Posted: 10.08.2023 17:58:00

Well-known route

The first tram line appeared on the Belarusian lands in Vitebsk in 1898. 30 years earlier than in Minsk, and a year earlier than in Moscow.

Perhaps there is nothing more reliable for strengthening the unity of the people than common national pride. We, Belarusians, have something to be proud of. Amazingly beautiful nature — fields blooming with fragrant herbs, centuries-old forests, reflecting the clear sky, lakes. A story in which more than once our people had to show courage, wisdom, philanthropy. More than once, being ahead of time, we, Belarusians, opened up new opportunities and became an example for the whole world.

Vitebsk. Tram on Vokzalnaya Street. Early 20th century.

Recently, Vitebsk celebrated the 125th anniversary of its brand — the Vitebsk tram. Opened in 1898 in the city above the Western Dvina River, the line became the first in Belarus, remaining such until 1928, when the tram system was launched in Minsk.
The history of the Vitebsk tram begins in February 1896, when an agreement was signed between the Vitebsk city government and the French industrialist Fernand Guillon. Under the terms of the agreement, the Frenchman, investing his own funds in the construction of the track and the power plant, received the right to own the Vitebsk tram for a period of 40 years.

Vitebsk. Tram on Gogolevskaya Street. Early 20th century.

The first Vitebsk power plant appeared in 1897. Dense pairs of engines that generated power swirled over the city. In the paintings of the patriarch of the Vitebsk art school, a friend of I. E. Repin and a teacher of M. Chagall — Yehuda Pen, who lived near the opened station, you can see its red brick pipes.
In the early summer of 1898, Vitebsk heard a tram bell on the streets for the first time. Boys from all over the neighbourhood came running to stare at the amazing horse-drawn carriage, following the rails without horses, ringing every minute and periodically throwing up sheaves of bewitchingly bright sparks.
Well, it’s no wonder. Vitebsk acquired its own tram a year earlier than Moscow, and the capital of the empire, St. Petersburg, was nine years ahead.
A ride on amazing transport cost the city dweller five kopecks. But for this amount it was possible to travel five kilometres, looking out of the window as the buildings of the district court, the old town hall, churches and cathedrals float by. Initially, the city’s tram fleet consisted of 18 motor and 16 trailer cars. There was not enough space for everyone.

Vitebsk. Tram on Zadunovskaya Street. Early 20th century.

Vitebsk met the events of October 1917 quite calmly. Soviet power was established in the city on October 28th. In the first months of 1918, the Vitebsk tram enterprise was nationalised. And in 1921, V. I. Lenin was solemnly enlisted as an honorary machinist in the ranks of the workers of the Vitebsk tram power plant.
With the beginning of the civil war, cargo platforms began to walk along the Vitebsk tram tracks, which were used to transport wounded soldiers. So, according to the documents, in the period from April to November 1920, 60 thousand wounded soldiers were delivered to the city with the help of tram platforms.
In the 1930s, when Vitebsk became one of the most important industrial centres of the country, active construction of tram lines to factories, plants and combines operating in the city began. Cargoes from enterprises were transported by special rolling stock with reinforced platforms to the territory of a freight railway station near the Comintern plant.

Vitebsk. Tram on Zamkovaya Street. Early 20th century.

The photographs of the city in 1940 –1941 evoke a true sadness. Young, actively developing, with unique architecture and amazing people. Soon it will all be blown up and destroyed. The Vitebsk tram officially stopped on the day the fascist occupation of the city began — July 11th, 1941.
Even for researchers, it still remains a mystery how titanic work it was necessary to restore the enterprise after liberation. However, already in 1946, when the city was reviving after the Great Patriotic War, the Vitebsk tram delivered bricks for construction.
Simultaneously with the resumption of freight traffic, which was the most important for the restoration of the city incinerated by the war, public routes were also launched, connecting, as before, the two banks of the Western Dvina River. The pre-war routes were gradually restored, the length of the tracks increased, and the tram fleet grew. Vitebsk was again filled with chimes, unhurried knocking, and in the evenings, young people walking along the embankment, as if on shooting stars, made wishes on sheaves of sparks escaping from the ‘horns’ of a tram shrouded in twilight passing along the Kirov Bridge.

Vitebsk. Tram at the Cathedral. Early 20th century.

Years passed, Vitebsk grew prettier and grew, and along with it, the Vitebsk tram fleet expanded and became younger. Moscow cars were replaced by Chelyabinsk ones, and they were already replaced by Riga ones, which are still so memorable to any resident. Although why memorable?!
On holidays associated with important city dates, the Vitebsk tram fleet launches RVZ-6M cars of the Riga Carriage Works, which look unusual today, but somehow very touching, like elderly people who have returned to the places of their youth after decades.
The first years after the collapse of the USSR became very difficult for our entire country. Difficulties in the economy could not but affect the Vitebsk tram. The situation in which the enterprise found itself, when it was not possible to buy even the most necessary for the repair and assembly of transport, led to the fact that the number of trams on Vitebsk streets decreased by 30 percent.

Vitebsk. Tram station. Early 20th century.

However, already in June 1998, when the city solemnly celebrated the 100th anniversary of its tram, an agreement was signed with the St. Petersburg Carriage Works for the purchase of new cars. And since 2005, Vitebsk switched to electric tram transport of the Belarusian enterprise Belkommunmash.
Perhaps someone will say that over the past years, the importance of the tram as a means of transport has declined somewhat. But this is only at first glance. The tram was and remains favourite transport among Vitebsk residents. A morning trip through the city waking up and getting ready for a busy day, an evening trip, when one by one the trams hide in the reflections of the sun setting over the Dvina River and enveloping the surroundings (then they really resemble outlandish fairy-tale animals) — so pleasant for the townspeople and numerous guests of Vitebsk!
Vitebsk tram has long been a real tourist brand. Want to get to know the city better? Get on the tram directly from the station — and good luck. This route has been tested for a century.

By Artemy Vasilevich

Photos from the personal collection of  Vladimir Likhodedov