In the morning, we had spent most of it on the neighboring island of Bolshoi Zayatski, among “babylons”, mystical spirals believed to have been bequeathed by Neolithic inhabitants.
Returned to Bolshoi Solovetsky, we found them again.
We were walking towards the White Sea when we crossed as a young Dima, coming from somewhere else, pedaling on his bicycle.
Dima and our Russian guide, Alexey Kravchenko, exchange a few words. Dima dismounts from the tricycle. The walk passes to four.
A few minutes later, we come to the west of the sea, smooth as a lake, darkened and pressed by a vast, dense roof of clouds. A new and unexpected “babylon” preceded it, emulated from those of the central nucleus of Zayatski.
The “Babylons” and Solovetsky's Phenomenal Sunset
The four of us examined her. We take the trouble to traverse it, from the edge to the core, in that case, like a mound. The moment we touch it, like a cosmic miracle, a golden light sprouts from just above the horizon.
Before long, the sun occupies an entire grazing strip that the clouds had forgotten to cover.
Its reflection forms an oblique marine ray, a kind of natural indicator that, for some intriguing reason, points us and the “babylon”.
We admire the phenomenon in a communion of amazement and friendship, intensified by the presence of Dima, owner of an aura and an intimacy of treatment, rare among Russians.
The sun disappears. First behind the cloud threshold. Then down to the White Sea and the horizon.
It showed its last hints when a neighbor in a camouflage jacket appears out of nowhere and starts a conversation with Alexey and Dima, after all, an intense and drawn-out monologue that the duo listens patiently and that Alexey translates to us in a whisper: “he's saying that the whole people who come here end up designing their own labyrinth. By the way of speaking, I think he has a delay”.
If so, at the same time, there was a lot of philosophy in the words of the interlocutor who insists on illustrating them.
He kneels on a grassy area on the bank, next to a pile of lost babylon stones. Inspired by the attention we were paying him, the boy got to work.
Instead of a “babylon”, he draws what looks like a smiling cat, but which could be a mere person's face, as crude as the raw material allowed.
Even in boreal slow motion mode, it gets dark. As it darkens, it cools.
Drinking tea at Dima de Solovetsky's house
Dima invites us to tea. We gladly accept, knowing that when a Russian invites someone to tea, it is hardly just tea.
We followed him to the house where he was staying, he explains to us, by a friend's parents. A messy and run-down home that hadn't seen cleanliness for a long time, none of the disturbing facts, or even harmful, to the coexistence we expected from it.
Dima heats water and, in fact, pours us tea. In the process of doing so, with the help of Alexey and Yaroslav – another friend from the island who, in the meantime, he had invited – they set up a traditional (or not so) Russian table, enriched with bread, cheese and butter, cans of condensed milk, pickles , chives and, of course, vodka.
A bottle and a half, in case one doesn't arrive.
In a mere two or three glasses, the chatter and the party liven up.
Dima will get an old man sarangi who had ordered it on the Net, for 600 dollars. It adorns the night with chords that make it an oriental soundtrack.
Probably thanks to the hyperlipidic strategy that Russians resort to when they drink vodka, despite drinking and toasting often counts, we never reach the always dreaded state of coffin to grave.
Pleased to see us happy, Dima insists on confirming it. "We have a nice table here, don't we?" Alexey, confirm it immediately, with the challenge of another toast.
It explains to us the meaning that the Russians give to the expression. When it does, it generates in us effusive approvals and, to the harm of our sins, a new commemorative toast.
Yaroslav, in turn, speaks little or nothing of English. He just commented, in Russian, here and there, enervated by the alcoholic rampage of the binge.
Dima and Yaroslav: Unexpected Russian Autumn Get-togethers
Dima was at odds with the prejudices we are used to seeing Russians. I paid for it. Conscientious Objector russian military service, was prohibited from using a passport and, as such, cannot leave the country.
In spite of his meager English, we also unravel a little from Yaroslav.
Named after the Grand Prince of Kiev, between the ages of 40 and 50, Dima's friend had lived in Solovetsky for almost four years. Part of that time, he dedicated it to building a wooden boat that we had already repaired in the village's port.
Yaroslav completed his military service. “The first year, I hated it. The second was quite different. I traveled all over Russia and always with the government to pay. I couldn't complain.”
Yaroslav dedicated one of the inaugural toasts “to Iberia and Siberia”.
We've been wandering over to the second for a long time. Welcomed and entertained by souls like these, we remembered little or nothing from home.
Alexey Kravcheko, for his part. He forgot the one we had rented in the village and the neighbors Andrey Ignatiev and Alexey Sidnev who had invited us to dinner.
Even still stunned from lunch, we couldn't refuse.
From Snack to Dinner. All Watered with Vodka
Half an hour later, we find ourselves once more at the table of the duo of geologists, delighted with the snacks that Andrey had prepared. Delivered to more vodka goodies.
At that time, we were completely fascinated by Solovetsky, shared, incidentally, by Alexey Kravchenko, who had long been fascinated by the archipelago and who had taken us there.
So much so that the guide agreed to try to change the boat tickets to Kem for a few days later.
The plan proved impossible. Moved by our disappointment, Alexey and Andrey offer to lead us through the best of the island. The only downside: first thing in the morning. By that time, we doubted we would survive that overwhelming passion for northern Russia.
We slept more there than here. We woke up at 8:10 am with Alexey Sidnev knocking on the door, already fresh as lettuce. How did you get it after so much vodka?
How did most of the Russians do? It surpassed us. In any case, the urgency was to drag ourselves out of bed, and to secure the same prodigy as Alexey Kravchenko.
With much suffering, about nine, we were ready to leave.
Lush Autumn around Solovetsky
We followed the duo of geologists to the UAZ van – Ulyanovskyi Avtomobilnyi Zavod – troop-green in which they moved. Andrey gets us installed on the side seats with a dramatic warning:
“Hold on tight with your hands on the ceiling. This carripan has one of the toughest suspensions you will ever experience. The Russians call it a goat, because of the kick it gives. Believe it or not, we've had passengers injured."
Andrey and Alexey make sure we're protecting ourselves. Then, depart in the direction of Sekirnaya.
The 11km course, surrounded by lakes, flanked by multicolored vegetation, leaves us entranced.
Countless jolts later, we reached the top of the elevation and, in the immediate vicinity, a panoramic platform that revealed the endless taiga, with its green already converted to the most distinct tones of autumnal fire.
Monumental, the vegetal scene condemns us to a photographic frenzy.
We thank Andrey and Alexey as much as we can. “Leave it there. They answer us.
Seriously, it's a great pleasure to have you here. Let's go but take some pictures, otherwise we only have them indoors.”
Sekirnaya Hill and Solovetsky's Atrocious Past
We do so, blessed by the Church of the Ascension, built in one of the darkest places in Solovetsky.
During times of Soviet Gulag oppression, in and around the temple occupied area, countless tortures and executions were carried out.
And funerals, done in haste.
In common graves, never identified but where the Orthodox authorities have placed small crosses that indicate the number of bodies in each one.
At the base of the stairs that lead to the church, there is another cross, this one huge.
The monks also built it in 1992, shortly after the collapse of the URSS, in memory of all the victims of the Gulag prison camp in Solovki.
Andrey and Alexey had to return to the monastery where they would begin their surveying tasks for the day. We planned to accompany a procession that the religious carried out on Sundays around the complex. In vain.
At the end of the summer pinnacle, with many monks absent, the ceremony had already been suspended.
In mid-autumn, Alexey Kravchenko feared that bad weather would likely suspend the boat connections to Kem and we would find ourselves stranded on the island much longer than we wanted to.
That same evening, we said goodbye to Andrey and Alexey.
Already boarded, with the small ferry advancing back to the mainland of Kem and the Mother Russia, we whispered a convinced “see you” in Solovetsky's direction.