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The Guardian (UK)
24 October 2001
Tsar's Finger sliced off on the Moscow express
Kevin O'Flynn in Moscow

The protruding finger of Tsar Nicholas I will be cut off today, 150-odd years after it supposedly intruded on the construction of the St Petersburg-Moscow railway line.

Trains will stop between Moscow and St Petersburg for 24 hours so that Russia's first and most important railway line can have its most famous kink removed.

In 1850, according to the legend, Nicholas was shown the plans for a rail link between the tsarist northern capital and Moscow. Taking an instant dislike to the convoluted route being proposed, he grabbed a ruler and drew a straight line between the two cities. One third of the way down, the tsar's royal finger inadvertently got in the way and the railway line developed an unplanned bump.

Too scared to return to the tsar, the railway planners duly incorporated an 11-mile curve into the line known ever since as the Tsar's Finger.

Sadly, the truth is more prosaic. The curve, also called the Verebinsky bypass, was actually built in 1877, 26 years after the line came into being, to circumvent a steep gradient that lasted for 10 miles. Heading for St Petersburg, trains would pick up so much speed that they steamed straight past the next station, while those heading for Moscow needed four locomotives to get up the hill.

Railway buffs suspect a little known 19th-century Russian writer, Nikolai Grech, of starting the finger story, although the long history of Russian leaders playing havoc with the plans of architects and designers no doubt helped its credibility.

A similar story is told about Josef Stalin who, when presented with two different plans for the Moskva hotel, signed across the middle of the two. As the architects were too frightened to ask Stalin which plan he wanted, both designs were used and the hotel, still standing just off Red Square, has two different facades.

Another story showed how precarious people felt it could be to build something for a tsar: Ivan the Terrible was said to have blinded the creators of St Basil's cathedral so they would never create anything as beautiful again.

With modern Russian trains travelling at up to 125 mph between Moscow and St Petersburg, the Tsar's Finger was becoming a severe hindrance.

Fierce competition between trains and domestic airlines for business travellers between the country's two biggest cities forced the railway ministry to straighten the curve. The new direct route will cut four miles from the 400-mile journey and 10 minutes from the time of just under four hours.

Tomorrow morning, the streamlined route is to be opened with pomp and ceremony by local VIPs who will then set out on the first straight journey.

They will be hoping to have a better journey than the first trip made on the St Petersburg-Moscow line when Tsar Nicholas's train had to be pushed after it became stuck when a devout railway worker painted the rails white because he thought bare metal was not imperial enough.

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