A Virtual Tour of the

Monastery on Solovki

I am told that this is the first web page in the Western Hemisphere devoted to tragic and incomparable Solovki Islands.

This is a guided tour through my own personal photographs, taken with a borrowed camera, from a one-day visit to the Solovki Islands in July of 1995.

I've broken it into three pieces to keep its memory demands from overwhelming: first, the trip to the Islands and the first building on the tour; second, the monastery itself; third, and still incomplete, an informal history of the monastery.

Four of us (professors of Russian language & lit who work in the USA) decided to take a weekend trip from Petrozavodsk (in Finnish Petroskoi, capital of the region of Karelia) up to the Solovki Islands, located in the White Sea. We took an overnight train from Petrozavodsk (about 62 degrees North) to the town of Belomorsk (formerly Soroka, a much more poetic name), located at the mouth of the infamous White Sea (Belomor) Canal, about 65 degrees North.

Very briefly: Solovki was first famous as a monastery, founded by hermit monks but eventually a well-off establishment that owned quite a bit of land along the shores of the White Sea. Even before the Revolution, it often served as a place of involuntary confinement for political enemies of the Tsars. (If you have heard the Yale Russian Chorus, you may recall that the saintly Pitirim, formerly the bandit Kudejar, tells his story in Solovki.) After the Revolution the monastery was taken from its residents and the complex became a prison camp. Until very recently it was impossible for foreigners to visit except on large package-tour ships; now that the monastery is being renewed, it is merely difficult and time-consuming to reach the islands.

My cosmopolitan friends in P-vodsk said that Belomorsk was a "dyra" (a hole in the wall), so I took a couple of pictures to convey that good northern village ambiance:

The Vyg river, from the shore in Belomorsk.

The Vyg river framed by buildings.

From Belomorsk we took a hydrofoil across the White Sea to the Islands, passing first through the final lock of the Belomor Canal. The White Sea looked as black as the Black Sea to me (just a lot colder), maybe ink-dark rather than wine-dark; the name must have come from the frozen and snow-covered water in winter. We hoped for whales since they are sometimes sighted there, but didn't see any. The water was rough, and the weather turned cold and rainy as we approached the main island.

The monastery complex, from the port, in the rain.

Once we got off the boat, we were combined into an unlikely group with a few other Russians and some Finns who seemed to speak very little Russian. I felt we were in the same position njoyed (?) all summer: we were foreigners, but we knew too much of the language and history to be simply tourists. In the drizzle and the low green vegetation, I felt oddly as if I had lived there before.

The tour took us first to another part of the main island, "Sekirnaja gora," a steep mountain on whose summit stands a church:

The first floor is a "summer church" (unheated), the second floor is a "winter church" (heated), the next story up is a bell tower, and at the very top is a lighthouse. The church has been reconsecrated but is not used for regular services; no one lives on the mountain now except the guard/custodian and his family.

From an observation platform beside the church it is clear why a lighthouse was needed in the heyday of the monastery's fishing activity: a series of small lakes stretch out (on the day we visited, the silver water visible amid dark green forest into the rainy distance) towards the sea. A goat came and joined us on the platform. Ate the food some of us had left over from the meal on the lurching boat.

The mountain's threatening name ("Hatchet mountain") dated back to the early days of the monastic settlement, but it suited morerecent history well too. Prisoners in the GULag were tortured there while the island was a special prison camp. Our guide said that prisoners who had "misbehaved" were tied naked to trees to be bitten by ants,* or else they might have been whipped and then flung down the steep slope beside the church, where there is now a rickety staircase.

At the bottom of the rotting wooden stairs the Russian Patriarch has placed a cross as a memorial to the prisoners of the GULag who died on Solovki, and especially on infamous "Hatchet mountain." What looks like a skull in the middle of the bottom cross bar is, in fact, a schematic design of a skull.

The cross is built in the traditional style for maritime crosses: no part of the wood touches the ground, it is held up by rocks to keep the damp ground from rotting the wood.

Dr. Vadim Birstein has suggested to me that the guide may have slipped: although this kind of torture by ants is recorded in other Soviet prison camps, memoirs about Solovki suggest that the preferred insects for torment of prisoners were instead mosquitos or else black flies (moshka).
Click here to continue to the second part of this tour.

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