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December 24: Russia’s Railroad Baron

Lawrence Bush
December 24, 2016
Samuel Polyakov, who had built 1600 miles of railroad track, about a quarter of Russia's total by the time of his death in 1888 at age 50, was born in Belarus, part of the Russian empire, to a family of Jewish tax collectors and traders on this date in 1838. Like most railroad barons, Polyakov was a chiseler (he charged the tsarist state eight times above the cost of laying track and paid bribes to get away with it) and ran his public companies as a private fiefdom, but he did build with unprecedented speed and efficiency. He also used his money as a generous philanthropist: providing 3 million rubles for public education projects, helping to finance construction of St. Petersburg's Grand Choral Synagogue, and cofounding the Society for Crafts and Agricultural Labor, a Jewish organization that trained Jews as craftworkers to find a place in the rapidly developing Russian capitalist system. The organization eventually grew into the World ORT network. "A half-year [after his sudden death], Polyakov’s reputation suffered posthumous damage, when a train carrying the czar was derailed while traveling on the Kursk-Kharkiv line, near Borki station. Twenty-one people died, although the Alexander III and his family survived. In the public imagination, it was Polyakov, no longer around to defend himself, who was held responsible for shoddy construction on the line." --David B. Green, Haaretz

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.