The International Steam Pages

Some "Russian" what-ifs

Robert Hall reflects and muses on gricing in the former Soviet Union...

As intimated by Colin Boocock in his piece "Red Star Steam", few Western railway enthusiasts saw anything of steam in the Soviet Union, when that type of motive power was still a going concern there - this, owing to a combination of factors. I was, for sure, one of the large majority who missed out on the experience. All I ever saw of that scene was - as recounted in my article "A Polish Corridor Tale" - in 1984, a class TE (German "Kriegslok" 2-10-0) in seemingly good shape but cold; and "something else steam" inside a tightly-shut shed; at Chyrov in the Ukraine, from a Polish train making a Poland-to-Poland regularly-scheduled run - accompanied by security measures verging on the lunatic -- through a corner of the neighbouring country.

Would dearly wish to have more to bring to this particular table. Have a long-standing fascination with, and to a large extent fondness for, Russia and the adjoining regions formerly part of its "empire", and the railways thereof. First ignited, maybe, by a wonderful picture-book with captions, which I had in early childhood, on the subject of railways worldwide. The USSR was represented therein, by a picture (a thick-snow scene, of course) showing a freight train headed by the Soviet Railways' almost-legendary prototype 4-14-4 loco. The book did not dwell on its "prototype" status, and for a long while, I imagined that Russia's rail system must be awash with fourteen-coupled steam giants. I find it rather pleasantly surprising that at a point when the Cold War was at its most bitter, a British publisher was ready to include in a children's railway book, an impressive picture of Russian rail action. One suspects that if such a thing had been done in the USA at the time, Senator McCarthy would at least have had a sharp word or two to say about the matter...

Sadly for the great number of railway enthusiasts with a "thing" for steam, the USSR was dismayingly quick off the mark in modernising its rail motive power. Given such a huge country with such an enormous total length of railways, and - as virtually all would agree - one not wonderfully good at getting its industrial and organisational act together; elimination of steam overnight, could not happen. Nonetheless, one source states that by 1970, only 6% of the USSR's rail workings were steam-hauled. Steam in strength lasted considerably longer, in the smaller Communist countries of Eastern Europe.

By the time that East-West relations had "thawed" to the extent of visits by Westerners to the East no longer being horrendously daunting; and, approximately parallel in time, steam's decline in Western Europe becoming far-advanced; Soviet steam was no longer around in sufficient quantity, to be for most Western enthusiasts, worth the enduring / working-round of the besetting difficulties and restrictions, which would have been necessary to experience it. The worst such problem - or so it seems to this observer - was that unlike Communist lands not quite so far east, the USSR restricted Western visitors to a (in terms of the sheer size and breadth of the largest country on earth) small and very selective tourist "beat". Highly-organised tours supervised by "Intourist" were preferred; if you insisted on running your own show, you couldn't wander around where you wished - you were kept to strict and limited itineraries.

It was not totally impossible, despite these constraints, to see something of Soviet steam. Until the early-to-mid-1970s, the more easterly reaches of the Trans-Siberian trunk line featured much steam on passenger duties, using the highly impressive class P36 4-8-4s. (Plus other classes on freight / shunting duties.) As the years went on, how much, if any, P36 haulage you'd get on your Trans-Siberian journey became progressively more of a lottery. As the journal "World Steam" remarked in that era, concerning the "Trans-Sib" -- "we would like to say, pick your trains carefully and you should get some steam haulage; but of course, picking your trains in the USSR, is not possible". And further west also, at least in the early 70s, there was some steam action around a fair number of legitimate tourist venues. The book "The Twilight of World Steam" by Ron Ziel and Mike Eagleson, published 1973, has some ten pages of wonderful early-1970s pictures of Soviet steam, featuring a variety of classes / locations. Photography was always risky - you couldn't get any kind of written permission for it -- but clearly, from the photographic evidence, some people managed it. In contrast the later "Steam Beneath the Red Star" by Ron Ziel and Nils Huxtable relied on pictures taken post glasnost and perestroika when it became possible to charter steam hauled trains specifically for photographic purposes - in comparison this was a turkey shoot.

Assorted ways-and-means to get even a morsel of the possible action: "transit" doings, could deliver such. Many travellers on PKP's line between Zagórz and Przemyśl, running through a bit of the Ukraine, had better luck than I did, and saw Soviet locos in steam and in motion at Chyrov. From an Internet post recalling a group-tour journey in 1971, between Poland and Roumania via a stretch of the Ukraine involving the city of Lvov: the participants' train from the Polish border to Lvov, is told of as hauled by a class Su 2-6-2; its balancing working observed behind a P36. At Lvov (from the context, an overnight stop) an encounter with "Soviet Lewis-Carroll-land" was experienced. On arrival at the city's station, the participants wanted to go to the front of the train to see the loco; but "the police stopped us - 'We do not have steam locomotives in the Soviet Union' ". Post goes on to say that the tour participants observed from the bus, presumably to their accommodation, several steam locos outside the workshops in Lvov; but their demand to go there to see said locos, was met with the response - "they do not exist". The poster adds that the next day, the steam locos had been moved out of sight. The post is in rather "telegraphic" style, leaving the reader to infer various matters, as best he can. Presumably in the episodes of unsatisfactory interaction recounted, communication was via Intourist guides / interpreters assigned to the group.

Some ambivalence felt: the USSR was unquestionably full of officially-inspired utter idiocy, which basically intelligent and decent citizens of the country had to go along with ostensibly, or suffer unpleasant consequences. On the other hand - maybe some of above perceived "bad stuff", had to do with linguistic / cultural misunderstandings; plus, the sense of entitlement which some gricers seem to display, in foreign parts where basically they are the guests - "demanding" to see what they wished to see? A touch perhaps, of the trite-but-true stuff about honey and vinegar, and putting people's backs up... at all events, picture generally got, is that the steam locos told of here, in and around Lvov, were (existent or otherwise) at their last gasp - reportedly, a year on from '71 there was no more steam line working in that particular patch of the Union.

I recall a short Soviet-made documentary film which I saw, by pure chance, in 1966; about winter sports in the Carpathian Mountains - USSR's stretch of which, was in the Ukraine. Remember therefrom, a splendid sequence showing what must have been a class Su, hauling a train full of happy winter-sporters to their goal. Perhaps in the 1960s, authority had not yet got around to feeling sensitive about archaic motive power, point of view reactions from the West.

Churchill's famous dictum about the USSR - "a riddle wrapped in a mystery wrapped in an enigma", so true as regards Soviet steam -- puts most stuff purely in the realms of speculation; but have latched onto hints, both from fiction and non-fiction, concerning Mordovia; an area of Russia some 500 km south-east of Moscow, generally reckoned (to be polite) one of European Russia's less-enlightened-and-sophisticated areas, and in Soviet times chosen to host a big concentration of forced-labour camps. Re same in current times, "who knows?" Suggestions picked up, concerning the Soviet era, of Soviet Railways steam lasting long in Mordovia - perhaps way after anything from propaganda, or from informed "civilian" sources, would or could tell of. Maybe total nonsense - and trying to go there and find out the truth first-hand, would not have been a ploy to recommend.

There are some indications that oddly, gricing in the USSR, within the confines of what was possible, could be easier than in some Communist countries further west in Europe. Some found that railway employees were often friendly and helpful, or at least not interested in what the foreigner was up to; and that quite often, the police couldn't be bothered to interfere and forbid. Various thoughts thence, about possibilities not necessarily mutually exclusive -- that Russians, when left to be themselves, are predominantly kindly and good-natured folk; that very many Soviet citizens hated the system they were forced to live under (so gave two fingers to it, in any way they safely could) and / or had been driven by its pressures, to a high degree of apathy - who knows? General upshot seemed to be that with luck, you could get away with surprisingly much in the USSR; but it was easy to get into trouble there, and if you did, it was likely to be bad trouble.

What one is inclined to think the lunatic-fringe extreme: have read accounts by one enthusiast anyway, of his fascination with Soviet steam being such that he ventured surreptitiously beyond the permitted and limited "tourist beat". This was in the early / mid-1970s - he did his stuff in the Lithuania / Byelorussia [Belarus] area, which at the time had a lot of steam passenger workings on lesser lines. He got away with this, on more than one visit - doing a bit of covert photography too -- for a surprisingly long time, before he was eventually "rumbled" - spent a day or two in KGB interrogative custody in Minsk - not very pleasant, though physical violence was not actually inflicted - ended with his being put on a plane to the West, with his passport endorsed, "this person will never again be permitted entry to the USSR".

What this chap did, strikes me as near-suicidal heroism of a kind which belongs in a more serious and worthwhile cause. In fantasy, I'd love to have emulated him - in practice, no. So many ways in which it could go wrong ! Perhaps the guy spoke fluent Russian - though nothing I remember from his account, suggests that he did. Otherwise, supposably, you learn parrot-fashion, the Russian for "A return ticket to Anatevka, please", and all being well, get said ticket. You dress and behave to look as much like a local, as possible. You get on the train and pray that none of your fellow-passengers will start chatting you up in friendly fashion - generally gathered, that inhabitants of these parts of the world are, anyway, fairly reserved ; plus, the Soviet Union was bedevilled by suspicion and mistrust - good chance that your neighbours won't interact with you. The country being as it was - you need to hope desperately, that police or other official-types won't come along the train, requiring proof of identity from all passengers. If they do - you're almost certainly stuffed. For a faint hope of "surviving" such an encounter, it would seem to be a choice between doing a "stupid tourist unaware of the rules" number; or, with US dollars, bribing the bods to overlook the matter.

In such conditions, I wouldn't enjoy my ride behind steam - I'd be suffering sphincter-loosening terror the whole time. I couldn't do it - would have been convinced that it would become horribly unglued, and I'd end up in the hands of the KGB, and if I'd done the British-citizenship-protesting bit, my government would tell the Soviets, "we don't need this bloody loony - send him to the Gulag for life, we're well rid of him" (and 1991-and-all-that, would have made no difference as regards that fate).

While Gulag-ish thoughts obtain - a passing mention recalled by Solzhenitsyn in his "Archipelago", of his encountering fellow-prisoners sentenced for espionage, because they had "spent too long staring at railway tracks". Under Stalin's rule, gricing could be a hobby severely prejudicial to one's well-being... Nonetheless; the world's biggest country, with a large population, has to throw up a few oddballs, no matter how greatly conformity is variously endorsed, and eccentricity discouraged. Especially after Uncle Joe was out of the picture, a handful of Soviet-citizen railway enthusiasts emerged - though post-Stalin too, they sometimes paid dearly for their interest. There comes to mind a particular gentleman who courageously sent information to railfans in the West, about Soviet steam as in the late 70s / early 80s. The KGB caught up with him, and intimated to him that what he was doing, was not approved of. He accordingly informed his Western contacts, that he was breaking off all communication with them. I'd like to hope that - he having done what was required - nothing horrible happened to him. By the last quarter of the twentieth century, while things in the USSR were still ghastly enough, those in charge had become, relatively, more lenient than had been the case when Mr. S. was in the driving seat. If the bod told of here is still alive, so far as I'm aware he has not re-established contact with "gricerdom worldwide" post-the fall of Communism - but this could have any number of explanations.

The way things were seen as going, overall, was that 1970's "6% steam" figure declined as from that date. However; in a country the size of the USSR, well supplied with railways, 6% still represents quite a lot - the decline was slow, and stretched out over many years. Information was received via the enthusiast mentioned above, before they "nailed" him, that the last regular steam use on passenger services anywhere in the Soviet Union was in 1984. On freight, and more especially on "menial" duties, one gathers that it lasted a fair while longer. General "picture got" - steam in "commercial" line work in the (former) Soviet Union dwindled to virtual non-existence, a couple of decades back. Many reports, though, long continued to tell of a certain amount of steam action persisting on shunting duties / non-revenue-earning doings. For sure, it was often heard, mid-1980s- onward, from Russia visitors / transitors, that when en route by rail, a fair bit of shunting work was to be observed, performed by steam locos - large types, originally built for main-line service. Hopes had continued to be harboured that this might still go on, here and there in Russia, to this very day.

However, material lately appeared on these International Steam Pages, bringing rather sad news concerning, in Russia, "real" steam - i.e. not staged for tourists and gricers - as Russian railfans rather splendidly put it, "wild steam". Per the best information available from those Russian enthusiasts, it is learnt that basically the end of this road has been reached - at the present time, only two steam locos left in genuine bread-and-butter service (shed pilots, both), in the whole vast country.

Part of the way matters went with the decline of Soviet steam, is that - it is gathered - steam departed fairly early in the day, from what used to be Soviet Central Asia, now a collection of republics which have gone their independent way. This being a water-poor area; switching fully to modern means of traction, when practicable, made good sense. I understand that in past times, this part of the world made extensive use of "condensing-tender" steam locos, on the same principle as South Africa's Class 25 4-8-4s.

To finish off by getting into wildly speculative realms: as things truly happened, most gricers wrote off the Soviet Union and did not visit it (at least not for steam), for the "consortium" of reasons told of. However; letting imagination run riot -- supposing the USSR's steam-eliminating programme had not gone as rapidly as it in fact did, and supposing that as at the mid / late 1970s, some parts of the Union were still as much "steam heaven" as, say, Poland was, at that time. Scenario imagined: some brave Western gricers had, by whatever means (possibly assisted per communication from suicidally-courageous Soviet counterparts) established that that was so. By that date, a fair range of "doing business" between Western interests and the USSR, had become possible. Railtour-running organisations might have been able to negotiate something with the Soviet authorities.

Whilst the Soviet Union was obsessed with preserving its privacy, it also craved Western currency; and tourists - perhaps even eccentric ones - were a welcome source of same. Organised tours for railfans could maybe have been agreed on, and taken place, to steam-rich parts of the Soviet Union. The participants would have been ready to pay the proverbial arm-and-a-leg, to take part in these jaunts and get access, photographic and otherwise, to their quarry (such tours were run to other Communist countries of Europe, after all). It's possible that "steam honeypot" areas might have been rather seedy parts of the country, not conventional-tourist-fodder, and right off the conventional tourist beat. Still - would "go with the territory", and participants would get horrible-hotel, and foul-on-train-conditions, experiences to dine out on for many years to come -- anyone for the Grand Hotel in Saransk, Mordovia?). Why, non-gricers would come on these tours (and put up with the boredom and nuttiness of being surrounded by rail-freaks and lumbered with the agenda of same) to get to virtually unknown parts of the USSR, beyond Intourist's normal pale. This would have been a wonderful scene - everybody would win, everybody would be happy. Persecuted Soviet railway enthusiasts could sign up as guides / interpreters for these tours, and engage in their hobby free from fear, with official blessing - no, on reflection, scratch that one; it would be too sense-making for the USSR.

With fantasy-machine firing on all cylinders; had things gone as above, from initial premise of Soviet steam lasting "longer and better" than in "Our Time-Line", as the alternative-history buffs say - perhaps there might have come to be an equivalent, somewhere in one Soviet republic or another, of the set-up which actually came to be at Wolsztyn. Such an undertaking might even have had better success, for longer, than has been Wolsztyn's lot; might well have gone on to prosper after the break-up of the Soviet Union (assuming that that event happened, in our alternative time-line). Speculative stuff which can get somewhat crazy; fun, though, if playing with such happens to be one's kind of fun.

Rob Dickinson