The Monastery Itself

Returning towards the main monastery complex from Hatchet Mountain on a small bus, we saw people gathering mushrooms in the woods. Two of them flagged the bus and struck a deal with driver to let them ride down the rest of the way. Alongside the dirt (rather, the MUD) road we saw plenty of the rust-colored tops of a favorite type of mushroom glimmering through the foliage. (Natives of Karelia scorn the Petersburgers who come to collect mushrooms and take anything that is not poisonous. The local favorite, even more beloved than the rust-topped ones, is "belyi grib" (literally, "white mushroom"). A friend of mine -- from Karelia, not from Solovki -- described her encountering with one prize white mushroom in the woods in tones usually reserved for descriptions of romantic assignations: "I came out between the trees, and there he stood, big, white....")

The trees were low but thick, a mix of deciduous and coniferous. The climate is quite gentle for such an extreme northern latitude (again, about 65 degrees, not many miles from the Arctic circle). Human settlement was clearly a matter of constant labor, as the damp and the winter nights would tend to erode and overgrow any building.

The wall around the monastery is built of enormous stones covered in bright lichen, with nice flowers growing in them. A little color during those long, long winter nights.

By this time in the tour it was raining and chilly -- we were all wearing everything we had brought along -- and so we were happy to wait for our guide under one of the many arches in the monastery complex. The buildings were clearly designed for getting around in rain and cold, with arches and connecting hallways.

We waited for a long time, and then saw a young woman hurrying toward us, tying a scarf over her hair. It seemed that she had interrupted her work on something more important to come out, perhaps because the person who had agreed to meet us didn't show up.

The buildings of the once-flourishing monastery are now being restored, and the retoration has been going on for about 30 years, moving more quickly in recent years because of the renewal of the monastic community. The renovations have stressed the splendid historic churches in the center of the monastery complex rather than the "service" buildings around the sides. This arch above looks very sharp until you notice that the windows are all boarded up.

But in the corner of the yard some flowers and vegetables are flourishing -- when the sun comes out it shines all night in June and July.

Broken and patched-up windows, again. The monastery was so stately in its heyday; the photographs in the museum from the late 19th and early 20th centuries show trim buildings behind immaculate courtyards. It must have been neglected completely while it was a prison camp, the moral level of GULag guards working in step with the harsh climate. Only several decades of devoted and completely voluntary work by people who understand the place's cultural and religious importance has kept it from falling apart completely.

From the same arch, here is the angle that most recalled a prison camp. In spite of the renovations, the dark cold rainy day and the muddy ground really created a properly gloomy mood.

The cupolas have mostly been repaired. Under Soviet rule the cupolas and the little towers they sit on were removed, leaving sloping barn-like roofs. The picture of scaffolding at the top of this tour was taken from beneath another arch.

There are now, we were told, about twenty monks and novices living at Solovki, as well as a community of believers that varies in number with the time and season. Our well-educated and knowledgeable guide was one of them. She was visibly SCANDALIZED when a Finnish woman from our accidental tour group (one whose Russian was quite weak) stepped into the consecrated space behind the iconostasis of one chapel which was in such an early stage of restoration that there were no icons or decorations of any kind. One of our companions told the rest of us that the chapel needed to be reconsecrated, since women aren't allowed behind the iconostasis except under limited and exceptional circumstances. (This is not actually true, I am informed by someone more knowledgeable than I am -- but it does suggest how the layers of church rules and traditional lore have survived seventy years of Soviet suppression in lay memory.)

The big dining hall inside the building shown below is under restoration, as are the big churches. The only working church is in one of the side buildings, near the museum. It is small but exquisite inside. (I didn't take pictures of it, or of any of the monastery's residents, with the one exception below.)

The museum was a gloomy and dimly lit series of rooms, beginning with the history of the monastery, rusty cannon-balls from the timem they were shelled by an English ship, and pictures of the monks and pilgrims. The next few rooms contained a very moving exhibit dedicated to victims of the labor camp at Solovki, which was dissolved in 1937. According to the exhibit, local residents noticed that the last prisoners were loaded onto ships, and then heard the cries of the drowning as the ships were intentionally sunk in the Black Sea. The exhibit included a number of large photographs of the prisoners -- some very famous, like the late D. S. Likhachev (who, of course, did not die at Solovki because he wound up working on the Belomor Canal) or Father Pavel Florenskii (who died when he was crushed by a falling tree while cutting lumber in the woods). No stories of ants biting or ships sinking has the same tragic impact as a human name and face. I was especially struck by how many of the portraits bore the label "Ukrainian poet." (Wished then that I had brought a good notebook and pen as well as a camera.

And if the camp was closed in 1937, then all these people were arrested and sent there before the worst of Stalin's purges even began.

Waiting under another arch after we emerged from the museum:

Note not only the rustiness of the rain-soaked buildings, where the same giant rocks that form the protective walls of the monastery are used as the foundations for the buildings and emerge from the whitewash (or the lichen) -- but also the cut grass lying on the lawn of the courtyard, scythed to dry for winter hay.

As I already mentioned, I didn't want to take pictures of any people in the monastery -- or rather, I would have liked to take their pictures, but didn't want to treat them as a spectacle. As if to demonstrate the fragility of my good intentions, when the pictures were developed it turned out that one of the monks had walked into the corner of this one.

Here he is enlarged for better (?) visibility. He looks pretty Dostoevskian, in the traditional garb.

(If you think that the grass is too bright green to be Dostoevskian, or that Dostoevskian must be visually sepia, then you must have been reading the WRONG translation.)

After the cold rain it was a relief to get back to Belomorsk, spend a night in the hotel and then a sunny day clambering over the local petroglyphs. Our train arrived in Petrozavodsk the next morning at about 4:00. That time is beautiful during the white nights.

Thanks to Dr. Francoise Rosset, who posed us this way by beautiful Lake Onega in the midnight sun, to see how that warm peachy light would transform our clothing, which just happened to be in primary colors: blue, red, and apricot.

And here, to irritate her Astral Self since she does not surf (or serf) the Net, is my friend Lyuba, at work at the Profilaktoriia on the third floor of Obshchezhitie No. 2 on Prospekt Lenina:

In addition to her work as a massage therapist, she plays a mean bayan.


For more information on the Monastery, visit http://eng.solovki.ru/.

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