The Legend of the Tsar's Finger
A map legend from Imperial Russia.
From a young age, Frank was fascinated by maps and atlases, and the stories they contained. Finding his birthplace on the map in the endpapers of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings only increased his interest in the mystery and message of maps.
While pursuing a career in journalism, Frank started a blog called Strange Maps, as a repository for the weird and wonderful cartography he found hidden in books, posing as everyday objects and (of course) floating around the Internet.
"Each map tells a story, but the stories told by your standard atlas for school or reference are limited and literal: they show only the most practical side of the world, its geography and its political divisions. Strange Maps aims to collect and comment on maps that do everything but that - maps that show the world from a different angle".
A remit that wide allows for a steady, varied diet of maps: Frank has been writing about strange maps since 2006, published a book on the subject in 2009 and joined Big Think in 2010. Readers send in new material daily, and he keeps bumping in to cartography that is delightfully obscure, amazingly beautiful, shockingly partisan, and more.
It's 1841, and Russia is attempting one of its great leaps forward to catch up with the rest of Europe. Railways are all the rage out west. So the Empire would like to lay some track of its own . There’s more than prestige at stake: the new transport technology might just be what the vast, badly connected country needs .
But at this point, the project seems at a standstill. There’s only one single stretch of railtrack in the entire country: the line connecting the Imperial capital of St Petersburg with Tsarskoye Selo, the Imperial summer residence 15 miles further south.
Tsar Nicholas I’s glorious vision - a railway connecting St Petersburg with the Empire’s second city, Moscow - is held back by the bickering of engineers. Unable to agree on the best route of the future railway line, they test the patience of the Russian autocrat until it snaps. In exasperation, Nicholas snatches the map from the dithering technicians, grabs a ruler and draws a straight line between both cities: Gentlemen, there’s your route!
In Imperial Russia, the Tsar’s will is the law. So his engineers have no choice but to lay down the tracks exactly as he has determined: in a straight line. Except for one curious deviation. Near Verebye, the straight track is abandoned for a semicircular deviation known officially as the Verebinsky Bypass.
The anomaly is also known as the Tsar’s Finger, because the story goes that Nicholas I stuck out a finger over the ruler, and in his furious impatience, simply drew around it. Since nobody dares to correct a Tsar, especially not an angry one, the railway was built exactly like Nicholas had demanded, bypass included.
Even if you don't read Russian, you won't need long to locate Verebye on this 1884 map of what then was known as the Nikolayevskaya Zheleznaya Doroga ('Nicolas's Iron Road'). It's that little nick in the line just northeast of Novgorod (the only large city on this section of the map). Looking at this map, it's easy to believe the story of the Tsar's Finger. Unfortunately, it's too good to be true: the Moscow-St Petersburg Railway was completed in 1851, four years before Nicholas died of pneumonia . The curve in the otherwise remarkably (but not entirely) straight railway line wasn't built until 1877.
The bypass fixed a problem plaguing the line since its opening. Nowhere else was the gradient of the railway as steep as at Verebye. Trains coming from St Petersburg rushed down the incline at such a speed that they couldn't stop at the next station; trains coming from the other direction needed four locomotives to make the climb. By constructing a curve that gradually overcame the height difference, the problem was overcome.
The Tsar's Finger was in use for almost 125 years; advances in locomotive technology had long since rendered the detour unnecessary before the track was restored to its original, straight course in 2001. The trip between Moscow and St Petersburg was shortened by 3 miles, to 404 miles.
While there is no literal truth in the story 'explaining' the Verebinsky Bypass, like many other urban legends, it resonates with our perception of the subject. In this case, the relationship between Russia and its ruler . From the Tsars through Stalin to Putin, Russia is eternally in need of a strong leader, who can bash heads together and get things done. Without these strongmen, Russia is condemned to bureaucratic dithering, counterrevolution, or capitalist chaos - respectively.
Many thanks to Nigel Draper, who learnt about the Tsar’s Finger at the St Petersburg Railway Museum and sent in the story, found here on Wikipedia. The first map found here on the Pskov Railroad website, the second one here on this Russian-language Livejournal blog.
Strange Maps #580
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