Great opportunity of moving from the past to the future
The first Belarusian railway carriages were horse drawn, a train once travelled between Stolbtsy and Paris, and Vladimir Mayakovsky wrote a famous poem about using his Soviet passport at a Belarusian station
By Larisa Monashinskaya
These and similar fascinating facts are to be found in a book on the history of Belarusian Railways. Celebrating 150 years of operation, Mastatskaya Litaratura Publishing House has launched The History of Belarusian Railways. From the 19th to the 21st Century. Prepared by Belarusian historians, it includes reproductions of photographs, maps and tickets. The book enables us to learn the most curious facts about the history of the ‘hero of the anniversary’.
Like other places around the world, Belarus used horse-drawn wagons for cargo transportation before steam engines revolutionised the railway system. The first such great-grandmother of the railway linked Starinka metallurgical and machine-building plant (owned by retired lieutenant Alexander Benkendorf) to various workshops and the pier at Sozh, using about six miles of track. The plant was operational in 1840-60 and was located in the village of Starinka, in the Cherikov District (today’s Slavgorod District).
Until recently, it was believed that Belarusian railways dated from 1871. However, according to archive documents, its true birthday should be celebrated on December 15th, 1862. “At that time, a section of the railway track from St. Petersburg to Warsaw ran through Belarus,” explains candidate of historical sciences Valentina Yanovskaya, who contributed to the book. “The Porechie-Grodno segment was the first to run through Belarusian land.”
Less than a century ago, there was the Manchuria-Stolbtsy express (Stolbtsy is now a district centre in the Minsk Region) and a train linked Paris and Negoreloe, running through the city. Ms. Yanovskaya continues, “In the 1920s, Belarus was divided into two parts, in accordance with the Treaty of Riga. One half was Soviet and the other Polish, accompanied by two stations: Negoreloe and Stolbtsy. All Soviet residents travelling to Europe went through Stolbtsy and returned through Negoreloe.” In the 1920s-30s, these stations were often mentioned in the press, and were marked on most world maps.
Belarusian railway stations were often located in remote places away from the main cities, so it wasn’t always possible to easily buy food. Railway staff and their families were given free travel passes, which allowed wives to travel to another station to find groceries. Meanwhile, medical treatment was available ‘on wheels’. Ms. Yanovskaya tells us, “There were special hospital trains, not like ones for wartime wounded but mini-hospitals which provided not only first aid but more complex surgery.” Such trains ran throughout Belarus, beginning on the Libava-Romny route.
Many famous Russian and foreign writers, artists, actors, musicians, sculptors and scientists travelled through Stolbtsy and Negoreloe — poet Vladimir Mayakovsky among them. He wrote: ‘On the horizon — white: snow and Negoreloe’. It’s thought that he was traversing the old Soviet-Polish border on the Manchuria-Stolbtsy express, which inspired his My Soviet Passport. He shared his compartment with Swedish and British travellers.
The 3rd class Belarusian stations were built of brick; and 4th class stations (straight-line) were constructed from wood. Each had a room for the post, a lamp room (where lamps were refilled with kerosene), and separate offices for the commandant, transport service agent and telegraph operator. There was also a waiting room heated by woodstove and 3rd class stations would have had a buffet. Winter ice was used to preserve food and each station also had its own garden nearby.
Railway enthusiasts can learn more from The History of Belarusian Railways. From the 19th to the 21st Century.