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The Danube – Black Sea Canal (Template:Lang-ro) 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 mostly the course of the former Carasu River, originally a tributary of the Danube. Therefore, hydrographically it also has the function of conveying the runoff from a 1031 km2 drainage basin to the Black Sea.

The main branch extends from Cernavodă on the Danube to Poarta Albă. On this reach it goes near or through the settlements of Cernavodă, Saligny, Mircea Vodă, Medgidia, Castelu, and Poarta Albă. 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. The main canal goes to the South, towards the Port of Constanţa Sud - Agigea. It passes near the settlements of Murfatlar, Cumpăna and Agigea. On its reach it is joined on the left bank by tributaries Cocoş, Valea Seacă, Potârnichea, Lazu and on the right bank by the Agigea

The northern Branch, known as the Poarta Albă-Midia Năvodari Canal, goes towards the Port of Midia. It passes near Nazarcea, Lumina, Ovidiu and Năvodari. On its reach it is joined by tributaries Nazarcea and Valea Adâncă, both from the left bank.


The main reasons for the building of the canal were to circumvent the Danube Delta, which is difficult to navigate, to shorten the distance to the Black Sea, and several issues related to the loading and unloading of ships.[1]

In its delta, the Danube is divided into three main branches, none of which is suited to optimal navigation:[1] 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; Sfântu 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.[1] 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.[1]


The 64 km canal reduces the distance by boat from Constanţa to Cernavodă by ca. 400 km.[2][3][4] It has a width of 70–90 meters and a depth of 7 metres;[2][4] the northern arm has a length of 26.6 km, width of 50 m and a depth of 5.5 metres. The radius of its sharpest bends is 3 km.[4]


Channel at Murfatlar

The waterway passes through the towns of Medgidia and Murfatlar, both of which have been turned into inland ports.[4] It was designed to facilitate the transit of convoys comprising as much as six towed barges[4] (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).[4] The structure is bound by locks (in Cernavodă and Agigea respectively).[4]

In its final phase, the canal took over nine years to construct; 300 million m³ of soil were excavated[2] (greater than the amount involved in building the Panama and Suez canals),[5] and 3.6 million m³ of concrete were used for the locks and support walls.[5]



The earliest plans for building this canal were in late 1830s. The Treaty of Adrianopol (September 14, 1829) canceled the trade monopoly of the Ottoman Empire in the Danubian Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia, allowing these countries to build their own fleets by 1834. Both Romanian and non-Romanian ships used mostly the Danube port cities of Brăila and Galaţi, which saw an economic boom. But there were a number of barriers to this trade: the Ottomans controlled the navigation regime on the Danube, while the Russian Empire - the access to the Black Sea in the Danube Delta, and there was little the Danubian Principalities could do to rectify this situation. Both countries welcomed the Austrian Empire's 1834 decision, endorsed by Count István Széchenyi, to extend the route of the first pyroscaphe navigation company to the maritime Danube. The Austrian initiative was received unpleasantly by the Russians, who considered their trade through Odessa and ports in the Crimea threatened by the development of Brăila and Galaţi. Without resolving to direct measures, Russians, who controlled the Sulina branch, started to show rigidity, instituting on February 7, 1836 a compulsory quarantine on the island of Letea, collecting taxes to cover Russian financial deficit, and by not performing maintenance for the navigation on the Sulina branch to remove the continuous deposits of sand.[6]

This gave Austrians the idea to dig a canal to connect the Danube with the Black Sea at the shortest point before the Delta, between Rasova or Cernavodă (Bogaz Köi) and Constanţa (Küstendjie), and a parallel railway. The Austrian project, however, was rejected by the Ottoman Porte. Western diplomats and newspapers accused the Russian government that through bribing and intimidation, it determined the Ottoman officials to reject the proposal of Szechenyi's company. In 1839, Széchenyi got the approval of his and Ottoman governments to ensure the transport of goods and people without getting to Sulina by a transshipment on dry land. Carts and coaches made a 7-8 hour trip from Cladova to Constanţa, where people and goods were boarding other ships for Istanbul. The enterprise was scrapped after 4 years due to non-profitability because of a low number of passengers, high cost of transport, and poor conditions of accosting in the unfit roadstead of the port of Constanţa.[7]

In its place, a new Brăila-Istanbul route was established. However, by 1844, the depth of the Sulina branch has decreased to 7–9 feet from 13–14 feet in 1836, due to lack of dragging by the Russian authorities which controlled the passage. The Austrian government made a new attempt to cut a canal, sending the military engineer Colonel Baron Karl von Bigaro to prospect the land. But the idea had to be abandoned again due to technical problem, first of all due to the unfitness of the port of Constanţa for large international trade.[8]

In 1850, the Moldavian scholar Ion Ionescu de la Brad proposed yet another project, supported by Ion Ghica and by the Scottish diplomat David Urquhart, the secretary of the British Embassy in the Ottoman Empire.[9] Ghica lobbied Brad's project to Ahmed Vefik, who gave a negative response for fear of provoking Russia.[10]

The Crimean War of 1854-1856, added a military and strategical dimension for these plan. The British-French Allies landed at Varna in the summer of 1854, followed by the withdrawal of Russian troops from Wallachia and Moldavia and the advancement of Ottoman and Austrian ones. In 1855, the French government put forward an initiative, and the Ottomans approved it, for the cheapest solution: build a strategical road between Cernavodă and Constanţa. Engineer Charles Lalanne was put in charge of these works, that started in the summer of 1855 and were finished by the year's end. According to the newspaper Zimbrul of Iaşi, the work was performed by 300 physically strong men of moderate character selected in Moldavia and Wallachia.[11]

The building of the road did not eliminate, however, the need for a canal, and the Austrian government renewed its persuasive efforts. According to Gazeta de Transilvania in July 1855, Baron Karl Ludwig von Bruck, the Austrian Finance Minister, founded a stock company to build the desired canal. According to an article in Zimbrul on July 23, 1855, the project was of interest to Britain, the French Empire and the Austrian Empire, who were persuading the Ottoman government to allot the concession of the canal and the fitting of the port of Constanţa to a consortium under the direction of the three countries. The Ottomans were to lease a league of land on each side of the canal for 99 years, where colonist could be settled. Goods were to travel freely, with ships having to pay only a per tone tax, significantly lower than the one on the Sulina branch. According to the newspaper Steaua Dunării from January 24, 1856, the Sultan issued a firman to the Anglo-French-Austrian consortium Wilson-Morny-Breda, represented by Forbes Campbell, authorizing it to build the canal which was to be called Abdul Medjid. The 12 articles of the Concession Act were published in Bukurester Deutsche Zeitung.[11]

The construction plans for the canal took a different turn with the signing of the Treaty of Paris on March 30, 1856, ending the War. Russia ceded the Danube mouth with Cahul, Bolgrad and Ismail counties back to Moldavia. The freedom of international navigation on the Danube was restored; passage taxes were canceled, police and quarantine rules were simplified; and the European Commission of the Danube was established, with representatives of 7 powers: Britain, France, Austria, Russia, the Ottoman Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia, and the Kingdom of Sardinia. The Commission was responsible for the clearing of the Danube mouths from deposits by the river, and when necessary with clearing natural barriers, with the goal of ensuring of good conditions for navigation. The effect was that Austria, Britain, and France changed their attitude to the project for a Danube-Black Sea canal. The newspaper Zimbrul announced on May 25, 1856 that the plan for building the canal was abandoned; instead a railroad line Cernavodă - Constanţa was to be built. After two and a half years of construction, the latter was inaugurated on October 4, 1860.[12] Following the building of a railway connection in 1860, goods were easily and inexpensively transported from Constanţa by rail, so plans for a canal were abandoned.[9]

As the United Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia (1859) remained formally Ottoman vassals, and moreover Dobruja was directly administered by the Ottomans, the idea to build the canal was not of interest to Romanians. But following the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878), Romania acquired formal independence, lost again southern Bessarabia to Russia, but gained Dobruja. The idea to build a canal became a national issue, which could promote Romania's international trade.[13] However in the following years the development of trade was concentrated mainly on the Sulina Canal. Another project was consequently rejected by King Carol I after consultations with Grigore Antipa.[9] During World War I, Austro-Hungarian authorities taking part in the occupation of southern Romania proposed a canal from Cernavodă to Constanţa, passing through Murfatlar, of which 10 miles would be in a tunnel (Cernavodă-Murfatlar) and the rest of 27 miles would be in the open.[1]

In 1927, the Romanian engineer Jean Stoenescu-Dunăre drafted a new set of plans;[9] 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.

Creation of the camps

The decision to build the Danube – Black Sea Canal was taken on May 25, 1949 by the Politburo of the Romanian Workers' Party and the Petru Groza executive.[1][3][14] The document specified:

"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."[3]

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[3][9][15] (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).[16] 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",[3] and when the new Labor Code allowed the executive to requisition workforce for various political purposes.[3] In its original form, the project was meant to result in the third-largest canal ever built (after the Panama and the Suez Canals).[9][17]

In October 1949, the authorities established a General Directorate to oversee both the works and the penal facilities, answering directly to the national leadership.[3] 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).[3] According to historian Adrian Cioroianu, all three were insufficiently trained for the task they were required to accomplish.[3] 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.[3]

Forced labor and repression

Prison camps sprang up all along the projected canal route in the summer of 1949 and were quickly filled with political prisoners brought from jails from throughout the country. These first arrivals were soon joined by newly arrested people who were sent to the canal in ever increasing numbers. By 1950 the forced labor camps set up along the length of the planned canal were filled to capacity; that year alone, 40,000 prisoners were held in those camps.[18] By 1953, the number of prisoners had swelled to 60,000[19] (other sources indicate 100,000[14] or 40,000[3] for the entire period). British historian and New York University professor Tony Judt claims in his book, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, as recorded in a 2005 review:

"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."[20]

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,[9] and building had to rely on primitive techniques (most work appears to have been carried out using shovels and pickaxes,[1][3] which was especially hard in the rocky terrain of Northern Dobruja).[14] Detainees were allocated to brigades, usually run by common criminals — encouraged to use violence against their subordinates.[14] In parallel, the region's industrialization, destined to assist in the building effort, was never accomplished.[1]

Sums allocated for prisoner health, hygiene and nutrition declined dramatically over the years.[14] 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.[14]

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.[1][3][9][14][21] The canal was referred to as the "graveyard of the Romanian bourgeoisie" by the Communist authorities,[18] and the physical elimination of undesirable social classes was one of its most significant goals.[3][14][22]

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.[23] More conservative estimates place the number at "considerably in excess of 10,000".[14] 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".[24]

In parallel, authorities left aside sectors of employment for skilled workers — kept in strict isolation from all others,[14] they were attracted to the site with exceptional salaries (over 5,000 lei per month),[3] as well as for young people drafted in the Romanian Army and whose files indicated "unhealthy origins" (a middle-class family background).[3] 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).[3] At the same time, facilities meant to accommodate the projected influx of labor (including homes available on credit) were never actually completed.[1] This was overlooked by the propaganda machine, which instead furnished Stakhanovite stories, according to which work quotas were surpassed by as much as 170%.[17] Authorities also made the claim that the construction site was offering training to previously unskilled workers[1][17] (as many as 10,000 in one official communiqué).[1]


Blame for the debilitating and unsuccessful works was eventually placed on a group of alleged conspirators, who were indicted in a show trial (late 1952) — they faced various trumped-up charges (espionage, fraud, sabotage, and the political crime of Zionism), in connection with a review of policies following Gheorghiu-Dej's maneuver against Ana Pauker.[1][3][9][16][21] The inquiry was orchestrated by Iosif Chişinevschi.[9]

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.[3][9][21] Defendants in a second group, around the engineer Gheorghe Crăciun, were sentenced to various harsh penalties (including three life imprisonments).[3][9] Torture was applied by a Securitate squad led by Alexandru Nicolschi, as a means to obtain forced confessions.[9]


File:IICCR L117 Ceausescu visits Canal 1979.jpg

Ceauşescu (foreground) visiting the Canal construction site, summer 1979

On July 18, 1953, the project came to a discreet halt, all work being suspended for another 23 years[3][9][14][25] (according to some sources, the closure had been ordered by Stalin himself, as early as 1952).[9] The canal camps remained in existence for another year, and their prisoners progressively relocated, to similar conditions at other work sites in Northern Dobruja.[3][9][14] Penal facilities on the canal site were shut down in mid-1954.[14]

In 1976, the project was restarted by Nicolae Ceauşescu, who had previously ordered the rehabilitation of people sentenced in the 1952 trial,[3][9] and who aimed to withdraw the Lower Danube from Soviet control (which had been consecrated by the 1948 Danube Conference).[1][2] In official propaganda, where the 1950s precedent was no longer mentioned,[2] the canal was referred to as the "Blue Highway" (Magistrala Albastră).[2][9] New and large machinery, produced inside Romania, was introduced to the site.[2] The southern arm was completed in 1984 (delayed by poor quality in construction),[2] with the northern arm being inaugurated in 1987.[2][3]

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.[26]

In art

File:Canalul Dunare Marea Neagra.jpg

A lock on the Canal

For much of the 1950s, the Danube – Black Sea Canal was celebrated in agitprop literature (notably, in Geo Bogza's 1950 reportage Începutul epopeii, "The Beginning of the Epic", and in Petru Dumitriu's Drum fără pulbere, "Dustless Road"),[1][3] music (Leon Klepper's symphonic poem Dunărea se varsă în mare, "The Danube Flows to the Sea"),[1] and film (Ion Bostan's 1951 Canalul Dunăre-Marea Neagră, o construcţie a păcii - "The Danube – Black Sea Canal, a Construction of Peace"). During the 1980s, the song "Magistrala Albastră", performed by Dan Spătaru and Mirabela Dauer and using the Canal as its setting, was frequently broadcast in official and semi-official contexts.[17]

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[3] and, most likely, Eugen Barbu's Principele (by means of an allegory, set during the 18th century Phanariote rules).[27] 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.

Inmates of the labor camps

See also


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 Nicolas Spulber, "The Danube – Black Sea Canal and the Russian Control over the Danube", in Economic Geography, vol. 30, no.3 (July 1954), pp. 236-245
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 2.8 Tibor Iván Berend, An Economic History of Twentieth-Century Europe, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006, pp.155-156
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 3.12 3.13 3.14 3.15 3.16 3.17 3.18 3.19 3.20 3.21 3.22 3.23 3.24 3.25 Adrian Cioroianu, Pe umerii lui Marx. O introducere în istoria comunismului românesc ("On the Shoulders of Marx. An Incursion into the History of Romanian Communism"), Editura Curtea Veche, Bucharest, 2005, Chapter 9.4, pp.300-307
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, Inland Transport Committee TRANS/SC.3/2003/3
  5. 5.0 5.1 David Turnock, "The Danube – Black Sea Canal and its impact on Southern Romania", in Geo Journal 12:1 (1986), pp.65–79
  6. Petrescu, pp. 136-137
  7. Petrescu, pp. 138
  8. Petrescu, pp. 138-139
  9. 9.00 9.01 9.02 9.03 9.04 9.05 9.06 9.07 9.08 9.09 9.10 9.11 9.12 9.13 9.14 9.15 9.16 9.17 Valentin Hossu-Longin, "Procesul Canalului Morţii" ("The Trial of the Death Canal"), in Ziua, March 11, 2006
  10. Petrescu, pp. 139
  11. 11.0 11.1 Petrescu, pp. 139-140
  12. Petrescu, p. 141
  13. Petrescu, pp. 141
  14. 14.00 14.01 14.02 14.03 14.04 14.05 14.06 14.07 14.08 14.09 14.10 14.11 14.12 Vladimir Socor, The Danube – Black Sea Canal: A Graveyard Revisited, on Radio Free Europe, August 31, 1984
  15. Tismăneanu, p.139
  16. 16.0 16.1 Robert Levy, "Ana Pauker: The Rise and Fall of a Jewish Communist", University of California Press, Berkeley, 2001, pp.88-89 ISBN 0-520-23747-1
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 17.3 Cristina Arvatu, Ilarion Ţiu, "Basmele Canalului" ("Fairy Tales of the Canal"), in Jurnalul Naţional, September 26, 2006
  18. 18.0 18.1 The Memorial of the Victims of Communism and of the Resistance, page for Room 17, Forced Labor
  19. "Unfinished Canal", in Time, August 24, 1953
  20. James Graff, "Continental Shifts", in Time, December 4, 2005
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 Joseph Gordon, Eastern Europe: Romania (1954), p.299-301, at the American Jewish Committee
  22. Tismăneanu, p.36
  23. Anne Applebaum, Gulag: A History, Doubleday, 2003, review by Hans Sherrer for Justice:Denied (March 20, 2005)
  24. Joseph Rothschild, Nancy Meriwether Wingfield, Return to diversity: A Political History of East Central Europe Since World War II, Oxford University Press, New York, 1999, p.161 ISBN 0-19-511993-2
  25. Tismăneanu, p.139, 300
  26. Marian Cosor, "Canalul Dunăre-Marea Neagră îşi va scoate banii în 633 de ani" ("The Danube – Black Sea Canal Will Absorb Its Construction Cost in 633 Years"), on Radio Constanţa, May 26, 2005
  27. Dennis Deletant, Ceauşescu and the Securitate: Coercion and Dissent in Romania, 1965-1989, M.E. Sharpe, London, 1995, p.182 ISBN 1563246333



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