All you'll get is an extra two hundred grams of bread in the evening. But your life can depend on those two hundred grams. Two-hundred-gram portions built the
Belomor Canal. - from One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich
The Belomor Canal
, also known as the White Sea
-Baltic Canal, was the first of the great Soviet construction projects assigned to the gulag
system. One of seven massive projects in Josef Stalin
's first Five-Year Plan
, Stalin commanded that the canal be completed in just twenty months - and cheaply. Thus, the canal was built using earth instead of concrete; wood in place of steel. Mechanical machines were rare, the engines were human and horse
. A workforce of 100,000 prison laborers was maintained throughout construction - taken from the vast corrective labor
population of the gulags
Built from September 1931 to April 1933, the Belomor Canal is one hundred and forty kilometers in length. It consists of nineteen locks - excavated primarily by hand through land alternatively peppered with boulders and swamps. Its construction was considered so urgent that no delay was made even for the harsh Russian winter. By Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's estimation, 100,000 workers perished the first winter, and 250,000 died in total.
They were peasant lads and the best workers one could possibly imagine. They were sent to the canal in tens of thousands at a time ... and in their village simplicity they gave all their strength to their work and weakened very swiftly and then froze to death, embracing in pairs. At night the sledges went out and collected them. The drivers threw the corpses onto the sledges with a dull clonk. And in the summer bones remained from corpses which had not been removed in time, and together with the shingle they got into the concrete mixer. And in this way they got into the concrete of the last lock at the city of Belmorsk and will be preserved there forever. - Vitkovsky, a work supervisor1
Despite the inhumane
working conditions and complete lack of technology and resources, the canal was built on time.
A tribute not to Stalin or the canal overseers, but the ingenuity
of the Russian engineers (themselves prisoners) and the peasant laborers.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn visited the Belomor Canal in 1966, three decades after its completion, and found it abandoned, silent, and unused: "There was no traffic on the canal nor in the locks. There was no hustle and bustle of service personnel. There were no steamer whistles. The lock gates stayed shut. " Solzhenitsyn asked, why? The chief of the guard explained:
It's so shallow that not even submarines
can pass through it under their own power; they have to be loaded on barges, and only then can they be hauled through.1
Built at the cost of a quarter million lives, the Belomor Canal sits virtually useless. The canal was ostensibly built to facilitate movement of the Russian naval fleet, but immediately upon completion it was realized that its 16-foot depth was too shallow. Frozen over for half the year, it stands as a testament to one man's megalomania - and the wasted lives of thousands of Soviet citizens.
1 - The Gulag Archipelago Two - by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Note: Research for this WU revealed the following googlethud:
"belomor canal" prison labor deaths