THE MOSCOW CANAL, A STORY OF WATER.

By Michael Gibson

Run any tap in Moscow and you have a glass of drinkable water in seconds. Run a bath and in a matter of minutes you are relaxing in a full tub of water, perhaps as much as 100 litres of water. It does not matter what we do; drink, wash up, flush the loo, switch on a washing machine, water is essential to living. Yet over 100 years ago a bucket of water in Moscow could cost more than some people’s daily wage and Moscow had no prospects to fully develop as a modern city.                                                                                                                                                                         

I had absolutely no idea about Moscow water – or perhaps like most people I just hadn’t really given it much thought as I took all this water for granted. I do vaguely recollect from geography lessons at school (or was it history), that the Romans (or was it the Normans) built their towns near rivers, because … err … (this is where it gets hazy) … because who wouldn’t be given the choice. Life is prettier by the river and… there’s even the chance for a spot of water sports or a scenic picnic on the river bank perhaps even a dip.

Olga Mikhailovna Fedotova, Michael Gibson and Galina Ivanovna Yurchenko

Oh, how wrong I was. Cue the mighty women duo, Olga Mikhailovna Fedotova and Galina Ivanovna Yurchenko who both work for the Moscow Canal and whom we had the chance to meet when filming for our TV show ‘Capital Ideas Life.’ We were making a program about Moscow water and these two incredible women play important roles in this amazing story. They were about to completely turn my knowledge of the Russian capital’s water on its head, plus clarify a few things that had always perplexed me. 

Moscow is ‘water challenged’ and was not viable as a modern city. That was the mighty challenge facing the communists when they reinstated Moscow as the capital of the new Soviet State in 1918, after St. Peterburg’s 200-year stint as the Russian Imperial capital. Moscow developed rapidly, but by the 1930s further growth was hampered; a new water source was needed for drinking water, better sanitary conditions and improved water navigation. Perhaps you have seen pictures of the Moskva river in early black and white photographs. The river always looked like a pathetic trickle between wide muddy banks, or else it was in tempestuous flood, breaking its banks and plunging downtown Moscow underwater. During the summer you could even wade across the Moskva river near the Kamenny Most. 

So in June 1930, the Central Committee decreed … ‘to radically solve the problem… ‘and connect Moscow to the upper Volga. Three grandiose plans were hatched to build a canal bringing water and shipping over land to the heart of Moscow, rather like the Greek hero Jason, who together with his argonauts warriors, carried their ship over land between two mighty seas. However the Moscow Canal does one heroic thing Jason and his argonauts didn’t have to do – the Canal carries the water uphill, climbing the equivalent height of a ten story building. There is an area of high ground a little north of Moscow, the Klinsko-Dmitrovskaya ridge, and while the shortest route from the Volga was 128km, these hills stood in the way and required the creation of powerful new pumping technologies and locks for shipping.

Lock No. 3 at Dedenevo

The Moscow Canal was built between 1932 and 1937 and is no mean feat of engineering, one of the grand construction projects of the 20th Century. It incorporates monumental Stalinist architecture adorned with beautiful architecture at all the locks, sluices and bridges. Not only that, it was dug with picks and shovels, and the soil was taken out by hand in wheelbarrows (apparently the wheelbarrow traffic was so intense they had wheelbarrow traffic controllers). The elephant in the room is the fact the canal was built by forced labour from the Soviet Gulags. This is where numbers get hazy and accounts differ, some say 200,000 conscripts, while others go up to a million who passed through during its five year construction. Many died and again accounts differ from tens to hundreds of thousands, buried in surrounding forests. 

An exhibit at The Canal Museum at Dedenevo

The Canal Museum at Dedenevo, is beautifully put together and is clearly a passion project of the museum curator, Galina Ivanovna Yurchenko. She is a passionate historian and archivist and has created this brilliant little gem of a museum 55km from the MKAD roadway – preserving the history and stories of Moscow’s Water. It’s a tribute to the wonder, engineering and history of the canal and sensitively covers the lot and working conditions of its prison labourers. One exhibit shows lovingly reclaimed shovels and one of those many wheelbarrows as well as an incredible archive of camp life photos. While life was harsh – some pictures show the workers created bands and even had camp theatre productions. Today it is to the legacy of these prisoners that we owe the ability to turn on our taps in Moscow and drink clean water.

The Canal Museum at Dedenevo

The Canal was finished in May 1937, when the first flotilla of white boats sailed from the Volga to the Northern River Station at Khimki, thus connecting Moscow not just to the Volga, but to five seas;  the White Sea, Baltic Sea, Caspian Sea, Sea of Azov, and the Black Sea. Consequently Moscow is known as the Port Of Five Seas. At the time of its opening, the Moscow Canal was a modern wonder, and a large model of the canal – sent to the Paris World Fair in 1937, won a top prize. 

The Canal Museum at Dedenevo

It is said that the Moscow canal carries water right to the Kremlin. In fact, so much so that during the war the German Luftwaffe used the canal to fly along to find their way to the Kremlin. Indeed during the war the Canal was extensively bombed but never fell to the Nazis. The only place the Nazis crossed the canal was around the bridge just north of Dedenovo, where now a monument stands on top of the Peremilovsky heights. The canal engineers played a vital role in defending both Moscow city and the canal, at times flooding areas and during the winter cunningly pumping water out from under frozen ice resulting in the ice collapsing and becoming impassable.  

Today, the Moskva ebulliently flows and sparkles through the heart of Moscow and looks picturesque beneath the Kremlin walls, yet it is in fact 70% Volga water. Its height is consistent all year long with only small variations during the spring thaw, and deluges no longer inundate the city centre.

I loved every minute of listening to both of my guides and my eyes were opened wide during our visit. I had absolutely no idea that water played such a crucial role in Moscow’s history nor that Moscow’s development was hampered until the water challenge was resolved. When you next fill your glass, spare a thought for all the history that comes with every drop of Moscow water. That what you hold in your hand is in fact 70% Volga water, which has travelled 128km, uphill. It is for a good reason that the Volga is known as Volga-Matushka, the Mother Volga, the river that is the heart and soul of Russia and even the lifeline of Moscow.

The museum at Dedenevo can be visited by prior arrangement!
Our Program about Moscow water can be viewed at https://bigasia.ru/capitalideas/

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