About 10,000 young people from across the Soviet Union helped build the canal, a marvel of engineering that drops about an inch in elevation every mile for the first 129 miles so that gravity keeps the water flowing. Sappers and archaeologists led the way, said the canal’s resident historian, Volodymyr Sklyarov; they cleared World War II ordnance and the occasional trove of ancient Scythian treasure.
The canal even has its own anthem, still framed on the wall of the canal’s headquarters. “We built the canal in peace, along with the whole great and powerful country,” the words go. “Keep it, as dear as your breath, for your children and grandchildren!”
But when Russia seized Crimea in 2014, a senior aide in the Ukrainian president’s office, Andriy Senchenko, organized the damming of the canal as a way to strike back. Before the canal’s annual springtime opening, he directed workers to pile up a pyramid of bags of sand and clay near the border with Crimea. And he had them put up a sign saying they were installing a flow-measurement mechanism, to put Russian intelligence on the wrong track.
He is convinced that blocking the canal was the right decision because it imposed costs on Moscow, much as military resistance would have.
“In order to cause as much damage to the Russian Federation as was caused by seven years of blocking the canal, tens of thousands would need to have died at the front,” Mr. Senchenko said.