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Lakes, rivers and canals have been linked by the Soviet Government to form a navigable waterway between Leningrad on the Baltic, and Soroka on the White Sea. The engineering works were carried out in severe conditions, with an unusual form of labour

THE WEIR OF SHAVANSK DAM, one of the fifteen dams built to control the waters along the line of the White Sea Baltic Canal

THE WEIR OF SHAVANSK DAM, one of the fifteen dams built to control the waters along the line of the White Sea Baltic Canal. Great difficulty was experienced by the engineers responsible for the foundations of the dam. The weir is faced with timber, and the huge volume of water pours over it so smoothly that the water appears to be almost motionless.

WATER transport between the Baltic and the White Sea is effected along a waterway consisting of canals, lakes and rivers between the two seas. The main canal, which was opened in June 1933, extends for 142 miles from Soroka, on the Gulf of Onega, an arm of the White Sea, to Povyenetz, on Lake Onega, the second largest lake in Europe. There are nineteen locks, fifteen dams, twelve floodgates, forty dikes and thirty-two sections of canal. The building of these works was completed in about twenty-one months by extraordinary methods in severe climatic conditions and difficult country.

From Lake Onega the route to the Baltic is continued through waterways previously canalized to Lake Ladoga, which is the largest lake in Europe. In turn Lake Ladoga is linked by the River Neva with Leningrad, formerly known as Petrograd and as St. Petersburg when it was the capital of Imperial Russia. Leningrad is the largest of the northern ports of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and is on the Gulf of Finland, an arm of the Baltic Sea. This last part of the route was available before the building of the White Sea-Baltic Canal, and has recently been improved.

To the average English-speaking person the country traversed by the White Sea-Baltic Canal is less known than many places far more distant. The Russian engineers who built the canal were themselves hampered when they began by lack of accurate details. The engineers also lacked efficient machinery, modern plant and skilled workers. The work was carried out by prisoners in a little-known and neglected country in subarctic conditions. The methods used in building the canal were more nearly related to pioneering than to engineering as practised in settled countries where the engineer can have at his call the best of skilled men and

up-to-date appliances. Little steel was used in the construction, because it was not available, and some of the concrete work was afterwards admitted to be doubtful. Trees were cut down, however, and enormous quantities of timber were used for the locks and the dams. In the work the engineers learned lessons which were later applied with advantage to the building of the Moskva-Volga Canal, which is described in the chapter “Moscow’s Great Canal”.

The geographical reason for the canal is partly explained by a reference to a map of Europe. Europe’s largest two lakes lie at the base of the long neck of land that connects the continent with Scandinavia, Finland and a strip of North-Western Russia.

Traversing the Soviet territory is the single-track Murmansk Railway, which affords communication between Leningrad and Murmansk, an ice-free port which lies within the Arctic Circle. This remarkable railway is one of the most northerly working lines in the world, but it was considered inadequate for the demands made upon it. Several hundred miles along the line south of Murmansk is the port of Soroka, where timber from the forests is sawn. Eastward of Soroka is the great timber port of Archangel, which is at the southeastern corner of the White Sea.

Before the canal was cut all vessels bound from Archangel to Leningrad had to steam round North Cape and Scandinavia to get into the Baltic and then into the Gulf of Finland, a total distance of 2,840 nautical miles, or nearly the distance from Southampton to New York. The canal reduces the total distance to 674 nautical miles, which is a remarkable saving. Further, it affords a link with the Moskva-Volga Canal system.

There is another geographical advantage of the canal. The ocean coast of the huge territory of the Soviet Union fronts the Arctic Ocean and extends almost to North America. Soviet explorers have found an open-water route, available at certain periods, through the Arctic to the Pacific Ocean. They are establishing this route by aeroplanes, radio and meteorological stations and ice-breaking vessels. Aeroplanes survey the ice and tell the icebreakers what course to take, and convoys of vessels follow the icebreakers. New towns are being erected in the Arctic lands of Siberia. The country is immensely rich in timber, coal, gold, silver, platinum, nickel, tin, lead, manganese and oil. Hitherto these resources have been untapped because of lack of transport. The Trans-Siberian Railway lies too far to the south to solve the problem, and the great rivers flow north into the Arctic. The plan is to open up this enormous undeveloped region by river and sea transport.

Hence the White Sea-Baltic Canal affords a transport by-pass from Moscow and Leningrad round the top of Asia to the Far East. By using the resources of science and engineering the Russians are trying to open the northern door of the world. For centuries British and other navigators tried to open the North-East Passage, and if the Russians succeed in making the route a practicable one the mighty purpose for which so many gallant men have given their lives in the Far North will be achieved.

The building of the White Sea-Baltic Canal was so abnormal that to understand the peculiarities one must grasp certain of the essential differences between civil engineering in the Soviet Union and in other countries. When a great work is to be undertaken in a country where engineering is not so highly developed as in Great Britain, the United States, France, Germany and certain other countries, it is customary to throw the contract for the work open to the world. The Government of the country concerned awards the contract to a foreign firm, and that company executes the work for a stated price in a specified time. The Soviet Government, however, does not do this, and is rebuilding Russia in its own way. In the past many foreign engineers worked for the Soviet, and from time to time the Government has called in engineers as technical advisers and has bought foreign machinery. Russian engineers of the Soviet regime study the technique of their profession, and foreign machinery has been adapted or copied. The White Sea-Baltic Canal, however, was a Soviet work entirely.

Many of the trained engineers were in prison when the canal was decided upon. They were political offenders, and were not criminals in the general sense of the word. Many of the workers were also political offenders, although others were murderers, thieves and bandits from all parts of the vast country. Some came from places so remote that they did not speak Russian. Others, who were illiterate when they arrived at the site of the work, were taught to read and to write. After the completion of the canal, 12,484 persons were given their liberty, and the sentences of 59,516 persons were reduced.

There is no unemployment in Russia as there is in highly industrialized countries. Therefore the Soviet Government was not displacing free men by convict labour. As the Soviet lacked steel, machinery and efficient transport, the authorities used multitudes of unskilled men and women to do work that is performed elsewhere by mechanical appliances controlled by skilled men.

By means of all the instruments of propaganda the authorities strove to arouse enthusiasm among the workers. Every effort was made to appeal to the emotions, for the Russian is more temperamental than the Anglo-Saxon. In addition, the authorities had to contend with the not unnatural disinclination of a prisoner to work for those who had deprived him of his liberty.

THE WHITE SEA-BALTIC CANAL reduces to one quarter the distance for vessels sailing between Archangel and Leningrad. The canal extends from Soroka, a port on the Gulf of Onega, for 142 miles, through Lake Vyg to Lake Onega. The waterway continues through Lake Ladoga and the River Neva to Leningrad and the Gulf of Finland, an arm of the Baltic.

Such a system of labour caused complications. For each class of work a normal day’s output was established, and against this was set a certain amount of food. The worker referred to this output as his “norm”. If he did more he was given more food and more privileges. These extras were in accordance with the output exceeding the “norm”, which was fixed at 100 per cent. Further, the spirit of emulation was stirred by showing the output of each team of workers, and within that team the best worker was given a foreman’s job.

In the early stages some of the men were hard to convince. Those who refused to work stayed in the huts and generally became so bored with idleness and the remarks passed about them when the workers returned that they fell in line. There were occasions when teams faked the output by tricks such as piling broken rock on top of logs and claiming the whole pile as broken rock. Sometimes the output was faked so successfully that by the time those in charge had discovered the fraud the work was seriously behind schedule and strenuous efforts had to be made to save the situation. Also the competitive spirit was at times so strong that one gang was not above getting up in the night and taking wagons from a rival gang to increase its own output.

Apart from these peculiar difficulties the nature of the country and the climate were problems in themselves. The canal severs the rocky neck of land between Lake Onega and the White Sea in the autonomous State of Karelia. Information about the geology of the route was inadequate. In past ages glacial action had torn the surface and later the ground was forced upwards by subterranean pressure and further confused. The rock was on the surface in some places and at others wag covered by alluvial deposits, all under a layer of peat. In addition the climate was unreliable and there was not a month in the summer without frosts or a winter month without thaws. Also, the rise and fall of the rivers were uncertain.

In addition to these problems was the fact that an order was given that the canal had to be completed in twenty months. It was finished in one month over the time limit. The Government directed that the canal must be built to time, and that the engineers must apply simple designs and use raw materials to be obtained near the site. The main base was established near the southern end of the proposed canal. The first headquarters was just a railway coach on the Murmansk Railway, fitted up as an office. From this small beginning grew the nerve centre of the project.

Here and elsewhere along the canal wooden barracks, bath-houses, bakeries, kitchens, dining rooms and club houses were built. The first arrivals camped out while they erected the dwellings. Prisoners who claimed to be carpenters were assembled, furnished with all the available saws, axes, planes and hammers and set to work.

The free officials had conferences with the prisoner-engineers, whose great problem was to get skilled labour. Sometimes a prisoner was sent without guards to prisons in distant places to recruit skilled men and bring them back. Prisoners. who were electricians, carpenters, tractor drivers, smiths and fitters were eagerly sought, not only as workers but also as tutors for the huge army of the unskilled and as foremen for gangs of navvies. Thousands of women were also employed as cooks, waitresses and laundrywomen. Some of them wanted to work on the canal and did so.

ONE OF THE LOCKS, of which there are nineteen, in the White Sea Baltic Canal, canal. The summit of the canal is 354 ft. 4 in. above sea level. There are twelve locks between Soroka and the summit and a staircase of seven locks between the summit and Lake Onega.

Because of the long winter months much of the work had to be hurried forward at all possible speed during the spring and summer. In the winter the earth dams could not be built, because the frozen soil would thaw in the spring and give way under the pressure of water. Piledriving was likewise impossible, as with the thaw the piles would be loosened and were liable to be swept away. The winter was devoted to preparing for the spring and summer work and to building roads and accommodation. There was quite enough to do to clear the rough ground.

It was decided to make the summit level of the canal 108 metres (354 ft. 4 in.) to take the waterway across the watershed. The difficulty lay in the abrupt rise near Lake Onega. Here has been built a staircase of seven locks. The other twelve locks are spaced between the top of this Povenchansk Staircase and the sea.

Vessels enter the canal at Soroka and proceed through the first section of the canal, the various locks raising them nearly 200 feet above sea level in about fifty miles. Then vessels steam through the second section of the ascent, comprising four lakes and a small river. This section raises vessels to about 300 feet above the sea in about sixty-seven miles. The third section of the ascent reaches 354 feet in about thirteen miles, and then comes the sharp descent of about 227 feet in a short distance to the level of Lake Onega.

Lake Vyg was impounded by dams and the level of the lake was raised nearly 20 feet. Islands in the lake were submerged and five fishing villages were transferred to the new shore. Over sixty miles of the Murmansk Railway had to be shifted out of the way of the canal and relaid. More than 4,300,000 charges of explosive were used to blast a path for the canal through the rock, and more than 6,000,000 tons of granite were removed by this means.

On the southern slope of the watershed the ground was littered with boulders. These were lifted in nets and tumbled into carts drawn by horses. In the winter trees felled in the forest were carted on horse-drawn sleighs. Thousands of wheelbarrows were used in the early stages. At first there was a shortage of these because there was no foundry to cast wheels for them. A crude cupola was built at the small railway workshops and wheels were cast. The lack of steel cranes was overcome by building derricks of timber.

A Human Chain

The caissons for the cofferdams were of wood, and were huge timber crates which were filled with stones. One night the cofferdam which had been built across the River Vyg threatened to collapse. Below the dam was the unfinished canal, which was not ready to receive the water. The level of the impounded water had risen unexpectedly, had broken through the temporary earthen dam and was advancing towards the diggings. Men and women dashed to the workings when the alarm was given. They frantically filled bags with stones to repair the breaches in the dam. Some formed a human chain along which the bags were passed to those who thrust them into the breaches. Others threw boards across the tops of the threatened caissons under which water had collected, ran along these planks with wheelbarrows filled with stones and flung the stones into the caissons to weight them. After a terrific struggle that lasted for about eighteen hours the checked.

FLOODGATES IN THE CONCRETE AND TIMBER DAMS control the flood waters of the White Sea-Baltic Canal system

FLOODGATES IN THE CONCRETE AND TIMBER DAMS control the flood waters of the White Sea-Baltic Canal system. Some of the fifteen dams in the area are being used to supply electricity for the industrial development of Karelia and for the electrification of the Murmansk Railway.

In the winter of 1932-33 work was seriously behind on the watershed section of the canal, partly because far more rock had been encountered than was expected. In addition, abnormal floods were anticipated in the spring. Almost all the rivers had been dammed and the most important dams had been covered with concrete. Six of the seven locks of the Povenchansk Staircase also were nearly finished. It was therefore essential to hurry the work forward, so that when the impounded water rose in the spring the water could be let into this section of the canal and allowed to flow through to Lake Vyg, for otherwise the pressure would not be relieved and the works would be in danger of being swept away.

The authorities concentrated the best workers from all sections of the canal and aroused their enthusiasm by every means, even playing what they called “shock” workers to the site with a band. The great effort to avert disaster began on January 7, 1933, in bitter weather. The men toiled through snowstorms, and even if these ceased they had to contend with troubles such as quicksands, which filled trenches soon after they were dug. At one time no fewer than 30,000 workers were packed into a stretch of workings less than four miles long. They worked night and day, the workings being illuminated at night. Then the spring thaw began. But the toilers were on time, and the water was let into the vital section on April 23, 1933.

The weir for the great Shavansk Dam was built with considerable difficulty. The engineer sent to the site found when he arrived that the position indicated on the map was impossible because of the nature of the soil, and he searched until he found a site where a rocky projection offered a natural base. The river was cut off by a cofferdam and the excavation for the weir began. When the boulders were removed and the diabase (basaltic greenstone) was uncovered, a flaw was found in the rock at the deepest part of the basin, so that there was a possibility of the water penetrating the rock after the weir had been completed. The use of concrete solved this trouble. The wooden caissons were loaded, large stones being put in first, then rubble, gravel, sand and turf, and then a final layer of gravel and sand. The weir was faced with timber. Carpenters made a neat job of this, working with such exactitude that the final covering is so smooth that the water pouring over it resembles a sheet of glass and the cascade appears to be frozen motionless.

Waterfalls Silenced

Elsewhere the unskilled workers found the diabase such a hard rock to drill that they fell behind schedule until they learned to dig a trench, attack the rock from below and blow it up, instead of wasting energy by trying to bore through the hard upper layers from the top.

When the work began the Karelian peasants stood aloof. When river after river was dammed and the waterfalls were silenced, they became alarmed at this interference with Nature. Then the authorities sent agents who explained the object of the project, and some of the peasants volunteered to work alongside the prisoners.

Grass was planted along the canal banks, the sides of the locks and dams were laid with turf, and young pine trees were planted. A great five-pointed star 65 feet high was erected at Soroka, with a staircase leading to the top to afford a panorama of the White Sea port. On the opening day in June 1933, Stalin, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the U.S.S.R., and officials embarked in a steamer at Lake Onega and opened the new waterway.

In one year about 3,000,000 tons of freight passed from north to south. The canal has given the district an outlet for its timber and immense natural resources. The timber is used for large-scale woodworking and the wood-chemical industry. Rich deposits of minerals are found near the surface of the ground, including iron and copper, and there are valuable clays and granite. The many lakes abound in salmon and other fish, and the sea fisheries of the White Sea and the Arctic Ocean are valuable and capable of great development.

The dams are being utilized to provide electrical power, and the intention is to develop the entire area by means of what the Russians call a Combinat, a group of kindred industries.

THE FIRST LOCK on the White Sea-Baltic Canal is at Soroka, on the White Sea. Beside the lock is a huge five-pointed star, 65 feet high, built to commemorate the building of the canal, which was opened by Stalin, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the U.S.S.R., in June 1933. In one year about 3,000,000 tons of freight passed along the canal from north to south.

You can read more on “Canals Across Sweden”, “Moscow’s Great Canal” and “The Trans-Siberian Route” on this website.

White Sea-Baltic Canal