White Sea-Baltic Canal

White Sea-Baltic Canal

The White Sea-Baltic Sea Canal ( _ru. Belomorsko-Baltiyskiy Kanal; BBK), is a ship canal that joins the White Sea and the Baltic Sea near St. Petersburg. Its original name was (until 1961) "Belomorsko-Baltiyskiy Kanal imeni Stalina" ("Stalin White Sea-Baltic Sea Canal"), and it is known under the abbreviation "Belomorkanal". During its construction, according to official data 10,933 people died [ [http://club.fom.ru/books/zemskov.pdf V.N. Zemskov "Prisoners in 1930-th: social - demographic problems" (in Russian), see page 62, stats for 'BelBaltLag' line] ] (although various estimates have placed the figure at significantly higher). The canal was opened on August 2, 1933.

The canal runs partially along several rivers and two lakes, Lake Onega and Lake Vygozero. The total length of the route is 227 km (141 miles). Its economic advantages at present are limited by its depth, between ten and twelve feet deep, making it useless to most sea-going vessels. Today it only gets light traffic, between 10 and 40 boats a day.


Total waterway length is 227 km, 48 of which are artificial portions.Canal current direction is set from Lake Onega to the White sea, and allnavigation signs are set according to it.

Canal route

The canal begins near Povenets settlement in Povenets bay of Lake Onega. Right after Povenets there are seven locks close to each other, comprising the 'stairs of Povenets'. These locks are the southern slope of the canal. The canal summit pound of 22 km long is between the 7th and 8th locks. The northern slope has 12 locks, 8th - 19th. The route of the northern slope runs along 5 large lakes: Lake Matkozero (between 8th and 9th locks), Lake Vygozero (between 9th and 10th locks), Lake Palagorka (between 10th and 11th locks), Lake Voitskoye (between 11th and 12th locks), Lake Matkozhnya ( between 13th and 14th locks). The canal empties out into the Soroka Bay of the White Sea in Belomorsk. The following settlements are located along the canal: Povenets, Segezha, Nadvoitsy, Sosnovets, Belomorsk.

Sailing conditions

Navigable channel is 4 m deep, 36 m wide, radius of curvature is 500m. Locks' dimensions: 135 m long, 14.3 m wide. Speed limit in all artificial portions is 8 km/h. In case of low visibility (less that 1 km) navigation is stopped.

Typical navigation season length is 165 days.

Canal use

The cargo tonnage peaked in 1985 with 7.3 million tons transiting the canal. It remained high during next five years, and then declined. Early in the 21th century amounts began to rise gradually, but they are still low comparing to peak volumes, e.g. 283,400 tons in 2001, 314,600 tons in 2002.

The availability of the canal allows to ship heavy or bulky items from Russia's industrial centers to the White Sea, and then on 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 from there by the ocean-going "Kapitan Danilkin" to Dudinka on the Yenisei. [ [http://www.b-port.com/info/smi/mv/?issue=2823&article=53696 "Нефтяники получили свое"] ("The oilmen got their cargo"), "Murmansky Vestnik", No. 110, 16 June 2007. ru icon]

The canal is also a promising river cruises route.

Oil product shipping

The canal can be used for shipping oil products from oil refineries on the Volga to the consumers in Murmansk Oblast or overseas. Russia's Volgotanker, which owns a fleet of suitably sized petroleum tankers and ore-bulk-oil carriers, pioneered this route in August 1970, when "Nefterudovoz-3" delivered a cargo of fuel oil to the White Sea port of Kandalaksha.Alexei Bambulyak, Bjorn Franzen. [http://www.wwf.ru/data/publ/oil_report_russian.pdf Transportation of oil from the Russian part of the Barents Sea region, as of January 2005] ru icon]

After many years' interruption, Volgotanker resumed using this route in 2003. The company plans was to carry800,000 (metric) tons of fuel oil over the canal in 2003, and to increase the volume to 1,500,000 tons next year. The fuel wasto be transferred from Volgotanker river tankers to Latvian seagoing tankers at a floating transfer station near the Osinki Island in the Onega Bay, 36 km north-east of the port of Onega.

Transfer operations started on June 24, 2003. But already on September 1 a low-speed collision between Volgotanker's "Nefterudovoz-57M" and Latvian "Zoja-I" during such a transfer caused a crack the "Nefterudovoz's" hull, with a subsequent oil spill. Various estimates of the extent of the spill have been made, the final one being 45 tons, of which only 9 tons have been collected. Volgotanker's alleged failure to contain the spill or to timely cooperate with the competent authorities resulted inthe Arkhangelsk Oblast authorities shutting down the oil transfer operations, after only 220,000 tons have been exported. The company was fined and did not get a permit for similar operations in the following year.

History of the construction of the canal

The Soviets 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 built over the course of 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 [ [http://www.hooverpress.org/productdetails.cfm?PC=1026 "The Economics of Forced Labor: The Soviet Gulag", Chapter 8: "The White Sea–Baltic Canal" by Paul R. Gregory, page 158] ] .

Organization and management

The workforce for the Canal was supplied by the Belbaltlag camp directorate (White Sea Baltic Corrective Labor Camp Directorate, WSBC) of the OGPU GULAG.
*Lazar Kogan, chief of the BBK Construction Directorate
*Yakov Davidovich Rappoport (, deputy chief of the BBK Construction Directorate
*Naftaly Frenkel, the Chief of Works, November 16, 1931 to the end of construction.
*Semyon Grigoryevich Firin (), Chief of Construction since 1932Fact|date=November 2007, also mentioned in 1933 documents as chief of WSBC
*E.I. Senkevich (Э. И. Сенкевич), chief of WSBC, November 16, 1931-January 16, 1932, also assistant chief of the BBK Construction Directorate [http://www.memo.ru/HISTORY/NKVD/GULAG/r3/r3-31.htm Система исправительно-трудовых лагерей в СССР ] ]
*P.F. Aleksandrov (П. Ф. Александров), acting chief of WSBC, January 16, 1932, full chief since March 28, 1932 to at least January 15, 1933

Working conditions

The Soviets portrayed the project as evidence of the efficiency of the Gulag. Supposedly "reforging" criminals through "corrective labor," the working conditions at the BBK Camp were brutal. The mortality was about 20%Fact|date=February 2008. Still more became sick and disabled.

Belomorkanal and Russian writers

A carefully prepared visit to Belomorkanal may have hid the worst of the brutality from a group of Russian writers and artists, including Maxim Gorky, Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy, Viktor Shklovsky, and Mikhail Zoshchenko, who compiled a work in praise of the project. However, it should be noted that Shklovsky visited Belomorkanal on his own and did not travel there with the Writers Brigade organized by Maxim Gorky. Likewise, Gorky himself did not travel with the Brigade but instead organized the trip. Gorky had previously visited the Solovki 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.


The canal was commemorated by the Soviet cigarette brand Belomorkanal. There is a monument for the prisoners killed during the construction at Povenets, and a small memorial in Belomorsk near 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 _ru. "заключённый", "zakliuchyonnyi", usually abbreviated to 'з/к' in paperwork, pronounced as 'зэка' (zeh-KA), gradually transformed into 'зэк' and to 'зек' (zek). The word is still in colloquial use. Originally the abbreviation stood for "zaklyuchyonny kanaloarmeyets" (заключённый каналоармеец), literally "incarcerated canal-army-man". The latter term coined in an analogy with the words "krasnoarmeyets", "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, how shall we call them? (…) I thought up the word: "kanaloarmeyets". What do you think?" Mikoyan approved it. ["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 ]


Further reading

* Maxim Gorky, L. Auerbach, S. G. Firin (editors), "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, 1935
* 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
* Cynthia A. Ruder, "Making History for Stalin: The Story of the Belomor Canal", University Press of Florida, 1998, 284 pages, ISBN 0-8130-1567-7

External links

* [http://www.iisg.nl/collections/belomorkanal/ Belomorkanal]
* [http://www.osa.ceu.hu/gulag/c.htm Photos and some info from Open Society Archives]
* [http://media.hoover.org/documents/0817939423_151.pdf Chapter from "Economics of Forced Labor: The Soviet Gulag"]

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