Anguished Agony and Ecclesiastic Ecstasy
White Sea winter winds slam ashore with wrenching brutality. Summers can be heavy … laden with heat, humidity and Arctic mosquitoes in the bogs and Russian boreal taiga forests. Spring signals the hope of renewal while autumn announces a repeat of this seasonal cycle. There is an honest rhythm to life in the Solovetsky Archipelago. Her people possess the inner strength to endure these conditions, and choose to do so. While daily life remains one of endless challenges, the devout pray before the painted altars, listen to massive church bells peal from whitewashed belfries, and take comfort from the bearded black-robed priests who live, preach and seek spirituality by their side.
Important Dates and Facts
While scientists date man’s presence here to as long ago as the 5th millennium B.C., human habitation in this rugged landscape really began in approximately the 5th century B.C. when the climate was far more favorable than it is today. Our focus, however, is the history beginning in the 15th century when zealous monastic life began on Solovetsky, evidenced by the churches that were fully functioning from the 16th to 19th centuries. Followers built stone and timber villages, carved out an irrigation system with a series of canals to supply fresh water, and designed curious stone labyrinths, cairns and burial mounds. Birch, larch, and alder forests supplied the necessary lumber. Fieldstones became valuable building materials. And the waters around Prosperity Bay provided fish for all. Though this is all quite interesting, the important attraction for today’s visitors and the faithful alike is Solovetsky Monastery, the medieval Russian Orthodox monastic settlement.
It was during the 1430s that this important religious site was founded by a trio of monks from other monasteries, lured here by the isolation that suited their cloistered lifestyle. Over time the original site grew to incorporate locations on surrounding islands and the adjacent mainland. Within 200 years, the monastery had a vibrant economy featuring dairies and factories that produced such items as ceramics and bricks. The arts followed with woodcarving, lithography, engraving and icon painting. In addition, the area’s hothouses supplied not only the local demand for produce, herbs and medicinal plants but that of many Russian cities, as well. A temperate microclimate of warm southern air nurtured this farming environment.
Six hundred fifty miles from Moscow this prosperity enhanced Solovetsky’s importance, elevating its status to that of the region’s economic hub as well as its religious and cultural center, even its military headquarters. Just beyond the Arctic Circle, it was recognized as Russia’s most remote religious enclave. The sad story is that Solovetsky also became a prison and that’s the tale most often told.
The Long Arm of the Russian Revolution
With the changing tide of history, this successful enterprise suffered its demise as revolution raged across the nation in the early 20th century. Monastic life was abandoned in 1920 and in its place came the Solovki State Farm. As the Soviet Union’s first concentration camp, the entire complex was converted to a living hell for political prisoners and others. It literally became the poster child for the nation’s gulag system. Escape was almost impossible and some historians estimate that from 1923 to 1939 approximately 40,000 of the 80,000 prisoners condemned to Solovetsky perished at the hands of their guards. Others place the number much higher. Many were intellectuals, poets, academics, and those considered potentially dangerous individuals who were labeled “enemies of the people”. Their punishment was beyond cruel, and death often their only escape. For that reason, visitors are asked to pause, reflect, and remember the history that played out on this very soil. Curiously, it was the reality of WWII that prompted Solovetsky’s closure.
Following Lenin’s death in 1924, Solovetsky was ultimately transformed into a naval training base. It became a museum in 1967 and, in 1990, was converted back into a religious site when the monks returned. Today, it is still a destination for pilgrims who arrive by small boat to pray, sing, and seek the blessings of the many priests who reside among the 1500 permanent residents. The handful of annual visitors, adventurous travelers like you, also encounter babushka’d women in long skirts, tending their gardens and going about their daily routines quite undisturbed by outsiders and their curious gazes. Meanwhile, the men spend long days laboring in the forests while the children are simply children in a world far kinder than it was not so very long ago.
Your Personal Journey
Like those before you your journey begins at the Holy Gate, the portal set into the Monastery’s massive stone walls all part of what is now recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Once inside, you can’t help but be impacted by the attempt to preserve the gentle nature of this holy site, a site tended by the faithful and landscaped into a rainbow of flowers. Turrets, watchtowers, cobblestone walkways, a protected courtyard, and the onion-domed Spaso-Prebrazhensky Cathedral complete the backdrop. Once inside the structure you’ll see scratchy film and faded photographs recording the desecration of religious artifacts and structures during Stalin’s reign of terror. Your guide will lead you through the brick hallways where prisoners met their fate and reveal to you staggering statistics that are beyond comprehension. Finally you’ll stand before the gilded icons that bring hope to those who pray this barbarity will never play out again.
Once away from the harsh reality yet palpable serenity of Solovetsky, consider reading Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. It will fill in the stories where your imagination fails.