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The Resurrection of Solovetsky

text and photographs by George Martin

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A journey to Russia’s Solovetsky Monastery, which is situated on an island in the White Sea, begins ominously: to reach the sea, one has to pass through lock 19 on the Stalin Canal, a waterway built in the 1930s to connect the White Sea with the Baltic Sea at the expense of hundreds of thousands of slave-laborer lives.

Last summer my wife and I followed the course of three Russian Orthodox monks – Hermann, Savvaty and Zosima – who sailed from the Russian mainland and settled in the Solovetsky archipelago in the 1430s. The first monastic structure was built in 1436, on land indicated in a vision. A church dedicated to the Transfiguration of Christ followed one year later. Ever since, save for one brutal interruption, Solovetsky has housed a monastic community, a refuge and haven for saints and sinners.

In the early church, men and women sought God in the desert regions of Egypt and Palestine; their settlements gave birth to monasticism. Solovetsky is a desert, not of sand, but of harsh isolation. Only 90 miles south of the Arctic Circle, the islands are locked in a halo of ice for much of the year. During the short summer season, the multitude of lakes and marshes breed millions of mosquitoes, clouding the horizon.

For centuries, the isolation offered by Solovetsky attracted thousands of monks. The islands and surrounding waters provided an ample living from fishing, farming and salt mining. At its peak in the 16th and 17th centuries, Solovetsky – with its 400 to 500 monks – was one of the most prosperous monastic centers in Russia. It developed its own tradition of liturgical chant. Benefactors – wealthy, modest and poor – famished the monastery with an astonishing treasure of liturgical objects, icons and manuscripts. The enshrined remains of Hermann, Savvaty and Zosima, now saints of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the cures and miracles attributed to their intercession, attracted thousands of pilgrims from near and far.

Although isolated, Solovetsky was a strategic site: as the Russian state swelled in size, monasteries, which were frequently located in frontier areas, were fortified and designated as outposts of Russian sovereignty. The increasing number of border conflicts with Sweden at the end of the 16th century forced the monks of Solovetsky to build fortifications. A great stone wall, 30 feet high and 18 feet thick, built with two million glacial boulders each weighing up to 20 tons, still encircles the main monastic complex.

The same isolation that made Solovetsky an ideal refuge for those seeking God also made it an ideal place to impose exile. Religious nonconformists were sent to do penance for their heresies; Tsarist political dissidents were exiled to remove them from Moscow and later, St. Petersburg. Yet monastic life thrived, coexisting with a garrison of soldiers and a group of exiles.

Solovetsky’s centuries-old role as a refuge and haven for those seeking the quiet intimacy of God ended violently after the Russian revolution in 1918. In 1923, after they had consolidated their power, Soviet Russia’s Communist leaders converted the monastery into a virtual hell, creating the archetypal Soviet concentration camp, later commemorated by Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn in his historical novel, .

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Tags: Russia Russian Orthodox Church Monastery Communism/Communist