In October 2020, on my way to Shatili in the Georgian Khevsureti region, I stumbled upon a large tunnel entrance in the Aragvi River valley. I had no idea what it was for, except that it looked like an abandoned and unfinished construction project.
At home I found out that it was indeed an abandoned project, something I had no idea of: an attempt in the 1980s to build a railway line through the heart of the Caucasus mountains, from Vladikavkaz (Russia) to Tbilisi (Georgia) with a 23 kilometer long tunnel. The tunnel, routed underneath the Arkhoti Pass, was supposed to be the longest in the Soviet Union at the time. The first proposals, surveys and investigations for various possible connections were drawn as early as the 1870s.
In the middle of the 19th century railroads quickly expanded all over Europe as a new means of long distance transport. The Russian Empire was no exception to that. St Petersburg and Moscow were connected by rail in 1851, and in 30 years time this expanded into a network of nearly 23.000 kilometers railroad.
The Crimean War of 1853-1856 was a turning point: it demonstrated horse-drawn transport was not sufficient anymore for the army in the vast country, after which Czar Alexander II created a special railway fund spurring railroad construction in all directions. In 1875 trains reached the North-Caucasus city of Vladikavkaz via Rostov-on-Don, fuelling the rapid development of Vladikavkaz as a regional economic centre and transport hub.
In the same period the importance of railroads in the Transcaucasian lands of the Russian Empire was recognized: the Poti-Tiflis (Tbilisi) railway line was constructed between 1865-1872. This was extended to Baku in 1883 for the transport of valuable oil to the (Georgian) Black Sea ports of Poti and Batumi. And Yerevan was connected to Tiflis in 1899.
The rapidly developing Transcaucasus network was yet disconnected from the rest of the Empire. The Caucasus mountain range was an obvious natural barrier, but after the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-78 the need to pass the mountains by rail was brought up by the Committee of Ministers and Grand Duke Mikhail Nikolaevich, the Caucasus Viceroyalty (Governor General).
“We need the immediate construction of railways linking the Caucasus with Russia. This necessity, in addition to the interests of our political position here, in the region, is clearly indicated by considerations of a military nature”
Grand Duke Mikhail Nikolaevich, Caucasus Viceroyalty
Many discussions, proposals and surveys on a range of options and routes followed in the decades since. But the first immediate decision, in 1879, was to put Vladikavkaz – Petrovsk (Makhachkala) into the government’s program for the construction of railways, as a start to circumvent the mountains. In 1898 the Transcaucasus network was connected to the Russian network via Baku. But it was a long way around. Political discussion at the national level persisted to find shorter and more direct routes between Vladikavkaz and Tbilisi, the central rail hub of the Transcaucasus.
After the economic crisis of the 1870s, there was a revival of major railroad plans with recognition of the strategic value of a Transcaucasus connection. Politicians, governors and military leaders developed three fundamentally different points of view on connecting Transcaucasia with the North Caucasus and the rest of the Russian Empire, which caused indecisiveness. Wars and crises did the rest. But it was not all that bad.
The first vision was actually implemented in the 1890s: the eastern circumvention of the Caucasus mountains via Petrovsk (Makhachkala) and Baku. The Caucasus governor Grand Duke Mikhail Nikolaevich was a propagator of this, as it would also enhance the integration and moral development of Transcaucasia, which only came under Russian control in the 19th century. This route was initially also supported by the military leadership which faced costly and slow troop movements during Crimean and Turkish war campaigns.
“The circular railway bypassing the Caucasian ridge to Petrovsk and Baku, and on to Tiflis, connecting Transcaucasia with the center of the empire has beneficial influence in military, political, economic relations in the space of its thousand kilometers stretch across the Caucasian and Transcaucasian territories. This is of great importance. Our task in the Caucasian governorship is not only in the defense of this land from the Turks and the British. Danger threatens us from more than a Turkish border, it also lies in the internal state of the Caucasus. There is no need to prove what would be important for the Caucasus in the sense of its final pacification and merging with Russia economic, and through them moral interests, the railway, cutting through the Terek region and encircling Dagestan.”
The second vision, the “pass route”, was to build the shortest route through the Caucasus mountains and was supported by the Minister of Foreign Affairs Gorchakov and the military Minister Milyutin. Three preliminary designs of a route through the central part of the mountains were ordered by the Ministry of Railways between 1872 and 1878:
- Kvenamsky (Gudamakari), connecting Aragvi – Terek river valleys via Kvenam pass;
- Krestovy (Jvari) following Military Highway through Aragvi and Terek river valleys;
- Magsky (Dzomag), a more westward passage, connecting Liakhvi and Ardon river gorges via Dzomag pass between Gori and Elkhotovo.
Lastly, the third view was in yet another completely different direction. The engineers responsible for this proposal, Adrianov and Malishevsky, recognized the strategic importance of the passage through the mountains. Yet, they also noted “this road will pass through an area that is completely unpopulated, which cannot be called to life by any railroad”. Instead, the engineers proposed to build the Black Sea-Kuban railway, which “will connect Rostov with Tiflis through the coast, with the availability of local cargo and local passenger traffic, as well as at significantly lower construction costs”. Just like the first, this route was eventually constructed, although it took until the World War 2 era to complete. Only after WW2 this route became fully operational.
Other mountain pass surveys were carried out since, but the 1890-92 survey into a Vladikavkaz – Tiflis route via the Arkhoti pass (nr 4 in map above) in the Khevsureti region was kept on the table. And eventually implemented in the 1980s, nearly a century after the first proposals. But it was never finished, as we know now.
Due to the anticipated high costs, the Committee of Ministers decided in 1896 to postpone any decision on a mountain pass route until the Trans-Siberian Railway would be finished. Meanwhile the Vladikavkaz Railway Society was allowed to go ahead with the Petrovsk – Derbent section. The general nod towards the development of the eastern circumvention via Baku led to new objections, such as from the chief of the General Staff, Adjutant General Obruchev. He reiterated the urgent need to construct the pass route, as the lengthy eastern route would “not satisfy strategic goals”. While many agreed the pass route should eventually be constructed, no final surveys for a key decision were carried out. Others emphasized this route would be a major liability to the state budget if constructed in parallel with the Siberian Railway.
At the beginning of the 20th century the Vladikavkaz railway network had become a major transit route with local branches. As result of the continued push by the Caucasus governor Count Vorontsov-Dashkov and the Ministry of War for a shortcut through the mountains, more than 30 reports were published between 1908 and 1913 by the Main Directorate of the Caucasus. They contained detailed information about natural, physical, geographical and meteorological conditions. Also, they described the relief, hydrography, geology and mineral resources, as well as the population along the different routes.
Consensus and disaster
By 1914 consensus was reached the pass route would start at Vladikavkaz, being the shortest way, yet requiring a longer tunnel and a higher budget. The Arkhoti route with a 23 kilometer long tunnel was decided upon positively in May 1914 after coordinated efforts of both the Caucasus governor and the mayor of Vladikavkaz Baev, who wrote an extensive new report.
Then World War I happened. And the Revolutions. And the breakup of the Russian Empire, with the Transcaucasian nations declaring a short lived independence.
It was only in the 1930s when the Soviet Union started to revisit the earlier ambitions to pass the mighty Caucasus range by railway. Various new proposals and surveys appeared over the years, for example an electrified railway via the Dargh Koh – Gori route underneath the Magsky (Dzomag) pass. In 1946-1947, a commission processed about 50 (sub)variants of the Caucasus passage railway. The most profitable options were identified, and not surprisingly were similar to those identified in the 19th century:
- Magsky pass with a tunnel of 8.5 km;
- Kvenamt pass with a tunnel of 10.7 km;
- Arkhoti pass with a tunnel of 11.5 km;
- Sukhumi – Krasnodar with a tunnel of 10 km;
Nothing came of that, as priority was given since the 1950s to a new road connection through the Roki Pass (near Magsky) to the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast which was finished in 1986 as Transkam (or Transcaucasian) Highway.
Finally, in 1984, a Soviet go-ahead was given for the construction of the Vladikavkaz – Tbilisi railroad underneath the Arkhoti Pass similarly as the 1914 proposal, through the Assa and Aragvi river valleys. Preparation work started in 1985, such as archeological works in both Georgia and Ingushetia (Assa River valley) which has been of value. Construction began in 1986-7 which was scheduled to be finished by 2000. The railroad would be 178 kilometers long and consist of avalanche galleries, 72 bridges, retaining walls, and 38 tunnels with a total length of 43km. The masterpiece of the project was the 23 km long tunnel through the Arkhoti pass and part of the valley, the longest in the Soviet Union.
But then… nationalism arrived in the Caucasus in the wake of Perestrojka. Amidst the national awakening, the Georgians and Ingush turned against the project, and the governance crisis hit the Soviet leadership. In 1988 the Arkhoti Transcaucasian railway project was indefinitely suspended under public pressure, even before the Soviet Union collapsed. And it was never salvaged again.
And the tunnel? It got no deeper than a few dozen metres.
But at least we have a documentary about some of the preparatory work and culture in the Ingush Assa River valley, preserved by the Georgian National Museum (and leaked to Youtube).
The film “Ingushetia. Following the Caucasian Passage Railway” was filmed in 1986-1988 in mountainous Ingushetiya by historian Mirian Khutzishvily during the construction of a railroad which was to connect Ingusetia and Georgia. It shows inhabitants of Dzheyrakh several years before the collapse of the Soviet Union and their way of life.
Main sources used to compile this text included (primarily, but not exclusively):
- History of Russian rail lines – North Caucasus
- “The Unrealized Project of Railway Construction: the Caucasian Saddle Road”, Svetlana V. Darchieva, Anzor V. Darchiev (North-Ossetian Institute of Humanitarian and Social Studies)
- Транскавказская железная дорога в сфере внимания фундаментальных научных исследований
- Техника – молодёжи 1976-12, 1986-5 (Technology Youth)
- Владикавказская железная дорога и ее влияние на развитие экономики Ставрополья: Последняя четверть XIX – начало ХХ вв. (Vladikavkaz railway and its influence on the development of the economy of the Stavropol Territory: The last quarter of the 19th – early 20th century, Thesis, 1998)
- The case of the construction of the Tiflis – Kvenem pass- Vladikavkaz railway. Part 2. Notes of the Vladikavkaz mayor Baev (1914)
- Кавказская перевальная железная дорога (1946) Основные показатели проектного задания электрической железной дороги Дарг-Кох-Гори, Желдорпроект, Ленинградское отделение. (Caucasian pass railway (1946) The main indicators of the design task for the Darg-Kokh-Gori electric railway. Zheldorproject, Leningrad branch).