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

From 1932 to 1933, a 227 km-long canal was dug to the north of St Petersburg. The canal, called The White Sea Canal (Belomor Canal), connects the Eastern Sea with the White Sea, and 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 km through hard rock) and along existing lakes, where the water level was raised (through 19 large wooden locks). The prisoners, a mixture of peasants, political prisoners, and criminals lived in nine camps along the route. The engineers who designed it were arrested for the purpose, and worked in a GPU (predecessor of the KGB) studio in Moscow, where they also slept.

The technical feat of the project was bridging a difference in water levels of 70 m between the Onega Lake and the top of the water barrier that separated this lake and the White Sea. To this end, a ladder of nine locks was built at Povenets over a length of 12 km. The lock gates and water chambers were constructed of timber. Although very narrow, the canal continues to function today during the frost-free period. The region through which the canal was cut is called Karelia, which is Finnish-Russian border country. For centuries, it was a haven for very traditional religious believers who founded cloisters there, of which the Solovki Islands are the most famous. Before the construction of the White Sea Canal, socialism had little influence in this thickly forested region.

Kanal imeni Stalina

A noteworthy fact is that a festive commemorative book was published about the canal, Kanal imeni Stalina (The Canal Named Stalin). The first edition was published in 1934, and copies were distributed 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 to forced labour. The team included Aleksei Tolstoy, Boris Pilniak, Ilf and Petrov, Viktor Shklovsky, and Mikhail Zoshchenko. It was Gorky's ideal that writers should work in collectives, just as on the 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 for the opening, the GPU organized a boat trip on the nearly completed canal in which many writers participated, about 120. The illustrations for the book were photographed by Rodchenko and others. The chief theme of the book is the redemptive, liberating effect of physical labour. Hacking through the tough, resistant Karelian granite supposedly made model socialists out of criminals and renegades.

The writers all had their own motives 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 frightened or intimidated. Victor Shklovsky (1893-1984) probably co-operated because his brother was imprisoned in one of the canal camps. His contribution had no effect, Vladimir Shklovsky served his sentence and was arrested again in 1937. He was executed afterwards. Michael Zoshchenko (1895-1958) was the only one allowed to write a chapter under his own name. His story is about the prisoner Rottenberg, who, as a petty thief, had lost his direction in life, but through his life in the camp he 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, along with a newspaper produced by prisoners, as well as exhibitions and theatrical productions. 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 had 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 into the granite under the grim circumstances. Solzhenitsyn estimated the figure at 10,000. A great deal of information can be found in the archives of the FSB (the current name of the KGB), but the tendency in Russia is for such archives, after a few years of relative openness, to be closed to the public again. There has not been any field research into the graves, but the fact is that from the first few km to the eighth lock some 100,000 prisoners 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.

In 2003 the 70th anniversary of the White Sea Canal was commemorated. The city of Medvezjegorsk devoted a sympathetic museum to the building of the canal. The museum is located in a hotel built especially for Stalin in 1933 for the festive opening of the canal. Petrozavodsk, too, has a small museum devoted to political repression. It is also a documentation centre. Sometimes elderly people visit there to donate photographs and documents, which are then displayed.

Text: Bastiaan Kwast, march 2003