Making History for Stalin: The Story of the Belomor Canal

Making History for Stalin: The Story of the Belomor Canal

Making History for Stalin: The Story of the Belomor Canal

Making History for Stalin: The Story of the Belomor Canal


The Belomor Canal, exalted in the 1930s by the Stalinist press, came to symbolize what was morally deplorable in Stalinism. Making the story available for the first time in English, Cynthia Ruder reconstructs the Canal project as a pivotal social, political, historical, and, most important, literary event.

Built with forced labor, the Belomor project has been a forbidden topic for half a century. With access to recently opened archives and to interviews with Canal construction survivors themselves, Ruder examines the project and its attendant literary works -- drama, poetry, novels, and the collectively written History of the Construction of the Stalin White Sea-Baltic Canal -- to create an unusually broad understanding of Stalinist culture. She argues that the project was the first to institutionalize the philosophy of perekovka, the idea that a new people who personify the Soviet Union in action and deed could be created through forced labor and ideological reeducation.

As both a construction project and a literary event, Belomor was characterized by coritradictions: enthusiasm versus revulsion, good will versus cynicism, self-destruction versus self-preservation, and scorn for the West versus a desperate hunger to impress it. Ruder shows that these juxtapositions capture the tension that infused many other events at the time, turning Belomor into a microcosm of life and literature in Soviet Russia.


The purpose of this study is to expxilore the construction of the Belomor Canal within the context of the literary works written to commemorate it. Foremost among these is The History of the Construction of the Stalin White Sea-Baltic Canal, a volume notorious in the annals of Russian literary history largely because of its topic--the construction of the White Sea- Baltic Canal (Belomor) through the use of forced labor. In reconstructing the history of the Belomor project and its attendant literary works, I hope to encourage a deeper understanding of the mechanisms at work in the development and implementation of Stalinist culture and to reopen the discussion of the Belomor incident.

When considered as a constellation of literary and historical events, Belomor makes an interesting case study in Stalinist policy and practice. Belomor marks the first construction project where the officially sanctioned program of political-social reforging--an idea that had only been theorized about prior to that time--was fully implemented. Although the public rhetoric about political-social reforging virtually disappeared after the 1930s, reforging itself continued--albeit less overtly--to influence cultural thought and policy throughout the existence of the Soviet Union. Moreover, Belomor continued to emphasize collective labor as the process through which the USSR would modernize and sovietize itself. As such, Belomor becomes a pivotal event in tracing the evolution of Soviet cultural policy and the politics of control.

Thanks to its interdisciplinary nature, this study will appeal to a variety of readers. The joining of a cultural-historical narrative with literary analysis will appeal to specialists in Soviet history and literary studies, as well as to generalists in the field of Soviet studies. Even those readers interested in transportation history will find useful new information. Finally, this study will appeal to readers who simply are interested in Soviet history and culture.

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