Solovetsky Islands: The Silence of the Russian North
By Maria Kozyreva
When planning our summer trip, I offered my husband to visit the Solovetsky Islands. It was my unrealized dream to see this remote sacred place in the Russian north. The dream was so desirable that I could hardly believe that one day it would come true.
The Solovetsky Islands (or simply Solovki) is not a luxurious resort with stunning hotels and dissimilar tourist attractions. In the course of the history Solovki were known for its fabulous severe nature and its great monastery, a real stronghold of orthodox Christianity. Formerly Solovki had symbolized nothing but asceticism, faith and spirituality. Everything changed in 1930-ties when one of the most sacred places in Russia turned into a bloody prison and torture place for millions of Russian people…
My mood changed as soon as we got off the train in seaport Kem that is located on the shores of the White Sea, separating Solovetsky Islands from the land. It was 7 a.m. It was drizzling. Gloomy grey clouds were hanging over cold leaden sea. Atmosphere was rather depressing but we were ready for it. In an hour our boat “Vasiliy Kosyakov” was to deliver us to the Islands. People on the shore were nervous. It was rather cold and windy. I looked around and tried to be positive but there was nothing romantic or joyful about Kem. Seventy years ago this town served as a transit camp and administration of the Solovetsky prison. The majority of wooden buildings in the city were built by prisoners.
In the search of the house…
It took almost four hours for “Vasiliy Kosyakov” to deliver us to the Islands. On the shore we were surrounded by a crowd of locals (among them were lots of babushkas) offering accommodation at moderate prices. Firstly we were a bit surprised by low rental costs. That aroused my suspicious and I decided to ask about conditions in “cheap” rooms. It turned out that some of them lacked baths, although in certain cases they were replaced by Russian banyas (or saunas).
My husband who was particularly concerned about comfort insisted that we found something “more civilized”. Sure if we booked hotels beforehand, there would be no problem but our family prefers vacationer trips to organized tours.
There are three ways to find a room in Solovki: on the shore (where we met babushkas), in the tourist office in the center of the Islands and … knocking at the doors. We preferred the third variant. Our task was to knock at the doors of private houses and ask for accommodation. Thus we got to know Volodya. He offered us his daughter’s room for four persons that he used to lodge in summer in high season.
The room was decorated with hand-made dolls and dried flowers that looked smart and cozy. As soon as we accepted Volodya’s offer, he mentioned that we would have to share the room with another two tourists, our compatriots Olga and Alexander from Moscow. It didn’t upset us as we knew nobody in the Islands and new company was most welcome for us. OK.
The first thing one sees when approaching to the Islands by boat is domes of Solovki Monastery. Its huge fortified walls, constructed of enormous dark stones; towers and orthodox crosses on the domes are associated with selfless labor of people who built this enormous monastery in the severe weather conditions of the Russian North.
Our guide Anna, a friendly smiling girl whom we met in a tourist office, showed us around the Monastery citadel protected by numerous cannons concealed in loopholes of fortified walls. I saw with my own eyes modest but roomy refectory where monks gathered to pray and share a meal. I adored huge cast-iron bells located on a wooden pedestal in a monastery yard so that anyone can look at them and even take a photo.
The last site Anna showed us was SLON museum that made us plunge into a dark and humiliating history of our country.
“Slon” is Russian abbreviation of Solovki Special Purpose Camp. It is a dreary word play as in Russian “slon” also means “an elephant”. I asked Anna why a majority of buildings in the Islands are so alike. Dark brownish wooden houses seem to be so cheerless and hostile.
“Actually wooden houses you see here and there are hut barracks built by prisoners like those huts you saw in Kem. Some citizens build modern cottages or repair their old houses, others continue living in lodging constructed by convicts.”
Being founded in 1923, for the first seven year the number of SLON prisoners grew from 3 to 60 thousand of people. Thanks to cheap man power Soviet government started to export lumber, peat and stone extracted by prisoners (often innocent people, the intellectuals and clergy persecuted by the ruling class). When some countries found out that the imported materials they bought were produced by thousands of prisoners kept in inhuman conditions, they rejected to purchase them.
In 1936 SLON was renamed as “Solovetsky Special Purpose Prison” or STON that sounded as “moan” in Russian, one more dreadful word play… It was only in 1939 when SLON was closed.
The mystery of the Russian North
The other day we decided to scatter gloomy thoughts about Solovki prison, to rent a boat and enjoy numerous lakes connected to each other by narrow canals. A boat station was a bit far away from our settlement so Volodya offered us to rent bikes. We followed his advice without hesitation and in half an hour were already racing against each other along a sandy road weaving between mingled woods. Finally we reached a small boat station that looked like a modest hut hidden by lush vegetation. There we got to know a boat warden who showed us his boats after a short instruction and warning to be careful.
Lake water was absolutely still. It was hard to believe that there’s any fish. The only living creature we noticed while rowing our small boat was a lonely seagull. It flew above our heads and landed gracefully on water in hope of getting some bread or corn. Unfortunately we could offer nothing to it and disappointed gull left us without even saying good-bye.
I remember nothing but mirror lake, deep blue sky that in a half an hour became iron-grey, dense green forests on the shore and profound silence. The day was coming to an end. We returned to our settlement and walked down to the White Sea bay. Crystal blue sky merged into light water. Huge stones scattered on the shore were covered with dense moss and reindeer lichen. Again you hear nothing but silence that makes one feel beauty of the Russian North and notice its lordly grandeur and mystery.
Paul Shoul is a Northampton, MA-based photographer who doubles as a staff writer for GoNOMAD. For thirty years he’s lived in the Pioneer Valley and chronicled life there though his work in the Valley Advocate and Preview magazines. He’s also been seen in the Boston Globe, New York Times, BBC, the Chronicle of Higher Education and many other publications. Today as well as shooting around the world for GoNOMAD he works for local nonprofits, banks and advertising agencies.