The story of the Belomor Canal, on the occasion of its 70th anniversary

Jurriaan Bendien bendien at
Wed Aug 13 03:23:49 MDT 2003

The White Sea Canal: a Hymn of Praise for Forced Labour

>From 1932 to 1933, a 227 kilometres long canal was dug to the North of St
Petersburg, which connects the Eastern Sea with the White Sea: The White Sea
Canal (Belomor Canal). It is one of the largest forced labour projects in
history. An estimated 128,000-180,000 convicts had to dig this canal with
their own hands, in large part through granite (37 kilometres through hard
rock) and along existing lakes where the water level was raised (19 large
wooden locks). The prisoners - "enemies of the people" - consisted a mixture
of peasants, political prisoners and criminals, who lived in 9 camps along
the route. The engineers who made the design were arrested for the occasion,
and worked in a studio of the GPU (predecessor of the KGB) in Moscow, where
they also slept.

The technical highlight of the task consisted of the bridging of a
difference in water levels of 70 meters between the Onega lake and the top
of the water barrier, separating this lake and the White Sea. To this end, a
ladder of 9 locks was built at Povenets over a length of 12 kilometres. The
lock gates and water chambers were constructed out of timber. Although very
narrow, the canal continues to function until today in the frost-free
period. The area through which the canal leads is called Karelia, it is
Finnish-Russian border country. For centuries, it was a haven for especially
traditional religious believers, who founded cloisters there, of which the
Solovki islands are the most famous. Until the establishment of the White
Sea Canal, Stalinism had little influence on this thickly forested region.

The opening of the canal, a showpiece in the Soviet Union's first Five Year
Plan, was accompanied by a huge propaganda campaign. Newspapers such as
Pravda and Izvestija published articles, propaganda cartoons and portraits
of 'reforged' workers. A noteworthy fact is that a festive commemorative
book was published about the canal, Kanal imeni Stalina (A Canal called
Stalin). The first edition was published in 1934 and copies were dished out
to members of the 17th Party Congress in Moscow. A brigade of 36 writers led
by Maxim Gorky and under the editorship of the GPU was responsible for this
hymn of praise on forced labour. The team included Aleksei Tolstoy, Boris
Pilniak, Ilf and Petrov, Viktor Shklovsky and Mikhail Zoshchenko. It was
Gorky's ideal that writers would work in collectives, just as on Kolkhozes.
He elaborated on the idea for the book at a meeting at his own home in the
presence of Stalin. Stalin described them at that time as "engineers of the
soul". In preparation, the GPU organised a boat trip on the nearly completed
canal, in which many writers participated, about 120. The illustrations of
the book are among others by photographer Rodchenko. Many pictures are
heavily retouched and feature dynamic compositions accompanied by flowery
captions such as 'We study nature and obtain freedom', 'By changing nature,
man changes himself', 'Last hours on the lock' etc. The chief theme of the
book is the redemptive, liberating effect of physical labour. Hacking
the tough, resistant Karelian granite supposedly made model socialists out
criminals and renegades.

The writers all had their own motivation to participate in writing the book.
Some had no awareness of the extent to which people were destroyed in the
Soviet Union in those years, others were perhaps just scared or intimidated.
Victor Shklovsky (1893-1984) probably co-operated, because his brother was
imprisoned in one of the canal camps. His contribution had an effect, his
brother was freed, but arrested again in 1937, and subsequently
disappeared. Michael Zoshchenko (1895-1958) was the only one allowed to
write a chapter under his own name. His story concerns the prisoner
Rottenberg, who, as a petty thief, had lost the thread of his life, but
life in the camp, returned to the path of righteousness.

The redeeming effect of forced labour was not only presented to the outside
world. In the canal camps themselves, a Cultural-Educative Division (KVO)
functioned with a newspaper produced by prisoners, exhibitions. theatre,
etc. The camp newspaper was called Perekovka, literally re-casting or
re-moulding (of prisoners into good socialists). One of the editors was the
writer Sergei Alymov, who as prisoner helped build the canal. He assisted
with the book Kanal imeni Stalina and was the only one in the author's
collective who knew the situation from the inside.

Nobody really knows how many prisoners died in the process of breaking open
the granite under grim circumstances.  Solzhenitsyn estimated the figure at
10,000. A lot of information can be found in the archives of the FSB (the
current name of the KGB), but the tendency in Russia is that such archives,
after some years of relative openness, are closed to the public again. Field
research into the graves has never been done. Fact however is that some
100,000 prisoners in the first few kilometres up to the 8th lock somehow
vanished without a trace. From the archival records, it can be concluded,
that they were registered and deployed within a period of three months, but
after that were never officially decommissioned. Most of the convicts who
survived the Belomorkanal were sent to other penal labour projects, such as
the the Moscow-Volga canal. Apparently their re-education through labour had
not yet finished. The Belomorkanal is still in use. But one of the main
reasons it is still fairly well-known today, is that there is a popular
of strong, inexpensive Russian cigarettes with the same name.

This year the 70th anniversary of the White Sea Canal is celebrated and
commemorated. The city of Medvezjegorsk has devoted a sympathetic museum to
the building of the canal. This is located in a hotel which in 1933 was
built especially for Stalin to attend the festive opening of the canal. And
Petrozavodsk has a small museum which is devoted to political repression. It
is also a documentation centre. Sometimes elderly people visit to donate
photo's and documents, which then receive a place in the display windows.

Main text written by Bastiaan Kwast, maart 2003
International Institute for Social History, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Project assistance from Iurii Dmitriev, Petrozavodsk
Karel'skii gos. kraevedcheskii muzei (Karelian State Regional Museum),

Translated/adapted from:

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