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The “grandfather” of Russian railroads

железная дорога
© Иосиф Гоферт, середина XIX века

The railroad complex in Russia is one of the largest in the world. It ranks second in terms of total track length, second only to the USA. But 200 years ago the issue of creating a network of cast-iron roads in the country caused heated debates, and along with supporters there were those who argued that in our climate their construction was impossible and that the cost would significantly exceed the expected return. Konstantin Chevkin, the head of the Institute of the Corps of Mining Engineers, became the person who was able to prove to Emperor Nicholas I the superior importance of steel highways for economic development and security of the state.

According to contemporaries, Konstantin Vladimirovich possessed an extremely unsettled character, for which he was nicknamed "hedgehog in general's epaulettes". However, it was "the most intelligent hedgehog of the Russian Empire".

The legendary Minister of Finance, Minister of Railways and Chairman of the Council of Ministers at the turn of the XIX and XX centuries Sergei Witte recalled how he, while still a student, met Chevkin:

"When we met, K.V. handed me a piece of paper, saying: "Make up your mind." I unfolded it: it was a complex differential equation. He put on his glasses and plunged into reading the papers. Watching the last Chief Executive Officer of the railroads, I tried to solve the equation in my mind - I was not offered a pen and paper. At last, when I thought I was ready, I raised my voice and began to tell my solution. C.W. did not lift his head from the papers, but said: "In German, please." I switched to German and was quickly surprised at his knowledge of my native language. He only occasionally glanced at me over his glasses and nodded satisfactorily. K.V. accepted my decision, but found something to correct in it. K.V. talked to me for a few more minutes and then let me go, giving me a small and gaunt hand, which I shook not without trepidation. The next day I received a letter of recommendation, for which I went ... In all K.V.'s treatment I could feel the dignity and stoicism of a man who knew well the value of himself and others.... It was my first meeting with a man whom we considered the "grandfather" of our railroads".

What times - such people. Konstantin Vladimirovich managed to prove himself equally successful in various fields.

After graduating from the Corps of Pages in St. Petersburg, he joined the Guards General Staff. The young man distinguished himself in the Persian (1927) and Polish (1930-1931) campaigns, as well as in battles with the Turks during the siege of Brailov, Varna and the crossing of the Balkans. He participated in bloody battles, sieges and diplomatic negotiations. Chevkin's courage was noticed by the sovereign, who personally honored him with an appointment to his wing adjutants. The engraving, released by German publisher Gustav Kuhn, depicts the solemn moment of presenting Chevkin Emperor Nicholas I and his wife Alexandra Fyodorovna treaty of peace with Turkey, concluded at the end of the Russian-Turkish war of 1828-1829.
His military career brought Konstantin Vladimirovich three ranks for distinction: at Shumloya he was promoted to captain, at Varna - to colonel, at Warsaw - to major-general with appointment to His Majesty's retinue.

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© Русский император и его супруга получают известие о мире с Турцией, не ранее 1829 года, художник неизвестен

In 1830, due to failing health Chevkin was forced to ask Nicholas I vacation. The emperor agreed, moreover, sent him to the south of France for water, paying him an annual salary of two thousand rubles on top of his military pay and appointing him to be a member of the embassy in Paris. All this, however, had one condition, which was outlined in a letter from Count Nesselrode, then Minister of Foreign Affairs:

"If, during your stay in France, you have occasion to collect some information about the organization of the French army, as well as about everything relating to military affairs, His Imperial Majesty will gladly accept these reports. He advises you to act in this case with the utmost prudence, conforming your researches to the advice and instructions of our envoy, and communicating to him the results obtained."

Information about innovations in French armament and fortification works in the vicinity of Paris was strategically important in view of the possibility of clashes with the new French government. In short, Chevkin was entrusted with nothing less than to engage in military agency ...

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© Национальная библиотека Франции/ Agence Rol/ Оборонительная стена в районе Версальской заставы

The information collected by him in 1830-1831 years proved the thoroughness of his knowledge and ability to this kind of occupation, and therefore Major-General henceforth repeatedly sent to Paris. The Emperor was satisfied with the dispatches and asked him "to continue his studies with the same zeal".

In 1834, Konstantin Vladimirovich received a new, no less significant task. This year, with the direct participation of Nicholas I, there was an important reform in the higher mining administration - the formation of the Corps of Mining Engineers, which became responsible for mining, mint and salt production. The Emperor personally appointed a man whose experience, talent and dedication he trusted without reservation as the Chief of Staff of the Corps.

Chevkin more than 10 years devoted to optimize the work of entrusted to him mining fields, enterprises and districts. As a very energetic person he repeatedly traveled around them, got acquainted with the production and life of workers, engaged in specialized legislative activities.

His main goal was to double the number of members of the Corps and to attract the best specialists to the planning of new ways of communication in the mountains, to the design of highways and bridges.
Chevkin was the first in Russia to involve not only specialized engineers, but also military engineers, for whom he developed urgent retraining courses. Each mining engineer supervised a group of five military engineers who mastered all the necessary disciplines under the guidance of their mentor. As a result, over 4,000 people were retrained and put to work.

Partly helped Konstantin Vladimirovich in the realization of this idea was the fact that among the main structural units of the Corps was the Mining Institute, transformed in the course of the reform into the Institute of the Corps of Mining Engineers. Chevkin became its rector and received the best teachers and the latest educational programs at his disposal.

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© Константин Чевкин

The structural changes in the university itself were aimed at giving the institute the character of a military school (the obligation to wear military ammunition and weapons, the assignment of military ranks to graduates and teachers, additional time for marching and military dressing), while the academic part was practically unchanged. Only a course on casting and making shells and a short military course were added to the subjects.

The Emperor was very interested in the transformations and in 1834 visited the Institute weekly - went to classes, attended lectures, distributed students to companies.

Expeditions organized by Chevkin brought new collections of rocks to the museum of the university. It is not without reason that one of the previously unknown minerals found in the Urals was named in his honor - "chevkinite".

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© Форпост Северо-Запад / Горный музей/ Чевкинит

Konstantin Vladimirovich fountained with original ideas. His authorship belongs to the creation of an observatory at the Corps to study the magnetic properties of the Earth and meteorological observations. However, the main merit of the lieutenant general in this position was the initiative to build railroads in Russia.

In 1834, on behalf of the Mining Department, he invited Franz Anton von Gerstner - a Czech-German engineer who was at the origin of railroad communication in Bohemia and Austria - to the Russian Empire. At that time in our country cast-iron tracks could be seen exclusively at large construction sites and industrial enterprises.

Formally Gerstner was invited to review the Ural mining plants, but in reality Konstantin Vladimirovich saw in the German a like-minded person with whom he corresponded for several months.

"For a country like Russia, railroads are a matter of life and death. We cannot afford to waste time. (...) The new routes of communication can be used in every state business, from the transportation of passengers and goods to the conduct of trade roads.... Without railroads, in the immediate military campaign we will be beaten by an enemy who will probably be inferior to us in everything - except speed of movement to the front line. The opposite is also true: with a frequent railroad network we will be invincible," wrote Chevkin, a veteran of several wars.

Gerstner offered his help and, having secured the support of Konstantin Vladimirovich, submitted a note to the Emperor, in which he outlined his thoughts on the construction of railroads. The Western engineer was received by Nicholas I in early 1935. At the reception, he presented plans for the construction of the Tsarskoselskaya railroad, the first cast-iron railroad for Russia, and received the highest approval. Chevkin's idea was successfully realized!

In November 1836 on the section between Pavlovsk and Tsarskoye Selo for the first time ran a locomotive. A year after the trial run, the official grand opening took place, where Nicholas I with his family and other distinguished guests were invited.Chevkin as one of the initiators of the Tsarskoye Selo railroad - the first in Russia and the sixth in the world - stood next to the royal person, and Gerstner performed the role of a machinist. At 2:30 in the afternoon the train moved smoothly away from the platform. In 35 minutes, the first train arrived at the station to loud applause and shouts of "Hurrah!".

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© Карл Беггров/ Прибытие поезда на станцию ЦЖД/ Из коллекции Эрмитажа

This event launched the process of active formation of the Russian Empire's railroad network, new routes were opened one after another: Nikolayevskaya, Warsaw-Venskaya, Moscow-Kiev-Voronezh road and others.

In August 1855, Konstantin Vladimirovich was appointed chief manager of communications, that is, by modern standards - the Minister of Transportation. According to Prince Dmitry Obolensky, "his appointment was greeted with universal joy, delight and exclamations, everyone kissed and congratulated each other, there were even poems on this occasion". Until the end of 1856 Chevkin developed a whole program of railway development in Russia, covered all areas of railway business: public and private funding, infrastructure, attracting foreign engineers, design of bridges and canals, terrain exploration. In the same year he was promoted to general of infantry.

After the ascension of Alexander II, the "smartest hedgehog" did not lose favor. In 1862 Chevkin headed the Department of Economics of the State Council, in 1872 - the Committee for the Kingdom of Poland. He died in 1875 and was buried in the Russian cemetery Kokad in the French Nice.

Already after the death of Konstantin Chevkin, the first German Chancellor Otto Bismarck published his memoirs, where he called the "railroad general of Russia" "a man of extremely fine and sharp mind".