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  • Writer's picturePeripheral Histories ISSN 2755-368X

Selling Siberia: Russian Railway Panoramas at the 1900 Exposition Universelle

Tyson Luneau

“…this immense sea, a sea reaching to the horizon, a blue sea crisscrossed by the flights of birds…A dream: Lake Baikal, which stretches toward infinity, the soft blanket of its deep waters.”[1] Reflecting on his “arrival” to Beijing at the terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway, one French journalist claims that “you will live there another life, an intense and unknown life, new sensations…You will taste all the strange charm of the nights there, when the colored lanterns, with tormented cornices, cast vague and dying gleams on things and the clear skies above are ablaze with stars…”[2] These evocative images published in a 1900 issue of Le Gaulois come not from a journey on the Trans-Siberian, but rather a visit to the Great Siberian Railway Panorama, a central feature of Russia’s Pavillon de l’Asie russe et de la Sibérie at the 1900 Exposition Universelle.

Drawing over 48 million visitors to the streets of Paris, the Exposition showcased a wide array of technological and cultural offerings from around the world. Russia, like several other up-and-coming powers, viewed this exhibition as an opportunity to retain its declining Great Power status in the aftermath of the Crimean War and Congress of Berlin. Two Russian exhibits captured the imaginations of audiences through depictions of a vast and exotic land beyond the edges of the European domain: the Panorama Transsibérien and the Great Siberian Railroad Panorama. Both simulated a journey along the Trans-Siberian Railway which, at the turn of the century, was nearing completion. The latter focused more on artistic renditions whereas the former’s sponsorship by the Compagnie Wagons-Lits gave it a more commercial character, to the extent that it drew criticism from the tsar and other authorities.[3] Regardless of their differences, each showcased the railway’s construction as a symbol of Russia’s rapid advance into modernity, hinging upon the conquest of an unrelenting Siberian landscape. By reframing the Siberian imaginary in the minds of Western audiences, both exhibits generated a renewed confidence in the railway’s ability to serve as the backbone of an economically, industrially, and culturally rich Russian Empire, coinciding with the dawn of a new century. Doing so enabled continued support of Western financiers, which became critical for the project’s realization.

Figure 1: Postcard showcasing the Palais de l'Asie russe et de la Sibérie [Source: University of San Diego Copley Library]

Both exhibits were part of a calculated effort to put forth an image of success through environmental conquest, despite the project’s substantial setbacks.[4] Given that France was the largest source of foreign investment, the railway committee used this opportunity to appease French financiers who had become frustrated with the railroad’s slow progress. These showcases also granted Russia a unique opportunity to secure new sources of foreign capital for the railroad. Countering the idea of Siberia as a vast, uninhabitable, unproductive wasteland, the tsarist regime sought to reframe the narrative by demonstrating man’s ability to conquer nature and reform the territory into a place of agricultural and economic productivity.[5]

Figure 2: "A Bridge Across the Great Never River from Upstream, 1908-1913” [Source: Russian State Library]

The nineteenth-century paradox of Siberia placed it somewhere between a frozen, desolate wasteland incapable of sustaining life and a diverse, resource-rich frontier ripe for exploitation and colonization. Its harsh climate was represented in Russian literature as a world “forsaken by God, constantly blasted by ice and snow.”[6] The outside world too, for the most part, pictured Siberia as a snow-covered expanse unfit for human habitation.[7] Though perceptions began to shift with the commencement of the railroad’s construction in 1891, Siberia was, as one observer suggested, “a land which comparatively few Western people have seen. It is supposed to be barren, and to have an unenviable notoriety for misery and human suffering.”[8] Thus, overcoming the popular antipathy toward Siberia was an important step in securing the capital to begin its transformation.

Despite Russia’s economic progress, there simply was not enough capital within its borders to fund such a monumental project. Sergei Witte, Minister of Finance and leading advocate of the railroad, stressed the need to acquire foreign loans for the railroad to Nicholas II in an 1899 letter, in which he argued, “we cannot wait for the natural accumulation of capital in a country in which the majority of the population is experiencing hard times and which surrenders a considerable part of its surplus to the government in the form of taxes…”[9] If Russia wished to construct the railroad as a means of achieving its own political and economic goals, it would require the cooperation of French financiers and other foreign partners.[10]

The Exposition Universelle represented an opportunity for the Russian Empire to showcase both the railroad’s progress as well as the positive attributes of its eastern periphery.[11] For Russia, it also represented the first genuine opportunity to prove its worthiness at the table of Great Powers.[12] The elaborate Pavillon de l’Asie russe et de la Sibérie placed Russia’s cultural and technological achievements alongside those of the other Great Powers.[13] The railroad became the central component of this effort, a hyperbolic example of Russia’s indominable will to modernize. The vivid portrayal of a vast, exotic environment reined in by the tsar’s technical prowess captured the imaginations of the exhibition’s visitors, enabling Russia to bask in the glory that few other nations managed to achieve during the spring and summer of 1900.

Figure 3: A Wagons-Lits railway carriage at the Exposition [Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France]

The Panorama Transsibérien was designed by architect Georges Chédanne and commissioned by the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits as an effort to promote the railway to a European audience. It aimed to stimulate an interest in tourism while simultaneously showcasing an investment opportunity in the railroad’s future.[14] Attendees entered a railway carriage placed alongside a moving panorama to create the illusion of a moving train. Painted by French watercolorists Marcel Jambon and Alexandre Bailly, the panorama depicted scenes along the railway’s path, from the vast expanse of Lake Baikal to the distant ramparts of the Great Wall of China. [15] Visitors on the imaginary journey from Moscow to Beijing enjoyed refreshments in the car, a replica of the one occupied by the tsar in his journey on the railroad. Audiences were mesmerized by the passing landscapes, which featured “steppes, mountains, virgin forests, [and] onion-domed churches.”[16] French author Paul Morand, who attended the Exposition as a child, described the Panorama Transsibérien as the most memorable exhibit of the entire fair, as the exotic landscape was unlike anything he had previously experienced.[17]

Figure 4: Pyasetsky demonstrating the Great Siberian Railway Panorama at the Exposition [Source: Niva Magazine]

The second and more popular of the two exhibits, the Great Siberian Railway Panorama, compressed the 10,000-kilometer journey into a massive one-kilometer canvas painted by Russian watercolorist Pavel Pyasetsky.[18] It attracted crowds so large that the hall’s 125-person capacity often was not sufficient to accommodate the number of visitors.[19] The grand gesture of presenting a kilometer-long panorama was appealing to visitors, but it was Pyasetsky’s depiction of the physical landscape that captivated the exhibit’s attendees and allowed them to make the long journey across Siberia in their imagination.[20] The panorama emphasized the vastness of Siberia’s features, matching the hyperbolic nature of the exhibit itself, simultaneously showcasing Russia’s technical prowess that was utilized to subdue a region once thought to be unconquerable. Furthermore, it demonstrated the power of the Russian people while ignoring the brutal climate and agonizing conditions they faced in construction efforts.[21] Across the panorama, the artist made careful considerations regarding color and tone, creating a pleasant feeling that deviated from previous perceptions of Siberia’s extreme climate. The artist carefully navigated the divide between presenting an exotic landscape and a territory with familiar, comforting elements. This combination of features enthralled audiences while encouraging investors to consider becoming involved in the final stages of construction. The panorama also presented a new Russian Empire that defied previous notions and expectations.[22]

Figure 5: An excerpt of Pyasetsky's panorama, depicting the railway ferry crossing Lake Baikal. [Source: State Hermitage Museum]

The visual component was accompanied by a series of government publications translated into English, French, and German that detailed the natural beauty of Siberia as well as the empire’s success in subduing its more problematic elements. The Official Guide to the Great Siberian Railway includes an extensive “Geographical and Historical Review of Siberia,” emphasizing the vastness, biodiversity, and economic promise of the region.[23] The guide also presents certain geographical features and landmarks through religious and supernatural lenses, such as referring to Lake Baikal as the Russian “Holy Sea.”[24] Like the world’s fair exhibits, the guide established a careful balance between creating a sense of familiarity while providing moments of excitement around an exotic landscape. The Railway Ministry also produced a pamphlet entitled Aperçu de l’histoire de la colonisation en Sibérie [Overview of the History of Colonization in Siberia], emphasizing Russia’s success in quelling the hostile environment and the availability of productive land for migrants.[25] Petr Semenov’s Okrainy Rossii and its French translation, La Russie extra-européenne et polaire [Extra-European and Polar Russia], were also prepared for the Exposition, drawing parallels between Russia’s eastern frontier and the colonial domains of the other Great Powers in the context of a Russian civilizing mission.[26]

Figure 6: A scene from Pyasetsky's panorama, depicting construction of a railway bridge near Omsk. [Source: State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg]

Indeed, Western reactions were overwhelmingly positive. One French journalist remarked at Russia’s extraordinary social and economic process despite its “wild and picturesque side.”[27] Many visitors were in awe of the comforts of the imaginary journey the sophistication of the pavilion itself.[28] Another journalist praised the universal value of the railway, citing it as “one of the most colossal works of contemporary genius,” and referring to Alexander III as the “peacemaker Tsar” with a “highly enlightened policy.”[29] A Scottish observer made similar claims, suggesting that “the railway marks in every respect a new chapter in the annals of a country which has so long been one of the great secrets of the world…”[30] Taken together, these reactions demonstrate a growing belief that Russia’s industrial might and persistent efforts had, at last, manifested man’s conquest over nature.[31]

This new vision of Siberia suggested to outsiders that Russia was transforming what was once considered a frozen “desert” into a cultivable, lively region that represented the future of the Russian Empire. These works presented the opportunity for Western financiers to get in on a lucrative investment that also served a larger, more abstract purpose in promoting human progress and the growth of European civilization.[32] Citing both the extraordinary progress on the railroad and their mutual rivalry with Germany, Witte and other Russian authorities convinced French bankers and government officials, as well as other American and British investors, to provide loans necessary for the railway’s completion.

Figure 7: An excerpt from Pyasetsky's panorama depicting the settlement of Novonikolaievsk [Source: State Hermitage Museum]

The panoramas and literature featured in Russia’s exhibits at the Exposition Universelle constituted an important part in maintaining these financial relationships as well as establishing new ones. By reframing Siberia not as a place of emptiness and dread, but rather as the site of Russia’s economic development and civilizing mission, these materials swayed the popular discourse around this distant land. Due also to recent penal system reforms, Western onlookers gained greater confidence in the Russian Empire, some of whom were more willing to provide the capital for its continuing industrialization.[33]

Indeed, a noticeable shift occurred in descriptions of Siberia among journalists, travelers, and other observers, who acknowledged its climatic difficulties while stressing the power of the railroad to subdue nature and the vast economic potential of its natural resources. As one English traveler suggested, “Siberia is no longer an evil-omened word. It is capable of much more than freezing exiles to death.”[34] Though the railroad would face (and ultimately, fail) its first real test during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, the broader sense of euphoria around the railway brought on in large part by the extravagance of Russia’s exhibits at the Exposition Universelle helped to maintain the positive press needed to secure and maintain the foreign revenue streams needed for its completion.

Tyson Luneau is a PhD candidate at the University at Albany. A historian of modern Russia and

Europe, he focuses on the intersections among empire, environment, and technology in Eurasia

and Africa. His dissertation, “Reimagined Peripheries: Environment and the Construction of the

French and Russian Colonial Empires,” examines the environmental narratives and

understandings that informed, and were subsequently shaped by, large-scale infrastructure

projects in Siberia and North Africa. He can be reached at or on Twitter at

[1] Jacques Collandres, “Le Transsibérien,” Le Gaulois, July 23, 1900, Bibliothèque nationale de France, [2] Ibid. [3] Many secondary works reference a singular Siberian railway panorama, but there were in fact two distinct exhibits at the exposition. See David C. Fisher, “Kremlin on the Trocadero: The Unexpected Claim to Modernity in Russian Architecture at the World’s Fairs,” in A History of Russian Exposition and Festival Architecture: 1700-2014, ed. Alla Aronova and Alexander Ortenberg (Milton, UK: Routledge, 2018), 108-11.

[4] On the challenges of the Trans-Siberian’s construction, see Steven Marks, Road to Power: The Trans-Siberian Railroad and the Colonization of Asian Russia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991); Anastasia Liliopoulou, Michael Roe, and Irma Pasukeviciute, “Trans Siberian Railway: From Inception to Transition,” European Transport/Transporti Europei 29 (April 2005): 46-56; Christian Wolmar, To the Edge of the World (London: Atlantic Books, 2013). [5] While this article focuses on the impacts of this reframing among Western audiences, conceptualizations of Siberia were also critical to Russia’s understanding of its own empire. See Claudia Weiss, “Nash: Appropriating Siberia for the Russian Empire,” Sibirica: Interdisciplinary Journal of Siberian Studies 5, no. 1 (Spring 2006): 141-55.

[6] Paul Fryer, “Heaven, Hell, Or…Something in Between? Contrasting Russian Images of Siberia,” in Beyond the Limits: The Concept of Space in Russian History and Culture, ed. Jeremy Smith (Helsinki: Suomen Historiallinen Seura, 1999), 98-99. [7] Countless nineteenth-century western travelogues demonstrate these themes. For example, see “Autumnal Traveling in Siberia,” The Albion: A Journal of News, Politics and Literature, January 21, 1843, 30; Lionel Francis Gowing, Five Thousand Miles in a Sledge: A Midwinter Journey Across Siberia (London: D. Appleton and Company, 1890); Charles Wenyon, Across Siberia: On the Great Post Road (London: Charles H. Kelly, 1896). [8] J. Cartmell Ridley, Reminisces of Russia: The Ural Mountains and Adjoining Siberian District in 1897 (Newcastle-Upon-Tyne: Andrew Reid & Company, 1898), 40. [9] Sergei Witte to Nikolai II Aleksandrovich Romanov, “Report of the minister of finance to His Majesty on the necessity of formulating and thereafter steadfastly adhering to a definite program of a commercial and industrial policy of the empire,” March 22, 1899, trans. Theodore H. Von Laue, Journal of Modern History 26, no. 1 (March 1954), 69. [10] Relationships with financiers such as the Rothschilds and J.P. Morgan, which were strained, in part, by Russia’s persecution of Jews and other autocratic policies, became critical to the project’s completion. See Marks, 109-11. French banking firms were among the most significant investors, several American corporations and financiers provided loans, expertise, and most importantly, equipment for the railroad that included rails, locomotives, brakes, engines, and materials for building requisite infrastructure. See Liliopoulou et al., 48; Theodore Waters, “The Trans-Siberian Railway,” Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly 49 (March 1900), 498-507. [11] M. A. Orlov, Vsemirinaia Parizhskaia vstavka 1900 goda v illiustrashchiakh i opisaniakh (Saint Petersburg: Tipografiia brat Panteleevykh, 1900), 4. [12] Weiss, “Representing the Empire,” 446. [13] Fisher, 108. The centrality of Russian exhibits, including those within the Exposition coloniale, was largely a product of the recent Franco-Russian Alliance of 1894 and the ongoing economic relationship between the two empires.

[14] Erkki Huhtamo, Illusions in Motion: Media Archaeology of the Moving Panorama and Related Spectacles (Cambridge. MA: MIT Press, 2013), 310. [15]Arjan Den Boer, “Panorama Transsibérien: The Trans-Siberian Express at the 1900 Paris Exposition,” Retours, November 2014, 4, [16] Fisher, 108. [17] Paul Morand, 1900 A.D. (Paris: W.F. Payson, 1931), 104-05.

[18] On the specifications of Pyasetsky’s panorama, see Galina A. Printseva, Sibirskii put’ Pavla Piasetskogo (Saint Petersburg: The State Hermitage Publishers, 2011). [19] Fisher, 109. [20] Igor Slepnev, “The Trans-Siberian Railway,” History Today 46, no. 11 (November 1996), 38.

[21] Den Boer, 7. [22] Printseva, 223.

[23] Russia, Ministry of Ways and Communications. Official Guide to the Great Siberian Railway, ed. Aleksandr Ippolitovich Dmitriev-Mamanov and Anton Feliksovich Zdziarskii, trans. L. Kukol-Iasnopolskii and John Marshall (Saint Petersburg: Artistic Printing Society, 1900), 17.

[24] Official Guide to the Great Siberian Railway, 373. [25] Comité du chemin de fer transsibérien, Aperçu de l’histoire de la colonisation en Sibérie (Paris: P. Dupont, 1900), 58-63. [26] Petr Petrovich Semenov, Okrainy Rossii (Saint Petersburg, 1900), 1.

[27] “A travers l’Exposition,” La Croix, April 19, 1900. [28] Ibid. Also see “De Moscou à Pékin, Le Journal, July 21, 1900. [29] “De Paris à Pékin en 15 jours,” Le Gaulois, August 24, 1900. Official publications of the Exposition made similar claims regarding the benevolence of the tsar demonstrated by projects like the railway. See L’Exposition de Paris, vol. 3 (Paris: Montgredien et Cie, 1900), 45. [30] Charles Raymond Beazley, “The Siberian Railway,” Scottish Geographical Magazine 16, no. 2 (November 1900), 618. [31] L’Exposition de Paris, 55.

[32] Official Guide to the Great Siberian Railway, 4-11, 23-24, 42-47, 79-81. Also see Catalogue general de la section russe (Paris: Imprimerie Paul Dupont, 1900), xii-xiii.

[33] For contemporary reactions to Russia’s penal reforms, see “A Great Step for Russia,” The Independent, September 20, 1900; “Industry Conquers Siberia,” Zion’s Herald, July 11, 1900; B. Zenzinoff, “La colonisation de la Sibérie,” Revue illustrée, August 15, 1901.

[34] John Foster Fraser, The Real Siberia, together with an Account of a Dash Through Manchuria (London: Cassell, 1904), 55.

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