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The Solovetsky Monastery

The chronicle of the cloister

The history of monasteries in Russia has always been dramatic. Neither time nor people with their ideology have spared the cloisters. Desolation comes after many centuries of greatness. It is always difficult to restore the Past in the Present. But people always try to do this, despite the fact that history and time change the religion and the matter of many things. For more than five centuries the Solovetsky Monastery has experienced a lot. It was a place of spirituality and human cruelty. Some people gained faith here, others met their doom.

The chronicle of the cloister is fascinating and tragic at the same time. There is a place in it for both: great managers and adherents of Orthodoxy. And if you are interested in the unique story of the cloister you will find out that the history of the Solovetsky Monastery is not just about religion and faith, but also about architectural and hydraulic marvels, great navigation, successful investments, about wars and peace, about friendship and enmity.


The story began In 1429. Two old monks Herman and Savvatiy from the Soroka village (now Belomorsk) were wandering in the White Sea and found an island. They moored at Sosnovaya Luda. Here, on the Big Solovetsky Island, they decided to spend many years in prayer. They were not the first who visited these islands though. In summer Karelian fishermen liked to fish here, but in winter they preferred to stay at the mainland. Six years later Savvatiy felt that his time was up and it was his time to go. After his death, Herman decided to leave the island. Very soon, in 1436, he returned though, but not alone. His companion was Reverend Zosima. During the very first night on the island Zosima had a vision: he saw a temple floating in the air. By the way, on Solovki islands it is still possible to observe nature’s effect "fata Morgana":  when it seems that the islands rise above the water.

Exactly at that place which Zosima saw in his visions, the monks started to build the first temple - small and wooden. That was the beginning of the Solovetsky Monastery's history. However, the first Solovetsky temple existed for just under a hundred years when it burned down.


Hegumen Philip, who was known as a boyar from a noble rich family of the Kolychevy before taking his monastic vows, gave rise to the incredible prosperity of the Solovetsky cloister. Throughout 18 years of running the monastery, he turned it into a successful venture, a group of companies (as they would be called today) that became very rich. Salt production with three salt works operating in the monastery became the most important industry. The monks were evaporating salt from the sea water (it is very salty; you know - 27 grams of salt per litre!). They sold 25 thousand poods a year (410kg), Philip successfully invested the profits in additional land purchases. Plus, the Solovetsky monastery was the favorite of Tsar Ivan the Terrible.

Thanks to these connections, Philip had the whole archipelago under his personal ownership throughout his lifetime. Little by little estates throughout the entire White Sea became the property of the monastery. All western Karelia, further from Murmansk, right up to Pechenga payed church tithe to the Solovetsky monastery's coffers. The monastery on Solovki became the largest landowner in Russia.

In addition, Ivan the Terrible and top-ranking benefactors donated a lot of money to the monastery. Under Philip, two large stone churches were built: the Uspensky Cathedral and the Preobrazhensky Cathedral. Also he opened the famous refectory, where large and small convocations gathered. In 1566, when the Preobrazhensky Cathedral was finished, it became the tallest church in Russia - 45 meters high. Its walls were 3.5 meters thick. The stone architecture developed pretty good because of the monastery's own brick factory: these bricks made of  local clay were very strong.

Then hegumen again asked the tsar for a favour and received approval for tax-free salt trade. This gave the monastery fabulous new profits. The Abbot also developed many other industries, that eventually provided him a very high income, as well. Within his reign for the first time reindeers from Lapland were brought to the Big Solovetsky and Zayatsky Islands to make clothes and shoes out of their skins. A tannery was opened immediately. Soon an icon-painting workshop was opened, which could accept wholesale orders for icons of up to 100 items of the same plot. The smithy has opened, it produced everything for the household needs: staples, door hinges, horseshoes, nails, axes, crowbars…

And the most important thing, thanks to Philip, a unique hydraulic system of drinking water reservoirs was constructed: lakes were connected to each other, dams were built, rivers were reversed, canals were deepened, and as a result - the monastery had its own water supply. And then they opened mills, laundries, bathhouses with their own water pipes. It`s still a mystery, how such a project was implemented at that time?

That century, the first political church prisoners were sent to Solovki and the first monastery prison was opened in the cloister. From that time until the end of the 19th century, more than 500 prisoners were serving their time in cells. However, relations between the tsar and Philip went bad: Ivan the Terrible called on the Solovetsky abbot to serve as the Metropolitan of Moscow and the Rus. But political games were too tough for a northerner. He was deposed from the post of the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, exiled to Tver and later was strangled by Malyuta Skuratov. Nowadays a movie about Hegumen Philip “Tsar” was even filmed.


By that time, the Solovetsky Monastery had owned the largest fleet in medieval Russia. It consisted of 36 large sea vessels (lodias) and cargo rowing vessels (soimas) and lots of smaller boats - karbasses, wooden sailboats, etc. They had been sailed across the stormy White Sea to Arkhangelsk, Onega, Kem and along the northern rivers for fishing and cargo transporting. In the XVII century 350 monks and almost 700 peasants and lay brothers (novice) lived in the monastery. At the end of the century, a very important guest visited the monastery - Peter the Great. And soon as a result of it, the Solovetsky Monastery owned few more cloisters and some lands on the mainland.

In the XVII century a bloody massacre occurred in the Solovetsky Monastery. Monks and peasants - followers of the rebel leader Stepan Razin, those who did not want to accept the church reform of Patriarch Nikon, were killed in the monastery’s cells. From that time, the Solovetsky Monastery became a place of exile for all «persona non grata», i.e. the only official state prison of Russia.

According to the Solovetsky Monastery charter it was forbidden for women to visit the cloister and even step to the holy land. Usually they stopped at Babiy Island in Well-being Bay and prayed right on the shore. Only a century later the charter was changed and women were allowed to attend services. In the XIX century they were allowed to walk in to the temples, but only to the part fenced off with a silk cord and only under surveillance.  


The policy of Peter the Great affected the order in the monastery very much. However, radical change happened during Catherine the Great’s reign. Suddenly she deprived the cloister of lands in the White Sea area. The monastery lost its income pretty fast, the number of monks declined rapidly. Since 1764, the Solovetsky Preobrazhensky Cathedral has no longer been an independent economic enterprise. Plus, it became stauropegion, i.e. directly subordinated to the Synod. Archimandrites had to do a little belt-tightening and control the life in the monastery.


When the abbots had been leaving the monastery, in order to visit the higher clergy, they had to sign paper instructions to their deputies, cellarers and bookkeepers. For example, Archimandrite Gennadiy clearly instructed to control the discipline: to prevent thefts, fights or fire, not to forget to give honey and mulled wine to monks for temple holidays, and to prevent parasitism. There were also found notes of cautious archimandrite Dosifey, who was worried that the gates and towers were closed at night, often checked if the guards were not sleeping at the posts. Both were giving clear instructions on how to stop boozing among monastery workers. Apparently, there were some drinking problems.

The Solovetsky Monastery became one of the most famous monasteries of that time. But the pilgrimage to the north was pretty difficult - the islands were too far and the trip to the cloister was way too dangerous. Every year in the summer thousands of pilgrims were visiting the monastery. They had been donating livestock and big amounts of money. The most important building construction of that period became the dry dock, a system which is one of a kind even nowadays.


The pilgrimage to Solovki reached its peak. Thousands of pilgrims had been rushing to the edge of the world. Most of them were peasants from the northern provinces, they took monastery ships to get to the Bolshoi Solovetsky Island. In 1860 the monastery even owned two steamboats - Vera (faith) and Nadezhda (hope), as well as schooners and dozens of rowing ships. The monastic fleet was the largest at the White Sea, of course. Crews were formed of monks, novices and monastery workers. Every day the hieromonk held a service on large ships, each ship had its own iconostasis. Passengers were not allowed to smoke or booze on board. Well, just like on Russian domestic flights nowadays.

In the middle of the century the first illustrated guide to the Solovetsky Islands for pilgrims was published. The "road book" included maps of the islands, the history of the monastery, travel recommendations and much more.

During the Crimean War, the monastery was attacked by the British. The buildings were fired at by cannonballs from frigates. But after a useless 9-hour cannonade, when 1800 cannonballs were shot, the British had to pull anchors and leave the Well-being Bay. The walls of the monastery and the tower survived the attack without any difficulty. Funny or not, but the masonry at the basement of the White Tower is almost 8 meters thick!

In 1859,  the Spaso-Troitskiy cathedral construction was finished. The relics of the first Solovetsky monks: Zosima, Savvatiy and German, were stored there. The church was destroyed in half a century though. In 1883, the monastery prison was officially closed, but the church prisoners were exiled to the islands for a long time. At the end of the century Archimandrite Meletiy founded a biological, a meteorological station and a geophysical observatory at the monastery.

After renovations of the cell buildings, the monks got the opportunity to live separately - one per cell, but two novices in one cell. At the very end of the century, almost every monk was contributing greatly to the monastery's progress. Some carved spoons for selling, some painted icons, made candles, carpentry, some forged and were locksmiths. Among the monks there were even agronomists - they tried to grow watermelons, melons and grapes on Solovki. 

The easiest task for boys was spoon-washing. Despite the fact that 1000 people could eat at the same time at the refectory - 400 monks, 600 workers and pilgrims. But there was even a dishwasher in the monastery! Perhaps the first one in history. The detailed descriptions have not been found, but the facts are absolutely reliable - the boys, called «spoonwashers», collected dirty dishes, put them in a machine and pumped up water with a pomp. It was not the only invention in the Solovetsky monastery, in the kitchen there was an automatic potato peeler!

In the refectories, things were way too good too. At the end of the XIX century, monks ate a bellyful during lavish meals. On non-fasting days, they could have at least 4 fish dishes, butter, cottage cheese, sour cream, bread from the monastery bakery and much more for just one meal. Novices served like professional waiters: they were running between tables - offering vinegar, pepper, greens to the monks. It also was not forbidden to have a herring sandwich snack and tea at their own cells between prayers and obedience. In winter the monastery was heated only once a week. But very thick masonry with air ducts kept it warm for several days. They say inside the refectory that it was so hot that the monks wiped sweat from their foreheads. Unfortunately, nowadays the heating system has not been restored.


The Monastic fleet became the most profitable business of the Solovetsky Monastery. The cloister already owned 3 steamboats that were cruising along the White Sea and could take on board 500 pilgrims, a cargo ship, fishing schooners, about one hundred boats and karbasses. Several factories were opened at the monastery - brick, candle, pottery, coal, leather, bakery, a kvass brewery (where they brewed a drink 10 times a year), a forge, a dozen different workshops, a laundry, a fur farm, a sawmill and much more. At the beginning of the XX century, the monastery had about 542 thousand rubles in cash!

A hospital was opened instead of the monastery prison. Pomors cooperated with the monastery quite well, they supplied the monks with lard, marine animal skins, fish, coal and tar. Pomors wives sewed linen, undershirts and trousers for the monks by hand. They also collected wild thyme along the banks of the monastery and exchanged it for bread and groceries. In the labor school of the Solovetsky Monastery, young Pomors served as monastery laborers.

The Solovetsky Monastery was not only a monastic community; many lay people lived on its lands. But the monks ruled everything. They were managing artels and workshops. The monastery laborers worked without respite though: in cowsheds and gardens, mowed hay, knitted nets, cut firewood and repaired monastery buildings. They didn’t earn any money there, they worked for food and shelter. Those laborers who had just arrived to the monastery, were distributed to different jobs according to their health and intelligence - as tailors, shoemakers, icon-painters, locksmiths, forgeries, etc. Young skinny men became church singers; big strong men were taken to the kitchen for heavy work. There were many various jobs just in the monastery’s kitchen, for example: "kvassnik" - a kvass manager; a "horseradish-maid" - was responsible for mustard and horseradish; a "herring-maid" - was responsible for cutting herring, and so on. All food for the monastery was carefully counted and inventoried. And if somebody wanted to steal something he should be very careful and sneaky.  For example, milkmen at the barnyard at the Bolshaya Muksalma Island would secretly pour fresh milk into the samovar and pretend to be drinking tea.


The further the more! In 1913 the Solovetsky monks built one of the first hydroelectric power stations in Russia in collaboration with German engineers from the Siemens company! Most parts and turbines were brought from Germany, but special square pipe was forged right in the monastery. From that time on, the cloister had its own heating and electricity.

In April 1920, after the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, the monastery immediately closed. Instead, they organized the Solovetsky (or Kemsky) Kolkhoz (a collective ownership) there. All the valuables ​​from the monastery were seized, stolen or destroyed. Officially this campaign was called «a removal the relics and church property». All monastery treasures disappeared: icons in silver frames, 2.5 thousand kg of silver and gold, a large library, Russian tsars gifts, for example: altar crosses made of pure gold and decorated with jewels that Ivan the Terrible donated to the monastery; a saber of Prince Dmitry Pozharsky, a collection of ancient weapons, art masterpieces.

The last archimandrite of the Solovetsky Monastery Veniamin was arrested. He was exiled to the Kholmogory labor camps, where he had spent several years. After Veniamin was released, he and the monk Nikifor settled down at Polkozero and built a small skete there. They were shot by two Komsomol members later though, who found out about monks` living. Looking for church treasures, the murderers destroyed the monastic cell and set it on fire. They didn’t get any serious punishment though.


In 1923, due to arson a massive fire destroyed the treasury building of the monastery. According to one of the versions, the purpose of the arson was to destroy evidence of looting. A lot of archival documents burned up in flames, the St. Philip Church collapsed, all wooden structures and the roof of the Preobrazhensky Cathedral burnt down. Later a simple pyramid-shaped roof was built by prisoners, former the White Guard officers. Exactly this view of the architecture of the Solovetsky Monastery was pictured on the 500-ruble bank note. The design was changed only in 2010.

From 1923 inside of the Solovetsky Monastery, there was The Solovki special camp - SLON. The same year first 350 prisoners were brought in. In 1937, the place was renamed, only one character has been changed in the acronym, it became STON - the Solovetsky Special Purpose Prison. In two years it was disbanded though. In 1942, the buildings of the former special camp were converted into a cabin-boys school for the training squad of the Northern Fleet.

In 1967, the Solovetsky Islands received the status of a National park-museum. Only in 1989 the first reconstructed temple was consecrated — the chapel of St. Philip. From 1990 on, year by year, the monks started to move into the monastery again. Two years later, the architecture complex of the Solovki museum was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. That same year, the relics of the monastery were returned to the Solovetsky cloister from St. Petersburg.


Today, only 19 monks live in the monastery and 60 in total on all the islands and hermitages. There is no single trace of its former prosperity and profits. Lost artefacts are slowly returning to the monastery, for example, the miraculous icon of the 17th century "The Transfiguration of the Lord" by Solovetsky artist Alexander Borisov was brought from Kolomna.

The monastery is still under reconstruction and it is trying to earn money for this on its own. The main sources of incomes are now pilgrimage tours and donations. But it is still not enough money to finish the renovation. The restoration of 18 objects of the monastery is financed by the state. But the architecture complex of the Solovetsky Monastery includes 114 monuments in total!


There was a scandal recently about how the cleaning of the towers and walls caused damage to the ancient moss. Archimandrite Porfiry, the current abbot, reacted to the criticism pretty fast and now the restoration team uses a soda blasting method, - a gentle cleaning that does no harm to the moss.

The monks are now taking care to improve the infrastructure - building a runway, sewer system and treatment facilities, because until now the sewage from the village flows directly into the White Sea. According to the plan, the main restoration works of the Solovetsky monastery should be finished by 2035.

Earlier the only duty of hieromonk was the service. Today, he can carve the wooden spoons or repair the tractor, or mow the hay. There is a Sunday school in the monastery and different craft schools, where museum employees are working.

People are still afraid of fires there. In the churches candles can be lit only during the liturgy, at other time parishioners can only pray with an unlit candle.

They say people’s fate still change here, some gain faith here, but most people start to believe in themselves. The relationship between the laity and the monks is still difficult. Each side has its own vision of life there, far from the mainland, on the island in the White Sea. For five centuries the Solovetsky Monastery completely changed the islands, its small world and local traditions. But its story continues, and the chronicle is… to be continued.

The project 'Four Seasons of Russia" 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:
Solovki: To feel soulful and come back
Beluga Whale watching

Translation: Irina Romanova, Instagram: @astrabella1


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Hello, Kostroma!
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Plyos Exactly as it was during Levitan's Time

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