BAM: Soviet construction project of a century

It has been 35 years since Russia started the final leg of one of its major construction projects – the Baikal Amur Mainline (the BAM).

In Soviet times those three letters meant more than words can say to thousands, who put their heart, soul, sweat and tears into the BAM.

The BAM was built as an alternative parallel route to the Trans-Siberian railway connecting Eastern Siberia to the Far East.

Much of it was built over permafrost and in places and conditions where most people can’t live, let alone work – but that’s exactly what some did for years during the decades it took to complete what was called “the project of the century.”

The BAM’s first section was built during Stalin's era and became infamous for the harsh working conditions and extensive use of prison labor.

The Soviet project of the 70s, however, was a very different affair – and the then-Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev once famously said that the BAM “will be constructed with clean hands only.”

This new project was meant to bring people together, to unite those who wanted to work for the benefit of the nation no matter how difficult the conditions were.

“Many working class people took part in the project, but also engineers, scientists and other specialists. It was an extreme challenge with many unexpected problems because of the weather and terrain, so people had to want to take part and get the job done,” says Valery Gorbunov, former deputy head of BAM construction.

The BAM now runs some 4,300 kilometers in length and took 28 years to complete.
Aleksandr Gradusov, who took part in building it, has been keeping his piece of the BAM for 32 years – the same amount of time he’s been married to his wife.

“We lived in an igloo-like house in -45 degree Celsius weather. It was hard but inspiring. My wife and I were married there and our daughter was born there. Despite the difficult conditions we had everything we needed for life, like the helicopter that came to take us to hospital when our girl was due to be born,” Aleksandr recalled.

After two years of living in harsh conditions, visiting a supermarket was a novel experience for Aleksandr.

“After living so long without simple luxuries like a store we would come to a shop and fill carts with food. That went on for a whole year until once again we were used to having everything at our disposal,” Aleksandr added.

It was more than 30 years ago but Aleksandr still thinks about how the BAM shaped his life.

He made a family there and is still in touch with life-long friends he made while working on a project.

That’s what the BAM was about – building not only a railroad but also people’s lives.