Uncharted Waters: The Cultural Geography of the Belomor Canal

Cynthia A. Ruder, University of Kentucky

Recent scholarship in cultural geography rests on a basic assumption that appears to be rather commonplace: Just as a designed landscape reflects those who produced it, so, too, do these “producers” (be they cultural, political, economic, ideological or other agents) imprint themselves on that landscape. While this dynamic initially seems straightforward, in fact, the deciphering of the landscape both as reflector and reflection is more problematic. Inherent in this paradigm is the knotty problem of interpreting whether the landscape accurately portrays the avowed intention of the producer or whether the landscape reveals a raft of information that the agent neither intended nor chose to disclose. As some cultural geographers argue, it is inevitable that the agent unconsciously or unintentionally inscribes onto the landscape elements of its ideology or culture that produce a contradiction between the intended and actual landscapes.

Such an approach suggests a fruitful line of investigation as regards the construction of the Belomor Canal and the collectively authored volume, The History of the Construction of the Stalin White Sea-Baltic Canal. If we believe that landscape can be “read” as a text in order to tease out the meaning imprinted on it, then might it be possible to compare a real text with the landscape it sought to depict?

This paper will examine just this interplay between landscape and text and landscape as text. My investigation will attempt to reveal whether the authors of The History of Construction were able to capture the actual or presumed physical manifestion of the ideology and programs that underpinned the Belomor construction project. Moreover, my paper will probe the additional issue of how the Belomor Canal itself, as well as its History, conveyed much more about the culture that produced them than the canal builders or The History’s authors could have ever deemed possible. This paper will apply an interdisciplinary interpretive model to the literary and historical manifestations of Belomor in an effort to develop an even richer analysis of the interplay among event, text, and landscape.