On February 18, 1931, the USSR Labor and Defense Council made a resolve to start the construction of the White Sea-Baltic Sea Canal using the prisoners of the Siberian camps as free labor.
The new concentration camp “Belbaltlag” was founded at the construction site, and prisoners were transported there from other camps. In September 1931, the construction works began. Genrich Yagoda, the head of the secret service, and Matvey Berman, the administrator of the infamous concentration camps system “GULAG” were in charge of the project. The immediate supervisor of the construction was Naphtal Frenkel, an agent of the secret service, who proposed using the prisoners during construction to save money.
Prisoners who were well-educated enough developed the schematics of the canal, while the unqualified ones dug it. Their technical equipment was primitive – axes, shovels, and wheelbarrows. The daily ration of the worker consisted of a loaf of bread and a plate of thin broth, and if the worker was behind schedule, the administration cut his ration. Hunger and labor caused a very high death rate among prisoners – about seven hundred people could die in a day, but transports with new workers came to Belbaltlag regularly, so there was no shortage in workforce. The dead were simply buried under the concrete bottom of the canal.
Soviet newspapers wrote about the construction in an inspiring manner. According to the articles, the force of the collective work made criminals and political offenders working at the construction repent their sins and become law-abiding people. In 1933, right before the canal came into operation, a group of Soviet writers visited the project site, spoke with workers and surveyed the camp. The camp administration had prepared everything for that visit, so the writers were amazed by the wealth and happiness of the canal-builders. One of the visitors, Lev Nikulin, wrote in a letter to Genrich Yagoda, “Humanity is a great word and, as it seems to me, no one should reject it. You, the first builder of the White Sea-Baltic Sea Canal, did a lot in the name of humanity, and your main deed is the hard work in the improvement of humanity.” The book, written by those writers, described the Belbaltlag as the best place to rectify offenders.
Two hundred and eighty thousand prisoners participated in the construction of the canal, and about 100,000 of them died. The sentences of those prisoners who survived were shortened, and some prisoners were even decorated with the “Order of the White Sea–Baltic Sea Canal”.
Stalin did not want to abridge the prisoner’s sentences, however. There were many other important constructions, and the free labor force remained necessary, so it was not practical to set the best workers free. He offered to decorate them all with orders instead of discharging them, but this decision was not made.
The canal was brought into operation on August 2, 1933. It was 227 kilometers long, and it had taken only two years to build it. The Panama Canal, which is 80 kilometers long, was built in 28 years, while the 160-kilometers-long Suez Canal was built in ten years.
Once the canal was open, ships got the opportunity to sail from the White Sea to the Baltic Sea without having to go round the Scandinavian Peninsula. In addition, building the White Sea-Baltic Sea Canal triggered the development of the cities and of the industry in the region between the White and Baltic Seas. Nowadays the Canal is still navigable and there are many memorials to its builders on its banks.