The construction of the White Sea Canal, creating an inland waterway between the Baltic via Lake Onega and the White Sea, began in 1931. It relied on the labour of prisoners of the new Belbaltlag complex and of forced settlers, peasants “dekulakised” during collectivisation. It was the Soviet Union’s first major construction project using forced labour (compare Volgolag).
The headquarters of the White Sea-Baltic camp complex were in the Medvezhya Gora settlement, which acquired municipal status in 1939 as Medvezhegorsk. After the canal was officially opened in August 1933 the prisoners were used for its maintenance and for many other types of enterprise in the area. The outbreak of war with Nazi Germany led to its closure in September 1941.
Belbaltlag was the first of a number of gigantic camp systems in the USSR: in December 1932 it had a workforce of prisoners exceeding 100,000. During the construction of the White Sea Canal official figures offer the following rates of mortality: 1,438 persons or 2.24% of the prisoners in the BelBaltlag camp complex died in 1931; 2,010 persons or 2.03% died in 1932; and the following year, due to famine in the USSR and the rapidly approaching deadline to finish the project, 8,870 persons or 10.56% of the prison workforce died in 1933. (Losses were certainly higher since prisoners in the camp infirmary, for instance, were not counted as part of the workforce.)
After work on the canal was completed, over 12,000 prisoners were released and terms of imprisonment in the camps were reduced for a further 59,516 inmates of the White Sea-Baltic camp complex. In 1937-1938, to meet the quotas for executions handed down in the Great Terror, 1,988 Belbaltlag prisoners were shot at the site today known as Sandarmokh [10-09].
(See also The GULAG in NORTHWEST RUSSIA (1931-1960)
(All in the Karelian Republic, Northwest Russia)
Letnerenchesky settlement. Belbaltlag cemetery (1931-1941)
8th Lock settlement. Cemetery of Belbaltlag infirmary (1930s)
Sosnovets settlement. Belbaltlag cemetery (1931-1933)
Belomorsk. Belbaltlag cemetery (1931-1941)
Sandarmokh Memorial Complex. Execution and burial site (1937-1938)
[JC, August 2021]