05 July 2004

Romania's "Big Dig" Turns 20

Transitions Online translates a recent story from Evenimentul Zilei ['The Daily Happening'?].
On 26 May, Romania marked the 20th anniversary of the inauguration of the Danube-Black Sea canal. A dream of the then-communist authorities, the canal became a symbol of the nightmare of communist repression, at least during the first part of its construction between 1949 and 1951. After a break of 25 years, [former Romanian dictator] Nicolae Ceausescu resumed the construction process. It took another eight years of work--a huge national labor project followed by years of glorification of what the communists called “the Blue Thoroughfare,” and it was celebrated again and again during communist national festivities in the “Song of Romania.”

The construction of “the dustless road” [as the canal was called in a novel by Romanian writer Petru Dumitriu, an proponent of the social realism movement in the 1950s] required studies by more than 1,000 experts in construction and more than 33,500 execution reports. During its construction, 300 million cubic meters of soil were excavated, and some 3.6 million cubic meters of concrete were used. The result was a navigable canal 64.4 kilometers long with two, 310-meter-long double locks at each end.

Built on the backs of the country’s political detainees, with blood, effort, and maybe too much sacrifice, the Danube-Black Sea canal remains the biggest project ever carried out in Romania. But 20 years after it was opened, the canal works at only 40 percent of its capacity.

The idea for a canal linking the Danube River with the Black Sea reportedly originated in a Soviet “suggestion,” when Stalin sent a stern order to Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej [the Romanian communist leader until 1965] to liquidate the opposition in Romania. “I will give you the technical equipment, and you can solve two problems at the same time: You get rid of the kulaks and the landed gentry and irrigate Dobrogea [the territory between the lower Danube River and the Black Sea],” Stalin is said to have told the Romanian communist leader sometime in the late 1940s in Moscow....

Construction on the canal officially started on 15 July 1949. The labor force came from three sources: paid workers, forced labor, and military conscripts. The political detainees were euphemistically called “forces from the Interior Ministry.” […]

Ceausescu had the idea of resuming construction after a 1972 visit to Antwerp, Belgium, and a 1973 trip to Amsterdam and Rotterdam, where he learned about a project called “the Canal of Europe,” which aimed to link the Rhine with the Danube--a 3,500 kilometer, transcontinental river route....

On 26 May 1984, with tens of thousands of people lining the two sides, Nicolae Ceausescu inaugurated the canal in festive style. The project at the time was estimated to be worth 10 trillion lei [approximately 3.3 billion average monthly salaries in Romania at the time]....

The canal today links the Danube with the Black Sea and can be used in both directions. With the opening to traffic in 1992 of the Main-Danube canal in Germany, a direct link between the Black Sea and the North Sea (through the ports of Constanta and Rotterdam) was established. It has a capacity of 10 million tons of traffic a year.
On 26 May 1984, Mr. and Mrs. Far Outliers were close to finishing a grim but fascinating year in Romania. We took a day trip by train from Bucharest to Constanta and back in the spring of 1984, crossing the Danube bridge and looking for the traces of the shortcut canal that so many Romanian dissidents spent their last years digging. The train was jam-packed, with people standing a handspan away from our heads blowing smoke into our hair. I finally tried to open a window. What an uproar that caused! Real springtime air on uncovered heads was deemed far more deadly than cigarette smoke in our lungs. In Constanta, we visited an impressive (but empty) mosque and the history museum, had lunch at a faded rococo casino, and were forbidden to take photos of the picturesque Port Tomis, lest it betray secrets to the U.S. (or Turkish?) navy.

Halfway Down the Danube has more.

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