The six Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea not far from the Arctic Circle were the most important religious center in Northern Russia for centuries. In particular, the Orthodox monastery founded on Solovetsky in the 15th century was expanded into an imposing fortress and served the Soviets as a gulag in the 20th century.
Solovetsky Islands on the White Sea: facts
|Official title:||Historical and cultural monuments on the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea|
|Cultural monument:||Archipelago with an area of 347 km², consisting of a. from the 6 large islands Bolshoi Solowezki, Anser, Bolschaja and Malaja Muksalma, Bolshoi and Malyi Sajats; Monastery complex, founded by monks of the Kirill monastery, in the 16./17. Refuge for Old Believers|
|Location:||Bolshoi Solovetsky, Solovetsky Islands in the south of the White Sea, southwest of Arkhangelsk|
|Meaning:||a place of religious life since the 15th century, a reminder of the notorious time of the forced labor camps|
Solovetsky Islands on the White Sea: history
|5th century BC Chr.||first permanent settlement|
|1429||Establishment of a hermitage|
|1435||Founding a monastery|
|1552-57||Construction of the Assumption Church with refectory|
|1558-66||Construction of the Transfiguration Cathedral|
|1584-94||Expansion of the monastery into a fortress|
|1596-1601||Construction of the Church of the Annunciation|
|1619||Construction of the guardhouse|
|1668-76||Siege of the monastery by the Tsar’s troops|
|1920||Dissolution of the monastery|
|1923-39||Use as a forced labor camp|
|1939-47||Use by the Soviet Northern Fleet|
|1942-45||Use as a nautical school|
|1962||Beginning of the restoration|
|1990||New beginning of monastic life|
Prisoners in the monastery
The islands in the White Sea achieved notoriety: the Soviet power developed the basic principles of the forced labor camp system there in the 1920s. In this special camp, called “Solowki” for short, the Soviet man was supposed to come into being; in truth, thousands of people were systematically exterminated. The writer Maxim Gorky came to visit in June 1929 for propaganda purposes. He was presented with white-clad inmates condemned to silence who read the newspaper. One of them held the page upside down in protest. Gorky turned it around without saying a word: he understood.
The islands have seen better days, for example when monks first founded a hermitage in the first half of the 15th century, from which the famous Solovetsky Monastery emerged, which acquired great wealth through donations and salt trade. To protect themselves from attacks by the Swedes, the monks drew a 13 meter high wall with eight towers around the monastery complex in the 16th century, which was guarded by a small army of at times 1,500 armed men. From 1600 to 1730 the monastery had the privilege to exploit the Arctic Ocean between Spitsbergen and Novaya Zemlya. Every year the Pomorans, the residents of the Arctic coast, drove into the Arctic Ocean and returned heavily laden with polar bear and fox skins, walrus teeth and skins. They had to leave a large part of this income to the monastery.
Over the centuries, the monks made all six islands of the archipelago usable. They built numerous churches, chapels and hermitages, houses, fishermen’s huts, farm buildings and stables that were scattered across the main island. There was a system of canals connecting many of the island’s lakes, and even a watermill was put into operation. Every year thousands of pilgrims visited the famous monastery, in whose churches magnificent icons proclaimed an otherworldly life.
According to cheeroutdoor, large parts of the monastery burned down during the Russian Revolution. The abbot was murdered, the monks driven out, icons and the library’s holdings destroyed, and the churches left to decay. Six years after the October Revolution, the then Soviet secret service set up a special camp in the Kremlin with its numerous churches and buildings, which was abandoned in 1939 when there were enough others in Siberia. At the beginning of the 1960s, the restoration of churches, monasteries and hermitages began; during the period of perestroika, the Russian Orthodox Church and the cultural fund also took part in the work. Seven decades after the monastery was dissolved, monks read holy mass again.
Around a thousand people live on the Solovetsky Islands today, including over 30 monks and novices who want to revive the monastery. Rescued icons and objects from the monastery era are exhibited in the island museum at the Holy Gate. In the memorial room of the “Memorial” society you can find documents from the camp, especially letters and photos of the prisoners. Among them were the philosopher and theologian Pavel Florenski, who died in the camp, and the cultural scientist Dmitri Likhachev, who survived and helped restore the monastery in the 1980s.
On the highest hill on the main island there is still the Ascension Church with the beacon for shipping on its spire. From the stairs that lead to the church, prisoners were once thrown to their deaths with tree trunks or stones tied to their backs. Nine churches from the 16th to 19th centuries have been preserved within the Kremlin, including the Cathedral of the Transfiguration of Christ and the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The bell tower, the defiant refectory and the mighty monastery wall with its eight towers made of raw granite are still standing. The towers offered enough protection from the Swedes, but they were useless against the Soviet power.