Along the Great Siberian Way

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The zero-kilometer mark of the Trans-Siberian Railway, which the Russians originally called the Great Siberian Way, was the Yaroslavsky Rail Station in Moscow. This is where 31-year-old Mariasia Naginsky and her five daughters — then ranging in age from 2 to 7 — would find themselves, after traveling more than 500 miles from their home in Aleksandrovsk, likely in 1916.

Outside the station building, the family may have noticed details reflecting the diversity of northern Russia, including facade ornaments with flora and fauna symbols and an antler motif on the side tower. When walking through the main entrance, they also may have seen the exposed, curved wood beams lining the central archway and the lattice grids of the building’s main windows — nods to Japanese and Chinese architecture. The design, which was completed in 1904, was inspired by the future role of this terminal as the hub of traffic to Siberia and the Far East, as described in “The Origins of Modernism in Russian Architecture” by William Craft Brumfield.

The main hall, where the girls and their mother may have waited for their train to depart, was an “open, functional space, brightly illuminated and modestly decorated with [painted] panels [showcasing the northern Russia landscape], simple oak wainscoting, a tile floor, and suspended light fixtures in the modern style,” according to Brumfield’s account.

The Naginskys may not have been able to appreciate the beauty of their surroundings because their voyage across Russia likely was long and miserable. Aboard the steam engine train, it took them months rather than the days it takes today to reach the Pacific coast. We know they had to wait in rail stations for long days, surrounded by their baggage, including the enormous goose down pillows they carried with them, until the next train would come through. Another factor — their lack of money — may have forced them to stop at various points along the way so Mariasia could find work doing laundry, according to relatives. Their limited funds probably meant crowding into so-called “cattle cars,” the lowest class available, along with the record number of passengers traveling at the time. Delays also could have been caused by technical conditions on the railway or by illness, which is likely with five young children.

The timing of their travel could not have been much worse. Czar Nicholas II was deposed in March 1917 following demonstrations and other violence. Hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers already had been killed in the battles of World War I, and by mid-1917 many of the troops chose to desert rather than continue fighting. In October 1917, the Bolsheviks had taken control of the government, and civil war had erupted. Both family and news accounts describe trains packed with Russian soldiers, who would lift the children up into the cars through the windows. According to stories told to relatives years later, other men dressed in uniforms and boots would come through the trains, and people would whisper, “Bolsheviki!”

Within this environment, Mariasia’s background and appearance may have enhanced her family’s ability to survive this trip. Because of her education, she spoke and read Russian, which was not common among Jews, especially women. Her light eyes also made her ethnic background less obvious.

In addition to being witnesses to history, the Naginskys traversed the full range of Russian territory during their travels, from European Russia to the Far East via Siberia, according to this 1928 schedule. After pulling out of Yaroslavsky Station in Moscow heading eastward, they would cross the Volga River and skirt the Ural Mountains, passing through Perm and Yekaterinburg, at the juncture of Europe and Asia. In southwestern Siberia, they would stop in two large, relatively new commercial centers, Omsk and Novonikolayevsk (now Novosibirsk). Moving into central Siberia, they would travel through the scenic city of Krasnoyarsk and then on to Irkutsk in eastern Siberia, just south of Lake Baikal. At or near Chita, they would transfer to the Trans-Manchurian Railway, which would take them across the border to the Northeast China region of Manchuria, where the family likely spent time in Harbin before crossing back into Russia to reach the port city of Vladivostok, some 6,000 miles from where they had begun.

While we can retrace the path of Mariasia and her daughters, it’s more difficult to re-create the atmosphere that existed on board the Trans-Siberian Railway at the time of the Russian Revolution. But it seems that we can look to the silver screen to get at least a sense of what they experienced during their journey. Apparently, the film version of Boris Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago” successfully captured the imagery and mood during this watershed moment in history — the masses of humanity, the unsanitary conditions, the danger, the desperation. Watching the movie 50-plus years later, Janet Naginsky Bradfield (Jhina) remarked to her own daughter: “That’s what it was like.”

One comment on “Along the Great Siberian Way

  1. Phyllis Greer says:

    I love the personal comment. This mother was made of very strong stuff! The slide show is amazing!

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