Baikal-Amur Waterway

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Combing the Russian cartage and auto roads we shoul not forget that they have always had a very serious and lucky rival. Looking at the well-known picture of I. Repin “Barge Haulers on the Volga”, few people think about the fact that in this picture apart from the penal labor of peasants the artist showed a very important economic reality that during many centuries was much easier and more beneficial for the merchants and the government; they could simply hire the poorest peasants for a penny and make them pull the strap of ships and ferries upstream than to build roads. From time immemorial it was like that in Central Russia; Siberia (from the Urals to Kamchatka) was explored the same way for a century or half a century but this time the pioneers were in the capacity of haulers.

Today there is hardly a person in Siberia and even in whole Russia who does not know about the Baikal-Amur Railway Line. But very few know that in the state of Russia there were plans to create the Baikal-Amur Waterway that left a trace in history.

As it was already mentioned, in the 30s of the XVIIIth century the State Admiralty Board started to built quays and ships across the Baikal to transport couriers, state provision and various goods. The first projects of this type were held near the village of Listvennichnoe on the western shore, and not far from the Posolsk Monastery on the eastern shore. The Baikal, the Angara and the Selenga were united by this waterway. Besides, this project was a part of the second Bering’s expedition. G.F. Miller, a participant of this expedition, was obliged by the Empress Anna to make an essay about the Amur and hand it in to the Governor-General of Irkutsk. G. Miller succeeded in fulfilling this task and described not only the Amur but also the rivers flowing into it. He also came to some very important for the government conclusions, among them there was this one: “It is possible to build sea-going carriers in the region of Nerchinsk, provide them with different sort of supplies, and freely sail up and down the Amur”. He also spoke about an important role of the Amur for the development of the Russian export to the Far East, and the trade with India and China . Such reports could not but attracted the attention of the Russian government.

In 1753 V.A. Myatlev, a used-to-be sailor, that time a flag officer, was appointed the Siberian Governor; he was ordered to find the most comfortable way to supply the Okhotsk region and Kamchatka with provision. Under his guidance the Nerchinsk expedition was organized, the leadership of it was appointed F. Soymonov. The latter suggested creating the Angara-Selenga waterway that was to connect Western Siberia with the eastern parts of the country. According to his ideas that were coordinated with G.F. Miller’s reports the navigation should be organized in the Yenisey and the Angara, then across the Baikal to the Selenga, the Hillock, the Ingoda, the Shilka, the Amur and then across the Sea of Okhotsk to the Okhotsk port and Kamchatka region. In the contemporaries’ opinion this eastern waterway would be much more convinient than the difficult waterway across Yakutsk, down the rivers Maya, Aldan, Yudoma. At that the existence of the single waterway could be very profitable from the economic, trade and industrial points of view. Besides, the emphasis was put on the possibility of economic and trade relations with Japan development that is why they started to teach Japanese in Irkutsk. It is in here where the mission of establishing diplomatic relations with Japan was started, with the head body in St. Petersburg.

One of the first results of this activity was the establishment of Irkutsk and Nerchinsk Navigation Schools in Siberia by the order of the Senate; they were “to teach the service class children the navigation handicraft” so that they could navigate ships in the Baikal, the Selenga and other rivers after finishing the schools. The fact that in the period from 1754 to 1768, 192 children finished the schools proves that the idea was an afficient one. In these schools children studied the same subjects as at Moscow Navigation School: Arithmetics, Drawing, Geometry, Geodesy, Architecture, Shipbuilding and Basis of Navigation. In 1765 Irkutsk Navigation School was consolidated with Nerchinsk one, as a result the latter was completely abolished.

One more practical step for providing the activity of the Baikal-Amur waterway was the creation of the Admiralty team in 1754 that was subordinated to the Governor. The Admiralty in its different manifestations survived in Irkutsk till 1839, but very soon after its establishment it began to fulfill local functions such as organization and regulations of the sea affairs in the Baikal and the rivers flowing into it. It happened so that in 1755 the relations between Russia and China turned tense, and the question of the Amur waterway became problematic. In 1758 the Baikal flotilla, subordinated to the Ministry of the Merchant Marine, was to start transportation of different baggages, equipages, exiled prisoners across the Baikal. A specific attention was drawn to the transportation of military groups and the government most important goods. Since land transportation in the Baikal region was not well-developed at that time, the Baikal sailors fulfilled these duties.

It is frank to say that the Admiralty of the Siberian “Taiga Sea” had no great authority with the officials from St. Petersburg. The graduates of Irkutsk Navigation School were not registered in the Sea Department, and the school itself did not have any official status. The Admiralty and the school for a long time were considered to be the organizations subordinated only to the Siberian Governor-General. Still in 1800 the Admiralty Board of the Sea Department sent several officers to Irkutsk and that provided Irkutsk Admiralty activity as one of the transport ship departments of the Russian Military Fleet. Irkutsk Admiralty also managed to get the right to build a special type of ships, i.e., galliots that had flatter bottoms and lower masts than that of seagoing ships. This let the ships be more steadfast under the conditions of unpredictable and cutting Baikal winds. And there were some cases when the ships built as per the design of St. Petersburg projects turned over under such climate conditions.

The main problem of the Baikal navigation was a short period of it, from the end of May till October, and threats of storms. Before the building of the cartage track at the end of the XVIIIth century, the problem of an unreliable but stable waterway across the Baikal was impossible to escape; in the beginning of the XIXth century the transportation became less and less profitable. Thus, the Decembrist Rosen recollected that the way across the Baikal together with waiting for the ship took him about ten days, and his wife – seven days. The land transportation was a strong competitorn of navigation in the XIXthe century, and the commercial benefit of the latter was brought to naught, and till the trains transportation by the icebreaker “Baikal” the situation did not change.

One of the evidences of the Baikal sea status in the flow of history is the presence of the “filibusters” though mostly “pedestrian” and “land”. The stories about real pirates of the sea-lake as well as those of their ocean brothers are gripped by a romantic note. One of the first Siberian stories “Elk” by N.A. Polevoy that was published in 1830, is about one of the pirates’ leader, Elk; and there is one more character in the story, Buza, who is also the Baikal pirate but acting independently. In I.G. Kalashnikov’s novel “The Daughter of the Merchant Zholobov” published in 1832, Buza is also mentioned in some episodes. The two criminals did not come to Siberia by their own will: Buza had been robbing the rich merchants of the Volga, the Don and the Caspian Sea, then having surrendered he was exiled to Siberia with his wife; Elk was considered to have come to Siberia from the forests in Perm where he as well as Buza had gone in for robbery.

Buza together with his fellows kept in awe not only the Baikal merchants but also many people of Irkutsk region because they attacked people both on land and sea. The robbers and pirates under the leadership of Buza were so insolent that without any fear they sailed in a boat down the Angara passing Irkutsk, for this they specially put on their best clothes, took rifles and guns and sailed defiantly singing songs very loudly. There was no police at that time in the city yet, so there was nobody to set them down. Buza’s fellows robbed ships that transported goods. The robbers sailed close to a ship, jumped out on it bawling “Board!”, and it made the passengers and the equipage stupor. After that the robbers could take everything they wanted. In the end Buza died slayed by a Buryat’s arrow, and his business went to pieces.

Elk and his gang did the same, but mostly on land. The most famous of his robberies was the Chertovkina Fair robbery (the fair was annually held on one of the islands in the mouth of the Selenga River). That time there were about 300 people on the fair, both Russians and Buryats, but when the robbers rushed to the booths the majority of people were so gripped by terror that they did not move to protect their goods.

The Baikal passenger transportation by steamers started in the middle of the XIXth century. In 1838 the Siberian gold miner I.F. Mesnikov submitted an application for starting steamer transportation and very soon built two towing steamers. In 1844 the first steamer appeared in the region. One of the first owners of steamers was N. Rusanov, who owned the ships “Sinelnikov”, “Platon” and “Innokenty”. Very soon the latter sank in the storm near the Ushkany Islands. In the middle of the XIXth century a very good project to create a waterway starting from the Selenga (in Dzhida region) and across the Baikal, down the Angara, and the Yenisey to Western Siberia was put forward. The way could have been the basic one for tea and silk transportation from Kyachta, but the merchants from Kyachta did not get interested in it.

Further on the passenger and fishing fleet in the region was developing the same tempos as everywhere in Russia on rivers, big lakes and sea bays. At the beginning of the XXth century there was a surge again when in the lake the first ship of the icebreaker type was introduced; the “Baikal” and “Angara” icebreakers appeared soon after it. In the XXth century big and small fishing seine vessels were introduced, together with special research ships, boats for timber transportation, barges, etc. According to the statistics performed by the East-Siberian Branch of the Russian Region Register in 2006 the fleet navigating in the Baikal (300 units) was represented by the following types: 1. small pleasure boats; 2. dry cargo, passenger, expedition, research ships; 3. passenger-cargo ferries; 4. self-propelled tugs; 5. dynamically supported craft; 6. buoyage ships. The passenger fleet was less developed especially at the last third of the XXth century. Apart from several hovecrafts, small pleasure motor vessels and yachts there were no (and there are no) comfortable and speed liners, and that prevents tourism development. A very sufficient problem for many ships is the lack of equipments for gathering and delivery of the oil household sewage and waste.

It is worth saying a few words about the small fleet of the Baikal, i.e., special ships for sailing and fishing with the limited capacity for 5 – 6 people. Taking the advantage of my status of a person born and brought up at the lake I would like to recall the most common names of this “small fleet” types exsisting in the 50 – 60 years of the XXth century.

  1. doshchanka (comes from the word doska – “a board”), a small fishing boat usually with a sharp kill; such vessel ship was mostly built of dry and thus very light cedar boards that were very oiled in the places of butts with hot resin (pitch) so that there were no gaps;

  2. ploskodonka (comes from the prase ploskoe dno – “ a flat bottom”), a boat with a flat bottom and the capacity for 1 – 4 people. It was very convenient for traveling in the shallow, small rivers and channels (that was also used for hunting birds in rivers estuaries), and also for pleasure and fishing when the weather was fine, but it was dangerous to use it when the wind was gusty as there was a big risk that it could turn over;

  3. setova (comes from the word set – “a net”), a fishing boat 8 – 10 m long, 2 – 3 m wide, with a sharp kille, typical for many other boats in the lake; it was used for putting kilometers of nets and fishermen crews to sea. Fishermen had put to sea “on nets”, i.e., with nets dipped into water during one or sometimes several nights (so-called driftnet fishing), after that the nets were taken out and the catch was brought to the fish stations; a 4 – 5 pair row boat was rather speedy, easily maneuvered, and sometimes it was called baikalka (comes from the word Baikal);

  4. nevodnik (comes from the word nevod – “a seine”), a wide usually flat-bottomed boat, thus a very slow one; it was used for omul fishing with a seine, during the fishing process it was performing several specific functions;

  5. launch, a rather big boat, built of wood; unlike setova and nevodnik had some superstructures like small deckhouses and holds; sometimes it was possible to set a sailboat rigging on it.

Only in the middle of the XXth century they began to use motors in the Baikal “small fleet”. A person who had such a vessel was considered to be a lucky and somewhat “cool” person. Today we can call all the private fleet types of vessels in the Baikal, and still they are often noted by its provinciality. The statistics of the Irkutsk Oblast and the Republic of Buryatia states there are about 520 small vessels registered officially. The by-products of fuel and lubricants, household and other wastes become main factors of the lake pollution. 

See also


  1. The Many Faces of Multilingual and Mysterious Baikal/ A.D.Karnyshev-wThe 4 The Edition, updated/ (Монография) (2011г., Ulan-Ude:BSU Publishing House,2011.-586p.: with illustrations.)

Выходные данные материала:

Жанр материала: English | Автор(ы): Karnyshev A.D. | Источник(и): The Many Faces of Multilingual and Mysterious Baikal. Ulan-Ude. 2012 | Дата публикации оригинала (хрестоматии): 2011 | Дата последней редакции в Иркипедии: 30 марта 2015

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Тематический указатель: Irkipedia English