15 OCTOBER 1887, Page 9


IN an age of vast projects, the resolve of the Russian Government to construct a railway to the Pacific attracted at once the notice of politicians, but created no surprise among a public which has grown familiar with greater wonders. Yet that is a big and bold enterprise which proposes to stud Siberia with railway-stations, connect the Baltic with the Sea of Japan, and bring the arsenals and barracks of Russia within a few days' journey of the new naval and military port of Vladivostock. Some courage and a strong motive must be required to lay down even a single pair of rails through the heart of a country which, although it contains nearly five millions of square miles, is peopled by fewer than four millions of inhabitants. Can the mind grasp that relation of persons to surface ? The reason for the sparseness is that the whole deep Northern fringe lying on the edge of the icy sea is unhabitable and uninhabited except by a few savages. The great rivers all flow into the Arctic Ocean, and the entire tract, from Behring's Straits to the White Sea, is for nine months in the year one of the most desolate and ghastly stretches of territory in the world. The Ob and the Yenisei are navigable in summer far inland, but the Mouths of the Lena in winter might figure in the hell of Dante. The upper waters of each of these great streams, how- ever, flow for hundreds of miles through habitable territory ; and it is across the middle region between the mountains and the gloomy arctic tracts that the merchant and the soldier are to be carried to the verge of the Eastern seas. The Amur, differing from the other waters of Siberia, flows eastward, and enters the Pacific opposite the northern end of Saghalien, that large island which Russia acquired from Japan ; and it is on the central belt from the Ural Mountains to the Amur Valley that the latest suggested route would place the railway. If this be adopted, the line will pass by the important cities of Creek and Tomsk, round the northern head of Lake Baikal, a fresh-water sea four hundred miles long, and bending south-east by the Zeya and Ussuri Valleys, where it will be close to the Chinese frontier, run down to Vladivostock, which is not remote from the coveted Province or Kingdom of Corea, and is intended to be the Sebastopol of the Pacific. The whole into cost three hundred and eighty millions of roubles, or, say, thirty-eight millions sterling, and the Military Governor of Siberia makes the clever suggestion that it should be paid for by interest-bearing paper, which, he thinks, would be taken up in Russia itself. It is not, we should think, likely to find a market anywhere else. But if the Russian Government are sufficiently earnest in the desire to establish a Naval Power in the Pacific, and especially in the waters of China and Japan, they will do so "regardless of expense," just as they have pushed on a railway through the sands from the Caspian to the Oxus, and are now building a bridge over that stream to carry the locomotive to Bokhara and Samarcand.

Like the Central Asian, the great Siberian line is a political undertaking ; but whether the Turcomans and Uebeks wanted travelling and commercial facilities or not, Siberia beyond all doubt cries aloud for the iron horse. For trading purposes in these days, without a railway, the land of ice and snow bordering on, if not within, Marco Polo's "Land of Darkness," is barred from development. It has actually and compara- tively few people for its great extent ; but it abounds, from the western border to the Oriental sea, in the raw materials of wealth. Alike in the West and East there is gold, and this projected line is to touch on the Upper Amur gold- fields, which we had an impression were claimed by the Chinese. The centre of Western Siberia is a forest land, and the banks of the Yenisei are strewed with trunks of great trees, brought down and piled into huge heaps by the summer floods. The trade in furs, very ancient and famous, is alone worth placing within the reach of a market. If timber and furs and minerals of many kinds can be obtained from this inhospitable land, so can cereals, for the basin of the Ob is described as one of the richest in the world. Mr. Wiggin, who took a small steamer up the Yenisei in 1874, and visited the principal towns on his way home by Ekaterinburg, speaks with enthusiasm of the actual and potential wealth of the country. Whatever may be the case in Eastern, there can be no doubt that Western Siberia, as far as the upper waters of the Irtish, is full of timber, minerals, and fur-bearing animals, while the rivers swarm with fish, and the cultivated soil is fruitful in grains. Eastern Siberia is more rugged ; but it is supposed to conceal rich deposits of metals and precious stones in its mountain-chains, and the vicinity of the Amur has already yielded gold enough to rouse the cupidity and the passions of men. The reports of travellers and pro- jectors read like stories of a land of promise, and almost make one believe that here are thousands of miles of wealth-bearing territory awaiting only the magic hand of capital and the triumphs of invention, to make Siberia a rival of the United States.

But, with all its solid qualities, Siberia wants one thing,— climate. A country where the temperature ranges between thirty-two degrees below freezing-point in winter, and sixty- five degrees above it in summer, can hardly be attractive. That is why the population is so scanty. The Mongolian conquerors turned aside from the snow and ice of the Ob and Yenesei, and sought the sunshine of the Jaxartes, the Oxus, and the Euphrates. The tide of empire rolled westward, and not northward, and poured far into the South from Manchuria and the Western deserts. So Siberia, throughout its length and breadth, from the snow mountains to the tundras and horrible marshes, remained comparatively un- peopled, a land almost without a history, but now stirring to make one. Russia converted the land into a convict-prison, and the terrible punishment appealed to the popular imagina- tion, and made Siberia a synonym of hopeless pain and misery. The European public knew nothing of the country "at the back of the world," except that the Kalmuks from the Volga fled across it from the tyranny of a Czarina, and that in its mines the exile wore out his life. MuraviePs acquisition of the Amur Valley, Ignatiers clever conveyance of a corner of Manchuria on behalf of his master in 1861, and the prying spirit of commerce in search of markets, brought it plainly before the world. What will Russia do to draw out strength from her Arctic dominion ? A railway through the snow to the sea will bear political fruit, but will it attract population? Will the peasants, who are gliding away from Northern Russia and seeking warmth, turn aside to fill up the gaping spaces in the forests and mountain-sides of Siberia? Perhaps they may when the railway has made migration easy, and there is a chance of employment beyond the Ural range. At any rate, the corn-growers, the hunters, the fisher- men, and lumberers, who are pining for external markets in addition to those they now supply, will welcome a railway, and, as they extend their business, will need fresh hands. The cost of freight to and from the towns of Western Siberia and Moscow is, or was, £20 per ton, and the cost of transit from China is enormous. If a railroad pierces the country, it is hoped that the outlay on carriage will diminish ; but whether it does or not, the time will be saved. How such a line can be made to pay is another question, and it will have little weight, because the main purpose of the enterprise is political. Russia wishes to be a Maritime Power on the Pacific ; she also hopes to increase the population and the productive yield of her Siberia ; and the strong desire to profit by a port on open water will be the main reason why opportunities of development will be afforded to the ex- tensive and varied territory in her possession. Three or four lines traverse the American continent from ocean to ocean, and now we see in the near future, the soldier, the politician, and the engineer preparing to bind the Baltic to the Pacific. Empire, north of the Himalayas and the Altai, takes its course from West to East, and the two opposing streams will meet in the northern waters of the great ocean which, by the side of the extension of European influence, now sees also the

rise of Japan and the revival of effective power in the colossal and thickly peopled realm of China. The arm of the Czar stretched out to Vladivostock, threatens the rulers in Pekin ; but the Chinese Monarchy which survived the Taiping revolt, crushed the Panthays, reconquered Kashgar, regained Kuldja, and resisted France, may be trusted to prove a formidable obstacle to Muscovite ambition. The politics of the Farther East will take care of themselves, and their issues elude human foresight ; but whatever may be its consequences, the steady march of the locomotive through the northern breadth of the great continent appeals strongly to the imagination, because it passes through a piece of the globe which, after all that has been written about it, still seems to lie outside the pale of the modern world.