Soviets Open the White Sea-Baltic Canal Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

By using prisoner labor, Soviet political police built the White Sea-Baltic Canal in less than two years. The canal’s rapid construction came at the cost of at least twenty-five thousand lives.

Summary of Event

On August 2, 1933, the Council of People’s Commissars of the Soviet Union issued a decree proclaiming the opening of a canal connecting the White Sea with the Baltic Sea. The canal, which had been built in just twenty months by tens of thousands of prison-camp inmates working under the direction of the Soviet political police (OGPU), was to be named in honor of Joseph Stalin, general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). The decree celebrated the new canal as a triumph of Soviet engineering and an enlightened penal administration, and the canal was hailed as a key to the future economic and cultural value of the entire Soviet north. In reality, the decree vastly overstated the economic value of the White Sea-Baltic Canal and concealed the brutality with which it had been constructed. [kw]Soviets Open the White Sea-Baltic Canal (Aug. 2, 1933) [kw]White Sea-Baltic Canal, Soviets Open the (Aug. 2, 1933)[White Sea Baltic Canal, Soviets Open the (Aug. 2, 1933)] [kw]Baltic Canal, Soviets Open the White Sea- (Aug. 2, 1933) [kw]Canal, Soviets Open the White Sea-Baltic (Aug. 2, 1933) White Sea-Baltic Canal[White Sea Baltic Canal] Engineering;White Sea-Baltic Canal[White Sea Baltic Canal] [g]Soviet Union;Aug. 2, 1933: Soviets Open the White Sea-Baltic Canal[08380] [c]Engineering;Aug. 2, 1933: Soviets Open the White Sea-Baltic Canal[08380] [c]Government and politics;Aug. 2, 1933: Soviets Open the White Sea-Baltic Canal[08380] [c]Transportation;Aug. 2, 1933: Soviets Open the White Sea-Baltic Canal[08380] Stalin, Joseph Yagoda, Genrikh Grigoryevich Gorky, Maxim Berman, Matvei Davidovich Kogan, Lazar Iosifovich Frenkel, Naftaly Aronovich

The idea of building a canal across the desolate, thinly populated area known as Karelia first arose in the eighteenth century. Only five hundred miles separated the new city of St. Petersburg (renamed Leningrad in 1924) and Arkhangel’sk, Russia’s principal port on the White Sea, but there was no direct water route between the two cities. Ships had to sail around Scandinavia using the Arctic Ocean, the North Sea, and the Baltic Sea, a distance of more than 3,500 miles. Czarist-era governments, however, repeatedly concluded that the estimated expenses of building a canal far outweighed any foreseeable economic or strategic benefits.

Stalin was determined to prove that the Soviet Union’s communist system could succeed where its prerevolutionary, capitalist predecessors had failed. He believed that the answer to the problem of cost was to use political prisoners and ordinary criminals as unpaid laborers. Many of the OGPU’s concentration camps were located in Karelia and on the Solovetskiye Ostrova (the Solovetski Islands) in the White Sea. Since the mid 1920’s, Solovetski prisoners had been working in an OGPU logging enterprise operated by Naftaly Aronovich Frenkel, a former inmate who had been recruited into the Solovetsky prison-camp administration. At Stalin’s insistence, the OGPU was commissioned to build the White Sea-Baltic Canal in just twenty months. The organization lacked modern construction equipment, and their labor consisted of tens of thousands of prisoners instead of skilled workers. OGPU deputy chairman Genrikh Grigoryevich Yagoda had overall responsibility for the project. In late 1930 or early 1931, the OGPU created the chief administration of camps (Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei in Russian, or Gulag for short) to coordinate the supply of labor for this and the other large-scale projects that it would eventually undertake.

Survey work on the canal route began in February, 1931, and actual digging began in September. The proposed route would make use of Leningrad’s Neva River and two deep lakes, Ladoga and Onega, but 141 miles would still need to be excavated between the two lakes and between Lake Onega and the White Sea. Plans called for the construction of nineteen locks, but Stalin’s timetable and the lack of up-to-date equipment and materials obliged the project’s administrators to resort to cutting corners wherever possible. The locks and dikes were constructed out of logs, rocks, and earth rather than metal and cement. Moreover, canal engineers decided to excavate the canal to a depth of only twelve to fifteen feet, which would be much too shallow for most oceangoing vessels and would undermine the reasons for building the canal in the first place.

According to documents found in Soviet archives after the collapse of the Soviet Union, about 170,000 prisoners worked on building the canal. They were forced to work year round in a harsh environment close to the Arctic Circle, and they had to fulfill high work quotas using primitive, homemade tools. Prisoners had to build their own barracks. It is difficult to determine how many of them died building the White Sea-Baltic Canal, but the memoirs of survivors indicate that the death rate was high. Fragmentary archival evidence suggests that more than twenty-five thousand people perished; the actual number was probably much higher.





On May 1, 1933, Yagoda notified Stalin that construction of the canal had been completed on schedule, and Stalin himself sailed through the canal in late July on an inspection tour. The Soviet government bestowed its highest award, the Order of Lenin, on eight of the men who had overseen the project, including Yagoda; Matvei Davidovich Berman, head of the Gulag; Lazar Iosifovich Kogan, who had headed the construction project; and Frenkel, who had taken over daily operations in November, 1931.

On August 17, a group of 120 Soviet writers, led by Maxim Gorky, sailed through the canal. In February of 1934, thirty-six of them published an official history, edited by Gorky, of the building of the White Sea-Baltic Canal. This volume praised not only the project’s managers for their achievement but also presented the project as a successful penal experiment in rehabilitating enemies of socialism and ordinary criminals, and it concealed the degree to which human suffering and death had occurred. By the end of the 1930’s, Yagoda, Berman, and Kogan—though not Frenkel—had all been executed in Stalin’s purges. All copies of the official history were withdrawn from public libraries and destroyed.


The construction of the White Sea-Baltic Canal was the first major industrial project undertaken by the Soviet political police. Its organizers pioneered the use of forced labor by massive numbers of Gulag prisoners as a substitute for scarce financial resources, advanced technology, and skilled labor. Their example would be followed in subsequent mammoth construction and mining projects located in remote and inhospitable regions of the Soviet Union up to Stalin’s death in 1953.

The completed White Sea-Baltic Canal typified the achievements and shortcomings of Stalinist methods for transforming Russia into a modern industrial country. It was a remarkable achievement given the primitive technology employed in its construction, but its usefulness was limited. Stalin, Yagoda, and the police officials who oversaw the project were completely indifferent to its human costs. It was built more for prestige and propaganda and to prove Stalin’s belief in the efficacy of slave labor than as part of a carefully developed plan. White Sea-Baltic Canal[White Sea Baltic Canal] Engineering;White Sea-Baltic Canal[White Sea Baltic Canal]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Applebaum, Anne. Gulag: A History. New York: Doubleday, 2003. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for history; argues that Stalin considered slave labor to be indispensable to Soviet industrialization.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baron, Nick. “Conflict and Complicity: The Expansion of the Karelain Gulag, 1923-1933.” Cahiers du monde russe 42 (April-December, 2001): 615-48. Using local archives, this article provides estimates of the number of inmates who were employed and who died on the building of the White Sea-Baltic Canal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gorky, Maxim, L. Auerbach, and S. G. Firin, eds. Belomor: An Account of the Construction of the New Canal Between the White Sea and the Baltic Sea. Edited and translated by Amabel Williams-Ellis. 1935. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Hyperion Press, 1977. An abridged and greatly altered English translation of the Russian, which was an official history prepared by a team of thirty-six writers headed by Maxim Gorky.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Khlevniuk, Oleg V. The History of the Gulag: From Collectivization to the Great Terror. Translated by Vadim A. Staklo. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2004. Argues that the vast expansion of the Gulag and the Great Terror were planned by the Stalinist leadership and that the need for labor with special skills influenced the pattern of arrests.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Service, Robert. Stalin: A Biography. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005. An assessment of Stalin’s life and rule that emphasizes the complexity of his character and his fascination with ideas.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I. The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation. Translated by Thomas P. Whitney. 4 vols. New York: Harper & Row, 1975. Second volume of Solzhenitsyn’s trilogy contains a sarcastic critique of the official history edited by Gorky. Utilizes recollections from surviving inmates.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tolczyk, Dariusz. See No Evil: Literary Cover-ups and Discoveries of the Soviet Camp Experience. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999. Critiques representations of Soviet concentration camps in official Soviet literature, including the official history of the construction of the White Sea-Baltic Canal.

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Categories: History