Vienna — A pitiful ''army'' of political prisoners began it with picks, shovels, and bare hands in 1949. This fall, a modern, mechanized force of 30,000 troops, ''volunteer'' youth brigades, and skilled workers is one step away from completing it.
It is Romania's Black Sea-Danube canal - a water memorial to human suffering and prodigious financial cost. The first cargo-carrying vessel is finally expected to pass through the canal before the end of the year.
It has taken 34 years (including a long standstill) to build this 42-mile waterway, the postwar Communist regime's biggest and most expensive single investment. The final cost will exceed $2 billion. Approximately half has come from the World Bank.
The canal was, in fact, one of the typically unrealistic dreams of early communist construction forced everywhere in Stalin's Eastern Europe. Former monarchists, liberal politicians, wealthy bourgeoisie, kulaks (well-to-do peasants), intellectuals, priests, and minority Magyars and Germans were all put to work in one of the most notorious slave-labor camps of the period.
Many died under the appalling conditions before the project was abandoned in 1953, soon after Stalin's passing. The derelict diggings were revived in the mid-1970s.
Three harbors, locks, 60 miles of ancillary railroad, and 100 miles of road have been built. By early summer the longest bridge (nearly 700 yards) crossing the canal was opened to traffic.
But the opening of the waterway itself has been delayed several times by formidable engineering difficulties. In the last five miles, the canal runs to a depth of 75 yards - requiring intricate work to secure it against water loss in the limestone and chalk terrain through which it is cut.
Outside experts say the canal is a notable achievement. But some are dubious about its overall strain on Romania's resources - particularly on the living standards of ordinary Romanians - during two five-year plans. They are also skeptical about the canal's ultimate ability to pay for itself.
Two decades of unsparing industrialization have given the country impressive new industries and plants. Yet the political leadership still shows no sign of relaxing its old ambitious preference for heavy capital construction.
By August, only the last few kilometers remained to link the inland Danube port of Cernavoda to the Agigea harbor just south of Constanta on the Black Sea.
August also saw the start of yet another costly water-link project for the region, that will carry big barges 15 miles to the main canal.
The canal will lop off some 200 miles of the present roundabout haul through the Sulina channel, historically a freeway for shipping. Users will be weighing this against the tolls Romania will charge on what is called one of the ''proudest foundations of the Ceausescu era.''