Belomor Canal

   The first great project of the Soviet forced labor camps, or gulag system, was the building of a canal 200 kilometers from the White Sea to the Baltic Sea between 1931 and 1933. The canal was supposed to allow the Soviet navy to transfer major warships between the White and the Baltic seas. The project employed more than 100,000 prisoners, the vast majority of whom were peasants the OGPU had arrested for resistance to collectivization. In one of the first active measures of the Stalin years, the canal was used to demonstrate the humanity of the Soviet prison system. Books praising the humanity of the OGPU staff in saving desperate criminals by honest labor were widely distributed in the West, but the reality was different. The canal consumed peasant workers by the thousands. According to some sources, as many as 20,000 prisoners perished in the building of the canal, and tens of thousands more were broken by their service. Worse still for the Soviet military, the canal was icebound several months a year, and too shallow to accept major warships. It rapidly became little more than a ditch. The Belomor Canal was a model for larger forced labor projects in Siberia and the Far East. A cigarette product named after the canal continues to be sold to this day in Russia.

Historical dictionary of Russian and Soviet Intelligence. . 2014.

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