Before Auschwitz

By Rachel Globus

A handful of soil from Solovetsky Island could tell many stories. It might speak of the Eden-like plant growth in this land less than a hundred miles from the Arctic Circle. It might tell of the monks who made it one of the most influential religious centers in Russia for five centuries. Or it might recall the tens of thousands of people who died there, in Russia’s first gulag.

Today, tourist literature can tout its botanical wonders, its intricate system of canals, and its prehistoric stone labyrinths. But the archipelago in Russia’s White Sea has had a troubled history.

Solovetsky is the largest of 100 islands, in a chain known as Solovetsky or by its diminutive form Solovki. Over half a century before Christopher Columbus sailed to America, fishermen and hunters settled the Karelian coast of the White Sea. By 1436, the island had a small monastery, though it did not gain attention until the end of the next century, when it began to play a significant role in the defense of northern Russia.

By the 17th century, Solovetsky stood out not only as a military fortress, but as one of the largest monasteries in the world, with 300 monks and 600 workers. Though a tiny island isolated in Russia’s northernmost reaches, Solovetsky never remained out of the national spotlight for long. In fact, it is the site of what is regarded as the greatest event in the history of the Russian schism, the Solovetsky Revolt. When the monks refused to comply with reforms ordered by the Russian Orthodox Church, the Czar sent troops to bring the “heretics” back into line. Solovetsky was not known as a fortress for nothing, however. It took seven years for the czar’s troops to breach the 20-foot-thick walls and capture the monastery. Visitors can still see the secret passage by which the czar’s troops gained entry during a snowstorm.

Many prayers have surely found their way from the church on Solovetsky, and not all inspired by religious fervor. Despite its long history as a cultural and religious center—the monastery’s library is believed to have been one of the best in the world in its day—Solovetsky achieved its greatest notoriety as “the mother of the gulag,” as Nobel Prize-winning author Alexander Solzhenitsyn referred to it. It could hardly be by accident that he used the metaphor of “archipelago” to describe the harsh Soviet penal system.

In 1923 the Bolsheviks closed the monastery, and set up Solovetsky Camp of Special Purpose in its place. The lessons in cruelty learned there, say scholars such as Solzhenitsyn, were applied in labor camps across Russia, and later in Nazi concentration camps.

The prisoners—common criminals as well as anyone considered a threat to the revolution, including engineers, poets, writers, philosophers and mathematicians—suffered brutal treatment. In the summer, the prison guards would strip prisoners naked and stake them outside for the mosquitoes prey upon. Other unfortunate prisoners had to balance all day on a horizontal pole. To fall was to be beaten, if you were lucky. Less fortunate prisoners would be strapped to a heavy beam and rolled 200 feet down a steep hill to their death. In the winter, the half-starved men and women battled temperatures below -58° F, when even the sea froze solid. Guards would throw water on their wards and force them to stand outside until they froze to death.

Some estimates put the number of deaths in the hundreds of thousands. Other reports put it at 30,000 to 40,000, which still brings the death toll to approximately 2,000 people per year, or about five people every day for the 16 years it was in operation.

In 1939, the gulag was closed. But the stories of the atrocities perpetrated on the island in large part remain there. Even into the 1960s, visitors needed a special permit to get to it. Neil Stipanich, who recently visited the island and collected soil on another island in the region, reports that he had to get a special permit for the trip from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

     The island now boasts a modest museum, a room of which is reserved for commemorating the prisoners who lived and died there. It was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1990 and by presidential decree on the List of Exceptionally Valuable Sites of Culture Heritage of the Peoples of the Russian Federation in 1995. President Putin marked the 10th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s collapse by visiting the site, which at least one journalist, of The Economist, considered a menacingly ambiguous choice.

     Today the region’s haunting beauty inspires intrepid tourists and the monks who have once again taken up residence. As for the future, UNESCO’s report notes that Solovetsky is a much threatened site, not by any natural disaster, but “by an inability to organize territorial management as a whole and to define priorities.”

     After such a long history, is this place in danger of being forgotten? William Brumfield, professor of Russian studies at Tulane University, would beg to differ. As he said in USA Today after visiting the island, “This is one of those places that seems always to be touched by fate.”




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