25.04.2022 // On 2 August 1933, the construction of the White Sea-Baltic Waterway was completed. The construction of a canal connecting Lake Onega with the White Sea was one of the biggest projects of the first Soviet five-year plan. It began in September 1931 at the initiative of Joseph Stalin and ended in August 1933. The 227-kilometre-long canal was built by prisoners of BelBaltLag (a Gulag unit), a total of about 280 thousand people. Today, tourists can learn about the history of one of Russia's main hydraulic structures by joining a guided tour or a sea cruise.
The world-famous Suez Canal, 160 kilometres long, was built over ten years, while it only took less than two years to drill 227 kilometres through the rock, the channel that would become the White Sea-Baltic Canal, known in Russia as Belomorkanal. This undertaking required the involvement of prisoners, as the Belomorkanal became the first Soviet labour camp doubling as a large-scale construction site.
The decision to build a canal that would connect the White Sea and Lake Onega was made in 1930. On 16 October 1931, drilling and excavation began simultaneously throughout the entirety of the future waterway, all the way from the settlement of Povenets on the coast of Lake Onega to the village of Soroka (modern town of Belomorsk) on the White Sea.
Approximately 280,000 Gulag prisoners were involved, building the canal by hand without any construction equipment. The canal was commissioned ahead of schedule, and many prisoners went on to be released early in reward for their hard work. Among those who won freedom through toil was the future academician Dmitry Likhachyov.
In May 1933, first steamships entered the White Sea Canal, and the official opening of navigation followed in August 1933. Russia's northern regions had now been connected to its central part by the shortest possible waterway. The hydraulic facilities at the White Sea Canal included 19 locks, 15 dams, 19 water outlets, 49 dikes, 33 artificial canals and five hydroelectric power plants.
During the Great Patriotic War, the southern part of the White Sea Canal was nearly wiped off the face of the earth. After the end of the war, the damaged facilities had to be rebuilt essentially from scratch.
Today the Belomorkanal is open for visiting by tourists. Here one can study the unique system of hydraulic facilities, as well as get a feel of the toll its creation took. The tourist water route starts at the museum-reserve on Kizhi Island and ends on the Solovetsky Islands. Cruise ships shuttle along the White Sea Canal, and special programmes for tourists have been developed.
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