White Sea Canal

views updated


The White Sea (Belomor) Canal in Karelia rises from Lake Onega in the south to a maximum of 108 meters (118.1 feet) at Lake Vyg and then descends to the White Sea in the north. The canal, which is 227 kilometers (141.1 miles) long (including thirty-seven artificially constructed waterways, nineteen locks, fifteen dams, and forty-nine dikes), was constructed in twenty months (November 1931July 1933) by more than 100,000 gulag prisoners using local natural resources (rock, peat, dirt, timber), an endless supply of slave labor, and primitive tools (pickaxes, wheelbarrows, shovels, horses, and wooden pulleys). Because the shipping season is limited to six months and the canal is often shallow and narrow, traffic consists mainly of barges and small passenger or cargo vessels.

Contemplated since the sixteenth century and constructed under Josef V. Stalin, the canal shortened the journey from Leningrad to Arkhangelsk from twenty days to eight. Originally a secret military project, it was designed to enable northern troops and supply transports and sea access should Leningrad face a Baltic blockade. Economically, the canal was intended to exploit Karelia's natural resources. Politically, it was a signature forced-labor, large construction project of the first Five-Year Plan. The government promoted the waterway as emblematic of Soviet power and Stalinist ideology, and as exemplifying reforging, the process through which hard labor re-education programs, supervised by the secret police, remade common criminals and political prisoners into model Soviet citizens. Many reforged workers perished during the construction of the canal; the survivors were transferred to the Moscow-Volga Canal project or freed. The White Sea Canal embodies the excesses of Stalinism and immortalizes the thousands who died there.

See also: five-year plans; gulag


Baron, Nick. (2001). "Conflict and Complicity: The Expansion of the Karelian Gulag, 19231933." Cahiers du Monde Russe 42:615-648.

Ruder, Cynthia A. (1998). Making History for Stalin: The Story of the Belomor Canal. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Cynthia A. Ruder