09.12.2000 | V.Ovsienko, Kyiv



Veniamin V. Ioffe, the head of St.-Petersburg historical-educational society ‘Memorial’, invited me this summer to visit the neighborhood of the Belomoro-Baltic canal to search ruins of the concentration camps of the 30s-40s. Besides, on 5 August, on the Day of beginning of Big Terror of 1937-38, we planned to take part in the mourning meeting in Sandormokh, where about 6 thousand people had been shot, and to visit the notorious Solovki.

Nine persons took part in the expedition: two of us, former political convicts, a member of ‘Memorial’ Irina Reznikova, three boys – Nikolay Demyanov, Aleksandr Svetlov, Aleksey Starov, and three girls – Nina and Olga Reznikova (the daughters of Irina) and Julia Karpenko. The majority of these youths finished the secondary school this summer. Some of them are the winners of all-Russian competition of historical research works for pupils of high grades ‘Russia – the 20th century’. All of them are seriously working at the memorial topics.

We left St.-Petersburg on 27 July by train and next day we were in the Karelian town Kargumiaki (Medvezhyegorsk, in Russian) situated at the northern bank of the Onega Lake, on Povenetskiy Bay. The name of the station of the Olonetskaya railway (once Kirovskaya, then Oktiabrskaya) is ‘Medvezhya Gora’ (‘Mt. Bear’).

In the town we foremost visited the museum, which is situated in the building of the former office of the construction of the Belomoro-Baltic canal. It was built in 1931. Near the museum the monument is erected to Kirov, ‘a favorite of party and people’ Kirov, who personally managed the constructing. In the town there still remained such streets as Sovetskaya or named after Kirov and Dzerzinski.

The director of the museum Sergey I. Koltyrin created a special exposition concerning the building of the canal in 1931-33. The exposition includes tools of the builders (barrow, pecker, saw, spade, lamp ‘bat’), photos from this period, sheme of the canal, which, together with lakes and the river Svir, have the length of 221 km, from the settlement of Povenets at the Onega Lake to the town of Belomorsk on the White Sea shore. 37 km of the artificial canal bed, 19 sluices with the hatches 14 meters wide and 200 meters long, were built altogether in 20 months.

Most of the sluices have two hatches, i.e. the hatches are consecutive. Up to the 7th sluice a ship scales in each hatch by 7-8 meters, totally by 125 meters. From this place, going through the rest of sluices, it lowers by 105 meters to the White Sea. Without the pumping a sluice fills with water in 12 minutes.

The canal connected the White Sea and the Baltic Sea, as well as, through the Volga-Baltic canal, with the Caspian, Black and Azov Seas. It functions up to now, but after the war the wooden bonding was substituted with concrete, but some of northern sluices are still wooden.

In Europe of the end of 19th - beginning of 20th centuries, in the period, when shipment was the cheapest way of transportation, such canals were constructed during tens of years. Knowing this, one may be proud of the labor feat of the Soviet people, but we cannot forget that at this construction perished about 100 thousand of slaves, or maybe even more (different numbers are specified).

According to Marx’s economic theory, the energy that guarantees the progress is the muscle brawn of workers. To use this brawn to the best advantage on this object, Marxists arrested hundreds of thousands of people, including the outstanding scholars and professionals in building. They founded in Medvezhyegorsk the project institute, in which complicated engineering problems were brilliantly solved. The main part of the ‘manpower’ was peasants, who were considered by Marxists as potential enemies of the ‘classless society’, and who were, at this period, very actively destroyed as ‘kulaks’. Being driven by the ‘power of workers and peasants’ to the mosquito bogs and snows, these good managers died of starvation and exhausting work. Even their graves are not known. They not only dug the canal, they also worked in the lumbercamps in the taiga, where special settlements and camps were built. Some of such camps, especially these, which were operating till 50s, still exist nowadays and are signed on the maps as ‘ruins’, ‘untenantable’ or ‘hut’. Just these objects we were going to search.

Stalin himself was expected to come to the opening of the canal. A hotel with high tower was specially built in Medvezhyegorsk, near the building of the office of the canal. From the tower the leader had to look over 30 kilometers at the settlement of Povenets, where the canal begins from the Onega Lake. Stalin did not come to Medvezhyegorsk, he was only present at the opening of the canal on 2 September 1933. He said that the canal was narrow and shallow.

On 17 August 120 writers headed by Maksim Gorky came to the Belomoro-Baltic canal. They had to anthem this ‘labor feat of the Soviet people’. Already on 20 January 1934 the book of essays of 36 authors was published, including those by Gorky, Aleksey Tolstoy, Ilya Erenburg, Vera Inber, Fedor Panfiorov, Mikhail Zoshchenko, Valentin Katayev, Viktor Shklovskiy and Mikhail Prishvin. The rest of the writers, whose human consciousness could not afford such ‘creative inspiration’, were repressed soon. This team also included several Ukrainians. They wrote nothing and were later buried in ten kilometers of Povenets, in Sandormokh, among 1111 convicts of the Solovki concentration camp of special regime, who were shot on 27 October, 1, 2, 3 and 4 November (see the August issue of English edition of the bulletin ‘Prava ludyny’ for 1999).

The nature here was regarded as an enemy of people. ‘If the enemy does not capitulate, he must be destroyed’, said Maksim Gorky. Another communist genius, Michurin, said, ‘We cannot wait favors from the nature, our task is to force it to give us favors’. The woods around the Belomoro-Baltic canal have not recovered up to now.

‘Manpower’ in the post-Soviet countries is exhausted and demoralized.

On 28 July at 6:30 we went from Medvezhyegorsk to Povenets by bus.

Near the second sluice there is a modest granite monument with the bell over it. ‘To commemorate the innocently perished at the building of Belomoro-Baltic canal in 1931 – 1933. In honor of the 500th anniversary of foundation of the settlement of Povenets’, is written on the monument.

During the WW2 here, on the West bank of the canal, the Finnish army was staying, which, properly, had no intention to cross this frontier of dwelling of the Karelian people in order not to be accused of an invasion (therefore the Nuremberg Court did not included Finland to the list of countries-aggressors). In 1944 the Soviet troops blew the second and third sluices. The settlement of Povenets was swept away by the water. The Finns retreated. When, being in the museum, we asked about the lot of civil population, Mr. Koltyrin very unwillingly answered that the population was warned. More willingly he told about heroic deeds of soldiers of the Soviet liberation army, to whom many monuments are erected here.

The first seven sluices, mostly with two hatches, are situated in several hundreds meters from each other for the space of about ten kilometers. About 9 o’clock we reached the 3dr sluice and boarded the ship ‘Typhoon’. It is very interesting to watch how a hatch is filling with water. In several minutes a ship is rising above the settlement and trees, which remain to the left and below. To the right there are lakes, from where the water comes to he hatches. From the 7th to the 8th sluices the ship sails along the Volozero Lake and then about 8 kilometers along the artificial canal.

The soil around is sucked with blood,

Though spilt without a knife

(T. Shevchenko.)

The 7th and 8th sluices are the watershed. The Matkozero Lake, which begins after the 8th sluice is situated below.

Here we found the waterman Aleksey, who put us across the Matkozero Bay. After drinking tea we went through the bog to the Krasnaya river. Log-paved roads, built here by convicts, are quite ruined. But before it was used for crossing the bog on foot and even by horse-carts, it was repaired, rotten logs were changed for new. Such logs connected concentration camps and special settlements with each other and with the external world. The wood was transported by these logs. In one place we found four metal wheels – the remains of a carriage, to which horses were hitched and which was rolling along wooden rails. Now all these logs are not suitable for walking. They are mainly landmarks (the logs are marked on maps). It is more convenient to walk by the bog near the logs. You are stepping on the moss and your foot goes deep to the water, sometimes up to the knee. And all this with knapsacks weighing 30-40 kg.

After passing about three kilometers of bog, about 6 o’clock p.m. we camped on a high dry bank of the Krasnaya river. Gnats annoyed us. At the time when we were cooking the supper Irina Reznikova brought from somewhere a local inhabitant Aleksandr Riabov, who agreed to be our guide. Two women came from somewhere – and these were the only people whom we met there.

Veniamin Ioffe and Aleksey Starov returned from their reconnaissance. They found ruins of a special settlement two kilometers southwest from our camp. In the morning of 29 July me, together with Aleksey and Olga, went to these ruins and photographed them. The ruins consist of three solidly built on a high place log cabins (25x10, 10x8 and 18x8). The roofs had collapsed, but the walls were unbroken. The windows were big, without bars. One barrack had the long corridor, out of which separate, probably living, rooms lead. Another barrack was separated in three parts by blind walls. Maybe, it was a storehouse. All was built approximately in the 30s. The settlers probably were ‘kulaks’. They cut the wood and transported it sometimes by logs and sometimes by dry land to the Matkozero Lake. The forest there is now young – about 50-60 years, but there are lots with old forest, which was not cut.

After the dinner all our expedition headed by guide Aleksandr crossed the Krasnaya river and moved in the northwest direction. The land here is comparatively dry, there are even hills up to 10 meters. Boulders of the Ice Age lay around. Trees, fallen of the wind of the old age, grip these boulders fantastically with their roots.

We came to a hut near the lake, which Aleksandr called ‘Svetlaya Lambushka’ (‘lamba’ in native language is ‘lake’, and ‘svetlaya’ in Russia is ‘clear’). There is no civilization. Our boys and girls, and then me, swam in the lake, although the water is cold.

At 6 o’clock p.m. we moved along the almost invisible path northward to the Konzhozero Lake, went along the bank for some time and then pitched our tents. This place was more civilized: there were some tracks after fires, an oven for smoking fish, a table and benches (already rotten). We ate sitting on the sand on the lake bank. The boys collected the firewood, the girls headed by Julia were cooking cereal, noodles and tea. I found a long metal rod, fixed it between two boulders and made a convenient fireplace, which we used for two days.

On 30 July at 10:30 me, Ioffe, Irina, Olga and Aleksey went along the high southern bank of the Konzhozero to the West, to the Yugorichka river, which flows from the Konzhozero Lake to the Matkozero Lake (i. e., to the canal). The river, about 10 meters wide, in the period of the concentration camps was boarded and used for floating timber wood for the building of the canal. Near the river we waited for Aleksandr Riabov, who showed us some ruins situated about 200 meters from the river and the lake. It is what remained from the 22nd concentration camp of the Watershed camp department. The size of the largest barrack is 28x12 meters. All attributes evidence that it was the punishment block. The long corridor, sentries’ room, massive doors with locks, lamps over the doors to light cells for the day and night, remains of plank-beds, etc. And many pencil signatures on the doors and on the planks near the doors, which testify that in 1931-1947 the political convicts (Article 58) served in the punishment block terms from several days to half a year. Here are some of these signatures (maybe, they are not exact):
Nikolayev M. B., punishment block from 16 Jan 1946 to 18 July 1945 4 days
Mikhaylov Vladimir
Kriachko P.M., the Gorky oblast, Article 58-8
30 Dec 1940 Elizarov
16.164-10, 30 Dec 1940 – 30 June 1941
Tarinok 162-10
1933 1936 1937 1940
Ilyev IAY-O?-10 stayed here. Came from Melervi 1934 term 9 years 162-3. 19 years
1 April in cell 40 12 July
162 – 143
Lagoev Ivan
Stayed 19.34 Gavrilov Andrey

There are counts of days by grooves. Near one door we broke off the plank with the list of ten names, probably the list of people taken for work.

On one door we found especially large number of inscriptions and even a caricature: the long-necked Stalin in a war helmet and the signature ‘The Black Death’. This door ought to be placed in the museum, but its weight is about half a quintal. It is impossible to transport it across the bogs in the summer. Maybe the ‘Memorial’ will transport it in the winter by sled.

In one cell the piece of the wall was broken out. Ioffe supposed that Yuri Dmitriev, who visited this place before, broke out this piece with signatures for the museum. Sergey Koltyrin showed us in the museum the video film about this helicopter expedition.

All in all there are seven buildings, among which one can distinguish barracks, office, bathhouse, storehouse, living accommodation. The lofty roof has not yet collapsed. The general impression is that the place was abandoned about 15-20 years ago, the site has not yet grown with forest. Obviously, some representative of the authorities lived here, maybe with his family. In fact, the camp was abandoned about 40-50 years ago.

We found and took with us two wheels from barrows, each weighing 5-6 kilograms. We did not take rusty remnants of lanterns, since they break within a knapsack.

In the morning of 31 July we decamped and went guided by Aleksandr Riabov to the southeast, towards the Rybozero Lake. We stopped near a pool, where Riabov caught the first perch using a warm as bait; for all others he used the bait of fish eyes. Soon the fish soup was boiling.

Meanwhile Ioffe, Aleksey, Julia, Irina, Olga and me returned half a kilometer back, where we had seen barracks of a special settlement. There were half a dozen of barracks. Some of them stood with collapsed roofs and some with collapsed walls. One could recognize a big barrel for sauerkraut. It was dug in reached three meters in diameter.

Having dined on the fish soup, we moved farther eastwards to the Rybozero Lake, and then southwards and southeast until we reached a nameless brook that falls into the lake. We came to a fisherman’s cabin on the lake bank. There was a boat with the taken off motor, fishing nets, an oven for smoking fish, a store of wood, stuffed birds. There were no people. Inside the cabin there were two-storied plank-beds for six sleepers and a small oven. As Riabov explained to us, here is the place where fish is caught and smoked, then it is brought home through the bog to the hard ground. Later we crossed about three kilometers of the bog.

Having left the fishermen’s cabin, we went about two kilometers on the dry ground to the southeast, and in the evening we camped on the left bank of a considerable river Riboksa in a rather damp place. It was difficult without a mosquito net. One’s face and hands become swollen. Convicts and special settlers had no means of protection from bloodsuckers…

In the morning of 1 August we crossed the river jumping from one boulder to another. Here kilometers of log paved roads have preserved, rotten and slippery to walk with comfort. There are footsteps and droppings of a bear, which grazed on blackberry and cloudberry. A big cock of the wood soared.

Three kilometers eastwards we found a ridge, narrow (about 100 meters wide), but long (about 400 meters). It is crossed with basement-type pits. It is difficult to guess what aim they served. The next ridge that lay along three small lakes was open and sincere: it was the ruins of a concentration camp.

This ridge was wider, about 200 m, and more than half a kilometer long. In the lower northern part there are barracks with cells, at least seven. Punishment block with rough iron bars. The we found such signatures:

1938, 1941,

Bubarev K. O. 13 March 1938


A bathhouse was recognizable. Lower, about 50 meters above the lake one can still distinguish polls of the fence, the remnants of the sentry tower with the characteristic roof like that of a nesting box.

Ioffe said that here up to three thousand convicts could be kept. The camp could be operating up to mid-fifties.

At the top several administrative and living buildings for the guards were placed.

Having returned to our camp on the Riboksa bank, we returned to the fishermen’s cabin at about 6 p.m. The cabin was empty again, and we quickly marched southwards through the bog. That was the path along which fishermen carry the smoked fish to the hard ground road, all in all about three kilometers. We hardly found a single dry spot for a short rest.

At last, in the evening, we reached the ridge with a hard road where one can use a car of a motorcycle. There were ruts from wheels several days old. We walked still another kilometer and camped by the roadside.

On 2 August about 10 a.m. we walked southwards along the hard road. Our road received smaller paths and became wider and wider until it became a decent gravel track. But there was no passing transport. Having walked 5-6 kilometers we encountered a motorcycle with a sidecar and two young men near it.

The are the fishermen from the cabin we had visited. The people are scarce here, but all know about all. The magic words ‘Memorial’ and ‘Sandormokh’ open their hearts to us. One of them, Edward, appeared to ride in one bus with us on 28 July from Medvezhyegorsk to Povenets. His grandfather was a repressed Ukrainian. Yet the young man could not recollect either his grandfather’s surname or the place he had come from. This is the way the memory perishes, and our offsprings become Russian…

We sent Aleksandr with the other man to ride to the village Gabselga that is situated not far from the Onega Lake and to hire a car. But when we finished our dinner, a truck appeared from the side we came from. It took us to Gabselga under a driving rain. There was a Kyrgyz with a boy in his early teens in the truck. The are emigrants. A war is raging in Kyrgyzia, and several managed to come to Gabselga. They pick up blackberries. The yield this year is poor. They do not catch fish and they do not eat fish.

During 30 kilometers of road we saw only two cars and one motorcycle. Having changed our truck for a van in Gabselga, we have come to Medvezhyegorsk about 7:30 p.m. We put up at hotel ‘Onezhskaya’, had a cold shower, and then we felt how swollen were our feet, how mosquito-beaten we were, how all our body ached…

A kind of trouble happened with Aleksandr, his motorcycle driver was drunk and ran over a boulder. The driver struck the windshield, and Aleksandr flew out. They reached Gabselga. Aleksandr managed to found a car and went in search of us while we were relaxing in the hotel. He found us, complained at aching ribs and shock, and went to bed without supper.

3 August was announced by Ioffe as a day off – we have spared this day, since we had luck in finding guides and assistants. The weather was nice too.

On 4 August at 4:30 a.m. we met at the railway station a group from St.-Petersburg headed by Tatiana Morgachova. She brought about 30 relatives of the Solovtsy convicts shot down in Sandormokh. Among them: Valentina P. Bovsunivska from Kyiv – the daughter of Petro F. Bovsunivski, a teacher of a planning-statistical school; Rada M. Poloz from Moscow -- the daughter of Mikhail M. Poloz, the Ukrainian ambassador in Russia, later the head the State Planning Committee, and then the Minister of Finances of the UkrSSR; Eleonora A. Vangengeym -- the daughter of Aleksey F. Vangengeym, a professor, the head of the Meteorological Center of the USSR, born in Krapivny near Chernigov. A historian Yaroslav Timchenko came too and later the Valentina Skachko, a member of the all-Ukrainian ‘Memorial’, and a journalist Rostislav Martuniuk with his mother and stepfather. In the morning of 5 August lots of people arrived in the hotel, including Yuri Verbovy, the consul of Ukraine in St.-Petersburg, and Vitaliy P. Fartushny, the leader of Ukrainian community in Petroskoy (Petrozavodsk).

All these people, including some locals, took a part in the meeting in Sandormokh; some of them went to Solovki the same day.

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