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 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).
The canal runs partially along several canalized rivers and Lake Vygozero. The total length of the route is 227 kilometers (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 canal was originally proposed to be 5.4 m (17.7 ft) deep; however, various cost issues forced completion to a much lesser depth. This depth typically corresponds to river craft with deadweight cargo up to 600 t, whilst useful sea going vessels of 2,000–3,000 dwt typically have drafts of 4.5–6 m (15–20 ft).
- 1 Waterway
- 2 Construction
- 3 History of usage
- 4 Canal use
- 5 Commemoration
- 6 References
- 7 Sources
- 8 External links
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 (defined as less than one kilometer) 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.
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, at the cost of huge casualties. 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).
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, Firin reported directly to him
- Semyon Grigoryevich Firin (ru:Фирин, Семён Григорьевич), Chief of Construction, also mentioned in 1933 documents as chief of WSBC
- Naftaly Frenkel, the 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 was about 8.7%. 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: e.g. for digging by hand, the norm was 2.5 cubic meters (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. 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, while Anne Applebaum's estimate is 25,000 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 Stalin White Sea–Baltic Canal (Russian: Беломорско-Балтийский канал имени Сталина), published at the end of 1934. 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.
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.
History of usage
After the canal had been completed and opened for navigation, the Belbaltlag (White Sea-Baltic Camp) has been reorganized into the White Sea-Baltic Combine (Baltiysko-Belomorsky Kombinat [BBK]), still within the NKVD system, by the order of the Council of People's Commissars of the USSR dated August 17, 1933. The Combine was charged with operating the canal and the economic development of the adjacent areas, including 2.8 million hectares of forest lands, and all the industrial facilities that had been constructed along the canal.
A major part of the Combine's workforce consisted of Beltbaltlag's prisoners, around 75-85 thousand of them. In addition, the COmbine included 21 "special settlements" (spetsposyolok), with some 30 thousand residents, mostly dispossessed farmers transported to Karelia from the USSR's warmer regions, and their families people. In addition to convicts and "special settlers", the Combine employed about 4500 free employees, and a paramilitary security force. The total number of the Combine's employees accounted for about 25% of the population of the Karelian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic.
Until 1936, all financial transactions of the Combine were exempt from taxes and duties.
Creating BBK gave rise 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 by the 1920s had been demoted from a town to a village, now became a town again, and a large port.
During World War II
There was no action near the White Sea–Baltic Canal during the Winter War of 1939-1940, as during that war the USSR was invading Finland, rather than the other way around. On the other hand, with Germany's full-scale invasion of the USSR in 1941, supported by Finland in its so-called Continuation War, the route of the canal became the front line.
On June 23, 1941, the next day after the German invasion of the USSR, 16 Finnish commandos were brought to the canal by two German Heinkel He 115 seaplanes, which had taken off in Oulujärvi. The commandos were Finnish volunteers recruited by the German Major Schaller. They wore German uniforms and had German weapons, as the Finnish General Staff did not want to have anything to do with the operation. The commandos' task was to blow up the canal's locks, but, due to the raised security level, they failed at it.
On June 28, 1941, the canal was bombed the first time by the Finnish air force. Locks No. 6, 7, 8 and 9 were the targets. The following day, on 29 June, Finnish troops started its offensive along the Finland-USSR border. The air bombings of the Povenets lock ladder succeeded in interrupting boat traffic on the canal for only part of the summer, from June 28 to August 6 and then again from 13 to 24 August 1941. On August 28, the last, fifth bombing raid of the 1941 navigation season took place. Its target was Lock No. 7; however, it failed to cause any damage.
In August, 1941, the management of the BBK and most of the canal staff was evacuated from Medvezhyegorsk in Lock No. 19 in Belomorsk. Out of the 800 canal workers, only 80 remained at their stations.
In November 1941, a caravan of passenger vessels carrying evacuated families of Povenets canal workers and residents of nearby villages, as well as various equipment, froze into the ice of Lake Vygozero. In the night of November 12/13 1941, another boat caravan froze into the ice of the Zaonezhsky Bay near Megostrov Island; it was later captured by Finnish tropps. On December 5, 1941, Finnish troops entered Medvezhyegorsk.
On December 6, 1941, in a -37 °C frost, Finnish troops captured Povenets, the southern entrance to the White Sea–Baltic Canal. 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 thru 6, and dams No. 4 and 20 had all been demolished.
At the same time heavy fighting took place in the area of the Povenets Lock Ladder (Locks No. 1 thru 7). The Finns crossed the canal and captured Gabselga village east of it, but after a few days of fighting they were pushed back to the canal's western side.
Soviet sappers blew up Lock No. 7 only on December 11, already after the Red Army had retreated from the area. Once the locks of the Povenets Ladder has been destroyed, water from the watershed lakes started to freely pour into Lake Onega through Povenets village, which was nearly completely destroyed by the flow. The route of the White Sea–Baltic Canal 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 position until June 1944.
The postwar years
After Finland left the war in September 1944, the war damage to the canal (which include the complete destruction of its southern section and the town of Povenets, as well as damage to lighthouses and other structures elsewhere) could by repaired. Rebuilding was completed by July 1946, with through navigation all along the canal was restored on July 28, 1946
On February 2, 1950, the RSFSR Council of Ministers issued an order for the overhaul and reconstruction of the White Sea Canal's structures. Work began on the gradual electrification of the canal's structures and machinery. In 1953, the locks' staff started included electricians; by 1957, the electrification of the locks of the northern slope of the canal had been completed, and by 1959 all coastal and floating navigation lights had been switched to electric power.
The importance of White Sea–Baltic Canal 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 of the canal took place in the 1970s. During the reconstruction of the guaranteed depth of the fairway has been increased to 4 meters, and the channel became part of the Unified Deep Water System of European Russia.
The cargo tonnage peaked during 1985 with 7.3 million tonnes being transported along the canal. 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. 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.
According to official statistics, a total of 193 million tonnes of cargo had been transported over the canal over the first 75 years of its operation (1933–2008).
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 Yenisei River. 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.
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.
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 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 of the White Sea, 36 kilometers (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 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, 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.
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. The White Sea Canal was also constructed with military use in mind, and early in its history the canal was used to transfer the Northern Fleet's first warships to the White Sea from the Baltic. 
According to historians, in the years 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.
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. That included submarines K-3, S-101 and S-102, L-22, etc. Some unfinished submarines from Leningrad's Baltic Shipyard and Gorky's (Krasnoye Sormovo shipyard) to the new Sevmash shipyard in Severodvinsk.
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, what shall we call them? (…) I thought up the word: 'kanaloarmeyets'. What do you think?" Mikoyan approved it.
- Сталинские стройки ГУЛАГа.1930–53», Москва, 2005,
- Morukov 2004, p. 159
- Сроки работы шлюзов (Lock operation periods), from the site of the Russian Shipping Companies' Association. (Russian)
- The Economics of Forced Labour: The Soviet Gulag, Chapter 8: "The White Sea–Baltic Canal" by Paul R. Gregory, page 158
- "Gulag, The Storm projects - The White Sea Canal", Gulag.eu. Retrieved August 28, 2011.
- O. Figes, The Whisperers 117 (2007)
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- Система исправительно-трудовых лагерей в СССР
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- O. Figes, The Whisperers 114 (2007).
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- 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.
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- 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) (Russian)
- Нефтяники получили свое (The oilmen got their cargo), Murmansky Vestnik, No. 110, 16 June 2007. (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 (Russian)
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- 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
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- Submarines on stamps
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- Gorky, Maxim; Leopold Averbakh; Semen Georgievich Firin; translated by 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.
- 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
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- Brunswic, Anne (2009) Les Eaux glacées du Belomorkanal, Actes Sud, France, ISBN 978-2-7427-8214-7
- 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
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to White Sea-Baltic Canal.|
- White Sea Canal
- Photos and some info from Open Society Archives
- Les eaux glacées du Belomorkanal on Anne Brunswic's website, in French.