Scorched earth, blown dam

August, 1941. An unknown German soldier takes a photo of the huge hydroelectric dam spanning the Dnieper river at Zaporizhia in Ukraine. It has been blown up by NKVD agents, acting on orders from Stalin. As the Red Army retreated, they practiced a scorched earth policy, leaving as little as possible for the advancing Germans to use. The middle of the more than 760 meters wide dam has been dynamited, disrupting power generation for years to come.

Construction of the dam began in 1927, taking five years to complete. It was one of the largest in the world, producing 560 megawatts and powering the industrial centers at Zaporizhia, Kryvy Rih and Dnipro (Russian: Zaporozhye, Krivoi Rog & Dniepropetrovsk), among them the electricity-consuming aluminium industry, which was vital for Soviet aviation. The dam was the pride of Soviet industrialization.

The destruction of the dam caused a catastrophe that was covered up by Soviet authorities. With no regard for the people living downstream, the demolition team destroyed the dam. The resulting tidal wave hit villages and settlements, killing many thousands of civilians. A low estimate is set at 20,000 victims, but some historians believe that as many as 100,000 could’ve been killed. The wave also killed a number of Red Army officers who were crossing the river as the wall of water surged forth.

When the Germans retreated in 1943, they destroyed parts of the dam and the powerhouses. Reconstruction began after the war ended, and the dam resumed the generation of electricity in 1950. There is no official monument over the victims of its destruction.


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