On April 27, 1974, the first All-Union high-powered brigade of Soviet students voluntarily departed on “the construction project of the century, the Great Silk Route of Communism, and the road to the future” – the Baikal Amur Mainline – blessed by the XVII Congress of the Komsomol Organization.
In March 1974, Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev proclaimed BAM a huge Komsomol undertaking, and stated that "BAM will be constructed with clean hands only," implying no prison labor would be used on the project.
The project was first initiated in the 1880s as an alternative for the eastern branch of the Trans-Siberian railway, while the BAM acronym appeared in 1930, when the Taishet-Bratsk section was built. Most of the Far Eastern section was built in the years of WWII, largely by gulag convicts, and German and Japanese prisoners of war. Following Stalin’s death in 1953, the construction had been suspended for twenty years, until its grandiose re-start in 1974, performed by the Komsomol enthusiasts.
However great the leverage the Komsomol organization had over the Soviet youth, it is fair to say that the enthusiasm alone, that ruled the young, made their mission to the frosts of Siberia look very attractive. The work on the BAM had become a real school of life for inexperienced students, and instilled in them humane qualities, and a sense of brotherhood. Many ex-Komsomol members who got a chance to work at this project, still speak of it as the greatest adventure in their life. Many of them were driven there by their thirst for “working big time," for the “feat of their life."
The emphasis laid on the project was immense. BAM was meant to become the second, and the shortest, compared to the Trans-Siberian railway, route of access to the Pacific Ocean, and to the abundant natural resources of Siberia and the Far East.
Over the years of the BAM construction, the words “BAM is the care of the entire country” had proved themselves to the full. Hundreds of industrial enterprises from all over the Soviet Union provided the BAM construction with machinery, equipment, and raw materials. Over three thousand miles of rails had been laid, dozens of train stations opened, over 220 thousand square miles of housing space built, and provided with all the essential infrastructure. In September 1984, a "golden spike", was hammered into the place, connecting the eastern and western sections of the BAM, and in the following October, the statement was released by all of the country’s newspapers, announcing the completion of the mainline.
Heavily publicized, “the construction of the century” had been the subject for discussions and descriptions in many essays; it was featured in multiple photo shoots and documentaries, depicting the construction’s timeline. The authors of these pieces, overwhelmed by the romanticism of the “great construction of communism” praised the hard labor of the BAM workers, and their dedication.
The criticism of BAM saw its climax in the mid-1980s, when basic services along the road were revealed to be out of order with increasing frequency. Over 60 boomtowns that appeared along the route on the wave of the BAM fever started losing their value, suffered severe economic problems, and were abandoned due to mass unemployment. The lack of environmental concern was another critical problem associated with the project.
The collapse of the Soviet Union instigated closure of many mining and industrial projects in the region, as the BAM was greatly under-utilized until the late 1990s, and functioned at a large operational deficit.
However, in the present days, the commercial value of the region has been reviewed, because the natural resources were still in their place ready to be extracted, with the railroad being the key for the development. A project that would help the BAM reestablish its significance is connection of the Sakhalin Island with the land, which would make BAM the only transit route for European goods to come to Japan. However, the single-track nature of most of the route, and the lack of suitable connections at the eastern end currently stand in the way. This project is unlikely to be completed in the next decade.
This year marks a double BAM anniversary – 35 years since the construction started, 25 years since the connection between the eastern and western part of the mainline was made.