Solovetsky Islands, Russia

The Mother Island of the Gulag Archipelago

Solovestsky Autumn
View of Solovetsky Monastery from an opposite bank.
shadow of a cruel past
Visitor inside one of the prisons used while Solovetsky remained part of the Soviet gulags.
on the way to the monastery
Religious women approach one of the entrances that serve the Solovetsky monastery.
Orthodox pioneer
Alexander Nevsky's small chapel in front of the monastery's main facade.
Green in working tones
Alexey Sidnev and Andrey Ignatvev, geologists serving the Archangelsk region and working in Solovevestky.
funeral story
An Orthodox monk passes by the Church of the Annunciation cemetery, where some of the most important personalities in Solovevestky's history lie.
goat gang
Goats rest in a somewhat Soviet setting around the monastery.
in the middle of the White Sea
Sunny panorama of the Solovetsky Monastery.
line of believers
Orthodox faithful line up to cross themselves at the altar of the Church of the Annunciation.
Mirror Dock
Boats anchored near the wall of the Solovetsky monastery.
cattle on the loose
Goat in a street in the village of Solovestsky.
fishing time
Resident sails by boat from a marina next to the monastery.
Soviet Parking
Three UAZ vans (Ulyanovsky Avtomobilny Zavod) parked next to Solovetsky's houses.
Russian accordion
Accordionist plays for passersby outside a local tavern.
religious front
Detached chapels in front of the wall of the Solovetsky monastery.
Divine Domes
Central domes of the Bolshoi Solovetsky monastery.
input faithful
Resident of the big island of Solovetsky enters the complex.
Seagull strolls on a Solovetsky fence.
Orthodox priest pass in front of one of the arched entrances to the Solovetsky monastery.
Russian TV
Satellite dishes that provide a television link to the rest of Russia.
It hosted one of Russia's most powerful Orthodox religious domains, but Lenin and Stalin turned it into a gulag. With the fall of the USSR, Solovestky regains his peace and spirituality.

The long rainy and dangerous journey of Saint Petersburg it was charging us, for a long time, a weariness that was increasingly difficult to disguise.

Napping in the car did little to ease him. The dawn of day and the moment when we were able to climb aboard the little one arrived, just like that, as an enormous relief.

And it was with surprise that after two hours of navigation departing from Kem, we saw the imposing silhouette of the Solovetsky monastery, similar to the illustration of the 500 ruble banknotes in circulation, emerge from the bow projection.

in the middle of the White Sea

Sunny panorama of the Solovetsky Monastery.

The boat docks ten meters from its walls. The owners of the house where we were going to stay welcome us. As soon as we entered that rental home, we realized that we were going to share it with Russian guests. At that moment, they were absent.

We rest for a few hours. Finally recovered from the atrocious road direct of the night before, we left for an inaugural exploration.

on the way to the monastery

Religious women approach one of the entrances that serve the Solovetsky monastery.

Incursion into Bolshoy Solovetsky's Unorthodox Life

We skirt the humble marina that serves the largest of the Solovetskys and the dark waters that reflect the domes of the imposing building.

We come across loose goats, stray cats, cycling nuns and residents absorbed in their tasks.

goat gang

Goats rest in a somewhat Soviet setting around the monastery.

And, at one end of the bay facing the wall, with a Russian with a Rasputinian look that didn't agree with our passage through those domains. He grew vegetables in the garden of the wooden house he was keeping under restoration.

A mystical tolling of the monastery's bells breaks the hitherto religious silence. Minutes before it ends, we see a battalion of men from the works appear from the portal that gives access to the Orthodox domain and relax on the grass for a brief rest and conviviality.

His presence had a superior reason to be, but it was slow to resolve the problem: Solovki, as the archipelago that is still part of the mysterious Bolshoi Zayatsky was the first place in Russia to be recognized by the UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

Even so, it continued to need renovations.

When we were on the boat, one of the passengers from the country of the tsars complained to other visitors: “those scaffolding has been in the domes for a long time. Foreigners get annoyed because their photographs are spoiled. I'm very disappointed that things around here are always done this way!”.

Central domes of the Bolshoi Solovetsky monastery.

The resettled darkness and cold invite us to return to the rooms. When we enter, it smells like food. We get to know the Russians with whom we shared the house. And to know that dinner had been made for everyone.

The Warm Welcome of Andrey Ignatvev and Alexey Sidnev

Alexey Kravchenko, the host who brought us from Saint Petersburg he quickly puts us at ease, even if only a few English words his compatriots uttered. “They are eager to know how to say”lobster” in Portuguese, but the little ones, you know?”, he tells us. And show us a paper they had drawn. “Lobster…im? "

I don't know if I can tell them this but I have to make an effort. It's every Russian's dream to gorge on fresh fish and seafood from Portugal!”

We sat down. We shared a long starter of vodka, cucumber slices in pickles and fresh tomatoes, still enriched with pieces of saló, a cooled pork lard that the Russians got used to consuming to alleviate the effects of the alcohol they drink.

Vodka, Solovetsky, Mother Island of the Gulag Archipelago, Russia

Small bottle of vodka added to Alexey and Andrey's table in their temporary home in Solovetsky.

Conversation starts, we learned that Andrey Ignatvev – the former student chef who had cooked the dinner – and Alexey Sidnev formed a pair of geologists from the nearby city of Archangelsk.

They were at the service of the region. They traveled frequently from Archangelsk to work in Solovetsky.

Considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site for over 20 years, the great Bolshoi Solovetsky continued to see its sewers flow into the bay in front of the monastery. It lacked real basic sanitation.

Andrey and Alexey had at their disposal an old Soviet UAZ van (Ulyanovsky Avtomobilny Zavod) military green, littered with worn tools. Their mission was to examine the soil and collect samples to facilitate the decision on the type of pipes (and ideal depths) to be implemented.

Green in working tones

Alexey Sidnev and Andrey Ignatvev, geologists serving the Archangelsk region and working in Solovevestky.

If we take into account the real epic behind the settlement of the monastery in those northern parts of Russia, his work could be considered minor.

The War History of the Solovetsky Monastery

In 1429, two monks from the Kirillo-Belozersky monastery founded a new monastery in the area of ​​the large island of Solovetsky now called Savvatevo. A third monk, hailing from Valaam and named Zosima, joined them.

This trio created the bases for the new religious stronghold to become wealthy and powerful.

Orthodox priest pass in front of one of the arched entrances to the Solovetsky monastery.

Between 1582 and 1594, it was endowed with a stone fortress. The power of this additional structure enabled the monastery to accumulate vast lands around the White Sea.

In the 350th century, when it was already home to more than 600 monks and between 700 to XNUMX servants, artisans and peasants, the monastery succumbed to a seven-year siege and consequent looting by the tsarist government forces.

In that same century and the following, he managed to repel attacks from the Livonia order (a branch of Teutonics) in Sweden. Later, during the Crimean War, it even resisted the incursion of British ships.

Solovestsky Autumn

View of Solovetsky Monastery from an opposite bank.

Solovetsky's monastery did not, however, resist the Bolshevik revolution and the atheistic whims of the Soviet authorities.

In 1921, it was closed and replaced by a state farm.

The Field of Work decreed by Lenin

Two more years later, under Lenin's term, it would be turned into a labor camp for enemies of the people. A labor camp where, at first wasteful, the prisoners were limited to maintaining the botanical garden and libraries.

Absent for decades, seeing the imminence of the fall of the USSR in 1980, the monks began to return. By the time of our visit, there were already more than ten.

We find them all the time in the inner areas of the fortress, always well recognizable by their black clothes and long beards, busy with their countless ecclesiastical tasks.

Two Orthodox monks from the Solovetsky monastery embrace with affection.

As we explored the complex, we noticed that one of them prays next to the Church of the Annunciation cemetery, where the bodies of the most important condemned to exile in the monastery lie.

We joined a group of Russian visitors.

Using Alexey's surgical translations of the narration in his language, we were impressed by the lugubrious cruelty also perpetuated in the stony dungeons we entered.

shadow of a cruel past

Visitor inside one of the prisons used while Solovetsky remained part of the Soviet gulags

From the Mother Island Gulag Dictated by Stalin to the Recovery of Orthodox Spirituality

In 1937, Stalin it turned Solovetsky monastery into one of its most severe gulags.

The mother of all, that's how Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn dubbed him in “The Gulag Archipelago”, the work in which he describes the sub-human life and death to which tens of thousands of intellectuals, Orthodox priests, members of religious sects and old Bolsheviks and kulaks were subjected . Of these, about 40 were executed or killed by disease.

funeral story

An Orthodox monk passes by the Church of the Annunciation cemetery, where some of the most important personalities in Solovevestky's history lie.

Still, strangely enough, the island's spirituality seems healed. Bolshoi Solovevestky and the monastery once again attract people looking for meaning.

We stroll around the walls when we come across an accordionist who, in exchange for a few rubles for vodka, gives an occasion recital for locals and visitors.

Accordionist plays for passersby outside a local tavern.

Curious about the interest of these outsiders, Ludmila, a “refugee” on the island, approaches us. We ended up speaking in French. The lady had worked as an emigrant for many years in Nimes, there she left her children and their families.

He was so disillusioned with life that he found comfort only among the religious community and Solovetsky's prayers. "I couldn't stand it anymore." vents to us “They treated me like second-rate people” he laments, still without hiding an obvious nostalgia for his people. “Here yes. Here I am with God.”

When we hear her utter those words, the fearless conclusion of Solzhenitsyn for the revolution that had allowed the death of 60 million compatriots, many in Gulags like the tax on Solovetsky:

“Men forgot about God. That's why all this happened.”

Sunset, Solovetsky, Mother Island of the Gulag Archipelago, Russia

Sun sets over the White Sea on one of the long days of the short summer in the Solovetsky archipelago.

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