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.
literature can tout its botanical wonders, its intricate system
and its prehistoric stone labyrinths.
But the archipelago in Russia’s White Sea has had a troubled
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,
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.
have surely found their way from the church on Solovetsky,
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
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.
now boasts a modest museum, a room of which is reserved for
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
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.”
a long history, is this place in danger of being forgotten?
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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