Tuesday, April 28, 2009

TWMM: Russia's Canal

In the 1930s, the Soviet Union undertook a massive construction project. England had Suez. America had Panama. The USSR's White Sea-Baltic Canal was just as massive an undertaking.

The massive canal starts at Saint Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland, travels up the Neva River and into the massive Lake Ladoga before it cuts overland for many miles until it reaches another massive and more remote freshwater lake, Onega, and from there it heads due north, through even more remote regions and through smaller lakes until at last it reaches the White Sea not too far from Archangel'sk, Russia's great northern port.

The canal doesn't save nearly as much time as the other two great canals of the world, but it allows purely domestic transport from Russia's second largest city to anywhere along the northern coast, without any need for routing past Germany and all of Scandinavia--and in the 1930s, finding a shortcut around Germany had its advantages.

The canal took less than two years to build and was hailed as a wonder of Soviet engineering, a triumph of the Five Year Plan.

Over 100,000 laborers, most of them conscripts against their will, died in the construction of the canal.

A popular brand of cigarettes, Belomorkanal, commemorated the epic feat for the Soviets for decades to come:
These unusual cigarettes were 'papirosas'; they were very strong and had no filters. They are still made today.

And for many years the canal, like the cigarettes, thrived; its yearly tonnage peaked in the late days of the Soviet Union, in 1985, when over 7 million tonnes passed through the canal.

But those days are over. Because the canal is too shallow, and because Russia is a shadow, and because the route is not so necessary anymore, this once-great waterway wrought by human hands at the cost of a hundred thousand lives sees hardly thirty ships a day plying its lonely route toward the vast northern reaches of an empire resurgent only when its past decline is ignored.

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