The J.V. Stalin Moscow-Volga Canal

The J.V. Stalin Moscow-Volga Canal is the other Moscow-Volga Canal, the one that's largely forgotten. Bushes and trees help hide it from memory, making it seem as if it has always been there. The heroic monuments perched on top of the sluice buildings, gray and pitted, blend in with the sky. The massive stones, forming the locks' walls and lining some of the canal, appear to have been placed by an unknown people at the edge of recorded history, not unlike the Mayan temples or Egyptian pyramids. While our tour guide could cite precise tenth century dates for the founding of the historical Volga towns, she didn't mention who dug this canal and built its walls in the 1930s.

According to an article entitled Dmitlag(1) by N. Fedorov, the 15 June 1931 Plenum of All-Union Communist Party (Bolshevik) decreed that a Moscow-Volga canal be built to provide Moscow with more fresh water, port access to five seas, hydroelectric power and new area factories. The People's Commissariat of Water was given the task, but soon proved incapable of quickly organizing the necessary manpower. Less than a year later the task was given to OGPU (the State Political Directorate), Soviet Russia's secret police.

OGPU knew how to solve the manpower shortage. By September 1932 it established the canal's administration in the town of Dmitrov along with a new corrective labor camp, Dmitlag. The arrests began quickly afterwards and by 1934 Dmitlag was the largest "corrective labor" camp in the Gulag network with over 150,000 prisoners, or "canal soldiers" as they were frequently dubbed. That number reached almost 200,000 during the next two years.

The top Soviet secret police officials involved in organizing the forced labor to build the Moscow-Volga Canal were: Lazar Kogan, Head of MosVolgaStroy; Semyen Firin, Deputy Head of Gulag and Head of Dmitlag; Matvey Berman, Head of Gulag; and General Zinoviy Katsnelson. Firin was the former head of BelBaltLag that supplied the prison labor for the infamous White Sea-Baltic Canal.

According to Federov, most prisoners were arrested under Article 35 of the Criminal Code - declared by the courts to represent "a danger to society." Economic crimes, such as destroying socialist property or profiteering, were the next most frequently cited offenses.

Dmitlag head Firin declared at a Dmitrov City Communist Party meeting: "Don't imagine that prisoners are poor, they have everything." The records show otherwise. Those fulfilling their work quotas were given 600 grams of bread per day; laggards received 400 grams; and those being punished, 300 grams. The records also show that Firin savored the personal power he could exercise over a prisoner's fate, much in the same way Nazi concentration camp administrators are portrayed in B-grade movies.

A chilling 1933 note by Berman and Kogan to the Deputy Head of OGPU, G.G. Yagoda, was entitled "On improving the use of prison camps for production." Dmitlag was to be expanded to meet the needs of building the canal. More guilty people had to be found.

A subsequent Berman Top Secret document, "On the use of quotas for the corrective labor camps of NKVD," (11 Jan 1935) notes that the Moscow-Volga canals planned expenditures on labor were 4 rubles 3 kopecks per day, but actual expenditures were somewhat higher, 4 rubles 36 kopecks per day. (2) Ironically Gulag officials strove to maintain prisoners at what Marx referred to in his Communist Manifesto as capitalism's subsistence level:

"The average price of wage labor is the minimum wage, i.e., that quantum of the means of subsistence which is absolutely requisite to keep the laborer in bare existence as a laborer. What, therefore, the wage laborer appropriates by means of his labor merely suffices to prolong and reproduce a bare existence."

Only in Gulag, it wasn't even a question of a subsistence level or bare existence. Thousands died. According to Fedorov, Dmitlag prisoners, in their hunt for food, were driven to pick over garbage dumps and eat poison berries and leaves.

Soviet propagandists worked overtime and invited foreign delegations to view how the USSR attempted to remold criminals into decent citizens. According to the Gulag administration, Dmitlag "showed the limitless possibilities of Bolshevik power in the matter of reeducating the people."

Stalin mastered fear as a political weapon. In May 1937, two days before the canal's opening ceremony, S. Firin and 218 other administrators, almost the entire secret police staff, were arrested in what was called the "Firin Affair" and later shot. Accused of "participating in a counterrevolutionary terror organization," they were driven to Moscow in a special convoy of 14 cars that needed three special round trips. Lazar Kogan and Zinoviy Katsnelson, top secret police officials, were also later arrested and shot. Finally, instead of emptying Dmitlag after the canal's completion, Stalin chose to execute many of the remaining prisoners.

The J. V. Stalin Moscow-Volga Canal's construction history is gruesome. Perhaps, when making the cruise, an appropriate gesture would be to toss a flower into the canal at Dmitrov in memory of those nameless souls who perished. As the Russian Memorial Society states: "However horrible the past may have been, forgetting it would make the future even worse."

3 September 2006


1 Fedorov, N. Dmitlag in Butovskiy poligon 1937-1938: kniga pamyati zhertv politichekikh represiy. (Moscow: Permanent interdepartmental commission of the Moscow Government to reestablish the rights of rehabilitated victims of political oppression, 1998) pp. 32-42.

2Documents found in Khlevniuk, O.V. (ed.) Istoriya Stalinskogo Gulaga, Vol. 3 Ekonomika Gulaga, Moscow: ROSSPEN, 2004. p. 108, 150 and 214.