The Chill of Arkhangelsk and Solovky
If Moscow’s coming winter chill doesn’t faze you, spend a weekend within a hundred miles of the Arctic Circle, where night-time temperatures fall to freezing—in August. A surprisingly easy hop from Moscow by air, the northern port city of Arkhangelsk launched Russia’s first ship, under Peter the Great. Moreover, it’s a good transit point en route to Russia’s Solovetsky Islands (Solovky)—home to the stunning 15th century monastery, later tragically used as an infamous prison in the GULAG system.
As Gulag Archipelago author Solzhenitsyn wrote, Solovky served as the initial tumour from which the GULAG cancer spread. From 1923 to 1939, the Solovky prison processed as many as 160,000 people, including children. A large proportion was executed or died due to severe conditions of extreme cold, torture, starvation and unattainable labour quotas. Now a UNESCO Heritage Site, Solovky is a poignant part of Russia’s past.
Founded in 1584 by Tsar Ivan the Terrible, Arkhangelsk lies on the Dvina River, which leads into the White Sea. With its strategically and commercially important location, Arkhangelsk became Russia’s first major trading port under Peter the Great in 1694, ten years before St. Petersburg was founded. During WWII, Arkhangelsk served as a key hub for the Allied Arctic convoys which delivered supplies to Russia (cut off from its normal supply routes through the Baltic).
The city is home to approximately 350,000, many employed by the port and timber industry, which causes the sour odour of pulp which hangs lightly in the air. On the surface, Arkhangelsk is not quite the dark and foreboding city of Daniel Craig’s Archangel, with crumbling Soviet architecture and shady characters. It has all that, but upon landing at its rural airport, Arkhangelsk is an immediate break from Moscow’s hustle and bustle.
The main pedestrian thoroughfare is lined with shops and restaurants, and appears to be doing a relatively steady business. The sprawling port, like many major port towns, has an element of the seedy, though sea-side bars and new office buildings seem to be indicators of new investment.
The city’s architecture is a distinctive mix of wooden merchant homes of the 18th and 19th centuries, Soviet concrete slabs, and modern creations. Standing nearly 500 feet high, the Arkhangelsk TV tower, built in 1964, dominates the city’s skyline. While Arkhangelsk is losing some of its historic architecture, several small wooden houses remain, particularly along Chumbarova-Luchinskovo Street.
Most attractions are located within the concentrated city centre, which makes for easy sight-seeing and orientation. The Arkhangelsk Regional Museum of Fine Arts is a must-see. Its first floor features a collection of traditional handiwork created by local students. The sheer quality of the textiles and wood carvings leaves one awestruck at the talent in such young hands. On the upper floor, an equally impressive collection of ancient icons, embroidery, native dress and folk art reveals treasures not often seen outside of Moscow.
The Solovetsky Islands (collectively known as Solovky) are located in the Onega Bay of the White Sea. The largest island, Bolshoi Zayatsky, is home to the Solovetsky Monastery and former GULAG prison. The islands also feature ancient stone labyrinths, extensive canals (built by monks and prisoners), and the haunting natural beauty of dense forests and marshes.
The 10-minute drive from the airport to “town” (local population is about 1,000) is a bumpy dirt path with massive potholes, herds of goats, and the odd cow lazing about. Solovky has the feel of a country sea-side village, only one dominated by a massive stone monastery.
There are two opposing faces of Solovky: a sacred heart of Russian Orthodoxy, and a malignancy in the Russian consciousness. Imagine the Vatican home to Auschwitz, as some say. No matter how many centuries Solovky existed as an isle of spiritual development, the tragedy of so many lost lives is unforgettable. Knowing nothing of its sad history, a visitor would only see splendour—a vast monastery perched magnificently on the White Sea. Artists continue to be drawn to the ever-changing colour and light. It is profoundly tranquil.
This exquisite serenity is what drew Solovky’s first monks to establish the monastery in the mid-1400s. By the 17th century, it had become one of the most important religious centres in Russia with 1,000 monks, artisans and servants. Peter the Great visited in 1694.
The monks of the monastery were so devout that the presence of anything female on the island was forbidden—even cows. The monks did without any dairy until a dairy farm was established on one of the nearby islands and milk delivered by boat. The monastery’s commercial ventures included salt works, fisheries and ironworks, which provided revenue for its inhabitants and for the Orthodox Church.
Made up of enormous boulders and walls 11 meters high and 6 meters thick, the monastery’s colossal fortifications proved useful against the Swedes, Livonians and even the British. Locals highlight the story of a 9-hour bombardment by British ships during the Crimean War that left the monastery walls virtually unscathed—divine intervention, they claim. Church bells still contain small indentations from bullets and shrapnel, but no serious damage was suffered.
Even before the GULAG, the monastery was used as a prison for rebellious priests, Old Believes and political enemies of the state, though only about 500 were incarcerated at any one time. Conditions were harsh, but nothing compared to the GULAG.
After the 1917 Revolution, the monastery was forcibly taken from the Church and handed to the security services. The firstrate monastery museum shows explicit photographs of priests shot dead, icons and church bells pillaged. From 1923 to 1939, the monastery became the headquarters for the much-feared acronym “SLON”: Solovky Special Purpose Camp. Prisoners began arriving in 1923: counter-revolutionaries, priests, revolutionaries “of the wrong sort”, the intelligentsia, foreigners, “kulaks”, political dissidents, “enemies of the people”, including women and children. The camp closed in 1939 with the outbreak of WWII, when it became a training camp for the Soviet Northern Fleet.
According to museum documents, prisoners were divided into categories: those healthy enough for gruelling labour, followed by skilled labour (architects, engineers, et al), and then the sick, weak and disabled. Food rations were allocated accordingly: 800 grams of bread for hard labourers, 400 grams for those who couldn’t work. The mortality rate was high. Even more terrible, a hillside church set deep in the forest was used for mass executions and torture. Known as Sekirnaya Gora (Hatchet Mountain), SLON officials honed their brutal torture methods here, such as komarik— prisoners were tied to a tree in the mosquito-infested forest. By morning, many had died from blood loss or gone insane.
Exact numbers of those buried here are unknown. As mass graves have been uncovered, crosses are placed to remember the victims. There are dozens of such crosses blanketing the hillside—a heart-breaking memorial. One experiences dense isolation, a feeling of being utterly alone and cut off—a frightening sense for what should be a peaceful oasis. But there’s nothing peaceful about this place.