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Solovetsky Monastery aka Solovki (Соловецкий Монастырь)

Solovetsky Monastery

Solovetsky Monastery stands on a small archipelago in the harsh Russian environment of the White Sea. It grew from a small community of Russian Orthodox monks during medieval times into one of the largest and most prominent monasteries in Russia. During the 20th century Solovetsky Monastery also became famous as one of the first Soviet concentration camps in a newly formed USSR.

 

Location: Solovetsky island, Archangelsk region   Map

6 islands with 300 km2

First settlement: 5000 BC

Found: 1429

Site: here

 

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History of the Solovetsky Monastery

Solovetsky Monastery spreads across several islands of the Solovetsky archipelago in the White Sea. First human settlements date back to the 3000 BC. In the first millennium BC Sami tribes erected pagan religious structures known as "seyda" still visible today. First Slavic fishermen and hunters from the Novgorod Republic moved to the region in the 12th- 13th century.

 

Image of Solovetsky Monastery  Image of Solovetsky Monastery  Image of Solovetsky Monastery  Image of Solovetsky Monastery

Solovetsky Monastery was founded in 1429 by Gherman (Herman) and Savvatiy (Sabbatius) from Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery. Officially however the date of foundation is tied to brother Zosima who moved here in 1436. Soon the Novgorod Republic establishes ties with a monastery and sent a deed acknowledging their position as a Russian Orthodox Monastery. Another letter from Moscow tsar Ivan III soon followed.

 

Meanwhile the Solovetsky Monastery grew in size and number of residents. Monks became famous for their spiritual and physical strength as they developed an island in a harsh and unforgiving climate of the Russian North. During the reign of Ivan the Terrible the hegumen or abbot of the monastery Philip was invited by the czar himself to become Philip II, Metropolitan of Moscow. It is hard to explain why the tyrant wanted this man by himself. Whether it was genuine attempt to change himself or whether it was a psychological game. The end of the story was logical and predictable. Monk Philip frankly and openly accused tsar of crimes and violence. Ivan IV sent him away from the palace and ordered his execution.

 

Solovki in the Crimean War

In the nineteenth century Solovetsky Monastery unexpectedly becomes a strategic military location. Despite the fact that the cannons were removed from the monastery walls in 1814, the monastery still had enough firepower to repel British attack in 1854 during the Crimean War. Two British warships "Brisk" and "Miranda" failed to break the defenses and had to retreat from the Solovetsky archipelago despite firing over 1800 rounds fired at the monastery. British naval officers didn't dare to venture into the Solovetsky Monastery bay out of fear they might run aground and become easy targets. So they stayed at the far distance firing cannons with little effect. Both ships were forced to retreat.

 

Just several months later British ships arrived at the doorsteps of the Solovetsky Monastery. The head of the monastery refused to invite foreign soldiers on the sacred grounds. Instead he met their representatives on the shores of the White Sea. The British left without achieving any results. They could force monks to give up their monastery, but the British couldn't take the citadel without significant loss of life. They retreated again. The monks carved an inscription on a rock on a site of the meeting as a dedication to God's grace. This Negotiation Rock as it is known today is still visible.

 

 

Solovetsky Monastery Dining Hall

Trapeznaya or Dining Hall. Its size give you an impression of the size of the monastery in its glory days.

 

Soviet period of the Solovetsky Monastery

After October Revolution in 1917 Communists started to implement their atheist beliefs. In 1918 first platoon of Red Guards shows up on the island and confiscates part of the food provisions from a monastery. This was followed by complete closure in 1920. The head of Soviet government M.S. Kedrov who arrived on the island ordered execution its abbot Archimandrite Veniamin (Benjamin) (Kononov) along with his personal aid ieromonk Nikifor (Kuchin). Both were closed in a small house and subsequently burned alive near river Lodma. Ironically the date of the death coincided with Russian Orthodox Easter of 1928. Between 1922- 1939 Solovetsky Monastery was turned into concentration camp. It became officially known as Solovetsky Lager' Osobogo Naznachenia, which is translated as the "Solovki Special Purpose Camp". Its Russian acronym SLON, that is also translated as "elephant", became widely known among prisoners and later among common Russians. Later experience of Solovetsky concentration camp or simply Solovki as it became popularly known, was used in establishing a massive Gulag system all across the Soviet Union. It is no surprise that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn called SLON "the mother of Gulag".

 

In 1939 SLON was given to the Northern Military Navy and a school of young officers was established here. On October 25th 1990 the archipelago was transferred to Russian Orthodox Church once again. Soviet stars were removed and Christian crosses were raised to their rightful location. Even though it is an active monastery, it is open to the tourists.

 

Solovetsky Monastery Map  Solovetsky Monastery Aerial View

 

 

Kremlin (Solovetsky Monastery or Solovki)

Kremlin is not just a description of military fortifications in Moscow. It is a general term that describes any defended Russian or Ukrainian city. Solovetsky Monastery in this sense is no exception. Main complex of Solovki Monastery was constructed from huge boulder that reach thickness of up to 6 meters. Massive round towers protected the site from all directions. Each tower was intended as a semi- autonomous defense position. If parts of the wall fell, defenders would retreat to these walls and close themselves inside.

 

Negotiation Stone (Solovetsky Monastery or Solovki)

 

This stone is located on the shore just south of Kremlin. It was placed here to commemorate retreat of the British fleet after second failed attempt to take Solovetsky Monastery during the Crimean War.

 

Botanical Garden (Solovetsky Monastery or Solovki)

 

It is hard to imagine that cold archipelago in the middle of the White Sea could harbor any significant diversity of life. Yet human ingenuity and prowess made it possible. Over 100 plant species of different plants are found on the islands of the Solovetsky Monastery. Many were brought from other parts of the World as a donation to the monastic community. Unfortunately many of the species went extinct during the Soviet period, yet the tradition to grow various plants comes back.

 

Obviously Botanical Garden is the center of such biodiversity. It is located north of the main Kremlin. The explanation of such unusual growth is actually quite simple. Solovetsky Monastery accepted thousands of pilgrims from all across Russia and abroad annually. Additionally close to 1000 people lived on the island. The need for candles for the churches of the monastery required a local monastic factory that produced thousands of candles. The heat from the this massive production was channeled into small covered farms of the Botanical Garden. Monks of Solovetsky Monastery created a true miracle of the Russian North. They grew many species of flowers and fruits, including pineapple in the midst of unforgiving cold northern climate.

 

Canals (Solovetsky Monastery or Solovki)

 

 

Solovetsky Monastery CanalsSolovki Island has numerous lakes left from the times of the Ice Age. Tons of ice carved lakes, but it left no rivers. The monks quickly changed this situation by digging canals that cover parts of the island. Starting from the 16th century under leadership of hegumen (head of the monastery) Phillip inhabitants of the monastery connected 52 lakes into one single meshwork of channels. They were used for transport of fish and merchandise. Today it is used by tourists and locals alike.

 

Sekirnaya Hill, The Church of Ascension, Commemoration Cross (Solovetsky Monastery or Solovki)

 

Sekirnaya Hill is situated north of the main Kremlin complex on the highest mountain on the island. Monks constructed a Church of Ascension here. The church also served as a lighthouse with a lens placed at the base of the cross. During Soviet years, then Solovki were turned into a concentration camp, the church was turned into worst punishment. It was always cold and few prisoners survived here. Among these lucky survivors was Vladimir Stepanovich Gundyaev, a priest who was punished by atheist government for serving masses at his house and also grand father of current Russian Patriarch Cyril. A Commemoration Cross was erected here after fall of Soviet Union. Sekirnaya Hill is also notable for its ancient burials and a religious pagan complex that once stood here. It was abandoned centuries before first Christian monks settled here. This is how it might have looked like. The picture is taken from a map made by Anthony Wood in 1552-55. However it is unknown what was his source for the depiction, whether it was a remains of the previous structures made by pagan tribes or imagination of the traveler who used familiar Russian Orthodox Christian structures.

 

View from the hill

 

 

Anzer Island (Solovetsky Monastery or Solovki)

 

Anzer Island is situated just North West of the Big Island. It is famous for its mountains that the local monks called Golgotha after a mountain near Jerusalem where Jesus Christ was Crucified. According to a legend three centuries ago two monks Job and Paisy were working on this island then they saw a vision of Holy Mother of God, Mary. She told them to call this mountain a Golgotha and build a church here to honour the Biblical Golgotha. One of the monks was genuinely surprised for such a grim and strange choice for a namesake and asked maybe Holy Virgin a church devoted to herself. Holy Mary responded that this Golgotha is set for the Russian clergy. The monks abided and constructed a church here, named a mountain. Just two centuries later the prophecy came true and Solovetsky islands were turned into a concentration camp. Anzer Island had a hospital and a birth centre. Untold number of prisoners died here. There is no records and the building itself today lies in ruins.

 

Church on the Anzer Island today

Solovetsky Monastery Church Tree

No, this is not a Photoshop. It is an old birch on Golgotha in shape of a cross. By the way the only cross that miraculously survived being destroyed on the orders of political officer Uspensky in the 1920's was a cross that was erected here by brother Efrem on October 25th Julian Calendar or November 7th Western Calendar, 1917. Ironically it was the date of Russian Revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power. It stands here on the Anzer Island. Solovetsky Crosses were big and required months of manual work. They marked holy places, graves and other important locations. Slowly, but surely their number on the islands of Solovetsky Archipelago grows.

 

Zayatsky Island (Solovetsky Monastery or Solovki)

                                                                                           

Sami called their religious megalith structures- Seyda. The most popular is located here on a Zayatsky Island, although there at least 30 such structures on the Solovetsky archipelago. There is no agreement on the purpose of the structure, but discovery of iron objects and burned human bones suggest that it had an important role in the cult of the dead. Age of construction is also uncertain. Most historians date it to 1st and 2nd centuries AD.

Russian Orthodox Church Of Saint Andrew. This seemingly small and unimportant church was created by Russian Emperor Peter the Great and his sailors in the late 17th century. They managed to complete the task just in 6 days. Once they completed they blessed the first Naval Military Flag of Saint Andrew here.

 

Image of Solovetsky Monastery  Image of Solovetsky Monastery  Image of Solovetsky Monastery Church Interior 

Image of Solovetsky Boulder

Solovetsky Kamen' (Stone) in Moscow covered by flowers and candles. Behind is the main building of Soviet Secret Police that had different named through its history: CheKa, NKVD, KGB and etc. Soviet Concentration Camp located within walls of the medieval Christian monastery that became widely known as Solovki became a symbol of oppressive totalitarian state. Shortly after a fall of Communism a stone from the monastery was brought here on Lyubyanka Square as a reminder of millions lost in Solovetsky Camp as well as other camps around former Soviet Union.

List of some the famous prisoners of the Solovki prison camp- Соловецкий лагерь особого назначения (СЛОН)

Professor A.E.Anisimov - art critic
I.P.Antsiferov - historian
Vladimir Artemyev - inventor
Professor S.A.Askoldov
V.W.Bakhton - inventor
Vladimir N. Beneshevich - historian, paleographer
A.V.Bobrishev-Pushkin - descendant of Decembrist Pavel Sergeievich Bobrishev-Pushkin
I.E.Braz - artist
Leonid Feodorov - Bishop and Exarch of the Russian Catholic Church.
Pavel Alexandrovich Florensky - priest, scientist, encyclopaedist
G.J.Gordon - historian
A.K.Gorsky - poet
Archimandrite Illarion (Troitsky) - Professor of the Moscow Theological Academy
Academician Dmitry Sergeyevich Likhachov - philologist
Mirjaqip Dulatuli- Kazakh writer
I.V. Popov - Professor of the Moscow Theological Academy
Varlam Shalamov - writer
Vladimir V. Tchernavin - ichthyologist
H.H.Vinogradov - ethnographer
Oleg V. Volkov - writer
M.N.Voronoy - poet

 

There is no exact list of casualties in this camp. The official number lists them at 8000 people, however many of the prisoners were used in various construction projects in the regions. Their numbers were not officially added to the number of dead. Thus about 8,700 men from the Solovki camp died during construction of Belomor- Baltiysky Channel.

 

 

Soviet documentary from 1928- 29 traces a journey from Moscow to Solovetsky Concentration Camp

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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