Kem and Belomorsk.

These 2 towns mark the halfway mark between the 1400km from Murmansk and St Petersburg..

Kem is the White Sea port from which summer tourists take boat trips to Solovetsky Island which is a historic monastery. But in the 1920’s Solovetsky became a place of political exile for the enemies of the Bolshevik regime thus it became the prototype for what was to become the GULAG.

Downtown Belomorsk

Downtown Belomorsk

..its probably lovely in the summer....

..its probably lovely in the summer....

Nah...probably not

Nah...probably not

In a way Karelia is the birthplace of the Soviet GULAG system as it spread from here all across the USSR. In Belomorsk the first large scale works project of Stalin’s GULAG was undertaken; The White Sea Canal. A massive engineering feat to link the White Sea at Belomorsk with the Baltic Sea at St Petersburg by building canals between the natural lakes.


It took 170,000 prisoners and exiles working day and night a mere 21 months to carve the canals out of the frozen granite and permafrost without anything but hand-tools which they fashioned for themselves. Nobody knows for sure how many died, estimates put it at somewhere between the official 10,000 and 87,000

In the end there was not much traffic demand for the canal and it was too shallow for the larger ships that were being developed by the mid 1930’s. It has been resurrected since the 1990’s primarily for the use of the summer pleasure boaters. Its funny, no one I spoke to in Belomorsk thought that the Canal was the result of so much human suffering…to them it was just a summer playground.

There is no monument…no stone of commemoration here. At least I couldn’t find one.

I suppose being here in winter limits my scope for sightseeing…I mean Solovetsky is closed for the winter and there is no safe way onto the island. Much of the Canal works is frozen and under several feet of snow, the only visible signs being the sluice gates and dams that were built later to harness the power of the canal system.

Frozen sluice gates on the Canal

Frozen sluice gates on the Canal

But I think summer allows a Panglossian view of these things. Even sitting warm in the cab of the truck it’s easy to be lulled into viewing this landscape as a type of winter wonderland, even knowing just how bitter that -19C outside feels.

The GULAG prisoners worked 12 hour days and 6 day weeks on meagre rations in the same conditions I experience here today but without the Gore-Tex jacket and thermal layers and a warm truck to seek refuge within… In a way being here in the winter makes the White Sea Canal and its construction all the more real.

There are anonymous tracks deep through the forest here which lead to rusted fences or the barely recognisable outlines of long forgotten GULAG camps. The frozen earth still occasionally pushes up the frozen, mummified remains of some long forgotten, unrecorded prisoner.

Whereas the local cemetery stretching into the forests outside of town is well marked



There are many histories, memoirs, and reports about life in the GULAG prison camps of the Soviet Union from Siberia to the Steppe; many of them horrifying, some of them depressing, and all of them sad.

But it all began right here.


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