Dead Road Railway

@therussianwatchcorner

I imagine that we vintage watch collectors like to think that our “timekeepers” carry with them a part of the age in which they were made. Sometimes what attracts us most are the technical aspects, sometimes a long-forgotten aesthetic. In our imagination, we usually place them in a specific historical context.

But what happens if the watch that we have acquired after a painstaking search has a cruel or infamous history? It is well known that many historical objects carry a cursed legacy, something inexplicable that taints our mood and our soul. Wouldn’t you feel uneasy sitting in a chair in the House of Usher? Would you dare to hang the portrait of Dorian Gray in your sitting room? Would you give your daughter the Annabelle doll as a present?

Fortunately, our reason helps us to keep present and past ghosts at bay, and the truth (the historic truth) is generally quite straightforward, even though we insist otherwise. Thus, a quick search on the internet (an ordinary form of exorcism) was enough for one of the watches featured here to have its more mundane status as a time-keeping machine restored to it. But I will let you judge for yourselves, dear readers, after getting to know its story.

In fact, there are two watches featured in this entry, as I would like to highlight my interest in the “ЧК-6” caliber and related watches, two of which we have already discussed in previous articles (the “Ural” and the fantastic “ChK-28”).

Let’s start with the first one, which at one time concerned me greatly. We are talking about a Molnija, presumably manufactured in Moscow’s Second Watch Factory (SWF).

For this watch, I would like to highlight the neatness of the dial with its silver-plated ring around the hours, its beautiful patina and its blued hands. If we look carefully at the movement, we can see that it uses the “ЧК-6” caliber. In this case, I cannot definitively determine whether the caliber was manufactured in the SWF or in the Chelyabinsk factory, as the central bridge does not appear to match the rest of the watch. It is possible that at some point it was repaired, and this bridge was inserted, as the “Côtes de Genève” do not match the other bridges.

As we saw in the previously mentioned articles, the origin of the “ЧК-6” caliber is rather curious. It is said that Lavrentiy Beria, one of Stalin’s right-hand men, owned a Cortebert pocket watch with a 620 caliber. The story is that he showed it to Stalin and convinced him to create a watch exactly alike. This would have entailed a leap ahead in quality relative to the Type-1 caliber. My question is, why are people so ready to believe this story?

To understand what actually happened we need to consider the context. At the end of the Second World War, the USSR decided to modernise its entire watch industry by incorporating the Lip patents and factories, creating new movements that would lead to the well-known “Pobeda”. In the same way, could it not be the case that the Russians bought patents from Cortebert? Cortebert worked for the Nazis, supplying watches for the navy, while Rolex supplied the fascists in Italy. Isn’t it possible that Russia simply took the calibers or some German factory as “war reparations”, in exactly the same way as happened with Glasshütte? Why does nobody ever mention that Rolex copied Cortebert’s calibers?

A good friend made me see that in the so-called “reverse engineering” copying a product is not difficult but finding the machinery to produce it is. Curiously, we are talking here about a period when the Soviets are buying machinery and patents from western companies to modernise their own industry.

In the image below, we can see the evolution of the Cortebert calibers, via Rolex, into Unitas. This evolution allows us to appreciate the dynamism of the watch industry, where patents were developed and sold, calibers were transferred to different brands, etc., etc. The limited and poor written history that exists in the west regarding Soviet watchmaking tends to cite copying by the Soviets, or at least infers it, where the USSR is concerned. A recourse that strikes me as too easy and that has been overused.

In some old images from a catalogue (circa 1950) we can see our first subject.

Before going back to the deep unease that this first piece provoked in me, I would like to show you a variation of the “ЧК-6”, that found its way to me in unexpected but happy circumstances. On a trip to Sofia, my nephew, knowing of my love for Soviet and pocket watches, brought this second Molnija back as a present. It was a huge surprise to receive it, even more so on opening it and examining the caliber. We are talking about a caliber from the last days of the Chelyabinsk factory, before it became, once and for all, Molnija. The caliber is interesting, as it is highly decorated and has a micro-regulator.

This variety of “ЧК-6”, subsequently renamed the 3206, was used by the Kristal brand, which was also produced for a short time at Chelyabinsk. It was the highest-grade caliber at the time. Roland Ranftt provides a clear timeline of the variations of the caliber and their denominations.

Although the oldest catalogue reference that I have found regarding this second piece is from the 1970s, there is a reference from the beginning of the 1960s to the same caliber (even though it wasn’t called the 3602 then), although this refers to a pocket watch manufactured by Luch.

Around the 1950s, pocket watches continued to be used frequently in Russian society, even more so in certain fields of work, such as on the railways. From this arises the mystery regarding the first watch that we have presented in this post and the anxiety and unease it instilled in me when I first held it. To understand the reason, we have to look at its case back.

As a rule, almost all the engravings that I have seen on Soviet watches are dedications to one specific person or refer to an anniversary of their achievements. In this unusual example, this is not the case. The inscription reads “Stalin’s railway”, 1956 and the number 105. Evidently, it was a railway-issue watch. Which of Stalin’s railways was it referring to? Was it the infamous Transpolar Mainline?

In 1949, Stalin drove the construction of a railway in Siberia to connect the ports of Salekhard and Igarka to the western regions of Russia. He wanted the railway to promote the supply of nickel and make use of the network of labour camps, or Gulags, where hundreds of thousands of political prisoners and former prisoners of war were interned. Beria, who according to “popular myth” had the Cortebert caliber cloned, filled the Soviet gulags with thousands of prisoners and this is, sadly, an unquestionable historical fact.

This vast and impossible megalomaniac project was known as the “Dead Road Railway”. This sinister epithet stems from the number of human lives sacrificed during the unfinished construction. It is estimated that 100,000 people died in the attempt to build it, due to the harsh working conditions in winter, starvation and illnesses deriving from the summer ice-melt floods. The Soviet state, under Stalin’s express orders, squandered an inconceivable amount of money and human lives on this absurd, megalomaniac project, which was never concluded because of the engineering problems it posed and as a result of Stalin’s death in 1953.

I remained somewhat shocked thinking that this watch might have belonged to a manager, engineer or someone responsible for this infamous project, but it is very easy in history to jump to conclusions and even easier to make mistakes in the absence of clear evidence. If we re-examine the information engraved on the case back, this infamous railway has the official name “Transpolar Mainline” and not “Stalin’s railway”. In 1953, the project died along with the dictator and the year that appears engraved on the back is 1956, which is the year in which Nikita Krushchev denounced Stalin’s “cult of personality” with the aim of erasing him from Soviet memory. With this in mind, I rejected the idea once and for all, not without a certain bitter aftertaste for what could have been a tangible memory of this infamy.

Finally, after an intense search, I found something that I could seized upon. The “Yekarina railway”, named after Catherine the Great, was officially named “Stalin’s railway” between 1936 and 1961. This railway ran throughout the coal basin in the Donets region in Eastern Ukraine, which has unfortunately become well known due to the recent conflict between Russia and the Ukraine. In its heyday, it had more than 1,200 locomotives, thousands of freight carriages and hundreds of passenger carriages.

In conclusion my friends, even though the true history of a piece is always more prosaic, I prefer it to haunting memories of the seasonal Rasputitsa (Sea of Mud) of the Siberian tundra.

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