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Subject essay: James von Geldern

The last great hero project of the Soviet era was BAM, the Baikal-Amur Mainline, an over two-thousand mile-long rail line across Siberia about four hundred miles north of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. First planned as a route to the rich mineral resources of Siberia, a section from Taishet to Bratsk was built in the 1930s. Most of the eastern section was built in 1944-1946, mainly by POWs and political prisoners, of whom as many as 150,000 died. The tremendous investment of funds and lives seemingly went to waste when the project was abandoned to the elements after Stalin’s death in 1953.

The project was revived in March 1974; General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev declared that it would become the next great hero project of the Komsomol. Its further fate reflected the declining condition of socialist society. Developed as a second Siberian route to the Pacific, the railroad allayed official fears that the Trans-Siberian line would be cut-off by a cross-border Chinese incursion. It never served a clear economic function. Natural impediments demanded a huge investment. Crossing seven mountain ranges, swamps, taiga, seismic zones, and with forty percent of its rail laid on permafrost, BAM was planned as an electrified double track, but was scaled down to single track as money ran out. Without prison labor, labor costs were prohibitive, even with the Komsomol volunteers. Environmental costs were also staggering. The pristine northern forests transected by the line suffered permanent damage, and Lake Baikal, one of the world’s cleanest, was fouled by the dumping of construction debris. Construction of the city of Severobaikalsk (with a population of 30 000 people) on the lake’s northern shore to house personnel led to widespread erosion.

Hero projects were difficult in the age of stagnation, when public cynicism made heroism obsolete. Fewer Komsomols were willing to sacrifice their youths to the common good, and with good reason. Although a “golden spike” connecting eastern and western sections was hammered into place in 1984, less than a third of the line was actually operational. BAM was only declared complete in 1991, the year that the Soviet Union fell apart. By the mid-1990s BAM, though operational, was proving to be one of Russia’s least profitable railroads.

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