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White Sea-Baltic Canal

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Title: White Sea-Baltic Canal  
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White Sea-Baltic Canal

The White Sea – Baltic Sea Canal (Russian: Беломо́рско–Балти́йский кана́л, Byelomorsko–Baltiyskiy Kanal, BBK), often abbreviated to White Sea Canal (Belomorkanal) is a ship canal in Russia opened on 2 August 1933. It connects the White Sea with Lake Onega, which is further connected to the Baltic Sea. Until 1961, its original name was the Stalin White Sea – Baltic Sea Canal (Belomorsko–Baltiyskiy Kanal imeni Stalina).

The canal was constructed by forced labour of GULAG inmates. During its construction by a total of 126,000 workers, about 12,000 died, according to the official records,[1] while Anne Applebaum's estimate is 25,000 deaths.[2]

The canal runs partially along several canalised rivers and Lake Vygozero. The total length of the route is 227 kilometres (141 mi). As of 2008, the canal sees only light traffic, carrying 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.


The total waterway length is 227 kilometres (141 mi), of which 48 kilometres (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.

Canal route

The canal begins near Povenets settlement in Povenets bay of Lake Onega. Right 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 is 22 kilometres (14 mi) long between the 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.

Sailing conditions

Minimum lock dimensions are 14.3 metres (47 ft) wide by 135 metres (443 ft) long. The navigable channel is 36 metres (118 ft) wide and 3.5 metres (11.5 ft) deep, with a radius of curvature of 500 metres (1,640 ft). Speed is limited to 8 kilometres per hour (4.3 kn; 5.0 mph) in all artificial portions. In case of low visibility (defined as less than one kilometre) navigation is halted.

For the navigation seasons of 2008 to 2010, the canal locks were scheduled to operate from 20 May each year until 15/30 October, giving 148–163 navigation days per year.[3]


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. 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, serviced the construction, supplying a workforce of an estimated 100,000 convicts,[4] at the cost of huge casualties.[5] Prison labor camp projects were not usually publicized, but the work on the Belomor canal was an exception, as the convicts were thought to not only construct the canal but reforge themselves in the process (Soviet concept of perekovka, or reforging).[6]

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."[7]

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.[7]

Organization and management

The workforce for the Canal was supplied by the Belbaltlag camp directorate (White Sea Baltic Corrective Labor Camp Directorate, WSBC) of the OGPU GULAG.

  • 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[8]
  • Matvei Berman, head of the GULAG during most of the 1930s, Firin reported directly to him[9]
  • Semyon Grigoryevich Firin (ru:Фирин, Семён Григорьевич), Chief of Construction, also mentioned in 1933 documents as chief of WSBC[8][9]
  • Naftaly Frenkel, the Chief of Works, November 16, 1931 to the end of construction.[8]
  • Lazar Kogan, chief of the BBK Construction Directorate[8]
  • Yakov Davidovich Rappoport (ru:Раппопорт, Яков Давидович), deputy chief of the BBK Construction Directorate[8]
  • E.I. Senkevich (Э. И. Сенкевич), chief of WSBC, November 16, 1931-January 16, 1932, also assistant chief of the BBK Construction Directorate[8]

Genrikh Yagoda, Deputy Chairman of the OGPU, as well as Berman, Firin, Kogan, and Rappoport were awarded medals for the completion of the canal by the Politburo on July 15, 1933.[10]

Working conditions

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.[11] The mortality was about 8.7%.[12] Still more became sick and disabled. The workforce was organized into brigades of 25-30 people, which, in turn, constituted phalanges of 250-300. There were norms for labor: eg. for digging by hand, the norm was 2.5 cubic metres (3.3 cu yd) of stone per day per brigade. 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 those who would - however, the norms were impossible to fulfill, let alone surpass. After the construction, 12 000 prisoners were freed as a reward for their efforts. Meanwhile, about 12,000 workers died during the building process, according to the official records,[13] while Anne Applebaum's estimate is 25,000 deaths.[14]

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 Stalin White Sea–Baltic Canal (Russian: Беломорско-Балтийский канал имени Сталина), published at the end of 1934.[15] Shklovsky visited Belomorkanal on his own and did not travel there with the group organized by Gorky. Gorky himself did not travel with the Brigade but instead organized the trip. Gorky had previously visited the Solovetski Islands labor camp in 1929 and wrote about it in the Soviet journal Our Accomplishments.[16]

Additionally, it is doubtful that all of the writers involved in the project were unaware of the brutality or actual living conditions present in the camp. In fact, one of the contributors, Sergei Alymov, was a prisoner at the Belomor camp and was the editor for the camp newspaper Perekovka, ("Re-forging"). Similarly, Aleksandr Avdeenko's account of the trip to Belomor includes conversations between OGPU chief Semyon Firin and Prince Mirsky that reveal at least some of the writers were aware of the true nature of Belomor.

Canal use

The cargo tonnage peaked during 1985 with 7.3 million tonnes being transported along the canal.[17] Cargo quantities remained high during the following five years until 1990 and then declined. Early in the 21st century amounts began to rise gradually, but they remained low compared to the 1985 peak, just 283,400 tonnes in 2001 and 314,600 tonnes in 2002.

During the shipping season of 2007, the canal's cargo volume was at 400,000 tonnes. 2,500 passengers travelled along the canal as well.[17] The canal is operated by the agency known as 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 throughout the actual White Sea). The canal, apparently, is a comparatively minor part of the agency's business, as in the same 2007, the agency's entire cargo volume was 4.6 million tonnes, and the passenger count, 155,000.[17]

According to the official statistics, the total of 193 million tons of cargo had been transported over the canal over the first 75 years of its operation (1933–2008).[17]

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 then from there by the ocean-going SA-15 class Arctic cargo ship Kapitan Danilkin to Dudinka on the River Yenisei.[18] In 2011, heavy equipment for the Sayano-Shushenskaya Hydro Power Plant was shipped from Saint Petersburg via the canal, the Arctic seas, and the Yenisei River.[19]

Oil product shipping

The canal has been used for shipping oil products from oil refineries on the Volga River to consumers in the Murmansk Oblast, or overseas. Russia's Volgotanker Company, which owned a fleet of suitably sized petroleum tankers and ore-bulk-oil carriers, pioneered this route starting in August 1970, when Nefterudovoz-3 delivered a cargo of fuel oil to the White Sea port of Kandalaksha.[20]

After many years of interruption, Volgotanker resumed using 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 tonnes (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 of the White Sea, 36 kilometres (22 mi) north-east of the port of Onega.

Transfer operations began on 24 June 2003. But on 1 September 2003 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. Various estimates of the extent of the spill were made, the final one being 45 tonnes (44 long tons; 50 short tons), of which only 9 tonnes (8.9 long tons; 9.9 short tons) were recovered. Volgotanker's alleged failure to contain the spill, or to cooperate with the competent authorities in a timely manner, resulted in the Arkhangelsk Oblast authorities shutting down the oil transfer operation, at a point when only 220,000 tonnes had been exported. The company was fined and a permit for future operations was not granted.[20]

Military use

Russian naval thinkers long thought that a well-designed canal system could help the Russian (or, later, Soviet) Navy overcome the geographic separation of the fleets based on Russia's Black Sea, Baltic, Arctic, Pacific, and Caspian coasts.[21] The White Sea Canal was constructed with military use in mind as well,[22] and early in its history it was used to bring Northern Fleet's first warships to the White Sea from the Baltic.[23] [24]

According to historians, during the less than a decade between the canal's completion and the Soviet entry into World War II, the canal was used for the transfer of military vessels between the two seas on 17 occasions.[25]

During World War II, the canal was used to relocate unfinished submarines from Leningrad's Baltic Shipyard and Gorky' (Krasnoye Sormovo shipyard) to the new Sevmash shipyard in Severodvinsk.[26] 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.[27]

Hydroelectric stations

The canal system includes five hydroelectric power generating plants, with the total production capacity of 240 MW.[17]


The canal was commemorated by the Soviet Belomorkanal cigarette brand.

There was a monument for the prisoners who perished during the construction at Povenets, and a smaller memorial in Belomorsk near to the entrance of the canal into the White Sea. There was even a play, a comedy, written about the canal by Nikolay Pogodin.

A memory of the canal is also preserved in the Russian language, in the words "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). The history of the term, attributed to Lazar Kogan, is described as follows. In 1932, when Anastas Mikoyan visited Belomorstroy (construction of the White Sea Baltic Canal) Kogan told him "Comrade Mikoyan, how shall we call them? (…) I thought up the word: 'kanaloarmeyets'. What do you think?" Mikoyan approved it.[28]



  • 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
  • Brunswic, Anne (2009) Les Eaux glacées du Belomorkanal, Actes Sud,France, ISBN 978-2-7427-8214-7

External links

  • White Sea Canal
  • Photos and some info from Open Society Archives
  • Les eaux glacées du Belomorkanal on Anne Brunswic's website, in French.

Coordinates: 62°48′N 34°48′E / 62.800°N 34.800°E / 62.800; 34.800

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