White Sea–Baltic Canal
The White Sea–Baltic Canal (Russian: Беломо́рско-Балти́йский кана́л, Byelomorsko-Baltiyskiy kanal, BBK), often abbreviated to White Sea Canal (Belomorkanal) is a ship canal in Russia opened on Wednesday 2 August 1933. It connects the White Sea, in the Arctic Ocean, with Lake Onega, which is further connected to the Baltic Sea. Until 1961, its original name was the Stalin White Sea–Baltic Canal (Belomorsko-Baltiyskiy Kanal imeni Stalina).
|White Sea–Baltic Canal|
The White Sea–Baltic Canal in Belomorsk
A map of the White Sea–Baltic Waterway, including the Neva and Svir Rivers and the canal
|Length||227 km (141 miles)|
|Date of first use||2 August 1933|
|Start point||near Povenets settlement in Povenets bay of Lake Onega, Russia|
|End point||Neva River and Baltic Sea in Saint Petersburg, Russia|
The canal was constructed by forced labor of gulag inmates. Beginning and ending with a labor force of 126,000, between 12,000 and 25,000 laborers died according to official records, and accounts of up to 250,000 deaths in the works of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
The canal route runs 227 kilometers (141 mi), partially along several canalized rivers and Lake Vygozero. As of 2008, the canal carries only light traffic of between ten and forty boats per day. Its economic advantages are limited by its minimal depth of 3.5 m (11.5 ft), inadequate for most sea-going vessels. This depth typically corresponds to river craft with deadweight cargo up to 600 tonnes, while useful sea going vessels of 2,000–3,000 dwt typically have drafts of 4.5–6 m (15–20 ft). The canal was originally proposed to be 5.4 m (17.7 ft) deep; however, the cost and time constraints of Stalin's First five-year plan forced the much shallower draught.
The total waterway length is 227 kilometers (141 mi), of which 48 kilometers (30 mi) are man-made. The current flows north from Lake Onega to the White Sea, and all navigation marks are set according to it. Once in Lake Onega, ships can exit the southwest shore through the Svir River (and its two locks) to reach Lake Ladoga and then proceed down the Neva River to Saint Petersburg and the Baltic Sea. Alternatively, from Lake Onega river ships can sail eastward into the Volga–Baltic Waterway.
The canal begins near Povenets settlement in Povenets bay of Lake Onega. After Povenets there are seven locks close together, forming the "Stairs of Povenets". These locks are the southern slope of the canal. The canal summit pond at 103 meters elevation is 22 kilometers (14 mi) long between locks 7 & 8. The northern slope has twelve locks numbered 8–19. The route of the northern slope runs through five large lakes; Lake Matkozero between locks 8 & 9, Lake Vygozero between locks 9 & 10, Lake Palagorka between locks 10 & 11, Lake Voitskoye between locks 11 & 12 and Lake Matkozhnya between locks 13 & 14. The canal empties out into the Soroka Bay of the White Sea at Belomorsk. The settlements of Povenets, Segezha, Nadvoitsy, Sosnovets, and Belomorsk are located along the canal.
Minimum lock dimensions are 14.3 meters (47 ft) wide by 135 meters (443 ft) long. The navigable channel is 36 meters (118 ft) wide and 3.5 meters (11.5 ft) deep, with a radius of curvature of 500 meters (1,640 ft). Speed is limited to 8 kilometers per hour (4.3 kn; 5.0 mph) in all artificial portions. In conditions of low visibility (less than one kilometer) navigation is halted.
The Soviet Union presented the canal as an example of the success of the first five-year plan. Its construction was completed four months ahead of schedule, though not as deep as planned. The entire canal was constructed in twenty months, between 1931 and 1933, almost entirely by manual labor.
The canal was the first major project constructed in the Soviet Union using forced labor. BBLAG, the Directorate of the BBK Camps, managed the construction, supplying a workforce of an estimated 100,000 convicts, at the cost of huge casualties. Although prison labor camps were usually kept secret, the White Sea Canal was a propaganda showcase of convicts "reforging" themselves in through useful labor (Soviet concept of perekovka, reforging or rehabilitation).
Marshall Berman states that "The canal was a triumph of publicity; but if half the care that went into the public relations campaign had been devoted to the work itself, there would have been far fewer victims and far more development."
In particular, he emphasizes that politics and public relations ruined the usefulness of the canal:
Stalin seems to have been so intent on creating a highly visible symbol of development that he pushed and squeezed the project in ways that only retarded the reality of development. Thus the workers and engineers were never allowed the time, money or equipment necessary to build a canal that would be deep enough and safe enough to carry twentieth-century cargoes; consequently, the canal has never played any significant role in Soviet commerce or industry.
Organization and management
- P. F. Aleksandrov (П. Ф. Александров), acting chief of WSBC, January 16, 1932, full chief from March 28, 1932, to at least January 15, 1933
- Matvei Berman, head of the Gulag during most of the 1930s, direct supervisor of Firin
- Semyon Grigoryevich Firin (ru:Фирин, Семён Григорьевич), Chief of Construction, also mentioned in 1933 documents as chief of WSBC
- Naftaly Frenkel, Chief of Works, November 16, 1931 to the end of construction.
- Lazar Kogan, chief of the BBK Construction Directorate
- Yakov Davidovich Rappoport (ru:Раппопорт, Яков Давидович), deputy chief of the BBK Construction Directorate
- E.I. Senkevich (Э. И. Сенкевич), chief of WSBC, November 16, 1931 – January 16, 1932, also assistant chief of the BBK Construction Directorate
The Soviets portrayed the project as evidence of the efficiency of the Gulag. Supposedly "reforging class enemies" (political prisoners) through "corrective labor", the working conditions at the BBK Camp were brutal, with the prisoners given only primitive hand tools to carry out the massive construction project. The mortality rate was about 8.7%, with many more sick and disabled.
The workforce was organized into brigades of 25–30, which made up phalanges of 250–300. There were norms for labor, for example 2.5 cubic meters (3.3 cu yd) of hand-dug stone per day per brigade. At other times These teams were pitted to compete against each other in surpassing the norms, and promises were made of shortened sentences, food and cash bonuses for the champions. After the successful construction, 12,000 prisoners were freed as reward. At least 12,000 workers died during the building process, according to the official records, while Anne Applebaum's estimate is 25,000 deaths, and other estimates account for up to 250,000 deaths.
The canal and Russian writers
A carefully prepared visit in August 1933 to the White Sea–Baltic Canal may have hidden the worst of the brutality from a group of 120 Russian writers and artists, the so-called Writers Brigade, including Maxim Gorky, Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy, Viktor Shklovsky, and Mikhail Zoshchenko, who compiled a work in praise of the project, the 600-page The I.V. Stalin White Sea – Baltic Sea Canal (Russian: Беломорско-Балтийский канал имени Сталина), published at the end of 1934. Shklovsky visited the White Sea Canal on his own rather than with the group. Gorky, who had previously visited the Solovetski Islands labor camp in 1929 and written about it in the Soviet journal Our Accomplishments, organized the White Sea trip, but did not himself join it.
It is likely that at least some of the visiting writers were aware of the brutality of camp life. In fact, one of the contributors, Sergei Alymov, was a prisoner at the camp and editor of the camp newspaper Perekovka ("Reforging"). Similarly, Aleksandr Avdeenko's account of Belomor includes conversations between OGPU chief Semyon Firin and Prince Mirsky that reveal at least some of the writers were aware of its true nature.
History of usage
After the canal had been completed and opened for navigation, the Belbaltlag (White Sea-Baltic Camp) was reorganized into the White Sea-Baltic Combine (Baltiysko-Belomorsky Kombinat [BBK]), still within the NKVD system, by an order of the Council of People's Commissars of August 17, 1933. The Combine was charged with operating the canal and managing the economic development of the adjacent areas, including 2.8 million hectares of forest lands and the industrial facilities that had been constructed along the route.
A major part of the Combine's workforce consisted of 75-85 thousand Beltbaltlag prisoners. In addition, the Combine included 21 "special settlements" (spetsposyolok) with some 30 thousand residents, mostly dispossessed farm families transported to Karelia from the USSR's warmer regions. In addition to convicts and "special settlers", the Combine employed about 4500 free employees and a paramilitary security force. In all, the Combine's employees accounted for about 25% of the population of the Karelian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic.
The BBK led to the development of Belomorsk as a major industrial city. New cities and urban-type settlements developed along the route of the canal, such as Medvezhyegorsk, Segezha, Nadvoitsy. Povenets, which had been demoted from a town to a village in the 1920s, now became a town again, and a large port.
As is discussed further below, during the 1930s a number of smaller naval vessels were transferred from the Baltic to the White Sea to provide warships for the Soviet Northern Naval Flotilla, which became the Northern Fleet in 1937.
In World War II
There was no action near the White Sea–Baltic Canal during the Winter War of 1939-1940, as USSR invaded Finland. With Germany's full-scale invasion of the USSR in 1941, supported by Finland in the Continuation War, the canal route became the front line.
On June 23, 1941, the day after the German invasion, 16 Finnish commandos were ferried to the canal by two German Heinkel He 115 seaplanes from Oulujärvi. The commandos were Finnish volunteers recruited by the German Major Schaller, and were equipped with German uniforms and weapons, as the Finnish General Staff wanted no responsibility for the operation. The commandos were to blow up the canal locks, but they failed due to heightened security.
On June 28, the canal was bombed for the first time by the Finnish air force, targeting Locks No. 6, 7, 8, and 9, followed the next day by Finnish troops advancing along the Finland-USSR border. The air bombings of the Povenets lock ladder succeeded in interrupting boat traffic on the canal only from June 28 to August 6, and then again from 13 to 24 August 1941. On August 28, the fifth and final bombing raid of the 1941 navigation season took place against Lock No. 7, but it did no damage.
In August, the management of the BBK and most of the 800 canal staff were evacuated from Medvezhyegorsk to Lock No. 19 in Belomorsk, with only 80 left at their stations.
In November, a caravan of passenger vessels evacuating families of Povenets canal workers and residents, along with equipment, froze into the ice of Lake Vygozero. On the night of November 12/13, another boat caravan froze in Zaonezhsky Bay near Megostrov Island, and was later captured by Finnish troops. On December 5, Finnish troops entered Medvezhyegorsk.
On December 6 in a -37 °C frost, Finnish troops captured Povenets, the southern entrance to the BBK. On the same day, Soviet troops started demolishing canal structures. Lock No. 1 was the first to be blown up. By the morning of December 8, Locks No 1 to 6, and dams No. 4 and 20 had all been demolished.
At the same time, heavy fighting took place near the Povenets Lock Ladder (Locks No. 1 to 7). The Finns crossed the canal and captured Gabselga village to the east, but after a few days of fighting they were pushed back to the canal's western side.
Soviet sappers blew up Lock No. 7 on December 11 after the Red Army had retreated. Once the locks of the Povenets Ladder had been destroyed, water from the watershed lakes poured freely into Lake Onega through Povenets village, which was nearly completely destroyed by the flood. The route of the BBK had become the front line, separating the Finnish troops on the canal's western bank from the Soviet forces on its eastern bank. The opposing armies held these positions until June 1944.
After Finland left the war in September 1944, the damage to the canal, including the complete destruction of its southern section and the town of Povenets and damage to lighthouses and other structures, was repaired. Rebuilding was completed by July 1946, with navigation through the canal restored on July 28, 1946.
On February 2, 1950, the RSFSR Council of Ministers issued an order for the overhaul and reconstruction of the BBK's structures, with gradual electrification of the canal's structures and machinery. In 1953, the locks' staff hired electricians; by 1957, the electrification of the locks of the northern slope was completed; and by 1959 all coastal and floating navigation lights were switched to electric power.
The importance of BBK for the national economy greatly increased after the commissioning of the modern Volga-Baltic Waterway in 1964. Canal capacity and the annual volume of freight traffic increased several-fold.
Another upgrade took place in the 1970s. During the reconstruction, the guaranteed depth of the fairway was increased to 4 meters, and the channel became part of the Unified Deep Water System of European Russia.
Cargo tonnage peaked in 1985, with 7.3 million tonnes transported. Tonnage remained high until 1990, then declined after the fall of the Soviet Union. Usage rose gradually in the 21st century, but remained well below the Soviet-era peak, with just 0.3 million tonnes in 2002.
During the 2007 season, the canal carried 0.4 million tonnes of cargo along with 2,500 passengers. It is now operated by the White Sea and Lake Onega Waterways and Shipping Administration (Беломорско-Онежское государственное бассейновое управление водных путей и судоходства), which is also responsible for shipping on Lake Onega and in the Belomorsk harbor area (but not in the open waters of the White Sea). The canal was seemingly a small part of the agency's overall shipping business, which in 2007 amounted to 4.6 million tonnes and 155,000 passengers.
The canal makes it possible to ship heavy and bulky items from Russia's industrial centers to the White Sea, and then by sea-going vessels to Siberia's northern ports. For example, in the summer of 2007, a large piece of equipment for Rosneft's Siberian Vankor Oil Field was delivered by the Amur-1516 from Dzerzhinsk on the Oka River, via the Volga–Baltic Waterway and the White Sea Canal to Arkhangelsk, and from there by the ocean-going SA-15 class Arctic cargo ship Kapitan Danilkin to Dudinka on the Yenisei River. In 2011, heavy equipment for the Sayano-Shushenskaya hydro power plant was shipped from Saint Petersburg via the canal, the Arctic Sea, and the Yenisei River.
Oil product shipping
In Soviet times, the canal was used for shipping oil products from refineries on the Volga River to consumers in the Murmansk Oblast and overseas. Russia's Volgotanker Company, with a fleet of suitably sized petroleum tankers and ore-bulk-oil carriers, pioneered this route starting August 1970, when Nefterudovoz-3 delivered a cargo of fuel oil to the White Sea port of Kandalaksha.
After many years of interruption, Volgotanker resumed the canal route in 2003. The company had plans to carry 800,000 tonnes of fuel oil over the canal during 2003, and to increase the volume to 1,500,000 metric tons (1,476,000 long tons; 1,653,000 short tons) in 2004. The fuel was transferred from Volgotanker river tankers to Latvian seagoing tankers at a floating transfer station near the Osinki Island in the Onega Bay on the White Sea, 36 kilometers (22 mi) northeast of the port of Onega.
Transfer operations began 24 June 2003, but on 1 September a low-speed collision between Volgotanker's Nefterudovoz-57M and the Latvian Zoja-I during a transfer caused a crack in the Nefterudovoz's hull, with a subsequent oil spillage estimated at 45 metric tons (44 long tons; 50 short tons), of which only 9 metric tons (8.9 long tons; 9.9 short tons) were recovered. Volgotanker's alleged failure to contain the spill resulted in the Arkhangelsk Oblast authorities shutting down the oil transfer operation with only 220,000 tonnes exported. The company was fined and future operations were refused.
Russian (and later Soviet) naval strategists long believed that a well-designed canal system could help establish contact among the separate fleets based on Russia's Black Sea, Baltic, Arctic, Pacific, and Caspian coasts. The White Sea Canal was also constructed with this military use in mind, and early in its history the Northern Fleet's first warships sailed along the canal to the White Sea from the Baltic, Before World War II, the canal was used for the transfer of military vessels between the two seas on 17 occasions.
During World War II, in August–September 1941, the canal was used to move a number of submarines from the Baltic Fleet to the White Sea, including submarines K-3, S-101 and S-102, L-22. Some unfinished submarines from Leningrad's Baltic Shipyard and Gorky's Krasnoye Sormovo shipyard sailed to the new Sevmash shipyard in Severodvinsk.
Since then, the canal has been regularly used for delivering submarines by transporter dock from the Baltic Shipyard and Krasnoye Sormovo to Sevmash for completion.
The canal system includes five hydroelectric power plants with total production capacity of 240 MW.
The canal gave its name to the Belomorkanal Soviet cigarette brand.
There is a monument at Povenets for the prisoners who perished during the construction, and a smaller memorial in Belomorsk near the White Sea end. There was even a comedic play written about the canal by Nikolay Pogodin.
The canal project also gave the Russian language the slang word "zeka", "zek, z/k" for "inmate". In Russian, "inmate", "incarcerated" is заключённый (zakliuchyonnyi), usually abbreviated to "з/к" in paperwork, and pronounced as "зэка" (IPA: [zɨˈka], "zeh-KA"), which gradually transformed into "зэк" and "зек", zek (both pronounced as IPA: [ˈzɛk]). The word is still in colloquial use. Originally the abbreviation stood for zaklyuchyonny kanaloarmeyets (Russian: заключённый каналоармеец), literally "incarcerated canal-army-man". The latter term coined in an analogy with the words "krasnoarmeyets" meaning "member of the Red Army" or trudarmeyets (member of a labor army). According to the Soviet account, in 1932 when Anastas Mikoyan visited the Belomorstroy construction site, Lazar Kogan asked, "Comrade Mikoyan, what shall we call them? (…) I thought up the word: 'kanaloarmeyets'. What do you think?" Mikoyan approved.
- Сталинские стройки ГУЛАГа.1930–53», Москва, 2005,
- Solzhenitsyn, Alexandr (1985). The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation. 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022: Harper Perennial Modern Classics. pp. 202–208. ISBN 978-0-06-125380-5.
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- Morukov 2004, p. 159
- Сроки работы шлюзов (Lock operation periods), from the site of the Russian Shipping Companies' Association. (in Russian)
- "The Economics of Forced Labour: The Soviet Gulag, Chapter 8: "The White Sea–Baltic Canal" by Paul R. Gregory, page 158". Retrieved 13 August 2017.
- "Gulag, The Storm projects - The White Sea Canal", Gulag.eu. Retrieved August 28, 2011.
- O. Figes, The Whisperers 117 (2007)
- Berman, Marshall (1983). All That Is Solid Melts Into Air. Verso. p. 76. ISBN 9780860917854.
- "Система исправительно-трудовых лагерей в СССР". Retrieved 13 August 2017.
- Ruder, p. 21
- Khlevniuk, p. 35
- O. Figes, The Whisperers 114 (2007).
- V.N. Zemskov, "Zaklyuchyonnye v 1930-e gody: socialno-demograficheskiye problemy", p. 62 / В. Н. 3емсков «Заключенные в 1930-е годы: социально — демографические проблемы», стр. 62
- Solzhenitsyn, Alexandr (2018). The Gulag Archipelago. Translated by Whitney, Thomas; Willetts, Harry. 1745 Broadway, New York, NY, 10019, USA: Vintage Publishing. pp. 198–208. ISBN 978-1784871512.
- Anne Applebaum Gulag: A History (London: Penguin, 2003), p79
- Maxim Gorky, ed. (1977). Belomor: An Account of the Construction of the New Canal between the White Sea and the Baltic Sea (reprint ed.). Hyperion Press. p. 344. ISBN 9780883554326.
- Ruder, Cynthia Ann (1998). Making History for Stalin: The Story of the Belomor Canal. University Press of Florida. p. 248. ISBN 9780813015675.
- "History of Karelia from antiquity to our time", editors: N.A. Korablev, V.G.Makurov, Yu.A.Savvateev, M.I.Shumilov; Petrozavodsk, Periodika Publishers, 2001. 944 pages. (История Карелии с древнейших времён до наших дней / Науч. ред. Н. А. Кораблёв, В. Г. Макуров, Ю. А. Савватеев, М. И. Шумилов — Петрозаводск: Периодика, 2001. — 944 с.: ил.) ISBN 5-88170-049-X
- Hill, Alexander (2007). "The birth of the Soviet Northern Fleet 1937–42". The Journal of Slavic Military Studies. 16 (2): 65–82. doi:10.1080/13518040308430560.
- Jokipii, Mauno. Братство по оружию: от Барбароссы до вступления Финляндии в войну [Brotherhood of Arms: from Barbarossa to Finland's entry into the war] (Фрагмент из книги «Финляндия на пути к войне: исследование о военном сотрудничестве Германии и Финляндии в 1940—1941 гг.») (in Russian). Archived from the original on 2008-12-20. Retrieved 2010-05-19.
- Karhumäki — Poventsa offensive operation, December 1941: 23:00 6th of December 1941 Jaegers and Finnish tanks steamrolled to town of Poventsa. Tanks secured the town.
- 75 лет ББК (75 Years of the White Sea–Baltic Canal) (Government of Karelia Official Site, 2008-08-07) (in Russian)
- Нефтяники получили свое (The oilmen got their cargo), Murmansky Vestnik, No. 110, 16 June 2007. (in Russian)
- "Силовые машины" отгрузили вторую партию оборудования, предназначенного для восстановления Саяно-Шушенской ГЭС. (Silovye Machiny has shipped the second batch of equipment for the restoration of the Sayano-Shushenskaya Hydro Power Plant), RBK, 2011-08-25.
- Alexei Bambulyak, Bjorn Franzen. Transportation of oil from the Russian part of the Barents Sea region, as of January 2005 (in Russian)
- Hauner, Milan L. (2004), "Stalin's big-fleet program", Naval War College Review, LVII (2 (Spring)): 89, 96
- Morukov 2004, p. 158
- Hauner 2004, p. 103
- Åselius, Gunnar (2005), The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Navy in the Baltic, 1921–1941, Cass Series--Naval Policy and History, Psychology Press, p. 22, ISBN 9780714655406
- Morukov 2004, p. 161
- Smillie, John (2012), World War II Sea War. Vol 4: Germany Sends Russia to the Allies, Volume 4 of WORLD WAR II SEA WAR, Donald A. Bertke, p. 214, ISBN 1937470032
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- Hauner 2004, p. 100
- Polmar, Norman; Moore, Kenneth J. (2004), Cold War Submarines, Potomac Books, Inc., pp. 30, 142, 157–158, ISBN 9781597973199
- "White Sea Baltic Canal named after Stalin. The History of the Construction" (Беломорско-Балтийский канал имени Сталина. История строительства. / Belomorsko-Baltiyskiy kanal imeni Stalina. Istoriya stroitel'stva) Moscow, 1934, p. 138
in chronological order
- Gorky, Maxim; Leopold Averbakh; Semen Georgievich Firin; tr. Amabel Williams-Ellis (1935). The White Sea canal: being an account of the construction of the new canal between the White Sea and the Baltic Sea. London: John Lane.
- Ruder, Cynthia A. (1998). Making History for Stalin: The Story of the Belomor Canal. University Press of Florida. ISBN 0-8130-1567-7.
- Paul R. Gregory, Valery Lazarev and V. V. Lazarev, Economics of Forced Labor: The Soviet Gulag, Hoover Institute Press, October, 2003, trade paperback, 356 pages, ISBN 0-8179-3942-3
- Yury A. Dmitriev (2003), The White Sea - Baltic Canal, from plan to implementation: A collection of documents (in Russian), Petrozavodsk, 2003.
- Khlevniuk, Oleg V. (2004). The History of the Gulag. From Collectivization to the Great Terror. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-09284-9.
- Morukov, Mikhail (2004), "The White Sea–Baltic Canal", The Economics of Forced Labor: The Soviet Gulag (PDF), p. 158, ISBN 978-0-8179-3942-7
- Brunswic, Anne (2009) Les Eaux glacées du Belomorkanal, Actes Sud, France, ISBN 978-2-7427-8214-7
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