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The death toll among these labourers was horrendous: when the German POWs working on BAM’s western end were belatedly repatriated in the late 40s and mid 50s, only 10% of the original 100,000 had survived.46,000 Japanese POWs also perished in the Soviet Union— most of whom worked on the BAM in the Russian Far East.Peering into the gaping hole, the worried workers could see something glinting inside.
Overwork and starvation soon started to thin their numbers, but thanks to the events unfolding in the world outside Siberia, the workforce soon swelled with German and Japanese prisoners-of-war.Whereas the full length of the Trans-Siberian Railway took twenty-five years to construct, the 2000 mile BAM extension took almost three quarters of a century to complete.The fascination of the Soviet authorities in pursuing the project eerily mirrors that of their Tsarist forebears for the original Trans-Siberian Railroad.In the 1930s Stalin’s notorious purges provided plenty of potential workers— willing or otherwise— for the job.The dictator was keen to keep the project secret from prying Western eyes, and the Siberian forced-labour camps— the — provided numerous discreet and disposable political prisoners who could be persuaded to try their hand at railroad building and tunnel-digging.
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The Dusse-Alin Tunnel had been completed in an earlier phase of the undertaking, as evidenced by the inscription “1947-1950” over the entrance and the busts of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin that earlier workers had hewn out of the nearby rock.