Where mossy cliffs and waters slumbered
There, thanks to the strength of labor
Factories will be built
And towns will grow.
Smokestacks will rise up
Under the Northern skies,
Buildings will shine with the lights
Of libraries, theaters, and clubs.
—Medvedkov, a White Sea Canal prisoner, 19341
IN THE END, only one of the objections raised during the meetings of the Yanson commission caused any further concern. Although they were certain that the great Soviet nation would overcome the lack of roads, although they had few qualms about using prisoners as slave laborers, Stalin and his henchmen remained exceptionally touchy about the language foreigners used to describe their prison camps abroad.
In fact—contrary to popular belief—foreigners in this era described Soviet prison camps rather frequently. Quite a lot was generally known in the West about the Soviet concentration camps at the end of the 1920s, perhaps more than was generally known at the end of the 1940s. Large articles about Soviet prisons had appeared in the German, French, British, and American press, particularly the left-wing press, which had wide contacts among imprisoned Russian socialists.2 In 1927, a French writer named Raymond Duguet published a surprisingly accurate book about Solovetsky,Un Bagne en Russie Rouge (A Prison in Red Russia), describing everything from the personality of Naftaly Frenkel to the horrors of the mosquito torture. S. A. Malsagov, a Georgian White Army officer who managed to escape from Solovetsky and cross the border, published Island Hell, another account of Solovetsky, in London in 1926. As a result of widespread rumors about Soviet abuse of prison labor, the British Anti-Slavery Society even launched an investigation into the matter, and wrote a report deploring the evidence of scurvy and maltreatment.3 A French senator wrote a much-quoted article based on the testimony of Russian refugees, comparing the situation in the Soviet Union to the findings of the League of Nations’ slavery investigation in Liberia. 4
The White Sea Canal, northern Russia, 1932–1933
After the expansion of the camps in 1929 and 1930, however, foreign interest in the camps shifted, moving away from the fate of the socialist prisoners, and focusing instead on the economic menace which the camps appeared to pose to Western business interests. Threatened companies, and threatened trade unions, began organizing. Pressure grew, particularly in Britain and the United States, for a boycott of cheaper Soviet goods allegedly produced by forced labor. Paradoxically, the movement for a boycott clouded the whole issue in the eyes of the Western Left, which still supported the Russian Revolution, particularly in Europe, even if many of the leaders were uncomfortable about the fate of their socialist brethren. The British Labor Party, for example, opposed a ban on Soviet goods because it was suspicious of the motives of the companies promoting it.5
In the United States, however, trade unions, most notably the American Federation of Labor, came out in support of a boycott. Briefly, they succeeded. In America, the Tariff Act of 1930 prescribed that “All goods . . . mined, produced or manufactured . . . by convict labor or/and forced labor . . . shall not be entitled to entry at any of the ports of the United States.” 6 On that basis, the U.S. Treasury Department banned the import of Soviet pulpwood and matches.
Although the U.S. State Department failed to support the ban, which lasted only a week, discussion of the issue continued.7 In January 1931, the Ways and Means Committee of the U.S. Congress met to consider bills “relating to the prohibition of goods produced by convict labor in Russia.”8On May 18, 19, 20, 1931, The Times of London printed a series of surprisingly detailed articles on forced labor in the Soviet Union, concluding with an editorial condemning the British government’s recent decision to grant diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union. Lending money to Russia would, the editorialists wrote, put “more power into the hands of those who are openly working for their overthrow and for the destruction of the British Empire.”
The Soviet regime took the threat of boycott very seriously indeed, and a number of measures were taken to prevent it from disrupting the flow of hard currency into the country. Some of these measures were cosmetic: the Yanson commission finally dropped the expression kontslager, or “concentration camp,” from all of its public statements, for example. From April 7, 1930, all official documents described Soviet concentration camps as ispravitelno-trudovye lagerya (ITL), or “corrective-labor camps.” No other term would be used in the future.9
Camp authorities made other cosmetic changes on the ground, particularly in the timber industry. At one point, the OGPU altered its contract with Karellis, the Karelian woodcutting concern, so that it appeared as if prisoners were no longer being employed. At that time, 12,090 prisoners were technically “removed” from OGPU camps. In fact, they kept working, but their presence was disguised beneath the bureaucratic shuffle.10 Once again, the Soviet leadership’s main concern was appearances, not reality.
Elsewhere, prisoners working in the logging camps were actually replaced with free workers—or, more often, with exiled “settlers,” kulaks who had no more choice in the matter than prisoners.11 According to memoirists, this switch sometimes happened virtually overnight. George Kitchin, a Finnish businessman who spent four years in OGPU camps before he was freed with the help of the Finnish government, wrote that just prior to the visit of a foreign delegation,
A secret code telegram was received from the head office in Moscow, instructing us to liquidate our camp completely in three days, and to do it in such a manner that not a trace should remain . . . telegrams were sent to all work posts to stop operations within twenty-four hours, to gather the inmates at evacuation centers, to efface marks of the penal camps, such as barbed-wire enclosures, watch turrets and signboards; for all officials to dress in civilian clothes, to disarm guards, and to wait for further instructions.
Kitchin, along with several thousand other prisoners, was marched out of the forest. He believed that more than 1,300 prisoners died in this and other overnight evacuations.12
By March 1931, Molotov, then Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars, felt confident that there were no prisoners left working in the Soviet forestry industry—or at least no visible prisoners—and he invited all interested foreigners to visit and see for themselves. 13 A few had already been: the Communist Party archives of Karelia record the presence, in 1929, of two American journalists, “Comrade Durant and Comrade Wolf,” American contributors to TASS, the Soviet news agency, as well as “radical newspapers.” The two were welcomed by a rendition of theInternationale, the workers’ anthem, and Comrade Wolf promised to “tell the workers of America how the workers of the Soviet Union live and how they are creating a new life.” It was not to be the last such staged occasion.14
Yet although pressure for a boycott had collapsed by 1931, the Western campaign against Soviet slave labor had not been wholly without effect: the Soviet Union was, and would remain, very sensitive to its image abroad, even under Stalin. Some, among them the historian Michael Jakobson, now speculate that the threat of the boycott might even have been an important factor behind another, larger shift in policy. The logging business, which required a great deal of unskilled labor, had been an ideal way to make use of prisoners. But wood exports were one of the Soviet Union’s main sources of hard currency, and they could not be put at risk of another boycott. Prisoners would have to be sent elsewhere—preferably somewhere where their presence could be celebrated, not hidden. There was no lack of possibilities, but one in particular appealed to Stalin: the construction of a vast canal, from the White Sea to the Baltic Sea, across a landscape largely composed of sheer granite.
In the context of its time, the White Sea Canal—Belomorkanal, in Russian, or Belomor, for short—was not unique. By the time construction began, the Soviet Union had already begun to execute several similarly grand, similarly labor-intensive projects, including the world’s largest steelworks at Magnitogorsk, huge new tractor and automobile works, and vast new “socialist cities” planted in the middle of swamps. Nevertheless, even among the other offspring of the gigantomania of the 1930s, the White Sea Canal stood out.
For one, the canal represented—as many Russians would have known—the fulfillment of a very old dream. The first plans to build such a canal had been drawn up in the eighteenth century, when Czarist merchants were looking for a way to get ships carrying timber and minerals from the cold waters of the White Sea to the commercial ports of the Baltic without making the 370-mile journey through the Arctic Ocean, down the long coast of Norway.15
It was also a project of extreme, even foolhardy ambition, which is perhaps why no one had tried it before. The canal required 141 miles to be dug, five dams, and nineteen locks. Soviet planners intended to build it using the lowest possible technology, in a pre-industrial, far northern region which had never been properly surveyed and was, in Maxim Gorky’s words, “hydrologically terra incognita.”16 All of this, however, may have been part of the project’s appeal to Stalin. He wanted a technological triumph—one the Old Regime had never managed—and he wanted it as fast as possible. He demanded not only that the canal be built, but also that it be built within twenty months. When completed, it would bear his name.
Stalin was the chief promoter of the White Sea Canal—and Stalin specifically wanted the canal to be built with prison labor. Before its construction, he furiously condemned those who questioned whether, given the relatively light volume of traffic in the White Sea, such an expensive project was really necessary. “I’m told,” he wrote to Molotov, “that Rykov and Kviring want to squelch the matter of the Northern Canal, contrary to the Politburo’s decisions. They should be taken down a peg and given a slap on the wrists.” During a Politburo meeting at which the canal was discussed, Stalin also wrote an angry, hastily scribbled note, which speaks of his belief in inmate labor: “As for the northern section of the canal, I have in mind relying on the GPU [prison labor]. At the same time we must assign someone to calculate yet again the expenses in building this first section . . . Too much.”17
Nor were Stalin’s preferences kept secret. After the canal’s completion, its top administrator credited Stalin both for his “bravery” in undertaking to build this “hydrotechnical giant,” and for the “wonderful fact that this work was not completed by an ordinary workforce.”18 Stalin’s influence can also be seen in the speed with which the construction began. The decision to begin building was made in February 1931, and, after a mere seven months of engineering work and advance surveying, the work began in September.
Administratively, physically, even psychologically, the first prison camps associated with the White Sea Canal were an outgrowth of SLON. The canal’s camps were organized on the SLON model, used SLON’s equipment, and were manned by SLON’s cadres. As soon as it began, the canal’s bosses immediately transferred many inmates from SLON’s mainland camps and from the Solovetsky Islands to work on the new project. For a time, the old SLON and the new White Sea Canal bureaucracies may even have competed to control the project—but the canal won. Eventually, SLON ceased to be an independent entity. The Solovetsky kremlin was re-designated a high-security prison, and the Solovetsky archipelago simply became another division of the Belomor–Baltiiskii [White Sea–Baltic] Corrective-Labor Camp, known as “Belbaltlag.” A number of guards and leading OGPU administrators also moved from SLON to the canal. Among them, as noted, was Naftaly Frenkel, who managed the daily work of the canal from November 1931 until its completion.19
In survivors’ memoirs, the chaos that accompanied the building of the canal takes on an almost mythological quality. The need to save money meant that prisoners used wood, sand, and rocks instead of metal and cement. Corners were cut wherever they could be. After much discussion, the canal was dug to a depth of only twelve feet, barely enough for naval vessels. Since modern technology was either too expensive or unavailable, the canal’s planners deployed vast quantities of unskilled labor. The approximately 170,000 prisoners and “special exiles” who worked on the project over the twenty-one-month construction period used wooden spades, crude handsaws, pickaxes, and wheelbarrows to dig the canal and to build its great dams and locks.20
From photographs taken at the time, these tools certainly seem primitive, but only a closer look reveals exactly how primitive. Some of them are still on display in the town of Medvezhegorsk, once the gateway to the canal and the “capital” of Belbaltlag. Now a forgotten Karelian village, Medvezhegorsk is notable only for its enormous, empty, roach-infested hotel, and for its small local history museum. The pickaxes on display there are actually slices of barely sharpened metal, tied to wooden staves with leather or string. The saws consist of flat metal sheets, with teeth crudely cut into them. Instead of dynamite, prisoners broke up large rocks using “hammers”—hunks of metal screwed on to wooden handles—to pound iron bars into the stone.
Everything, from the wheelbarrows to the scaffolding, was handmade. One inmate remembered that “there was no technology whatsoever. Even ordinary automobiles were a rarity. Everything was done by hand, sometimes with the help of horses. We dug earth by hand, and carried it out in wheelbarrows, we dug through the hills by hand as well, and carried away the stones.” 21 Even Soviet propaganda bragged that stones were dragged away from the canal on “Belomor Fords . . . a heavy truck on four small, solid wooden wheels made out of tree stumps.”22
Living conditions were no less makeshift, despite the efforts of Genrikh Yagoda, the OGPU chief who bore political responsibility for the project. He appeared genuinely to believe that prisoners would have to be given decent living conditions if they were to finish the canal on time, and frequently harangued camp commanders to treat prisoners better, to “take maximum care to see that prisoners are correctly fed, clothed and shod.” Commanders followed suit, as did the chief of the Solovetsky division of the canal project in 1933. Among other things, he instructed his inferiors to liquidate queues for food in the evenings, to eliminate theft from the kitchens, and to restrict the evening head count to an hour. In general, official food norms were higher than they would be a few years later, with sausage and tea among the recommended products. Theoretically, prisoners received a new set of work clothes every year.23
Nevertheless, the extreme haste and lack of planning inevitably created much suffering. As work progressed, new camp sites had to be built along the course of the canal. At every one of these new sites, the prisoners and exiles arrived—and found nothing. Before starting work they had to build their own wooden barracks and organize their food supply. In the meantime, it sometimes happened that the freezing cold of the Karelian winter killed them before they completed their tasks. According to some calculations, more than 25,000 prisoners died, although this number does not include those who were released due to illness or accident, and who died soon afterward. 24 One prisoner, A. F. Losev, wrote to his wife that he actually longed to be back in the depths of Butyrka prison, since here he had to lay on bunks so crowded that “if during the night you roll from one side to another, at least another four or five people have to roll over too.” Even more desperate is the later testimony of a young boy, the son of exiled kulaks, who was deported with his entire family to one of the settlements that had just been built along the canal:
We ended up living in a barrack with two layers of bunks. Since there were small children, our family was given a lower bunk. The barracks were long and cold. The stoves were lit twenty-four hours a day, thanks to the fact that firewood was plentiful in Karelia . . . our father, and main source of food, received on behalf of all of us, one third of a bucket of greenish soup, in whose dark water swam two or three green tomatoes or a cucumber, a few pieces of frozen potato, shaken together with 100–200 grams of barley or chick-peas.
In addition, the boy remembered that his father, who worked building new houses for the settlers, received 600 grams of bread. His sister received 400 grams. That had to suffice for all nine members of the family.25
Then, as later, some of the problems were reflected in official reports. At a meeting of the Communist Party cell of Belbaltlag in August 1932, there were complaints about the poor organization of food distribution, dirty kitchens, and increasing incidents of scurvy. Pessimistically, the secretary of the cell wrote that “I have no doubt that the canal will not be built on time . . .”26
But for most, there was not the option of doubt. Indeed, the letters and reports written by the canal’s administrators over the period of its construction carry overtones of overwhelming panic. Stalin had decreed that the canal would be built in twenty months, and its builders well understood that their livelihoods, and possibly their lives, depended upon it being completed in twenty months. To speed up work, camp commanders began to adopt practices already being used in the “free” working world, including “socialist competitions” between work teams—races to fulfill the norm or move the stones or dig the hole first—as well as all-night “storms,” in which prisoners “voluntarily” worked twenty-four or forty-eight hours in a row. One prisoner remembered when electric lights were strung up around the work site so that work could continue for twenty-four hours a day.27Another prisoner received 10 kilos of white flour and 5 kilos of sugar as a prize for good performance. He gave the flour to the camp bakers. They made him several loaves of white bread, which he ate all at once, alone.28
Along with the competitions, the authorities also adhered to the cult of the udarnik or “shock-worker.” Later, shock-workers were renamed “Stakhanovites,” in honor of Aleksei Stakhanov, a ludicrously overproductive miner. The udarniki and Stakhanovites were prisoners who had overfulfilled the norm and therefore received extra food and special privileges, including the right (unthinkable in later years) to a new suit every year, in addition to a new set of work clothes every six months.29 Top performers also received significantly better food. In the dining halls they ate at separate tables, beneath posters reading “For the best workers, the best food.” Their inferiors sat beneath posters reading “Here they get worse food: refusers, loafers, lazy-bones.” 30
Eventually, top performers were also released early: for every three days of work at 100 percent norm-fulfillment, each prisoner received a day off his sentence. When the canal was finally completed, on time, in August 1933, 12,484 prisoners were freed. Numerous others received medals and awards. 31 One prisoner celebrated his early release at a ceremony complete with the traditional Russian presentation of bread and salt, as onlookers shouted, “Hooray for the Builders of the Canal!” In the heat of the moment, he began kissing an unknown woman. Together, they wound up spending the night on the banks of the canal.32
The White Sea Canal construction was remarkable in many ways: for its overwhelming chaos, for its extreme haste, and for its significance to Stalin. But the rhetoric used to describe the project was truly unique: the White Sea Canal was the first, last, and only Gulag project ever exposed to the full light of Soviet propaganda, both at home and abroad. And the man chosen to explain, promote, and justify the canal to the Soviet Union and the rest of the world was none other than Maxim Gorky.
He was not a surprising choice. By this time, Gorky was well and truly a part of the Stalinist hierarchy. After Stalin’s triumphant steamer trip down the completed canal in August 1933, Gorky led 120 Soviet writers on a similar expedition. The writers were (or so they claimed) so excited by this journey that they could hardly hold their notebooks: their fingers were “shaking from astonishment.”33 Those who then decided to write a book about the building of the canal received plenty of material encouragement as well, including a “splendid buffet lunch at the Astoria,” a grand, Czarist-era Leningrad hotel, to celebrate their participation in the project.34
Even by the low standards of social realism, the book that emerged from their efforts—Kanal imeni Stalina (The Canal Named for Stalin)—is an extraordinary testament to the corruption of writers and intellectuals in totalitarian societies. Like Gorky’s foray into Solovetsky, Kanal imeni Stalina justifies the unjustifiable, purporting not only to document the spiritual transformation of prisoners into shining examples of Homo sovieticus, but also to create a new type of literature. Although introduced and concluded by Gorky, the responsibility for the bulk of the book was ascribed not to one individual but to a thirty-six-writer collective. Using lavish language, hyperbole, and the gentle massaging of facts, they strove together to capture the spirit of the new age. One of the book’s photographs encapsulates its theme: it depicts a woman, dressed in prison garb, wielding a drill with great determination. Beneath her is the caption “In changing nature, man changes himself.” The contrast with the cold-blooded language used by the Yanson commission, and the economic agenda of the OGPU, could not be more stark.
For those unfamiliar with the genre, some aspects of the social realist Kanal might seem somewhat surprising. For one, the book does not attempt to disguise the truth altogether, as it describes the problems created by the lack of technology and trained specialists. At one point, the book quotes Matvei Berman, at the time the commander of the Gulag: “You will be given one thousand healthy men,” Berman tells an OGPU subordinate:
“They have been condemned by the Soviet government for various terms. With these people you are to accomplish the work.”
“But permit me to ask, where are the warders?” the OGPU man responds.
“The warders you will organize on the spot. You will select them yourselves.”
“Very well; but I know nothing about oil.”
“Get the imprisoned Engineer Dukhanovich to be your assistant.”
“What good is he? His specialty is the cold drawing of metals.”
“What do you want? Are we to condemn the professors you require to concentration camps? There is no such clause in the Penal Code. And we are not the Oil syndicate.”
With those words, Berman then sent the OGPU agent off to do his job. “A crazy affair,” notes Kanal’s authors. Within “a month or two,” however, the OGPU man and his colleagues are bragging to one another about the successes they have achieved with their ragtag group of prisoners. “I’ve got a colonel who’s the best lumberjack in the entire camp,” crows one; “I have a field engineer on excavation work—an ex-cashier embezzler,” says another.35
The message is clear: material conditions were difficult, the human material was rough—but the all-knowing, never-failing Soviet political police succeeded, against all the odds, in transforming them into good Soviet citizens. Thus actual facts—the primitive technology, the lack of competent specialists—were deployed to give verisimilitude to an otherwise fanciful portrait of life in the camps.
Much of the book, in fact, is taken up with heartwarming, semireligious stories of prisoners “reforging” themselves through their work on the canal. Many of the prisoners thus reborn are criminals, but not all. Unlike Gorky’s Solovetsky essay, which dismissed or minimized the presence of political prisoners, Kanal features some star political converts. Fettered by “caste prejudice, Engineer Maslov, a former ‘wrecker,’” tries to “veil with iron those dark and deep processes of reconstruction of his conscience which were continually surging within him.” Engineer Zubrik, a working-class ex-saboteur, “honestly earned the right to return again to the bosom of the class in which he was born.” 36
But Kanal imeni Stalina was by no means the only literary work of the time to praise the transforming powers of the camps. Nikolai Pogodin’s play, Aristokraty—a comedy about the White Sea Canal—is another notable example, not least because it picks up on an earlier Bolshevik theme: the “lovability” of thieves. First performed in December 1934, Pogodin’s play (eventually made into a film called Prisoners) ignores the kulaks and politicals who constituted the bulk of the canal’s inmates, instead depicting the jolly japes of the camp bandits (the “aristocrats” of the title) using a very mild form of criminal slang. True, there are one or two sinister notes in the play. At one point, a criminal “wins” a girl in a card game, meaning his opponent must capture her and force her to submit to him. In the play, the girl escapes; in real life, she would probably not have been so lucky.
In the end, though, everyone confesses to their previous crimes, sees the light, and begins to work enthusiastically. A song is sung:
I was a cruel bandit, yes,
I stole from the people, hated to work,
My life was black like the night.
But then they took me to the canal,
Everything past now seems a bad dream.
It is as if I were reborn.
I want to work, and live and sing . . .37
At the time, this sort of thing was hailed as a new and radical form of theater. Jerzy Gliksman, a Polish socialist who saw Aristokraty performed in Moscow in 1935, described the experience:
Instead of being in the usual place, the stage was built in the centre of the edifice, the audience sitting in a circle around it. The director’s aim was to draw the audience closer to the action of the play, to bridge the gap between actor and spectator. There was no curtain, and the stage settings were exceedingly simple, almost as in the Elizabethan theatre . . . the topic—life in a labour camp—was thrilling in itself. 38
Outside the camps, such literature had a dual function. On the one hand, it played a role in the continuing campaign to justify the rapid growth of prison camps to a skeptical foreign public. On the other hand, it probably also served to calm Soviet citizens, disquieted by the violence of collectivization and industrialization, by promising them a happy ending: even the victims of the Stalinist revolution would be given a chance to rebuild their lives in the labor camps.
The propaganda worked. After seeing Aristokraty, Gliksman asked to visit a real labor camp. Somewhat to his surprise, he was soon taken to the “show” camp at Bolshevo, not far from Moscow. He later recalled “nice white beds and bedding, fine washing rooms. Everything was spotlessly clean,” and met a group of younger prisoners who told the same uplifting personal stories that Pogodin and Gorky had described. He met a thief who was now studying to become an engineer. He met a hooligan who had seen the error of his ways and now ran the camp storeroom. “How beautiful the world could be!” a French film director whispered into Gliksman’s ear. Alas for Gliksman, five years later he found himself on the floor of a packed cattle car, heading for a camp that would bear no relationship to the model camp at Bolshevo, in the company of prisoners very different from those in Pogodin’s play.39
Inside the camps, similar propaganda played a role as well. Camp publications and “wall newspapers”—sheets posted on bulletin boards for prisoners to read—contained the same sorts of stories and poems told to outsiders, with some slight differences of emphasis. The newspaper Perekovka(“reforging”), written and produced by the inmates of the Moscow–Volga Canal, a project begun in the wake of the “success” of the White Sea Canal, is typical. Filled with praise for shock-workers, and descriptions of their privileges (“They don’t have to stand in line, they are given food straight at the table by waitresses!”), Perekovka spends less time than the authors of Kanal imeni Stalina singing hymns to the advantages of spiritual transformation, and more time discussing the concrete privileges inmates might gain if they worked harder.
Nor is there quite so much pretense about the higher justice of the Soviet system. The issue of January 18, 1933, reprinted a speech made by Lazar Kogan, one of the camp bosses: “We cannot judge whether someone was rightly or wrongly imprisoned. That’s the business of the prosecutor . . . You are obliged to create something valuable to the state with your work, and we are obliged to make of you someone who is valuable to the state.” 40
Also notable is Perekovka’s open and extremely candid “complaints” department. Prisoners wrote in to complain about the “squabbling and swearing” in the womens’ barracks on the one hand, and the “singing of hymns” on the other; about unfulfillable norms; about shortages of shoes or clean underwear; about the unnecessary beating of horses; about the black-market bazaar in the center of Dmitrov, the headquarters of the camp; and about the misuse of machinery (“there are no bad machines, only bad managers”). This sort of openness about camp problems would disappear later, banished to the private correspondence between camp inspectors and their overlords in Moscow. In the early 1930s, however, such glasnost was quite common outside the camps as well as within them. It was a natural part of the urgent, frantic drive to improve conditions, improve work standards, and—above all—to keep pace with the feverish demands of the Stalinist leadership.41
Walking along the banks of the White Sea Canal today, it is hard to conjure up that near-hysterical atmosphere. I visited the site on a lazy day in August 1999, in the company of several local historians. We stopped, briefly, to look at the small monument to the victims of the canal in Povenets, which bears a brief inscription: “To the innocents, who died while building the White Sea Canal, 1931–1933.” While we stood there, one of my companions insisted on ceremonially smoking a “Belomor” cigarette. He explained that the “Belomor” cigarette brand, once one of the Soviet Union’s most popular, was for decades the only other monument to the canal’s builders.
Nearby stood an old trudposelok, or “exile settlement,” now virtually empty. The large, once-solid houses, made of wood in the Karelian style, were boarded up. Several had begun to sag. A local man, who came originally from Belorussia—he even spoke a little Polish—told us that he had tried to buy one of the houses a few years ago, but the local government would not sell it to him. “Now it’s all falling apart,” he said. In a little garden behind the house he grew squash and cucumbers and berries. He offered us homemade liquor. With his garden and his 550-ruble pension—at the time, about $22 per month—he had enough, he said, to live on. Of course there was no work to be had on the canal.
And no wonder: along the canal itself, boys were swimming, throwing stones. Cows waded in the murky, shallow water, and weeds grew through the cracks of the concrete. Alongside one of the locks, in a small booth with pink curtains and the original Stalinist columns on the outside, the lone woman controlling the rise and fall of water told us that there were perhaps seven passing ships a day at the most, and often only three or four. That was more than Solzhenitsyn saw in 1966, when he spent a whole day beside the canal and saw two barges, both carrying firewood. Most goods by then, as nowadays, travel by rail—and, as a canal worker told him, the waterway is so shallow that “not even submarines can pass through it under their own power; they have to be loaded on barges.” 42
The shipping route from the Baltic to the White Sea had not, it seemed, proved so urgently necessary after all.