The Danube-Black Sea Canal (Canalul Dunăre-Marea Neagră) is a canal in Romania which runs from Cernavodă on the Danube to Agigea (southern arm) and Năvodari (northern arm) on the Black Sea. Administrated from Agigea, it is an important part of the European canal system that links the North Sea to the Black Sea.
The Canal was notorious as the site of labor camps in 1950s Communist Romania, when, at any given time, several tens of thousands political prisoners worked on its excavation. The total number of people used as a workforce for the entire period is unknown, as is the number of people who died in the construction. Work was completed in 1984-1987, more than three decades after camps were disestablished.
The course of the canal follows the course of the former Carasu River. Therefore, hydrographically also has the function of conveying the runoff from a 1031 sq. km. drainage basin to the Black Sea.
The main branch extends from Cernavodă on the Danube to Poarta Albă. On this reach it crosses the localities of Cernavoda, Ştefan cel Mare, Saligny, Mircea Vodă, Medgidia, Castelu, Poarta Albă, Constanţa, On this reach the canal is joined on the left bank by tributaries: Valea Plantaţiei, Valea Cişmelei, Agi Cabul, Castelu and Nisipari. On the left side it is joined by tributaries: Popa Nica, Medgidia, Siminoc and Şerplea
At Poarta Albă the canal bifurcates into two branches.
In its delta, the Danube is divided into three main branches, none of which is suited to optimal navigation: Chilia branch is the deepest, but its mouths were not stable, which made navigation dangerous; Sulina branch is not deep enough for maritime ships to navigate on it and it also used to be isolated from the railroad system; Sfântul Gheorghe branch is shallow and sinuous.
At the time when decision to build the canal was taken, it was officially announced that works would also serve a secondary purpose, that of land reclamation — with the drainage of marshes in the area. Also during the period, the Danube-Black Sea Canal was advertised as a fast and direct connection between the Soviet Volga-Don Canal and Central Europe.
The waterway passes through the towns of Medgidia and Murfatlar, both of which have been turned into inland ports. It was designed to facilitate the transit of convoys comprising as much as six towed barges (ships of up to 5,000 in tonnage, as long as 138 meters and with as much as 16.8 meters in beam and 5.5 meters in draft can also pass through the canal). The structure is bound by locks (in Cernavodă and Agigea respectively).
In its final phase, the canal took over nine years to construct; 300 million m³ of soil were excavated (greater than the amount involved in building the Panama and Suez canals), and 3.6 million m³ of concrete were used for the locks and support walls.
In 1927, the Romanian engineer Jean Stoenescu-Dunăre drafted a new set of plans; because of the Great Depression, World War II, and political turmoil in Romania (see Romania during World War II), construction did not begin until 1949, after the establishment of a Romanian Communist regime.
"in accordance with art[icle] 72 of the Constitution of the People's Republic of Romania, the Council of Ministers decides: art[icle] 1 — preparatory work on the Danube-Black Sea Canal to begin."
A version of events, supported on one occasion by the Romanian leader Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej and made popular through the literary works of Marin Preda, credited Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin with the idea for the Canal — a project which was supposedly based on the Gulag (Communist leader Ana Pauker, who, like her collaborator Vasile Luca, opposed the project, told her family that Stalin personally "proposed" the Canal in late 1948). The legal framework for unfree labor was set up in 1950, when a decree passed by the Great National Assembly introduced it as a measure for the "reeducation of hostile elements", and when the new Labor Code allowed the executive to requisition workforce for various political purposes. In its original form, the project was meant to result in the third-largest canal ever built (after the Panama and the Suez Canals).
In October 1949, the authorities established a General Directorate to oversee both the works and the penal facilities, answering directly to the national leadership. Its first head was the engineer Gheorghe Hossu, replaced in 1951 by Meyer Grünberg, in turn replaced by Vasile Posteucă (who held the position in 1952-1953). According to historian Adrian Cioroianu, all three were insufficiently trained for the task they were required to accomplish. By 1952, the Directorate came under the direct supervision of the Internal Affairs Ministry, and the Securitate was allowed direct intervention on the construction site.
"At the time, an estimated 1 million Romanians were imprisoned in dire conditions or engaged in often deadly slave labor, digging out the Danube-Black Sea Canal."
The construction effort surpassed the resources available to the Romanian economy in the 1950s. The canal was assigned inferior machinery, part of which had already been used on the Soviet Volga-Don Canal, and building had to rely on primitive techniques (most work appears to have been carried out using shovels and pickaxes, which was especially hard in the rocky terrain of Northern Dobruja). Detainees were allocated to brigades, usually run by common criminals — encouraged to use violence against their subordinates. In parallel, the region's industrialization, destined to assist in the building effort, was never accomplished.
Sums allocated for prisoner health, hygiene and nutrition declined dramatically over the years. Food rations were kept to a minimum, and prisoners would often resort to hunting mice and other small animals, or even consuming grass in an attempt to supplement their diet.
The prisoners comprised dispossessed farmers who had attempted to resist collectivization, former activists of the National Peasants' Party, the National Liberal Party, the Romanian Social Democratic Party, and the fascist Iron Guard, Zionist Jews, as well as Orthodox and Catholic priests. The canal was referred to as the "graveyard of the Romanian bourgeoisie" by the Communist authorities, and the physical elimination of undesirable social classes was one of its most significant goals.
One estimate places at over 200,000 the number of people who died as a result of exposure, unsafe equipment, malnutrition, accidents, tuberculosis and other diseases, over-work, etc., of those working on the project between 1949 to 1953. More conservative estimates place the number at "considerably in excess of 10,000". As such, the project became known as the "Death Canal" (Canalul Morţii). It has also been called "a cloaca of immense human suffering and mortality".
In parallel, authorities left aside sectors of employment for skilled workers — kept in strict isolation from all others, they were attracted to the site with exceptional salaries (over 5,000 lei per month), as well as for young people drafted in the Romanian Army and whose files indicated "unhealthy origins" (a middle-class family background). Their numbers fluctuated greatly (regular employees went from 13,200 in 1950 to 15,000 in 1951, to as little as 7,000 in early 1952, and again to 12,500 later in that year). At the same time, facilities meant to accommodate the projected influx of labor (including homes available on credit) were never actually completed. This was overlooked by the propaganda machine, which instead furnished Stakhanovite stories, according to which work quotas were surpassed by as much as 170%. Authorities also made the claim that the construction site was offering training to previously unskilled workers (as many as 10,000 in one official communiqué).
Three people were executed (the engine driver Nichita Dumitrescu, and the engineers Aurel Rozei-Rozenberg and Nicolae Vasilescu-Colorado); others were imprisoned for various terms. Defendants in a second group, around the engineer Gheorghe Crăciun, were sentenced to various harsh penalties (including three life imprisonments). Torture was applied by a Securitate squad led by Alexandru Nicolschi, as a means to obtain forced confessions.
On July 18, 1953, the project came to a discreet halt, all work being suspended for another 23 years (according to some sources, the closure had been ordered by Stalin himself, as early as 1952). The canal camps remained in existence for another year, and their prisoners progressively relocated, to similar conditions at other work sites in Northern Dobruja. Penal facilities on the canal site were shut down in mid-1954.
In 1976, the project was restarted by Nicolae Ceauşescu, who had previously ordered the rehabilitation of people sentenced in the 1952 trial, and who aimed to withdraw the Lower Danube from Soviet control (which had been consecrated by the 1948 Danube Conference). In official propaganda, where the 1950s precedent was no longer mentioned, the canal was referred to as the \\"Blue Highway\\" (Magistrala Albastră). New and large machinery, produced inside Romania, was introduced to the site. The southern arm was completed in 1984 (delayed by poor quality in construction), with the northern arm being inaugurated in 1987.
The cost of building the canal is estimated to be around 2 billion United States dollars, and was supposed to be recovered in 50 years. However, as of 2005, it has a yearly profit of only a little over 3 million euros.
During the period of liberalization preceding the July Theses, literature was allowed to make several references to the Canal's penitentiary history. Examples include Marin Preda's Cel mai iubit dintre pământeni and, most likely, Eugen Barbu's Principele (by means of an allegory, set during the 18th century Phanariote rules). In 1973-1974, Ion Cârja, a former prisoner, wrote a book titled Canalul morţii, detailing his sufferings during incarceration; it was first published in Romania in 1993, after the Revolution of 1989.