Day 106. 15th of June. No paddling. Museum visit in Medvezhevgorsk.
The Belomor Canal was built by hand in a record time of two years. By forced labour working year round. At very high cost. It has been estimated that twenty thousand people lost their lives building the Belomor Canal. That is about a thousand per lock, or a bit more than one person per lock per day. It is gruesome numbers.
We decided in the planning of the trip that we would not paddle past without paying the respect of visiting the museum in Medvezhevgorsk which has a section dedicated to the building of the Canal.
Today we got the opportunity to join the German group on a bus tour sightseeing. The two main stops were the memorial we visited last night and the museum.
The tour was guided by the museum’s director Sergey. Again the memorial we did not know about till yesterday made a strong impression.
We were explained more details. The first group executed had been about 1200 workers on the Belomor Canal, in 1934 after the Canal was finished.
They were from many nationalities. Not only from across the Soviet Union, but also foreigners. At least two Norwegians were executed here. How come? They were idealists volunteering from abroad to build socialism in the Soviet Union. But after doing forced labour on the Belomor Canal they could not be let back to report on “progress”. So they were taken to this remote place where it was easy to dig.
Along with the bodies were found the Vodka bottles drunk by the executioners. Maybe they knew what was coming. To keep the atrocities secret, most of the executioners were also executed.
And so it continued on and off for eight years until the war came and finnish troops occupied the area, Sergey explained.
Sergey has done a great job in helping to unearth this in every meaning of the word. His driving force has a personal component. His mother’s brother was picked up by a black car, never to be heard off again.
Only when the KGB archives were opened in the early nineties, were the records of the atrocities found.
Everyone executed here was listed by name, father’s and mother’s name and alleged crime.
Now a book containing all this information can be found in a chapel on the grounds of the memorial.
Sergey is one of the persons that have contributed a lot to bringing closure to the affected families. A work to be proud of in the midst of all.
We heard that some such archives are now being lost, it costs to keep them and if no one has asked for them for 50 years they may be disposed of.
All of this we learned by way of interpreter and in an hour or so. So it is only very broad brush, and reality certainly both more complex and brutal in finer detail.
One detail worth mentioning, 20% of the victims were women. But in spite of searching we could only find one photo of a woman amongst the hundreds that were hung up. Another perspective to see and tell the story from.
It is a mind numbing place.
By comparison the museum was a relatively calmer experience. But both the exhibition on the war, and for instance the pictures of a pleased Stalin opening the Belomor Canal was chilling enough.
Back at the camp we met up with the crew on the good ship Silvertärna. They arrived this morning and will go into the Canal tomorrow.
Long story short, we got an offer to join them as we plan to use the same amount of time. Very generous of captain Chris. So we’ll ride with them through the locks and sleep in a cabin on board. During the day they will sail and we will paddle. This way we get to paddle a maximum of the Canal.
A bit of Swiss generosity on top of all the Russian, and we have a plan!
Tomorrow will be our first day on the Canal. And at lunch time we will pass THE HALF WAY MARK OF OUR ADVENTURE. So far so very good.
UPDATE: Day 105 is updated with text and pictures.