From Moscow to Vladivostok: Along the Trans-Siberian Railway

No railway has enthralled travellers quite like the Trans-Siberian. Stretching a phenomenal 5,771 miles from Moscow to Vladivostok, the historic railway runs through some of the most rugged, inhospitable and unexplored landscapes in the world, linking Russia to its neighbours China, Mongolia and North Korea. Construction began in May 1891 and it was finished on 5 October 1916, when the bridge across the Amur River opened - the last link in the world's longest railway.

The railway attracts tourists from around the world, shuttles Russians across their vast country and makes a significant contribution to the economy – with around 30% of exports being transported along the track.

Russia is planning to make major improvements to the railway. By 2020, £4.7bn will be invested into the Trans-Siberian to speed up the transport of freight between Asia and Europe.

On the 100th anniversary of the railway, we invite you on a journey from Moscow through Siberia to Vladivostok in the Far East, exploring the history and stories of the cities and towns along the way.

Moscow The Bolshoi Theatre – Russia's cultural jewel

Bolshoi Theatre • Getty

Widely recognised as one of the oldest and greatest ballet and opera companies in the world, the Bolshoi Theatre is the pride of Moscow. It was founded in 1776 by Prince Pyotr Vasilyevich Ouroussoff and Michael Maddox, an English entrepreneur and theatre manager. Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Modest Mussorgsky held premieres there, creating its reputation as one of Russia's cultural jewels.

The building that exists today dates from 1825 and is deeply rooted in the country's history. In 1922, the formation of the USSR was proclaimed from its stage, followed by the announcement of Vladimir Lenin's death two years later. During the Soviet era, the Bolshoi's ballet troupe flourished - benefiting from the state's mission of promoting nationalism – and produced stars such as Galina Ulanova and Nikolai Fadeyechev.

The building itself did not fare so well under Soviet rule. Like many buildings decorated in the opulent Tsarist style, the Bolshoi was stripped of its grandeur and gold. In 2005, the theatre was shut for a six-year overhaul to restore it to its former glory.

Perm Perm-36 – the last Soviet gulag

Postbox on the camp wall at Gulag Perm-36 in Kuchino near Chusovoi, Russia, 2008 • Wulfstan

"We have been happily borne - or perhaps have unhappily dragged our weary way - down the long and crooked streets of our lives, past all kinds of walls and fences made of rotting wood, rammed earth, brick, concrete, iron railings," wrote Russian dissident, political prisoner and Nobel Laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in The Gulag Archipelago.

"We have never given a thought to what lies behind them. We have never tried to penetrate them with our vision or our understanding. But there is where the Gulag country begins, right next to us, two yards away from us."

The word GULAG is an acronym for Glavnoye upravleniye lagerey – or Main Camp Administration – the institution that ran the Soviet camps. Over time the word has become synonymous with the notorious Soviet prison system.

The first camps were established in 1918, and over time spread across the country into Siberia, where they functioned until the 1980s. Millions of people, from petty criminals to political prisoners, were subjected to hard labour, starvation and disease in the prison camps.

One of the most notorious, Perm-36, was founded in 1943, around 60 miles north-east of the city of Perm. Located in the Ural mountains, the camp was known as one of the harshest of its kind, housing up to 3,000 political prisoners under the rule of Joseph Stalin. It finally closed in 1988.

Perm-36 is now the only surviving camp with buildings dating back to the Stalinist era, as other camps were destroyed after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Perm-36 was turned into a museum in the 1990s, but has since been closed.

Novosibirsk Railway Station
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Cathedral of the Kazan Mother of God in Irkutsk
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Novosibirsk HIV in the Siberian capital

Monument of Sable, a symbol of Novosibirsk, the third largest city in Russia • iStock

Novosibirsk was founded in the 1890s around the Ob River bridge, built for the Trans-Siberian Railway. The rail line fuelled the city's growth and it is now a large industrial centre – but like other regions of Russia, it is affected by high rates of HIV.

An estimated one million people in Russia are HIV-positive. The country has one of the fastest-growing HIV/AIDS epidemics in the world, exacerbated by poverty and policies that increase the spread of infection, rather than curb it.

Russia has the largest number of intravenous drug users in the world – around 1.8 million, according to a 2012 Lancet study. This is due, in part, to Russia being on the drug highway from Afghanistan to Europe – along with the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Each country has seen HIV infection rates climb since the USSR broke up in 1991.

In 2013, a particularly virulent strain of the virus was discovered in Novosibirsk. According to local scientists, it accounted for more than half of the registered cases in the region.

Irkutsk The oldest lake in the world

Lake Baikal • iStock

Lake Baikal is an astonishing 25 million years old and it is the world's deepest lake at more than 5,500ft. It contains 20% of the world's total unfrozen freshwater reserve - more than all of the North American Great Lakes combined.

Because of its age and isolated location, Lake Baikal is one of the richest and most diverse bodies of water and is home to more than 2,000 species of plants and animals. Some animals, such as the nerpa – one of the world's only freshwater species of seal – are only found in Lake Baikal.

Despite being listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Lake Baikal is under threat from industrial and agricultural pollution. In 2010, the crisis was so sever that the lake was in danger of being removed from the UNESCO list altogether.

Ulan-Ude The Buryats

The Buryats • Getty

Ulan-Ude, the third largest city in Siberia, is the capital of the Republic of Buryatia, a federal subject of Russia. Around a third of the population of the republic is made up of the ethnic Buryats, the largest indigenous group in Siberia.

The Buryats are descended from Mongolian and Siberian peoples. Their lands are located north of the Russian-Mongolian border, a land historically contested by Russia, China and also Japan, but there are also communities in Mongolia and Inner Mongolia. In the late 1920s, the Buryats rebelled against the communist rule and the collectivisation of their herds, but their rebellion was crushed by the Red Army and thousands were killed.

Buryats share customs with Mongolian communities, including nomadic herding and living in gers. They speak a central Mongolic language called Buryat, one of the most endangered languages in the world.

Ulan-Ude
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Trans Siberian railway car

Birobidzhan Stalin's 'Jewish homeland'

Station Square in Birobidzhan •• Andshel

Birobidzhan, located close to the Chinese border, is the administrative centre of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in the Russian Far East. The first group of settlers arrived in the region in 1928 from Ukraine and Belarus and it became the administrative centre of the region in 1934, as the Soviet answer to the Jewish homeland. In the 1920s, the 5,000-mile journey from Moscow to Birobidzhan would have taken more than a month, but the same journey takes around six days on the modern Trans-Siberian railway.

David Bergelson, a Ukrainian-born Yiddish writer, was one of the main supporters of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast as a remote escape from anti-Semitism and wrote articles propagating Birobidzhan in Yiddish-language publications. After the Second World War, Bergelson became a victim of Stalin's anti-Semitic campaign against "rootless cosmopolitans", a pejorative term that referred to Jewish intellectuals who were accused of a lack of Soviet patriotism. He was executed by firing squad in 1952.

The Second World War boosted the region's population further, as thousands of Jews fled from Eastern Europe, including refugees from Ukraine and Belarus who had been forcibly removed from their homes. In the 1970s, Jewish culture began to prosper in Birobidzhan and Yiddish theatres were opened. A university was opened in 1989 and the town's synagogue was completed in 2004.

Dalnerechensk Illegal logging in the wilderness

Logging in Dalnerechensk • iStock

Around 15 miles from the Chinese border is the small town of Dalnerechensk, in the Primorsky Krai region of the Russian Far East. Like other villages and towns in the region, it is a gateway for the illegal logging trade between Russia and China. The huge forested region of the Far East, which stretches from Lake Baikal to the Pacific Ocean, has been plagued by illegal logging. In 2013, at a meeting on timber management, President Putin said the practice had increased by nearly 70% over the previous five years. In Russia, logging has threatened the survival of the Amur leopard, of which there are only an estimated 70 left in the wild.

Tokarevskiy lighthouse
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