Joining the pilgrims on Solovetsky Islands
By Sophie Larder
The icy waters of the White Sea are glassy and still. Dawn breaks over the horizon as we arrive at the port of Kem. A starkly beautiful wooden church of the Russian North is silhouetted against the early morning light, and as the darkness of the night recedes into a chilly August morning, fishing boats appear on the sea, returning with their morning catch. A day’s train journey from Moscow on the Murmansk railway, we are en route to the Solovetsky Islands, yet it feels like we are actually approaching a stepping-off point at the end of the earth. At 8 am we board the Boris Kocyakov, the boat bound for Solovetsky, with driving rain and wind lashing our faces. It’s too cloudy on the horizon to see more than a misty outline of our destination as we head out to the open sea and everybody crowds into the saloon. Up on deck, despite the wind and rain, I feel the sense of exhilaration of an adventurer leaving civilization with the salty air, the greenish blue swell of the water below and the cries of seagulls swooping in the boat’s frothy wake. Three hours later the boat chugs into Solovetsky’s harbour. An ornate wooden cross stands on the island looking out to sea, reminding you that Solovetsky is one of the holiest sites in Russia, a unique and moving place of pilgrimage for Orthodox believers. Indeed, each evening during our stay a lone woman would kneel by the tiny chapel on the shore, facing out to sea, bowing and crossing herself as the glowing evening sun dipped below the horizon and darkness fell like a blanket over the island.
The Kremlin dominates the harbour. Massive and austere, its thick fortress walls, which date from the 16th century are built out of huge boulders to withstand the harsh northern climate. They encircle domed churches and the living quarters of the community of monks who form a small but growing community, reviving Solovetsky’s beginnings as a place of retreat and contemplation, which date from the arrival of the first monks Savvaty and German here in 1429.
It is one of Solovetsky’s true joys that you can walk all day long and not meet a soul, save perhaps a monk in contemplation or a villager bicycling home.
Following the collapse of Communism, in 1994 the Kremlin and all the churches and minor monasteries that dot even the furthest islands were returned to the Orthodox Church. Patriarch Alexei II held thanksgiving services throughout the islands, one service commemorating the victims of the islands’ darkest period as one of the most brutal prison camps of Stalin’s Gulag. Following their use as a remote Tsarist prison, in 1923 they became SLON, or the Solovetsky Camp of Special Designation, the infamous name forever synonymous in Russian minds with violence and death. In the form of crosses and memorials, the shadow of the Gulag hangs heavy over the islands to this day, with somber reminders of the horror endured here in this most hauntingly beautiful of places. The museum of the history of the Gulag in the Kremlin tells its own story. Contrasting with the official Soviet pictures of the writer Gorky and family visiting the ‘progressive’ corrective camp, simple photographs of the victims hang in rows: Orthodox priests, Muslims, Jews, writers, artists and liberals, both men and women, are displayed along with a simple sentence telling us of their fate. Most died on Solovetsky or in other Gulags across Russia.
It is one of the central contradictions of Solovetsky that this terrible history took place in some of the most movingly beautiful scenery in the whole of Russia. As the island comes into view you can see the dark green misty forests that cover most of the island. These forests stretch right down to the water, except where a small strip of pure white sandy beach drops into the clear blue sea. If you are fortunate on the boat journey you might catch a glimpse of another of Solovetsky’s natural wonders; the Beluga whales that gather here in summer to breed.
After our epic journey from Moscow, the Hotel “Solo” is a mercifully short walk from the harbor. The clean woodpaneled attic room that greets us is marginally less exciting than the gallons of steaming hot water laid on for our arrival. Having washed away two days worth of travel grime, and full from the fresh fish cutlets in the hotels spacious wooden dining restaurant, we head outside as the sun breaks through the clouds. Armed with a map and with a faint notion of heading south down the coastline, we walk along the dirt road through the village. Screams ring out suddenly as a fuming babushka runs into her garden flapping her arms. Five or six goats, mouths full of flowers, leap over the fence bleating indignantly and trot down the track in front of us. Everything about Solovetsky, from the dilapidated houses to the wood sheds filled to the brim with the fuel needed to get through the long dark winter, feels like going back in time fifty years. The cars are mostly aged and rusted jeeps, and a few Second World War motorcycles complete with sidecars that chug down the dusty paths. Aside from this, walking or bicycling (there are numerous bicycle hire shops along the road) seem to be the preferred modes of transport.
As we head out of the village and round the calm and still Holy Lake, nature completely takes over. We head down to the shore through mossy woods, clambering over slippery seaweed-covered boulders revealed by the low tide. The water is crystal clear, the sand white, and the silence and emptiness mesmerizing as we look over to the islands, some a mere rock, others with buildings and a church or monastery. As we walk down the coastline all the way to the Conversation Rock, dipping our toes in the icy clear water, we meet no one. Returning home through the birch tree woods, early evening sunlight dappling the ground, the solitude is startling. It is one of Solovetsky’s true joys that you can walk all day long and not meet a soul, save perhaps a monk in contemplation or a villager bicycling home.
Solovetsky Kremlin Reflected in the White Sea
The combination of fresh sea air and a long walk means that by nine thirty, the sun has set and we are famished. Yet a long and increasingly desperate search confirms our worst fear; all the cafes on the island, including the Solo Hotel’s restaurant, have already shut. A trip to a bare Produkty shop and the situation is looking even worse, until a helpful villager takes pity and points us in the direction of the newest and most expensive hotel on the island: the Solovki Hotel. The massive red log cabin has its lights on and the dining room is welcoming and full of guests. The food feels like the most delicious we have ever tasted; with Baltika beer straight from the tap.
The peace and tranquility of the village and its ancient Kremlin are bathed in glowing pink light and a few clouds streak the red sky.
The next day the sun is still shining and we hire modern bikes from a wooden shed and set off on the 11km trip to Sekirnaya Gora, literally “Hatchet Hill”. Made infamous by Solzhenitsyn for the horrors that took place there when it served as the punishment cells of SLON, Sekirnaya Gora is a forested steep hill. The winding path takes you up to the church, the only one in the world to serve as a lighthouse as well. The inside is being renovated, but if you are lucky as we were, or come with an excursion, you will be allowed to see the gradually reappearing frescos that cover the domed ceiling, and to read the somber display concerning the fate of the church’s prisoners. Outside is a lookout point to the north, with lakes cutting through the forest and a glint of the sea. Next to it an intricate cross marks a steep flight of stairs leading all the way down the hill, a recent memorial to the victims whose bodies were thrown down the steps. It is no coincidence that the stone placed in front of Lyubianka after the fall of Communism, was brought there from the Solovetsky Islands.
On the road home, we take a rest and a chance to ponder the somber history of the islands in the Botanical Gardens. A peaceful haven, the most northerly Botanical Gardens in the world are an ingenious result of underground heating and sprinkling systems that allow the riot of flowers to thrive even in this harsh climate. Just off the same road is the island’s canal system, which was, like the botanical gardens, created by the enterprising community of monks. Today you can hire a boat and row along this intricate canal system linking the island’s many lakes to the sea. From the village heading out east along an even bumpier track, you can cycle the 7km to see the monks’ most ambitious and astonishing achievement: a 150m long dam built of boulders taken from the sea in a masterpiece of engineering links the main island to the island known as “Bolshaya Muksulmana.”
With weary legs, we pedal the last few kilometers back to the village just as the sun is setting over the sea. The peace and tranquility of the village and its ancient Kremlin are bathed in glowing pink light and a few clouds streak the red sky. We sit on boulders watching as the sun dips below the horizon on our last night in Solovetsky. Whatever your reason for undertaking the epic journey to Solovetsky, whether it be as a pilgrim in search of contemplation and prayer, a historian absorbing the troubled history of the islands, or simply as a tourist in search of some of the most unforgettably beautiful nature in the whole of Russia, your trip will be unique. In a world of tourist trap holidays filled with loud people, it is the silence and tranquility of these islands that continue to irresistibly draw people here.