Solovetskiy Monastery, Solovki Island

Russia's Solovetskiy Islands: Legacy & History in the White Sea

Zegrahm Contributor|July 20, 2006|Blog Post

A native of Kamchatka, Russia, Sergey Frolov is a lifelong mariner, teacher, and explorer. He is also a world photographer whose work appears in many of our publications. His personal exploration of the geography and culture of the White Sea and Solovetskiy Archipelago paved the way for two new Zegrahm voyages to the region in the summer of 2007.

Since you had always lived in the Russian Far East, what was your first impression of the White Sea and Solovetskiy Islands?

Russia is so vast, so diverse culturally, and I had lived on the other side of the country most of my life, nine time zones away. So when I went to the White Sea for the first time in 1983, I was stupefied by the isolation of the place and by its beauty.

The Solovetskiy archipelago was formed by glaciers. Even though they are located just 100 miles south of the Arctic Circle, they have a surprisingly moderate climate. They are covered with tundra and forests of birch and fir, and there are more than 500 freshwater lakes among them. When you approach the islands by ship, they seem to float magically on the sea. I saw beluga whales here, too. In the summertime, they give birth in these waters and you can see them often, close to shore, where they play with their calves.

It was also during this visit that I saw a monastery for the first time. On Solovki, the largest island, there is a huge monastery complex surrounded by massive rock walls. Its powerful influence shaped the history of the White Sea area for many centuries. I remember walking around the grounds; the buildings were in shambles, devastated by time and political upheaval, and abandoned. The history there really grabbed me—it was visual. And as I looked around at all the buildings, I realized that this place was important—not just to me and to Russia, but to the world.

Few people in the West know about these remote islands. Why would you urge travelers to visit?

First of all, the White Sea is an area with a long history. The Russian navy was established in the port of Arkhangelsk by Peter the Great; in the Middle Ages the city became Russia's gateway to commerce with northern Europe; and, in the last century, a long line of explorers departed from here on many famous polar expeditions.

The Solovetskiy Archipelago played a major role in Russian religious and political history. If we looked back 600 years, we would see a small monastery founded on Solovki Island by hermit monks, Savvaty and Zosima, in the early 15th century. After their death and sainthood, Russian Orthodox monks came as pilgrims, and stayed on to help build churches, monk cells, and servant housing. As the ruling tsars realized the monastery could protect its northern interests, they poured money and support into the complex—an official blessing of Christianity and Orthodoxy in the northern seas region.

By the 17th century, more than 300 monks and 600 workers lived at the monastery that had spread across several islands. The monks built a network of canals to connect the buildings and to transport fresh water from the interior lakes. What began as a remote hermitage developed into a strategic defense post and grew into an important political force in the White Sea region.

The gulag camp system of the Stalin regime began on Solovki Island at the monastery. How is that dark history conveyed today?

Between the late 18th century and the Russian Revolution in 1917, the monastery fought brutal battles with invading Swedes, Germans, and Finns who sought to raid the island coffers, art treasures, and vast library collection that had been amassed there. In 1921, the Bolsheviks under Stalin closed the monastery, killed most of the clergy, and turned the buildings into the Solovki Camp of Special Designation—a concentration camp for their ideological enemies: teachers, writers, artists, men of the church, etc.

The Gulag Archipelago, as the Solovetskiys came to be known—and which Alexander Solzhenitsyn described in detail,was the first of a Russia-wide system of labor camps where millions of Russians were imprisoned and killed. The conditions at Solovki were unspeakable and thousands of prisoners died here before the camp was finally closed in 1938.

Today you can learn about this infamous history at the Gulag Museum in the Kremlin at the monastery.

Has the monastery complex at Solovki Island been restored? What is it like today?

About five years after my first visit there, in the late 1980s, the Orthodox Church returned to Solovki and reestablished itself. Pilgrims started coming from all over the world, and stone by stone, restoration of the buildings took shape. In 1992 UNESCO placed The Cultural and Historic Ensemble of the Solovetskiy Islands on the World Heritage List.

The size of the monastery complex with its Kremlin, cathedrals, monks' quarters, and canals is inconceivable until you are actually there, walking among these architectural masterpieces. For me, it is a profoundly moving experience to realize so much has happened over the course of time in this nearly lost corner of the world.