigid expanse.

The most recent items date to the 1960s, including electric locomotives that pull elektrichki, the trains that city dwellers pack to travel to their dachas, or country houses, in the summer.


IF YOU GO: The Museum of Russian Railroads is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. in October-April and is closed on Monday and Tuesday. In summer, it is open from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. English- and Finnish-language tours can be arranged by calling 7-812-168-20-63.

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