Ghosts of the Solovki
Located just south of the Arctic Circle, the Solovetsky Islands are a place of mesmerizing beauty. But the jewels of the White Sea will forever be associated with their tragic past.
By Alex Osipovich
Photographs by Alex Osipovich, Yura Zelentsov and Anton Demidov
How do you turn a former concentration camp, once notorious for its brutality, into a pleasant summer getaway for tourists?
This was the dilemma the Soviet government faced in 1967 when it opened a museum on the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea. The islands (known for short as the Solovki) contained one of the architectural wonders of the Russian North: a 600-year-old Orthodox monastery, built against a backdrop of stunning natural beauty. However, there was one small problem with turning the Solovki into a tourist attraction — under Lenin and Stalin, they had been the site of a notorious gulag. In those days, of course, the gulag was a taboo subject; just reading Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago” could get you thrown in jail. So when the government opened the museum, it imposed a rule on the museum’s staff: Don’t tell visitors about the gulag, or else you’ll face consequences from the KGB.
Not everyone was content to abide by the rule. In particular, there was one young tour guide who found it impossible to stay silent. He had little love for the Soviet regime; in fact, he had just been expelled from Leningrad State University for dissident activities. Along with several of his colleagues, he spoke to tourists about the Solovetsky Camp of Special Designation, where tens of thousands of people had been imprisoned, tortured and killed between 1923 and 1939.
That tour guide was my father. Alexander Osipovich (we have the same name) worked at the Solovetsky State Museum- Reserve from 1967 to 1970. After three years of giving excursions, someone denounced him to the KGB. He was removed from his job, and in 1978, he emigrated to America.
Not long ago, I went to the Solovki to retrace my father’s footsteps. I discovered a place rife with contradictions, loaded with meaning, and absolutely unforgettable.
Signs and Wonders
It was a three-hour sea journey from the gritty, impoverished port of Kem to the Solovki. On the deck of the ferry, there was nothing around us but the vast blue horizon, interrupted by a few green islands. Gliding seagulls hovered over the boat. I felt like an ancient sailor who had drifted beyond the reach of civilization — and that was before I saw the sea monsters.
“Beluga!” someone cried, and all the passengers rushed to the railing. Indeed, three white whales had appeared off the side of the boat. Their massive bodies broke through the waves and swam along the surface, before disappearing into the depths. The waters around the Solovki are a breeding ground for these giant sea mammals. In recent years, whalewatching expeditions in the White Sea have become a hot ticket for adventurous foreign tourists, especially from nearby Scandinavia.
The contours of Bolshoi Solovetsky Island soon became visible. This is the largest island in the Solovki; the archipelago consists of five main islands, along with innumerable rocks. As we approached the harbor, we witnessed an aweinspiring sight: the cupolas of the 16th-century Cathedral of the Transfiguration, soaring into the air. This cathedral is the centerpiece of the Solovetsky monastery, one of the holiest places in the Russian Orthodox Church. Encircling the cathedral are the walls of the Solovetsky kremlin. This daunting stone fortress, made of enormous boulders, was built in the 1550s to secure Russia’s northern frontier.
Our ferry chugged into the harbor of the sleepy town surrounding the kremlin. There are only 900 year-round residents on the Solovki, and most of them live a few minutes’ walk from the monastery. On the dirt roads of the town, you can often encounter a wandering goat; it’s easy to remember local phone numbers, because they’re only three digits long. After the frenzied traffic and constant noise of Moscow, one of the most striking features of the Solovki is the profound tranquility.
I stepped off the plank onto solid ground. After a day of traveling by train and boat, I was unshaven, unshowered and a little bit sunburned; getting to the Solovki is not for the faint of heart. But it’s far easier today than it was in 1429, when two Orthodox monks named Savvaty and German arrived in a wooden raft after a grueling, three-day sea journey. They were seeking a quiet, peaceful place to be religious hermits, and local fishermen had told them about the Solovki. After several years of solitude, the two hermits were joined by another monk named Zosima. In 1436, according to church manuscripts, Zosima saw a vision: “floating in the air, in heavenly radiance, rose the image of a lovely church.” On the site of his vision, Zosima founded the Solovetsky monastery. Despite its remoteness (or perhaps because of it), the monastery became the home of a thriving religious community, hundreds of monks strong. This continued for half a millennium, until the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Cut off from civilization, the monks of the Solovki were a resourceful bunch. Besides praying and reading the Bible, they hunted, fished and harvested crops. And with the help of Orthodox believers who arrived every summer, they engaged in huge engineering projects that transformed the face of the Solovki. You can still see their accomplishments today. One of them is an enormous, kilometer-long sea dam that connects the smaller island of Muksulma to the big island; another one is the botanical garden where the monks grew sunloving fruits like peaches and watermelons, uncharacteristic for these northern latitudes. But perhaps their most impressive achievement was the system of canals connecting dozens of lakes on Bolshoi Solovetsky Island. Originally built for irrigation and transportation, the canals found another use in the early 1900s: they funneled water into a small hydroelectric power plant that provided electric light to the monastery.
All of these places were the stomping grounds of my father, when he was approximately the age I am today. He and his friends lived in the Solovetsky kremlin, inhabiting tiny monastic cells long abandoned by monks and prisoners. During the brief summers, they gave excursions to the throngs of tourists who arrived every day. During the long, dark winters, they hunkered down in their cells, reading samizdat and eating canned food. When the KGB first learned about my dad’s unauthorized excursions, he was reassigned to the job of watchman in the botanical garden. Soon afterwards, he was fired altogether.
Red Terror, White Nights
Antonina Soshina behaved in classic Russianmother fashion; she insisted on feeding me until I was absolutely stuffed. But food wasn’t the main purpose of my visit. Soshina is one of the last of the museum old-timers. She came to the Solovki in 1969, and she has lived here ever since. In the early days, she lived in the monastic cells along with my father and the other museum staff. The youthful group enjoyed a great sense of camaraderie. On my father’s birthday, they would pool together their last kopeks to buy meat for shashlyk, and friends would come from as far away as Leningrad. (Later she learned that the KGB fretted about this. They feared that my dad’s birthday was the cover story for a secret meeting of dissidents.) This solidarity helped them survive extremely rough living conditions. Winters were brutally cold in the old monastic living quarters. Cups of tea, left overnight, would turn into tea-flavored ice cubes by morning. Sometimes there was so much snow outside that they couldn’t open the front door; instead, they left the building through second-story windows.
I asked Soshina if the tourists, back in 1969, knew about the gulag. She replied that they did. Despite the official blackout of information, everybody knew, at least in some vague way. Sometimes there were even former prisoners who returned to the Solovki as tourists. “They came here to see where they had been,” said Soshina, “or to see where their friends had died. There were many people whose relatives had died in the camp… In some sense, this was a holy place for them.”
We normally associate gulags with Stalin. But the Solovki prison camp started under Lenin; it was a central ingredient in the Red Terror, Lenin and Trotsky’s policy of terrorizing the anti-Soviet opposition. In 1923, the Bolshevik regime kicked out the last remaining monks and handed the islands to the secret police. The monastery became the headquarters of the Solovetsky Camp of Special Designation, or SLON, where the Bolsheviks sent their most incorrigible opponents. Prisoners came from across the political spectrum; there were anarchists and Mensheviks, scholars and aristocrats, Orthodox clergy and Islamic mullahs from Central Asia. As Stalin consolidated his grip on power and reached evergreater heights of paranoia, the population of the prison exploded. By 1928, the Solovki held about 60,000 prisoners, Solzhenitsyn writes in “The Gulag Archipelago.” SLON was the mother of the gulag system, according to Solzhenitsyn; by the time it closed in 1939 (purely for logistical reasons), similar camps had “metastasized” throughout the USSR, from the nearby Kola Peninsula to distant Vladivostok.
Prisoners faced horrifying conditions in the “special” camp. During the winter, guards stuffed them by the dozen into tiny, unheated cells; the prisoners had no choice but to sleep in piles for warmth, and inevitably, some would die during the long Arctic nights. Many of SLON’s guards were convicted criminals who reveled in sadistic acts of torture and execution. In one such torture, called the komarik, prisoners were tied to a stake in a mosquito-infested swamp; the aggressive insects would literally eat the victim alive.
All of this took place on sacred ground. For the Russian Orthodox faithful, the perversion of the holy Solovki islands was an unspeakable act of cultural vandalism. According to one well-known priest, Father Georgy Chistyakov, it was as if the Nazis had built Auschwitz on the shrine of St. Francis of Assisi.
The result of this painful history is that the Solovki have tremendous symbolic resonance for the Russian people. After the collapse of the USSR, when human rights groups placed a memorial to the victims of totalitarianism on Lubyanka Square (facing the headquarters of the former KGB), the monument they chose was a rock from the Solovki. Meanwhile, for Orthodox believers, the reopening of the Solovetsky monastery in 1990 was a triumphant sign of spiritual revival. Of course, the present-day monastery is a shell of its former self. There are only a few dozen monks, and they awkwardly share their living space with the museum. But with the return of monastic life, the islands have regained their reputation as a holy place. Thousands of palomniki, or pilgrims, come here every year to pray in the newly restored churches.
The landscape of the Solovki is filled with signs of religious revival. One such sign stands smack in the middle of the harbor: a towering wooden cross, called a poklonny krest (cross of worship), which rises up from a rocky platform to greet ships as they arrive on the island. These distinctively shaped crosses are something of a specialty in the Russian North; you can find dozens of them throughout the Solovki. Many of them were made by a retired architect named Georgy Kozhokar. When I met Kozhokar, he was oiling up his mountain bike for a ride across the island. With his thick, slightly graying beard, he wouldn’t have been out of place in an Orthodox monastery. Indeed, he has lived on the Solovki for the past 17 years — but he was originally born in far-off Moldova. “The Solovki is my spiritual homeland,” he explains.
Later, Kozhokar took me on a tour of his cross-making workshop. Besides the cavernous space where he assembles his monumental crosses, there is also a room where he creates small, intricately carved crosses that will hang on the walls of churches and private houses. Kozhokar never signs his work; he considers himself a servant of God, rather than a commercial craftsman.
Labyrinths of Mystery
The Solovki museum has changed radically since my dad worked there. It is now a well-financed operation with a fully modern, Internet-enabled office, and it receives millions of dollars from the federal budget for the restoration of the kremlin. It has also taken over much of the archipelago’s tourist industry; today it offers tours to every main island of the Solovki. At the museum’s comprehensive Excursion Bureau, I signed up for a tour of the Zayatsky Islands. These are the home of the Solovki’s most mysterious attraction — the Neolithic labyrinths – manmade rock formations over 4,000 years old.
Before the gulag, before the monastery, and even before Christianity itself, there were people on the Solovki. They left their mark on the Zayatsky Islands, a pair of small, windswept rocks off the coast of Bolshoi Solovetsky Island. From a distance, there isn’t much to see there: only a small wooden church, the remnant of an 18th-century monastic hermitage. But just out of sight, there lies a unique archeological treasure.
The museum’s boat landed at a remote stone dock. We trekked past the wooden church and entered an alien landscape. Thanks to constant winds, the island is an Arctic tundra filled with stunted birch trees no taller than Japanese bonsais. After a minute’s hike, we stopped to gaze at a labyrinth. Shaped like a spiral and made of moss-covered rocks, it rested like a fingerprint at the top of the hill. Although the rocks only came up to my knee, the labyrinth was gapingly wide, filling a circle nearly 100 feet in diameter.
Nobody knows why the labyrinths were built. The most likely explanation is that they were used for religious rituals — but there are countless other theories. For example, some Swedish New Agers recently performed an experiment to settle the matter once and for all. They tested the “auras” of human subjects who walked around the spiraling labyrinth paths. Their conclusion was that circumnavigating the paths had a positive biological effect; unfortunately, the tour guide discouraged us from walking on the ancient rock formations.
But you don’t have to walk around in spirals to refresh your body and soul on the Solovki. After I returned to the big island, I passed a crowd of Russian tourists dressed in Speedos and bikinis; they were incongruously bathing in the Holy Lake, a body of fresh water directly behind the monastery. Indeed, it was perfect weather for swimming and sunbathing. The heat was sweltering and there was hardly a cloud in the sky.
Of course, there was something strange about tourists frolicking in a former gulag. The Solovki are a mass graveyard. So is it right to turn them into a tourist attraction? Or, on the other hand, would it be wrong to freeze them in time and deny them the chance to develop? Amid the chatter and laughter of the sunbathers, I realized that Russians had already made their decision. The contradictions of the Solovki, like the contradictions of Russia itself, are all part of the show
TEN THIGS TO DO ON THE SOLOVKI
Rent a rowboat and take a tour of the canal system. Made by monks between the 16th and the 20th centuries, the canals connect over 60 lakes on Bolshoi Solovetsky Island. Amazingly, they’re still intact after decades of neglect. By rowing from lake to lake, you can enjoy the natural beauty of the island — but make sure to take some mosquito repellent.
Take a hike to Muksulma. The sea dam connecting Muksulma to the big island is 1220 meters long, and it’s one of the most impressive sights on the Solovki, especially when you consider that it was built by manual labor in the 19th century.
Drink a cup of tea at the Botanical Garden. In this picturesque garden, the monks raised a variety of herbs, fruits and vegetables. The current caretaker can sell you a cup of tea brewed from blended herbs; it’s a special formula that reportedly has marvelous health benefits.
Visit the salty sea enthusiasts who are reconstructing Peter the Great’s yacht. A club called the Fellowship of Northern Seafaring is building a fullsize replica of Peter the Great’s first ship, the “St. Peter.” You can see their progress in a warehouse right next to the harbor; so far, only the ship’s skeleton has been completed. The sponsor of the project is a Moscow entrepreneur who made his fortune in the dry-cleaning business.
Visit the kremlin. No trip to the Solovki is complete without a visit to this awe-inspiring 16th-century fortress. In some places the walls are six meters thick. Kids of all ages will enjoy clambering into the towers, where the narrow windows offer amazing views of the island.
Explore the Neolithic labyrinths pictured on page 26. These 4000-year-old labyrinths aren’t quite as impressive as Stonehenge, but at least they’re not next to a busy highway. Boats leave for the Zayatsky Islands every day, with informative tour guides. Sign up at the Excursion Bureau next to the kremlin.
Go whale-watching. Belugas, or white whales (delphinapterus leucas), gather in droves around the Solovki to socialize and reproduce. However, these temperamental sea mammals sometimes take the season off and gather elsewhere. Call the Excursion Bureau to find out if they’re offering whale-watching expeditions. Tel. 8 818 3590 321 or 8 818 3590 281.
Go mountain-biking. On the rugged dirt roads of the Solovki, mountain bikes are the perfect mode of transportation. You can rent them at several stands near the kremlin for 100 rubles per hour (or 500 rubles for a whole day). A good destination is Negotiation Rock, which marks the place where the monks made peace with the British during a little-known skirmish of the Crimean War in 1855. The inscription on the rock rambles on at length about how the Brits demanded several heads of cattle from the monastery.
Climb to the top of Sekirnaya Gora. At 71 meters above sea level, this is the highest point on the Solovki, and it offers an impressive panorama. The church on the hilltop, built in 1862, is the only church in Russia that doubles as a lighthouse. But there’s also a dark side to the church: during the gulag period, it was the special punishment ward of the Solovetsky prison camp. The worst acts of violence and torture took place here.
Learn about life in the gulag in the Solovetsky museum. Located on the grounds of the kremlin, the museum contains a sensitive exhibition on the infamous Solovetsky prison camp. It includes a replica of a prison cell and actual letters that prisoners wrote to their families.
How to Get There
There are two ways to get to the Solovki: by a combination of train and boat, or by plane. If you’re traveling by train, buy a ticket to Kem; it’s a stop on the Moscow-Murmansk route. In Kem, you’ll have to take a taxi or a minibus to the seaport. From there, boats leave to the Solovki a couple times a day during the peak travel season. Unfortunately, they don’t follow a fixed schedule, so sometimes you have to wait by the dock for several hours until the next boat leaves. If you’re traveling by plane, the most direct route involves a stop in Arkhangelsk. Flights leave on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. You can buy a roundtrip ticket from Moscow to the Solovki from AVL airlines for about $220, but only for the Monday and Friday flights. Call 231 3215 to book your tickets. An agency called Territorialnoe Agentsvo Vozdushnykh Soobschenii can also help arrange flights to the Solovki. Their number is 8182 270 195. Warning: neither planes nor boats will go to the Solovki if there’s a storm. Luckily, the weather is usually calm during the tourist season.
Where to Stay
If you’re traveling during the summer, make sure to book a room in advance; the islands’ few hotels can fill up during the peak travel season. Solo at 8 Ulitsa Kovaleva offers all the basics and extremely friendly service, starting at 650 rubles per person. Reservations: 8-818 3590 246. In Solovki Hotelat 26 Zaozernaya Ulitsa you won’t feel like you’re in an Arctic wilderness — it’s the only three-star hotel on the island, and rooms start at $113 a night. Reservations: 771 7513 (in Moscow) or email@example.com.
Where to Eat
There are several cafes near the kremlin that vary widely in quality. One of the livelier ones is Kayut-Kompaniya,at 3 Zaozernaya Ulitsa; try the fresh grilled Solovetsky herring, a local specialty. But the best (and most expensive) restaurant on the island is Solovetskaya Izba, inside the Solovki Hotel at 26 Zaozernaya Ulitsa.
When To Go
The best time to travel to the Solovki is from June to August, when the days are long and the weather is good. The good weather often continues into September. During the winter, don’t even think about going — often, the islands are completely cut off from the mainland.