While this might sound like a bit of a leap (i.e., why should Roman armies and Russian armies have any similarities), the Romans were considered as one of the first civilizations to use as models (if only because Romans adopted Christianity and were, therefore, no longer all pagans). Russia, meanwhile, heavily invested into its legitimacy and imagery as Third Rome. Therefore, it surprised me when I read in Christian Wolmar's 'To The Edge Of The World' that Russian soldiers in the 19th century were reluctant to work on the Trans-Siberian railway:

Troops, too, proved to be unwilling railway construction workers. Orest Vyazemsky, who had the contract to carry out the construction of the line, commandeered several thousand soldiers to work alongside the prisoners, but they considered it menial labour beneath their dignity and conducted what in the days of strong unions and weak managements would have been called a 'work to rule', backed by their officers, who condoned their inactivity.

This refers to the early 1890's when the majority of the Russian army would have been comprised of peasant conscripts. It sounds to me (guesswork) that actual construction work that they'd have done while in the army would have stood them in good stead afterwards, whether in their home village or if trying to change trades.

Meanwhile, Roman civil and military engineering was top notch. Roman soldiers built numerous roads, fortresses, and other structures where they demonstrated their expertise to a very great level. While there is a time limitation given to this as "mid-Republic to mid-Empire" this encompasses the heyday of the Roman state. I've previously read (presently unsourced) claims that this was to ensure that the soldiers had something to do, but this argument should apply just as much eighteen centuries later.

In other words, it seems perplexing that when an epitome of military excellence such as Rome valued engineering skills, the late 19th Russian army did not institutionalise the same qualities and skills. How did this come about?

Now, something I've not allowed for above is that all 19th century armies would have looked down on construction work. As I came across the specific mention by Wolmar with regards to Russian troops, I don't have anything to back this up either way—except from my memory, many fortifications on Russian borders, Port Artur possibly being the best example, having been built by the armed forces. The other option is that (noble) officers created a culture of disliking engineering because it was 'beneath them' but I don't have any proof to back that up either. In other words, if this was a more endemic problem in 19th century armies, do let me know.

Lastly, I should note that Wolmar doesn't directly cite Russian sources in his claims above. He doesn't actually base his book on any Russian sources other than Witte's memoirs. At the same time, he is a British Labour party politician—with that in mind, some of Wolmar's statements do read slightly biased, but he does a fairly good job overall other than in his choice of sources.

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    We can speculate, but I don't think thats on topic. But the idea of people being unwilling to work on the trans siberian railway comes as no surprise. Thousands of miles from home, freezing to death, being eaten by tigers... – speciesUnknown Aug 29 at 0:10
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    The idea that some vague sentimental grandstanding idea (third Rome) should have shaped the Russian society (or alone its military) seems quite strange. And the idea was not "We are like the Romans and should do as them" but "We have inherited the title and can do with what we want with it." It is like saying than inheriting your great-grandfather home means that you should live without electricity. – SJuan76 Aug 29 at 1:10
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    Also, you state that they would be serving "alongside prisoners." If the idea of work was not molest enough, sharing functions with prisoners would make it worse. And of course, maybe Roman legionaries were not happy with road building tasks but they did not protest (because of harsher discipline) or if they did protest it was not recorded (because who does care about what the plebs say?) – SJuan76 Aug 29 at 1:18
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    @gktscrk You might find this Wikipedia entry on the British Royal Engineers interesting - I did not realise their history went back so far. It is notable that the recruitment poster circa 1901 offers enhanced pay, and welcomes older recruits, possibly to attract men with experience in specific trades.en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Engineers – TheHonRose Aug 29 at 20:17
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    Like @SJuan76, I don't see the logics in the comparison. Whether the Roman workers were happy or not, we don't know, but the engineering outcome was quite comparable, in that the railway was reasonably 'top notch' for its time. Many bridges still stand, and the link around Baikal was very much a ground-breaking (hmm.. literally) achievement. – Zeus Aug 31 at 7:46

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