Did The Railway King Shorten The Czar’s Life?
In 1888, Czar Alexander III (1845-1894) and his family were racing back to St. Petersburg after a vacation in the Crimea when his train suddenly crashed. 21 people died and 36 were wounded. Trauma suffered by the Czar is thought to have damaged his kidneys, leading to his early death. Some blamed the accident on the Railway King, a Jew who had died two years earlier, but the Czar himself was no less to blame.
TRAINS WIN WARS
Most Jews in imperial Russia were poor as shul mice. But many Jewish tycoons arose in the 19th century as Russia modernized at a rapid pace. Jews had their fingers in banking, commerce, railway construction and anything that required cash, courage and cleverness. Among them were the Poliakov brothers, Yaakov, Shmuel and Eliezer. They began their careers in Dubrovno helping their father, Shlomo, collect liquor taxes and ended up purchasing homes on St. Peterburg’s prestigious English Embankment, to the horror of the city’s aristocrats.
Eliezer, the “Moscow Rothschild,” opened five banks; Yaakov was a major banker and merchant; while Shmuel was one of the most important railroad builders in Russia who snaked over 1,600 miles of railways throughout Russia during its explosive rail-expansion during the 19th century. He also built strategic railroads in Romania during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, used to move troops, heavy weapons and supplies to the battlefield.
Russia had learned the importance of railways after losing the Crimean War (1853–1856) to an alliance of France, England, the Ottoman Empire and Sardinia. Key to losing the war was Russia’s loss of her great Black Sea port, Sevastopol, thanks to the British rapidly building a railway to supply attacking troops, while the Russians had to make do with a supply road.
After the Crimean war, building railroads became an immediate Russian priority. From a mere 700 miles of railroads during the war, Russian railways rocketed to 14,000 miles by 1881, and during World War 2, 660,000 miles of track helped Russia move troops and supplies rapidly through its vast territory and smash Hitler’s attempt to conquer the east.
Shmuel’s railroad career was jump started by Count Ivan Matveyevich Tolstoy, ex-minister of post and telegraph, who had hired him to manage his distillery in the past. By helping Shmuel obtain his first railroad contract, the Kozlov-Vorozneh railway, Tolstoy got a share in the project, which was worth half-a-million rubles at his death.
Besides amassing wealth, Shmuel contributed immensely to the education of the lower classes and hoped to be titled a baron for his efforts. Instead, due to Russian anti-Semitism, he had to make do with the unimportant order of St. Vladimir of the third degree.
Shmuel also helped build St. Petersburg’s Choral Synagogue, which was consecrated in 1893 after the community secured permission to build it in 1869. Although most Jews were restricted to living in the Jewish Pale of Settlement, the progressive Czar Alexander II had allowed retired soldiers, people with academic degrees, and first guild merchants to dwell in St. Petersburg and other cities outside the Pale. By 1870 St. Petersburg had about ten shuls with no central shul to serve them all. The document sanctioning the central shul emphasized that it was to be less impressive than the Jews may have wanted, stating, “His Majesty, noting that a more modest appearance befits the building of the first synagogue in the capital, according to the civic standing of Jews in our homeland, gives the Czar’s permission for building the synagogue.”
After decades of neglect under the Communist regime and Nazi bombing during the World War 2 Siege of Leningrad (St. Petersburg’s name under the Communist era), the shul was reconstructed between 2000 and 2005 with the help of a $5 million loan from the Safra family and renamed the Edmond J Safra Grand Choral Synagogue.
Shmuel passed away in 1886 and was said to have had more people at his funeral than the number in attendance at the funeral of Czar Alexander II in 1881. It was just as well that he died then, because the greatest blow to his reputation came two years after his death as a result of Czar Alexander III’s train crash in 1888 in Borky, near Kharkov.
Alexander III, one of the most anti-Semitic czars, began his rule in 1881 with massive pogroms which triggered mass emigration to the United States and Palestine. He ended his rule by exiling Jews from areas outside the Pale where they had lived for decades.
The crash was largely a result of Czar Alexander’s flouting of safety rules. Weighing as much as a freight train, the imperial train was hauled by two locomotives which generated dangerous vibrations while zooming along at the express train speed. The czar’s two personal coaches had no functioning brakes to prevent their squeals from disturbing the czar. In response to manager of the railway line Sergei Witte’s request to reduce the imperial train’s speed, the czar sneeringly responded, “Nowhere else has my speed been reduced; your railroad is an impossible one because it is a Jewish road.” To which Witte replied that managers of other railroads might do as they want, but he did not want to be responsible for breaking the czar’s head.
On the day of the accident, the train began rocking slightly more than usual shortly before the crash, but no one paid any attention. Then came a terrible crash and jerk, followed by three aftershocks. Passengers were thrown off their feet and a waiter serving the czar’s coffee died on the spot as coaches careened off the rails, one plunging off the high embankment on which the train was traveling.
Despite causing the crash through his obstinacy, the czar emerged a hero when, due to emerging last from the wrecked dining car, a nonsensical myth arose that he had held up the splintered roof by his shoulders to help his family to escape.
At first, it was suspected that the crash was an attempt on the czar’s life. Rumors spread that a bomb had been concealed in the kitchen. In the end, different investigators blamed the crash on different reasons. Some pointed a finger at the train’s excessive speed, while others said the crash was caused by rotten railway sleepers and a substandard gravel bed which failed to cushion the train’s vibrations.
Although the czar emerged relatively unscathed, doctors suspected that the kidney failure he died from seven years later in 1894 was due to blunt trauma suffered during the wreck. As the San Francisco Call reported shortly before his death:
“It is generally believed that the disease from which the Czar is suffering originated in the railroad accident near Borki in October, 1888, when the imperial train was wrecked while his Majesty was returning from the Crimea to St. Petersburg, killing twenty-one persons and wounding thirty-six others, among whom was the Czarina. The Czar suffered from severe contusion on both sides of the body, and these, it is conjectured, may have caused some internal injury, as he has never been quite well since.”
RAILWAYS CARRY JEWS INTO EXILE
The historian S.M. Dubnow records in volume 2 of the History of the Jews in Russia and Poland that one of Czar Alexander III’s last decrees involved the use of the railroads to exile Jews from their homes by removing them from areas outside the Jewish Pale where they had been permitted to live beforehand.
“On October 20, the Czar was destined to die in the neighborhood of the town which was purged of the Jewish populace for his benefit,” Dubnow recorded. “While the earthly remains of the dead emperor were carried on the railroad tracks to St. Petersburg, trains filled with Jewish refugees from Yalta were rolling on the parallel tracks, speeding towards the Pale of Settlement.”
Dubnow points out that the luxury loving Alexander III had a particularly spiteful motive behind excluding the Crimean resort area of Yalta from the Pale of Settlement and ordering the expulsion of hundreds of families who were not enrolled in the local town community:
“No official reason was given for this new disability, but everybody knew it,” Dubnow wrote. “In the neighborhood of Yalta was the imperial summer residence Livadia, where Alexander III was fond of spending the autumn, and this circumstance made it imperative to reduce the number of the local Jewish residents to a negligible quantity.”
The decree began in 1893 when “this whip [of exile] cracked over the backs of thousands of Jewish families,” Dubnow wrote. “Durnovo, the Minister of the Interior, issued a circular repealing the old decree of 1880, which had sanctioned the residence outside the Pale of Settlement of all those Jews who had lived there previously. That decree had been prompted by the motive to prevent the complete economic ruin of the Jews who were settled in places outside the Pale and had created there industrial enterprises. But such a motive, which even the anti-Semitic Ministry of Tolstoy had not been bold enough to disregard, did not appeal to the new Hamans. Many thousands of Jewish families, who had lived outside the Pale for decades, were threatened with exile.”
To avert the ruin of the victims, many were granted reprieves, Dubnow noted. But the last batches of exiles were driven from there in October and in the beginning of November, 1894, during the days of public mourning for the death of Alexander III.