Pavel Pyasetsky and the Trans-Siberian

I’m reading Christian Wolmar’s To the Edge of the World: The Story of the Trans-Siberian Express, the World’s Greatest Railroad, which I would heartily recommend to anyone interested in railways and Russian history. By 1900, the Trans-Siberian railway was taking on passengers across the country, but Western observers continued to hold it in contempt. To counter that view and to demonstrate its equality among European railways, the Russian government commissioned the magnate in charge of the Orient Express to come up with an attractive display at the 1900 Universal Exposition in Paris. Nagelmackers arranged for four carriages to be built and equipped specially for the exhibition – the very acme of luxury and design. Visitors would pay to sit in a carriage for a meal, and:

…the real treat was the exhibit designed by Pawel Pyasetsky, who was specially commissioned by the railway to demonstrate the ‘experience’ of travelling on the Trans-Siberian. To give a sense of movement to the ‘passengers’ tucking into their three-course meals, the artist devised an elaborate arrangement outside the windows of the dining car to give the feeling of a virtual train ride. A moving panorama was created by means of an elaborate series of belts moving along at varying speeds. The front one travelled rapidly, carrying mundane features such as sand and rocks, while the next, slightly slower, had plants such as shrubs and brush. Behind that, there was a third, again somewhat slower, showing distant scenery while the fourth, which rolled along the slowest of all, was Pyasetsky’s masterpiece, a set of watercolours on lengthy scrolls, with scenes that he had sketched on trips along sections of the railway that had been completed early.

The watercolours included scenes from the cities of Moscow, Omsk, Irkutsk and Beijing and the idea was to give viewers the impression that they had journeyed along the whole railway. The show actually lasted forty-five minutes and there were nine separate scrolls with a total length of around 900 metres.

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