White Sea–Baltic Canal

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A map of the White Sea–Baltic Waterway, including the Neva and Svir Rivers and the canal
The White Sea–Baltic Canal in Belomorsk

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 was constructed by forced labor of gulag inmates. During its construction by a total of 126,000 workers, about 12,000 died, according to the official records.[1]

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),[citation needed] 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.[2] This depth typically corresponds to river craft with deadweight cargo up to 600t, whilst useful sea going vessels of 2,000–3,000 dwt typically have drafts of 4.5–6 m (15–20 ft).[3][4][5]


Convict labor at the construction of the White Sea Canal, 1931–1933
Convicts at work, 1932

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.

Canal route[edit]

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.

Sailing conditions[edit]

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.[6]


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,[7] at the cost of huge casualties.[8] 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).[9]

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."[10]

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.[10]

Organization and management[edit]

Chief of works Naftaly Frenkel (rightmost), head of GULAG Matvei Berman (center), chief of the southern part of the canal Afanasyev (second from left)

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

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.[13]

Working conditions[edit]

Agitprop propaganda poster used to motivate convict laborers during the construction. The writing says: 'Canal Army soldier! The heat of your work will melt your prison term!'

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.[14] The mortality was about 8.7%.[15] 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,[1] while Anne Applebaum's estimate is 25,000 deaths.[16]

The canal and Russian writers[edit]

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.[17] 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.[18]

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[edit]

in 1930s[edit]

After completion of construction and putting into operation of the channel, August 17, 1933 decision of People's Commissars of the USSR NKVD system based Belbaltlag camp was set up the White Sea-Baltic plant for the purpose of exploitation and development of the channel adjacent to the channel areas. Forest area designated for the White Sea-Baltic Combine, was 2.8 million hectares. Combine all industrial enterprises enshrined in the territories were handed over.

The main labor plant were prisoners Beltbaltlaga -. 75-85 thousand people annually. In addition, as part of the plant was 21 spetsposёlok, where about 30 thousand people -. Family dispossessed peasants. In addition to the prisoners and special resettlers at the mill employed about 4500 employees and a civilian paramilitary guards. The total number of employees accounted for about 25% of the population of the Karelian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic.

Until 1936, all financial transactions plant were exempt from taxes and duties.

Creating BBK gave Belomorski development, as well as other towns in the region from the White Sea to Lake Onega. After the start of operation of the channel in this area has developed industry, mainly woodworking and pulp and paper. new towns and settlements also have grown - Medvezhyegorsk, Segezha, Nadvoicy. First Povenets county town, has ceased to be a city, became a large port, and Belomorsk - an important industrial center.

during World War II[edit]

In June 1941, Germany began fighting against the USSR. On the second day of the war June 23, 1941 Chief "MoEHE object" - that was designated in documents Manage the White Sea-Baltic Canal - AI Vasilov issued an order number 1 "On the introduction of a threatened position on the White Sea-Baltic Canal them. Stalin ". Introduced around the clock at the selector and telephones, the constant wearing bags with masks. At the gateway towns near power plants and detached houses dug slit for shelter from the raids. To do this, attracts more able-bodied residents of the village. Each of them had to work four hours a day. Gateway Chiefs were ordered to assign to each cell slot apartment dwellers to "avoid unnecessary hassles when enemy raids."

June 23 with two German Heinkel He 115 seaplane, which was launched with Oulujärvi, near the gateway of the White Sea-Baltic Canal was planted 16 Finnish saboteurs’ volunteers recruited by the German Major Schaller. Volunteers recruited by the Germans were dressed in German uniforms and weapons were of German, as the Finnish General Staff did not want to have to do with sabotage. Saboteurs had to blow up the floodgates, but because of the enhanced protection to do it they failed.

Early in the morning of 25 June the forces of the Soviet aircraft for the first time delivers an air strike on the territory of Finland on the grounds that it had provided its airfields at the Luftwaffe base. In the first raid was attended by about 300 bombers and bombed not only airports but also a number of major cities in the country. After that, Finland has officially entered the war against the Soviet Union as an ally of Germany.

June 28 - the first bombing of the channel. Attack undergone gateways number 6, 7, 8 and 9. The following day, on 29 June, in Finland against the Soviet Union began a joint offensive of the Finnish and German troops. Bombing Povenchanskoy ladder locks could interrupt the movement of the White Sea-Baltic Canal only temporarily - from June 28 to August 6 and from 13 to 24 August 1941. August 28 took place the fifth and final in the navigation channel 1941 bombing. It attacks the gateway number 7. No damage has been detected. In August, the BBC management and tehuchastkov were evacuated from Medvezhegorsk in Belomorsk gateway number 19. Of the 800 workers on the channel 80 remained, others were evacuated.

In November, the caravan passenger vessels with evacuated families Povenets conductors and inhabitants of the surrounding villages, as well as equipment in the ice vmёrz Vygozero. In the night from 12 to 13 November 1941 in the ice vmёrz Zaonega Bay area Megostrova another convoy. He was captured by units of the Finnish army. December 5, 1941 of the Finnish army entered Medvezhyegorsk.

December 6 at, -37 ° C of the Finnish Army captured Povenets, thereby stopping the message and the White Sea-Baltic Canal. On the same day, December 6, Soviet troops started to implement decommissioning plan of hydraulic works BBK. The first was blown gateway number 1. That same night, after the gateway number 1 consistently been blown up and the remaining hydro. In 3 hours and 30 minutes blown up gateways number 2, 3 and 4, followed prikanalnaya dam gateway number 4 and the gateway number 5. Day 7 December, at 14 hours, was blown up by a gateway number 6. December 8th at 6 hours and 25 minutes blown dam number 20.

At the same time heavy fighting were in the area of the gateway number 1-7 BBK. After December 8 Finnish troops broke through the BBC and took Gabselga village. The Military Council of the Karelian Front withdrew from the post of commander of the army group Medvezhgorskoy MS Knyazev, who has not seen other developments as soon as the retreat. The commander of the Karelian Front VA Frolov ordered troops to immediately go to the counter and clear the eastern shore of the White Sea-Baltic Canal from enemy troops. The task has been executed. Until December 11 Finns fierce attacks trying to break through the channel in Povenets area and then above, the gateway area number 7, but all were rejected.

December 11, just after the departure of the Red Army, Soviet sappers blew up the gate number 7. hydrounit Povenchanskoy stairs (first 9 gateways BBK, rising to the watershed north of Povenets) were destroyed, the water from the watershed pond freely poured into Lake Onega through Povenets village which was nearly destroyed flow. Fairway White Sea-Baltic Canal has become the front line - the neutral zone. Finnish troops stopped at the line of the channel (on the western bank) and held the position until June 1944.

The postwar years[edit]

During the war the channel as a strategically important facility has undergone destruction: the southern part was completely destroyed. channel infrastructure is also badly affected, in particular, lighthouses and the village Povenets.

After the war, the damaged objects were restored, and the channel was again put into operation in July 1946 through navigation all along the channel was restored July 28, 1946

In 1950, after the February 2, 1950 was made of the RSFSR Council of Ministers of the overhaul and reconstruction of hydraulic structures BBK, work began on the gradual electrification structures and channel mechanisms. In 1953, the staff of the waterworks were included electricians, by 1957 were largely completed the electrification of the waterworks on the northern slope of the channel, and in 1959 all coastal and floating situational lights were switched to the power supply.

The value of the White Sea-Baltic Canal has increased especially after the commissioning of the modern Volga-Baltic Waterway in 1964. Channel capacity and the actual volume of freight traffic increased several times .

In 1970 it was carried out another channel reconstruction. During the reconstruction of the guaranteed depth of the fairway has been brought up to four meters, and the channel became part of the Unified system of the European part of the RSFSR.

Canal use[edit]

A part of article from the Soviet newspaper, announcing of the official opening of Belomorkanal

The cargo tonnage peaked during 1985 with 7.3 million tonnes being transported along the canal.[19] 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.[19] 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.[19]

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).[19]

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.[20] 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.[21]

Oil product shipping[edit]

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.[22]

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.[22]

Military use[edit]

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.[23] The White Sea Canal was also constructed with military use in mind,[24] and early in its history the canal was used to transfer the Northern Fleet's first warships to the White Sea from the Baltic.[25] [26]

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.[27]

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.[28][29] Some unfinished submarines from Leningrad's Baltic Shipyard and Gorky's (Krasnoye Sormovo shipyard) to the new Sevmash shipyard in Severodvinsk.[30]

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.[31]

Hydroelectric stations[edit]

The canal system includes five hydroelectric power generating plants, with the total production capacity of 240 MW.[19]


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.[32]


  1. ^ a b Сталинские стройки ГУЛАГа.1930–53», Москва, 2005,
  2. ^ Morukov 2004, p. 159
  3. ^ http://image.slidesharecdn.com/catalog-fenderbollard-130224235209-phpapp01/95/catalog-fenderbollard-47-638.jpg?cb=1361750574
  4. ^ http://www.globalspec.com/reference/39299/203279/chapter-8-tpc-and-displacement-curves
  5. ^ http://www.worldtraderef.com/WTR_site/vessel_classification.asp
  6. ^ Сроки работы шлюзов (Lock operation periods), from the site of the Russian Shipping Companies' Association. (Russian)
  7. ^ The Economics of Forced Labour: The Soviet Gulag, Chapter 8: "The White Sea–Baltic Canal" by Paul R. Gregory, page 158
  8. ^ "Gulag, The Storm projects - The White Sea Canal", Gulag.eu. Retrieved August 28, 2011.
  9. ^ O. Figes, The Whisperers 117 (2007)
  10. ^ a b Berman, Marshall (1983). All That Is Solid Melts Into Air. Verso. p. 76. ISBN 9780860917854. 
  11. ^ a b c d e f Система исправительно-трудовых лагерей в СССР
  12. ^ a b Ruder, p. 21
  13. ^ Khlevniuk, p. 35
  14. ^ O. Figes, The Whisperers 114 (2007).
  15. ^ 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
  16. ^ Anne Applebaum Gulag: A History (London: Penguin, 2003), p79
  17. ^ 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. 
  18. ^ Ruder, Cynthia Ann (1998). Making History for Stalin: The Story of the Belomor Canal. University Press of Florida. p. 248. ISBN 9780813015675. 
  19. ^ a b c d e 75 лет ББК (75 Years of the White Sea–Baltic Canal) (Government of Karelia Official Site, 2008-08-07) (Russian)
  20. ^ Нефтяники получили свое (The oilmen got their cargo), Murmansky Vestnik, No. 110, 16 June 2007. (Russian)
  21. ^ "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.
  22. ^ a b Alexei Bambulyak, Bjorn Franzen. Transportation of oil from the Russian part of the Barents Sea region, as of January 2005 (Russian)
  23. ^ Hauner, Milan L. (2004), "Stalin's big-fleet program", Naval War College Review, LVII (2 (Spring)): 89, 96 
  24. ^ Morukov 2004, p. 158
  25. ^ Hauner 2004, p. 103
  26. ^ 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 
  27. ^ Morukov 2004, p. 161
  28. ^ 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 
  29. ^ Submarines on stamps
  30. ^ Hauner 2004, p. 100
  31. ^ Polmar, Norman; Moore, Kenneth J. (2004), Cold War Submarines, Potomac Books, Inc., pp. 30,142,157–158, ISBN 9781597973199 
  32. ^ "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


External links[edit]

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