If you look at the passengers on the ship named "Vasily Kosyakov" that travels along the White Sea between the city of Kem and the Bolshoy Solovetsky Island, you can easily understand who they are and why they headed so far to the very north of Russia. So, devout women sit maidenly with their hands folded in their laps. They glance at the icons hanging above the safety rules signs from time to time and pray to themselves. Some are novices, probably travelling there to find work at the monastery or in the village. Pilgrims gather around a priest wearing a black cassock; he convinced his congregation to join a pilgrimage. Foreigners sit and read their travel guides and books; they are attracted to the dramatic Russian history and northern architectural style of the Solovki Islands.
I’m thinking how to tell the whole story of the island, where so many things have happened, within just one article? How to admire the natural beauty - regardless of the long and fascinating history of the local monastery and the short but bloody history of SLON (The Solovetsky special camp). I think the right way to show the Solovki area to secular tourists (as the locals call those who are not pilgrims) is to teach them to listen to, to see, to reflect on it and… to feel soulful at the end. So, I’ll tell you about the places and activities on the Bolshoy Solovetsky Island that you just can’t miss.
In the summer evenings, the sun sets just enough to color the domes of the Solovetsky Monastery in a warm pink-orange. It is impossible to pass or drive by without stopping and looking at the beauty. The main reasons people come here are to see the stone walls, walk through the Nikon`s Gate to the cloister, visit the churches, listen to the church bells ring. Throughout the afternoon, the entire island`s hustle and bustle is all around the monastery. After the monastery doors have closed, you will want to take another look at Well-being Bay.
On a calm evening, free of the typical winds (which rarely happens), the water in the bay reflects as perfectly as a mirror. And it doesn’t matter if the monastery belfries are sinking in the "golden hour" light (shortly after sunrise or before sunset), or melting in grey fog, or rain - Well-being Bay is beautiful in any weather, at high tide or low tide. You just need to walk around, along the shore and the promenade, walk past the old warehouses, by the sheds where the fishing nets are drying and pass the maritime museum. Then walk to the Preobrazhensky Hotel, which once hosted all the guests of the island, but is now completely destroyed. Take a look at the longboats and karbasses, motorboats and boats. And then head to the dry dock – where you’ll find a unique hydraulic structure, it’s one of a kind. And right there you can see the most epic view of the monastery.
The Solovetsky archipelago is located near the Arctic Circle. It consists of six large and dozens of small islands, the total area is 347 km2. The archipelago has more than 1,000 freshwater lakes.
As the saying goes: “The White Sea - our dear Father. All its habits are known and the Pomors live in harmony with the sea, like a family.” The life of the Pomors, the Arctic people inhabiting the shores of the icy White Sea, has always been inseparable from the sea. In the Maritime Museum, which is located in the former shed for storing row boats on Cape Seldyanoy, you can listen to the fascinating story about the difficult life on the frozen sea. Just try to imagine how your life would look if you were a Pomor’s faithful wife: spending your time preparing the sails for boats, fishing in the sea, waiting for your husband for 5 months while he is fishing on the sea, digging beds in the garden, mowing the hay, sewing, weaving, cooking, taking care of the children… I bet the only thing you would easily accept from their difficult life - is probably wearing the fur coats and river pearl earrings.
The museum has a lot of interesting objects on display - models of old ships, maps, utensils used on the ships, and the Pomors’ historical navigation devices, such as a «vetromet» - which is both a solar clock and a compass all in one; a compass called the «Matochka" – a nautical instrument made of mammoth bones; tools for catching and slaughtering wild animals, etc. It is surprising how the Pomors literally “sewed” their boats, using vitsa - flexible twisted tree roots used as thread. And then with these boats they sailed from Kola to all the way to Svalbard, to fish for cod, herring, and saffron cod. You can only admire and respect how the Pomors explored the northern seas throughout the 9th century.
It's painful to listen to the guide’s stories about springtime "…hunting for whitecoats..." (baby harp seals). I feel sorry for those little ones. During a short one-hour excursion, you can learn about the traditions and life of the Pomors, Peter the Great’s visit to Solovki, the reconstructed yacht “Saint Peter” and its sea expeditions. After your visit to the Maritime Museum, you will definitely begin to appreciate the White Sea from a different point of view.
Solovki Islands call it the “low water”. The shallow waters along the coast are full of life: algae tangled in the stones, birds searching for food - worms, crustaceans, mussels. Sometimes at low tide, local kids come running to the shore barefoot, collecting shells, and hoping to find a pearl oyster. On a sunny summer day, the water can warm up to +15 °C. There are lots of large stones along the coast. 10 thousand years ago the moraine glacier brought them there. They are called moraine stones. And there is even a labyrinth that was built running through the stones. No one knows who built this labyrinth or when.
There are a lot of theories as to the creation of the labyrinths: shrines for people living during the Neolithic period, ritual structures where the souls of the dead roamed, or even a playground built during the time of Peter the Great. There is one funny hypothesis though - engineering. Some of the researchers believe that this is nothing more than floor heating: a fire was lit in the labyrinth, a floor was laid on top, and warm air was dispersed through the maze, heating the floors of a yurt. The maze on the Big Solovetsky Island is a restoration though. The original is located on the island of Anzer, which is part of the Solovetsky archipelago. Scientists are still trying to determine the age of the structure through the moss on the stones, but no one knows the exact age yet.
The ethnographer Nikolai Vinogradov, a member of the Russian Geographical Society, who came to Solovki as a prisoner of the special camp, was the first one to study the megaliths. Even after the camp was closed, he continued to research as the secretary of the Solovetsky Society of Local History. He found and documented as many as 20 such labyrinths! But his scientific research came to a sudden end in 1938 when he was arrested and executed.
Five unremarkable barracks on Zaozernaya street - that’s all that remains of the bloody regime on the Big Solovetsky Island. The first workers and builders of one of the Gulags (acronym of Main Administration of Camps) lived in those houses. The Solovki special camp (SLON) existed on the island for only 10 years. But during that time, almost 80,000 prisoners, who were accused of being dangerous state criminals and oppositionists of the the regime, served their time there. One third of the prisoners died on Solovki. Some were shot, some could not survive the torture and hard labor of logging or railway construction, as well there was cold weather and disease: typhoid, scurvy, phthisis.
There is an exhibit in the SLON Museum that makes people shudder – documented archives stating the prisoner’s names and also the verdict "shoot" written next to their names. And there are a lot of those books documented in the archives. SLON was one of the largest special-purpose camps in the USSR, it consisted of 8 camps, but only two were on the islands. Those shocking verdicts are difficult to forget about, even as the guide moves on to the next story about the first gulag theatre, the local history museum in the Blagoveschenskaya Church, the greenhouse and its club of nature lovers. Newspapers and magazines were published in the village, there was a movie theatre. You can see hundreds of photos, letters, personal belongings of the prisoners, torn clothes, which all makes the atmosphere in the museum very heavy. And… silence. It's difficult even to speak aloud, the words stuck in the throat.
During the SLON period, almost the whole forest was cut down on the Solovki. Most of the trees on the Bolshoi Solovetsky Island now are about 70 years old.
All the lakes on Bolshoi Solovetsky Island are interconnected by man-made canals located at different levels. There are exactly 20 of them across the island. The largest canal system consists of 52 lakes. In the 16th century, the monks built a hydraulic system: they deepened and expanded the canals, dried the swamps. And by the beginning of the 20th century, they started sailing along the lakes from Danilovo to the Red Lake. The monks created a lot of things on the Solovki Islands, and nature only benefited from all this.
Forests then grew where the swamps had been dried, wild animals and birds had settled there, fish appeared in the lakes. All lakes on Solovki are fed by natural springs, groundwater and rainwater. Therefore, the water level in the lakes never drops. There are two water routes available for tourists on the lakes of Solovki: the Big Circle is 12 km long and the Small one is 6 km. The tours are possible only on row-boats or electric motor boats. Everything should be eco-friendly on Solovki.
This place now seems quiet and peaceful. At the top of the hill there is the only church with a functioning lighthouse in Russia. There is a wonderful view of the green forests and lakes from the observation deck, from where a staircase of 294 steps leads down to the forest. This place is popular among the locals for weddings.
The awful history is forgotten; the blood of killed people has been absorbed into the earth. Just terrible stories, and the warden’s peephole in the left wing of the church door, are the last remaining reminders of those times. Those times, when placement into the male punishment cell at the "Sekirka" usually meant death. No one could survive more than three months of torture, suffering, meaningless punishments. For example, the prisoners were forced to carry handfuls of water from one ice-hole to another; to toss big heavy stones from one place to another; to count seagulls for no reason. The guards punished prisoners for disobedience, as much as possible: pouring ice water on them while they stood out in the frost, place them into an ice hole, or lock them in a freezing cold cell in the crosswinds of the strong northern winds just in their underwear.
One of the torture methods was called “on mosquitos” — naked prisoners were tied to a tree and left overnight in the forest to be bitten half to death by mosquitos; or they even forced prisoners to sit on thick poles. Prisoners were beaten and hit. Sometimes prisoners were abused just for fun. There are a few mass graves on Sekirnaya Mountain, where the bodies were simply dumped. But no one knows how many graves have not yet been found.
In 1429, two monks named German and Savvaty settled near the Sekirnaya Mountain. Once, after leaving his cell, Savvaty saw the crying wife of a fisherman. She complained that at the top of the mountain two young men had flogged her with rods. She was punished because women were not allowed to come up to the magic mountain. The young men also told the woman that her husband and all locals should leave the island, because it was chosen by God as a place only for the monks to live. Frightened of a punishment from Heaven, everyone left Big Solovetsky Island. But the monks took this story as a sign of a miracle and declared the two young men as angels. And the mountain was called Sekirnaya, literally meaning "to flog».
Within the high fence around the Savvatevsky monastery there is a two-story cell. They say, the only remaining monk, Hegumen Yakov, lives here; he manages the entire household and the monastery workers. He holds services in the temple. But he doesn’t really like laypeople — he lets them into the Virgin Mary of Smolensk temple only by personal arrangement. A lot of monks criticize Hegumen Yakov though, they think the temple should be open for everyone. The bell tower and the temple were restored just about eight years ago. The church was built right on top of the ruins. At the end of the 19th century, it was built in honour of the icon of the Virgin Mary of Smolensk, which was once brought to the island by the founders of the monastery, German and Savvatiy. The icon has been lost though; there is only a copy of it in the temple’s iconostasis.
The monasteries on Solovki are different – some are spiritual and others economical. The spiritual ones are mainly located on Anzer Island - Troitsky, Golgotha, Uspensky. On Bolshoi Solovetsky Island are mainly economical monasteries - each has a different purpose: grow berries, fish, grow hay. Savvatevsky monastery’s purpose is as a garden. You can’t actually see the gardens because of the high fence, so you can only imagine if it's true. You can also imagine the dugouts in which the cabin boys lived who came to Savvatievo to study. During the war years, a training unit of the Northern Fleet was based on Solovki and existed until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Again, you can only imagine how military Destroyers docked along the walls of the Solovetsky Monastery. However, the school for cabin boys in Savvatievo did not exist long; in total there were three years of enrolments on Solovki, each included 1,500 thousand underage volunteers.
In 1944, the cabin boy program was transferred to Kronstadt. But within those three years, the boys learned such specialties as radio operator, steersman, naval sapper, boatswain, signalman. After completing a full year of studies everyone dreamed of war service. The selection of applicants for cabin boy school was very strict. The children of military officers who had died on the fronts received the first priority. The boys had to destroy all traces of the island’s shameful past - prisons and camps, and also build dugouts for themselves and equip the school itself. Many Solovetsky cabin boys became generals, the famous Russian writer Valentin Pikul was among the students.
The monks on Solovki measured distance in versts, you can see striped pillars (the sign of versts) throughout the island. The Solovetsky verst is equal to the length of the monastery fortress wall — 1 km 84 meters. This is the distance of a Solovetsky procession.
If you will visit the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, you should pay attention to the painting "Silence" by Russian artist Mikhail Nesterov. It depicts two monks fishing at the lake of St. Isaac’s skete. It was painted right there in 1901, when the artist visited Solovki and lived in the local monastery’s cell building for several days. The chapel, which you can still see on the canvas, has been destroyed. But the monks are still fishing on the local lake nowadays. St. Isaac's skete has always been famous for fishing. The lake is full of perch, pike, burbot, ruff, crucian carp, roach, vendace, and whitefish.
Around Isaakievsky monastery (skete) are all the main hayfields, in late summer the monks mow the hay for the livestock. You can’t take a walk around the monastery, from one side it fenced off by a wayside cross and from the lake-side by gates. Behind the fence there is the chapel of Isaac Dolmatsky and also five cell buildings. Abbot Eliozar manages the monastery farm. Locals are still offended that he doesn’t let them fish and grill kebabs there. Eliozar, as did the abbots before him, humbly continues to restore the Isakievsky monastery.
How to get there:
Navigating the White Sea is possible only from May to September. Two motor ships “Vasily Kosyakov” and “Snowstorm” run between the docks twice a day. Tickets can be purchased online on the site of the Prichal tourist complex www.prichalrk.ru. The rest of the year, the only way to get to Bolshoi Solovetsky Island is by plane from Arkhangelsk.
Where to stay:
The best hotel on the island: Solovki.
Quite nice guest house: "Shelter".
Life in the village:
You can rent a bike in the village, but walking is much more interesting. In the village there is a minimum of basic needs for a life on the northern island - a hospital, which is closed on weekends though, and on weekdays there is only one doctor. There is a pharmacy which works daily. A bank and even an ATM, which looks funny, like an old kiosk, but still give out cash. You can pay with a card but just in a couple stores. Small souvenir shops often have problems with card payments, so it's better to take cash with. Some cell phone providers, for example Beeline, do not work on Solovki at all.
There is a good coffee shop at the very end of the village, by the way it's one of the few places where you can get freshly brewed coffee. Most guest houses and budget hotels will offer you only instant coffee. There is also a good restaurant at the Solovki Hotel and just a few cafes in the village. However, you can eat local cod at the «Expedition» café, and dine at the monastery refectory. The souvenir shops surprisingly offer an excellent choice of gifts. If you are going for a walk in the forest, you should take repellents, there are not so many mosquitoes in the village itself but way too many in the forest.
The "Four Seasons of Russia" project is supported by the Russian geographical society www.rgo.ru
The route to Solovki is recommended by the Russian Geographical Society.
You can buy a tour to Solovki on the site "Russia Discovery" www.russiadiscovery.ru
Another read about Solovki:
Beluga Whale watching
The Solovetsky Monastery: "The Chronicle of the Cloister"
Translation: Irina Romanova, Instagram: @astrabella1