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The White Sea–Baltic Canal: Stalin’s Western Industrial Project That Cost 250,000 Lives

In terms of Megaprojects with a dark, bloody history, it’s hard to look past the 227 km (141 miles) stretch of water that connects the White Sea, Lake Ladoga and the Baltic Sea in the north-west of Russia. Known as the White Sea-Baltic Canal, this was one of the Soviet Union’s first large-scale construction projects and opened for business in 1933. 

As a feat of engineering, it was a highly impressive achievement but that is certainly not why people remember the White Sea-Baltic Canal – or to use its name before 1961, The Stalin White Sea-Baltic Canal. This was a project that exclusively used labour taken from the Gulag system and the human cost was enormous. Officially 25,000 died building this canal, and when the Soviet Union gave a massive death count like that, you know they were severely underplaying it. Other sources place the true figure closer to 250,000. This was horror on a truly Soviet scale. 

Today the canal is still widely used, though far less since the fall of the USSR. Transporting everything from oil, machinery, people and even military hardware, the White Sea-Baltic Canal was never quite as brilliant as the Soviets made out, thanks in part to it being too shallow as a result of timetable restrictions and it remains one of the most tragic construction projects of the last 100 years. 

Connecting Water

The idea of building a waterway of some kind in the region was first mentioned almost 300 years ago, during the reign of Peter the Great – Russia’s Emperor who ruled between 1682 and 1725. At this point, canals had been in use around the world for some time but with varying degrees of purpose. 

The Grand Canal in China is now nearly 1,500 years old, but the construction of canals really picked up after the start of the Industrial Revolution. Britain, Italy and France were the major canal builders in the early days, and by the start of the 20th Century, there were a huge 6,400 kilometres (4,000 miles ) worth of canals in Britain alone. 

Discussions over a potential canal around the White Sea-Baltic area formally began in 1799 and throughout the entirety of the 19th Century, designs came and went without a single one being approved. The reason being the project was just too costly and state finance was not available at the time – which isn’t a huge surprise when you hear that Russia spent around 46% of its annual budget on the military during this period. 

The idea was rejected so many times that it seems as if there was a momentary swing towards building a railway instead, though nothing came of this idea either. As Russia’s position during World War I began to worsen, it appeared as if the likelihood of a canal connecting the White Sea and Baltic Sea had all but evaporated. 

Revolution  

But what better way to kickstart a sluggish engineering sector than a good old fashioned revolution. When Russian descended into civil war in February 1917, it was anybody’s guess what might emerge. The abdication of the Tzar and his subsequent murder along with his family set Russia on a course for a radically different path. 

Almost immediately after the revolution, the canal concept began springing up again, and it appeared as if the stars were now aligning. A research group from the University of Perm and the Supreme Economic Council began preliminary studies in the area in 1918, but these were called off as the country sank further into bloody civil war. 

The battle between the Socialist Red Army, led by Vladimir Lenin and the White Army, a loose group formed of those supporting political monarchism, capitalism and social democracy, was a bitter one that would cost the lives of 1.5 million combatants, but perhaps as many as 8 million Russian citizens in total due to disease, famine and armed attacks.

By 1922, the Bolsheviks had finally established themselves and the communist party now reigned supreme. This was a period that saw intense geopolitical ramifications with Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland all establishing themselves as independent states. The rest was consolidated into an organization that would cast a long shadow across the world for the next 70 years – the Soviet Union. 

The Five Year Plan   

By the early 1930s, after the death of Lenin, the Communist Party and the Soviet Union found themselves in the vice-like grip of quietly spoken Georgian by the name of Joseph Stalin. The new leader faced a dizzying array of challenges, not least the need to modernise the Soviet Union. At this time, vast swaths of the USSR were desperately poor with many relying entirely on subsistence farming. 

When Stalin looked around Europe he saw countries thundering forward and no doubt wanted exactly the same for his homeland. The result was the first of thirteen five year plans. Now, we have already done a video here on Megaprojects focusing solely on the First Five Year Plan and we don’t really have time to delve too much into it. 

But I will say this. The First Soviet Plan was an astronomically ambitious modernization program that the Soviets undertook between 1928 and 1932, mainly focusing on developing heavy industry – which they actually had quite a bit of success with – and collectivizing agriculture – which directly or indirectly led to the deaths of around 12 million people through famine and disease. 

So if you’re interested in finding out more about this dark period of Soviet mega-modernisation, then why not take a look at that video after, but for now, it’s time to take a closer look at one of the projects that fell under the Five-year plan – The White Sea-Baltic Canal. 

Planning

In 1930, the Council of Labor and Defense released a report in which it outlined plans and feasibility studies relating to finally building the long-sought-after canal. The project was discussed in length at several Politburo meetings but it divided opinion. Stalin and several other members were broadly for it, while others had serious reservations, not least over the hazy economical benefits being pushed. 

The two major benefits being touted were the possible increase in timber exports and improved transportation with Siberia. In the region at the time, most industries were fairly limited and while the Kola Peninsula’s mining industrial complex was under construction, it was difficult to justify such massive cost. In response, cost estimates were slashed by a third with the project slated to not exceed 60 million roubles. That would have been around $30 million at the time and around $479 million today. This was done primarily by switching to the use of forced labour as the relative remoteness of the area meant that the cost of hired labour was seen as excessive. 

The most detailed set of studies so far were then carried out which explored various options but all came back to similar conclusions, original cost estimates had been absurdly low. The new budget for the planned canal was now 353 million roubles ($181 million back then and around $2.8 billion today), which was certainly a sizable increase, but this was just one of many obstacles facing the project. There was a lack of dredgers and excavators, along with engineers and technicians experienced in similar constructions. And remember that the decision had already been taken to only use Gulag prisoners, which led to the frankly surreal – but not when you think about the USSR – suggestion to start arresting engineers on trumped-up charges who would then take part in the building of the canal. 

A final meeting was convened and the project was finally given the go-ahead – but with significant corners cut. The budget was capped once again at 60 million roubles ($479 million today), a reduction made possible by the decision to limit the depth of the canal to 3.5 metres (11.5 ft), down from 5.4 metres (17.7 ft) – a small difference that would save a fortune but would seriously hamper the canal’s ability to handle larger boats for its entire life. It would also need to be completed at a break-neck pace, with a schedule of just two years earmarked.    

Construction

The construction of the canal was broken into four, with the route passing through three separate major lakes; Lake Vygozero, Lake Onega and Lake Ladoga, along with several smaller lakes. Information on the construction process itself is unfortunately severely lacking but we can piece together enough to give you an image of the horror show that was working on the White Sea-Baltic Canal. 

Of the 227 km (141 miles) only 48 km needed to be excavated as the rest passed through rivers or lakes. As I said, it consisted of four different sections that were worked on more or less simultaneously. The construction of this canal was astonishing in many ways. Not least because the prisoners building it usually needed to design it and work around problems as they went. Forget JCBs, pneumatic drills and unions, this was construction work in the most brutal Soviet sense you can imagine. Prisoners dug into the earth with little more than the primitive tools they had been supplied with, while teams of labourers worked in relays to move stones out of the canal.  

Basic wooden derrick furnaces were built to melt iron and steel and proved hugely successful with over a thousand tons of iron produced that could be used to manufacture machinery. At its peak, it’s thought that roughly 100,000 prisoners woke each morning and stumbled weakly out to begin work on the most ambitious construction project in the Soviet Union to date. Overall, the mortality rate was 8.7%, though this climbed to a high of 14% at one point. In a truly sadistic move, Soviet authorities played construction groups against one another with the reward of greater rations and even the distant possibility of early release for the work teams that worked the fastest.  

Gulag prisons were normally kept secret, but not here. The Soviets not only wanted to showcase their grand project but also highlight the “reforging of prisoners”. This supposed rehabilitation was meant to show prisoners who had wronged the Soviet Union now reformed and working hard for the good of the motherland – it was of course absolute crap, but many went blindly along with it. And with the full weight of the Soviet propaganda machine behind it, you can see why. Articles written in the USSR in Construction – which by the way might be the greyest name for a magazine ever – positively dripped with the glories associated with building the canal and to give you an idea, here’s just one passage, 

‘PEOPLE TAKEN FROM THE VERY DREGS. AS THEY CAME THEY THOUGHT: ‘THIS IS THE END OF LIFE FOR US’, BUT REAL LIFE HAD ONLY BEGUN FOR THEM. FOR NOT ONLY WAS THE NATURE OF THE LANDSCAPE CHANGED, BUT THE NATURE OF THE PEOPLE ALSO. PEOPLE WITH A SHADY PAST WERE TRANSFORMED INTO HONEST WORKERS.’ 

After the canal’s completion, Soviet authorities claimed that 12,484 prisoners were freed as a reward for hard work, and 59,516 prison terms were shortened as a result – I’ll leave the integrity of those stats up to you. 

As 1933 began, the canal was nearing completion but still had several gaps. With spring promising to bring its usual torrent of rain, it became a race against time to finish construction work.  

The Finished Canal 

White Sea–Baltic Canal, lock
White Sea–Baltic Canal, lock.By Alexxx1979 is licensed under CC-BY-SA

The canal was completed in May 1933 – four months ahead of schedule. It stretched for 227 km (141 miles) from the Soroka Bay of the White Sea at Belomorsk to the Baltic Sea near St Petersburg and included 19 locks along the way. The final cost reached 101 million roubles (roughly $815 million today), a little more than planned but still less than a quarter of what had been estimated at one point. It’s amazing what you can do with slave labourers with the carrot of freedom dangling just out of reach. 

Canal traffic began moving through almost immediately on 28th May 1933 with the steamship Chekist the first to traverse the waterway. 

The canal summit pond, the highest point of the canal, has an elevation of 103 metres (337ft) and is 22 km (14 mi) long, located between locks 7 & 8. From there, it is a consistent drop down to the Baltic Sea with the canal passing through five lakes of varying sizes; 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. 

Legacy 

The White Sea-Baltic Canal will forever have a terrible black mark next to it. Recent Russian efforts have sought to reframe the horrific atrocities that took place across the Soviet Union around this time but not everybody is buying it. Mass graves have been discovered all along the canal route, many revealing bodies with a single bullet hole to the back of the head. Modern Russia might want to paint Joseph Stalin as some kind of misunderstood hero from the past, but many simply refuse to forgive and forget what happened in the Soviet Union during the 1930s.  

The horrific irony of it all was that the Gulag system had proven itself hugely successful in that it managed to complete the canal ahead of schedule and more or less on budget. This meant that more and more construction projects were placed under the control of the system, which in turn meant many more thousands died. In fact, Soviet authorities were so impressed that many survivors of the White Sea-Baltic Canal were transferred to begin improvement work on another canal, the Volga-Baltic – what a glorious reward that must have been.  

As for the canal itself, the decision taken early on to reduce its depth proved debilitating for the White Sea-Baltic Canal as it could not accommodate large vessels. But it’s still seen plenty of traffic over the years. Over its first 75 years, 193 million tonnes of cargo moved along the canal with its peak annual tonnage coming 1985 when 7.3 million tonnes of goods passed through it. 

However the fall of the Soviet Union proved disastrous for the canal and in 2002, just 0.2 million tonnes went through the canal. A brief experiment to transfer oil along it ended in 2003 after a collision led to 45 tonnes of oil leaking out into the canal. Today the canal is still regularly in use, but it’s probably fair to say it has never been the glorious wonder project that Comrade Stalin had envisioned. 

Instead, it is perhaps the cruellest reminder of what the Soviet Union was willing to do to its own citizens in the name of progress. A while ago we did a video on Russia’s Road of Bones, an eastern highway that cost the lives of between 250,000–1,000,000 people through forced labour and sadly we can now add the White Sea-Baltic Canal to the list of horrific Soviet construction projects that may have blazed new trails, but came at a devastatingly high cost.   

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