Review: To the Edge of the World, Christian Wolmar

Rating: 4 out of 5

I remember reading another book by Mr Wolmar in the past, on the global development of railroads. Nevertheless, I wasn’t sure as to what I should expect. It was, therefore, a pleasure to find out that I was pleasantly surprised by this book—if only to notice at the end that the author wrote a book on Russian history without investigating any Russian sources (Witte doesn’t count)!

I suspect that is because he doesn’t know it well enough. Mr Wolmar’s secondary method for including any primary information is citing numerous English-language works on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, both from the 19th century as well as from more recent times. This goes some way, but it does feel as if primary research has been lacking—and perhaps also for this reason, Mr Wolmar’s primary quality as a first-rate source for anecdotes doesn’t carry to this work.

Meanwhile, we do get a relatively decent overview of the Trans-Siberians original rationale. The expansion in the east is described in fair detail, though Muraviev could have used a few more pages to really come to life. The construction of the railroad is put forward in good terms, but—in one of my few gripes—there is very little specific detail (see above regarding a dearth of anecdotes). Yes, sure, the mountains were difficult to build a track through, but how did they do it, etc…

The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 is there in relatively good terms, and I was taken aback by the stellar description of the Revolutions and the Civil War, far exceeding a book focussing on 1917 I recently read. The 1920’s are a bit weaker in overall description as the author’s focus jumps into politics and away from the railroad, though the Second World War also has its strong points. The story of how the factories were moved into the east was interesting, though it again wasn’t very comprehensive. Mr Wolmar closes the story with a long description on the Baikal–Amur Magistral which was very interesting indeed.

Overall, I liked this, but the author’s reliance on non-Russian sources is very obvious. Detail is missing about most points, and something I felt should have been described more is how the technological changes from the 1880’s through into the 2000’s have affected the construction of the mainline and the spurs. Yet, it’s worth a read as it is a good synthesis of the subject!

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