On October 27, 1984, a ceremony marked the official completion of “the construction project of the century”, as the Baikal-Amur Mainline (the BAM) was declared operational.
As far back as the end of the 19th Century, some of the cleverest engineering minds in Russia pondered the direction of the railway towards the Pacific Ocean. In 1889, an engineering expedition surveyed the area between Ust-Kut and the North Muysk mountains – the very same area where the BAM railway runs today - only to recognize that construction of a line was technically impossible at the time. It was clear that at that moment, Russia just did not have the machinery nor the funds to undertake a project this grandiose. It was not until 1932 that new technology made the project possible, and large-scale design and survey works got underway.
The eastern and western sections of the BAM were built during the Stalin era, when construction was carried out by prisoners, mostly from the Amurlag Railroad Corrective Labor Camp. In 1953, following Stalin's death, virtually all work on the BAM stopped, and the line was abandoned for more than twenty years.
A landmark point in the history of the BAM was the release of a decree in 1974 by the CPSU and the USSR Council of Ministers on “The construction of the Baikal Amur Mainline”. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev stated that a new and much longer BAM project would become a huge Komsomol undertaking. Brezhnev famously said that “the BAM will be constructed with clean hands only!” and firmly rejected the suggestion of using prison labor again.
When speaking to the Communist Union of Youth (Komsomol), Brezhnev called upon its members to volunteer for the great work ahead. Amazingly, thousands of young men did just that, and left for the BAM regions to start work. With huge funding provided, it was called the “Komsomol construction project of the century”.
The engineers were faced with a large series of obstacles. The construction of the railway was held in the worst geological and climatic conditions, since the region contains the world's largest contiguous forest and largest fertile wilderness. The line crosses seven major mountain ranges and threads through the watersheds of all major local rivers. Approximately 65 percent of the route falls in areas of permafrost, with the extreme mean winter temperature of -58°C.
Today, the BAM is the second-largest railroad in Russia, traversing Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East. The 4,324 km BAM crosses remote areas of the Irkutsk region and Khabarovsk region, with 21 tunnels along the way, and a total length of 47 km. There are also more than 4,200 bridges, with a total length of over 400 km.
Although the two stretches of the BAM were joined on this day in 1984, and train operation became possible, the line did not become fully open until 1991. Today the mainline continues to operate and develop, and has become legendary for several generations of Russians.