Ralf Roth and Henry Jacolin (eds), Eastern European Railways in Transition: Nineteenth to Twenty-First Centuries.
This volume presents a collection of papers given at the third conference of the International Railway History Association, which was held in Bratislava in September 2009. The book is divided into three sections of six to eight articles each, which span the entire history of the railways in the region. The first section features general overviews of the railways in selected Eastern European countries. The second one, entitled 'Under Russian Protection', assembles papers on the socialist period. Its title is somewhat imprecise, especially since it also includes texts on the non-aligned state Yugoslavia and on West Berlin. The third section deals with the post-communist period. The word 'transition' in the book's title is thus not used to refer to the economic transition since 1989, but rather reflects the editors' approach to the concept of 'Eastern Europe'. In his introduction, Ralf Roth defines the region as the 'periphery' of Europe, in which the 'network had been constructed with a delay of two or three decades compared with the Western parts of Europe' (p. 1). The railway history of Eastern Europe is characterized by the continuous effort to modernize and catch up with the more developed situation in the West. This dichotomous model of passive transition from backwardness to modernity through appropriation of Western knowledge seems inadequate for a book on the development of technology in Eastern Europe, especially considering its sweeping time frame.
In terms of geographical distribution, however, the book transcends the East/ West dichotomy of the Cold War. Surprisingly, Germany (both East and West) is the subject of most individual articles, five in total. Roth writes that 'of course [Germany] is not part of Eastern Europe but in the past it had a great and powerful influence on its Eastern neighbours' (p. 10). Other articles describe the technical development of the railways in the imperial Russian and Soviet periphery (Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic states) and East-Central Europe. A strength of the volume is the wealth of statistics, maps and illustrations. It compiles many facts and figures that make the situation across the region easily comparable. In the single piece on the railways in Russia proper, for instance, Anthony Heywood provides the length of new railway opened in Russia and the Soviet Union every year from 1845 until 1991 (pp. 259-62). Read in conjunction, these articles present a comprehensive overview of railway development in Eastern Europe--a valuable contribution in a field where comparative studies are the exception.
A number of papers also deal with the cultural impact of the railways on their societies. Adelina Oana Stefan discusses the experience of train passengers in the Romania of the 1950s, based on oral histories. Even though this was a time of social and economic hardship, her interviewees look back at railway journeys with nostalgia, as they granted them a freedom of movement and trade that was not available in other social settings. The testimonies show, she suggests, 'that a compromise was set up with the Communist regime, which in exchange for poor services, offered citizens the freedom to officially deceive the system by smuggling and creating an underground economy' (p. 229). In another anthropological approach, Peter F. N. Horz and Marcus Richter discuss the impact of the privatization of the German railways in 1994 on the self-perception of train drivers. The German railways were transformed in the post-communist period from a state-run provider of infrastructure to a company run according to the imperatives of the market. Horz and Richter demonstrate how controversial this process has been among the workforce of Deutsche Bahn. Similarly, other contributions to the book's third section illustrate that many Eastern European railway companies are still struggling to combine their social role with the need to be profitable.
Unfortunately, the book is marred by poor copy-editing. Most of the contributions were written by non-native speakers of English and--some more than others--feel like unpolished translation drafts. Many sentences make no sense at all, for instance: 'As in the CSSR Republic Slovakia and the Czech Republic forced industrialisation on the model of the Soviet Union led to an increase in freight transport' (p. 13). The use of diacritics and italics is haphazard. Cyrillic names and titles are often transliterated using the German rules (e.g. 'Zarskoje Selo', p. 3) or not at all. There are many factual errors, possibly derived from problems of translation. Milan Klubal writes that 'the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867 [...] awarded Slovakia to the Hungarian part of the Double Monarchy' (p. 157). The territory of modern-day Slovakia had of course been part of the Kingdom of Hungary for centuries. The editing is at times farcical. A table comparing the passenger numbers on the railways in Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Austria from 1950 to 1989 carries the caption 'in million passenger kilometres, excluding the Grand Duchy of Finland' (p. 152).
Many articles in the volume present valuable contributions to the field. Railway historians will value the possibility of direct comparison between the developments in various countries of the region. It is regrettable that the lack of a strong theoretical framework and the sloppy editing seriously impair the quality of the book.
University College London School of Slavonic and East European Studies
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|Publication:||The Journal of Transport History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2014|
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