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Salekhard–Igarka Railway: Stalin’s Railroad of Death

 The Yamal Nenets Autonomous Region, on the outskirts of Russia's capital, Salekhard, at the edge of the Arctic Circle, houses the disused remains of the infamous Salekhard–Igarka railway, known as the 'Railway of Death', the 'Road of Death'. Death', and 'Dead Road'. This planned 1,300-kilometre railway was part of Stalin's Transpolar Mainline, a grand plan to connect the eastern and western parts of Siberia, from the city of Inta in the Komi Autonomous Republic, from Salekhard to Igarka, on the Yenisei River. The line was never completed, yet thousands of workers forced on the project died while trying.

Most of the workers were derived from the Soviet Gulag system, where civilians convicted of political crimes were sent. A "political crime" can mean anything from being late for work, writing politically incorrect poetry, spending time as German prisoners, or stealing beets to feed their children. The authorities labeled him an "enemy of the people" and sent him to Gulag camps where he was subjected to untold suffering and torture.


The original plan was to build a port at Salekhard on the Ob River, and transport supplies from factories on Western Siberia, such as the large nickel factories in Norilsk, through the river system. But when the Ob estuary was found to be too shallow for deepwater vessels, a new port was built at Igarka on the Yenisei River, and it was decided to connect Salekhard to Igarka by a railroad, with the possibility of a further expansion. . To connect the South-East with the Trans-Siberian Railway.

But there was no real demand for the railroad, other than fulfilling Stalin's ambitious plans to conquer the Arctic. Siberian factories were already satisfactorily serviced by existing southern rail lines, and were too small to be settled and isolated to generate demand in the Yamalo-Nenets region.

Nevertheless, construction of the railroad began in 1947. The Gulag camps provided Stalin with an inexpensive and expendable workforce that he could entrust to any project. An estimated 80,000 to 120,000 prisoners were enslaved in the construction of the railroad, but some sources claim the figure to be as high as 300,000.


The working conditions were brutal. In winter, the temperature drops to -60 ° C and blizzards cool the body. Mosquitoes, mosquitoes and parasites bring diseases and death in the summer. Life was cheap and beatings were common. Only the most resilient worker survived.

The immense technical challenges of laying a line over permafrost were never effectively overcome. Shortage of machinery, poor logistics and shortage of materials made the quality of work substandard. Bridges collapsed, thawed and rainwater washed away embankments, and swamps swallowed up railway tracks.

Construction ended after Stalin's death in 1953. By then a total of 698 km of railway work had been completed at an estimated cost of 42 billion 1953 rubles (or $10 billion in 1950 dollars).

It will never be known how many people actually died as no precise records were kept. Some say, a third of the total number of workers died.

In 2010, a section of the railway from Igarka to Norilsk, a distance of about 220 km, was reconstructed following the original corridor, to support the nickel and petroleum industry. The line, now named the Northern Latitudinal Route, was opened in 2015.

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