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Solovki: The Story of Russia Told Through Its Most Remarkable Islands

Roy R. Robson
Copyright Date: 2004
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 320
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    Book Description:

    Located in the northernmost reaches of Russia, the islands of Solovki are among the most remote in the world. And yet from the Bronze Age through the twentieth century, the islands have attracted an astonishing cast of saints and scoundrels, soldiers and politicians.

    The site of a beautiful medieval monastery-once home to one of the greatest libraries of eastern Europe-Solovki became in the twentieth century a notorious labor camp. Roy Robson recounts the history of Solovki from its first settlers through the present day, as the history of Russia plays out on this miniature stage. In the 1600s, the piety and prosperity of Solovki turned to religious rebellion, siege, and massacre. Peter the Great then used it as a prison. But Solovki's glory was renewed in the nineteenth century as it became a major pilgrimage site-only to descend again into horror when the islands became, in the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the "mother of the Gulag" system.

    From its first intrepid visitors through the blood-soaked twentieth century, Solovki-like Russia itself-has been a site of both glorious achievement and profound misery.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-12960-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xiv)
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  5. [Maps]
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  6. one STONES
    (pp. 1-5)

    The stones and the sky and the water—these are the things that created Solovki. Children of the Ice Ages, the islands nestle in a southern bay of the Arctic Sea, separating Finland and Russia, called the White Sea. The islands are only one hundred kilometers from the Arctic Circle, where the night never comes in June and the daylight never arrives in January. They are not very big—Great Solovetskii Island is less than twenty-five kilometers long and about sixteen across. All together, the surface area of the islands is just 347 square kilometers. They are impossibly rocky—glaciers...

  7. two SAINTS
    (pp. 6-25)

    Two men stood at the shore of the White Sea in the year 1429, some two thousand years after the labyrinth builders had left Solovki. One was named Savvatii, an old monk in a tattered cassock held together by years of darning and patching. His face was gaunt, made even thinner by the long, tangled beard that fell down to his chest. His whiskers had begun turning white years before, but Savvatii hardly noticed. In fact, he paid little attention to his appearance, a product of decades-long refusal of bodily comforts and pleasures.

    The other man, German, viewed Savvatii with...

  8. three PROSPERITY
    (pp. 26-40)

    In 1507 (maybe February, maybe June), Stefan and Varvara Kolychev were blessed with the birth of their first son, Fedor. Fedor, the eldest of four boys, and his brothers were expected to grow up to be both pious men and good servants of Moscow. The Kolychev clan was prominent in Moscow and Novgorod, owning land and serfs. One of the influential families in the capital—though not moving in the very highest circles—the Kolychevs sometimes served the tsar himself and sometimes were in conflict with the ruling family. Without doubt, though, the Kolychevs were politically astute, well connected, and...

  9. four STRUGGLE
    (pp. 41-53)

    As Solovki prospered, its father superior could not help but attract the attention of Moscow. Tsar Ivan IV was a deeply religious man and was undoubtedly impressed by the rising reputation of the monastery, Filipp’s personal charisma, and the long-standing ties between their families. Because of this, the monarch bestowed major gifts on Solovki during Filipp’s leadership, including twenty-five new salt works in 1556 and six other major land grants.¹ It was Ivan’s largesse that gave Filipp the opportunity to dig canals, build churches, and raise the standard of living of his monks.

    Ties between the islands and the capital...

  10. five GUARDIAN
    (pp. 54-67)

    The rape of Novgorod, Pskov, and Tver was a symbol for Ivan the Terrible’s murderous rule during the oprichnina. The oprichniki ran wild, looting and burning as well as slaughtering nuns, monks, priests, and children in this bid to humiliate the proud northern cities. And then, as if spent from his excesses, Ivan took his minions back to his “personal realm” and settled down for the winter of 1570. In the last two years of the oprichnina, 1571–72, Ivan vacillated between ruthlessness and piety, between the Alexander Settlement and Moscow, even betweenwives. As he aged, Ivan took on and...

  11. six TRIUMPH
    (pp. 68-80)

    What a sight was Solovki in 1614! In that year a new father superior, Irinarkh, was installed. He inherited a monastery that had weathered every storm, natural and political, defended itself from invaders, and become rich and powerful even as Novgorod the Great languished under Swedish rule. Solovki had fulfilled St. Zosima’s promise that the monastery would grow and prosper in all ways, if it followed a godly path. By that year, Solovki had extended its control over thousands of square kilometers of land, received rents or taxes from hundreds of salt-boilers, and built churches throughout its properties. The monastery...

  12. seven DEFIANCE
    (pp. 81-93)

    The great wealth that Solovki had acquired could not help but affect life there. The islands had been known for their monks’ podvigi, their ascetic acts, but by the time of Father Irinarkh’s leadership, it seemed that the pleasures of life had begun to creep up to Solovki’s shores.

    In his Life, Irinarkh’s hagiographer portrayed a man who quietly and successfully developed the financial and strategic aspects of Solovki without losing sight of his own spiritual growth. While Irinarkh was himself a humble, pious man, however, other monks began to indulge themselves in worldly pleasures. In 1619, the brothers received...

  13. eight REBELLION
    (pp. 94-114)

    Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich met Nikon’s entourage carrying Filipp’s relics outside Moscow on 9 July 1651. He and Metropolitan Varlaam of Rostov joined the festive parade as it wound through the dirty streets toward the Kremlin. Varlaam, wearing heavy robes encrusted with jewels, collapsed in the heat of midsummer, sitting down and dying right next to the relics of St. Filipp. Not willing to stop the procession, the tsar ordered the deceased metropolitan to be carried just behind; the monarch himself shouldered the saint’s bones as they neared the city. Some people swooned as Aleksei, resplendent in golden, pearl-encrusted robes, passed...

  14. nine EMPEROR
    (pp. 115-131)

    Not all the monks died on that bitter January night. There were some five hundred men inside the monastery when Meshcherinov broke through the walls. His troops killed around three dozen but more were on their deathbeds, suffering from the last stages of scurvy, for the commander had finally been able to stop the flow of foodstuffs provisioning the uprising. Still, many monks fled into the night, taking advantage of their knowledge of the island and the winter’s near-constant darkness to steal away from Meshcherinov and his troops. These men hid on Solovki—perhaps even with hermits living outside the...

  15. ten PRISON
    (pp. 132-145)

    While strolling around Solovki on 11 August 1701, Peter also stopped at the prison. Taking the fresh air after church services ended, Peter passed by the northern towers of the monastery, the great rounded bastions that could hold off Swedish invaders and Russian musketeers. Lichens, which grew on the boulders of the squat tower, changed colors in the summer light as clouds passed across the sun: blue, gray, red, and gold. The monks had shown particular ingenuity with the walls and Peter had to have marveled at the engineering: five stout towers stood at each of five corners. Outside the...

  16. eleven REFORM
    (pp. 146-154)

    In 1762, the government forever changed the face of Russian monastic life when Emperor Peter III took the long contemplated but never implemented step of secularizing, in other words confiscating, all monastic land. Suddenly, the great monasteries of Russia, including Solovki, had no source of income. They could no longer rely on the local peasantry, which now had to pay its rents directly to the state or to new landlords. This gave the emperor a lot more land to distribute to faithful nobles and simultaneously undercut the possibility of monasteries becoming too independent or rich. With the stroke of a...

  17. twelve WAR
    (pp. 155-169)

    On 18 July 1854, Her Majesty’s Ships Miranda and Brisk steamed into Solovki’s harbor with the mission of harassing and capturing Russian boats and ports. Far from home and distant from the Crimean War zone, where England and Russia were fighting, the two ships had encountered no Russian resistance to their sweep through Arctic waters. They had already taken a small prize and yearned for a bigger one. The commander, Erasmus Ommaney of the Brisk, had excellent charts of Solovki’s waters. He wrote that “the celebrated monastery of Solovetskoi came in view, which presented an imposing and beautiful appearance, its numerous...

  18. thirteen PILGRIMS
    (pp. 170-185)

    There was another kind of pilgrim coming to Solovki in those days—ones who came not for a year, but for only three days. Throughout the previous couple of centuries, short-term pilgrims had been coming to Solovki in relatively small numbers. Rarely did more than a thousand arrive each year.¹ In 1826, Archimandrite Dosifei had ordered two three-masted ships to be built for the monastery—the Nikolai and the Savvatii. While these were not specifically bought to ferry pilgrims, they may have flouted a provincial law forbidding the monastery from carrying pilgrims in its own boats.² Then, in 1836, the...

  19. fourteen REVOLUTIONS
    (pp. 186-201)

    Imagine Solovki at the beginning of the twentieth century—tens of thousands of pilgrims tumbling off steamships, piling up prosphora for blessing during daily Liturgies, rowing through canals, waiting in line for dinner. Then, as the White Sea began to swell and the birches turned color, the pilgrims were suddenly gone. Solovki would settle in for renovation, education, and building; to accounting and to prayer. Though still remote, Solovki grew each year in stature and wealth. Steadily more famous, Solovki attracted men from across Russia—Kostroma, Kazan, Nizhnii Novgorod, Penza, Ekaterinoslav, Kharkov, and Kiev.

    In some ways, the monastery charged...

  20. fifteen GULAG
    (pp. 202-225)

    Fire was no stranger to the Transfiguration cathedral—centuries of censers, oil lamps, and beeswax candles had guttered out within its walls. Each of these left a bit of combustible material behind, often layered on the pages of holy books (where candles had been held close for night reading) or puddled next to the ancient wooden icons. Over four centuries, sacrificial flames had glowed in supplication or thanks to Zosima, Savvatii, and the other saints of Solovki. Fire had damaged the monastery many times in previous centuries, as far back as the destruction of the first Chapel of the Transfiguration...

  21. sixteen LIFE
    (pp. 226-239)

    There were two high hills on the Solovki islands: Golgotha, where the sick went to die, and Sekirka, where the damned went to die. For most serious health problems—typhus was normal and scurvy so widespread that it stopped being classified as a disease—prisoners ended up at the local hospital just outside the kremlin. Prisoners whose cases got worse, or who became too old or infirm to work, were carried off to the top of Golgotha, a makeshift infirmary and quarantine for infectious diseases.

    Legend had it that, on 18 June 1712, the Virgin Mary had told the monk...

  22. seventeen DENOUEMENT
    (pp. 240-251)

    As spring arrived each year, the camp was rife with parashi, which at Solovki meant both “latrine buckets” and “rumors.” The parashi were variations on the same theme: a commission would be sent to study prison conditions, or prisoners would be sent back to the mainland, or—just maybe—there was to be a general amnesty. In fact, commissions did look over the camp somewhat regularly, though conditions never improved. As early as 1925, Boris Cederholm remembered wandering into a set piece created for the camp photographer—Chekist guards dressed up in hospital gowns to be photographed among clean white...

  23. epilogue: MEMORY
    (pp. 252-260)

    The final boatloads of prisoners left Solovki in 1939. Shut up in cargo holds and sent off to prisons in central Russia and Siberia, they departed as they had come—under guard, cold, and unsure of their fate. Solovki, located close to the Finnish border, had become a risk, for the Soviet government desired the annexation of Finland and expected a war. It was better to move the prisoners inland, away from the conflict.

    Once Finland had been subdued in the WinterWar of 1940, Solovki was put back to use. The monastery proper and surrounding buildings briefly housed a naval...

  24. NOTES
    (pp. 261-290)
    (pp. 291-296)
  26. INDEX
    (pp. 297-302)