Spirits on Solovetsky

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A giant ice halo appears overhead as the ferry draws away from Bolshoi Zayatsky Island forming a perfect white circle in the clear blue sky and adding to the already deep aura of mysticism and spirituality that seems ever present in the Solovetsky Archipelago. The gulls dip and swirl frantically above us. They too seem caught up in the mood. The guide snaps at the halo with her mobile phone. This is a rare occurrence she tells us.

Bolshoi Zayatsky is one of the largest islands in the Archipelago. The island is flat and exposed. Small shrubs and lichens are about the only plants that can grow there. The former prison used the island as an ‘isolator unit’ to hold women who refused to work on religious grounds or were otherwise troublesome. These included women made pregnant by guards and needing to be placed out of sight.

The island holds 13 of the 35 stone labyrinths on the Solovki and some of the best examples in the world. There is speculation about these structures, which date back to 2000 BC. One view is that they represent a path travelled by the soul after death before exiting and taking on a life in a new body. Apparently it’s OK to enter a labyrinth as long as you can find the exit or you risk having your soul trapped forever.

We make it back to Solovetsky Island. The ferry lists heavily to the left for the six-kilometer journey there and back.

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The Kayut is the only restaurant on the island outside of the hotels. Our waitress, Svetlana, bustles up and down her line of tables. You have to order everything at once, she insists – so you can be sure it will still be available when it’s time to eat it. The cuisine is Russian. The menu offers nine brands of vodka. The grilled fish and boiled rice is simply prepared and bland. The local mors is excellent.

Construction of the Church of the Transfiguration started soon after the arrival of the founding monks in the 1430s. Ensuing generations created a level of self-sufficiency that might have appealed to the Bolsheviks with their apparent notions of community or communality. Instead, the new Soviet authorities deemed the island the perfect venue to banish political opponents and expelled the monks and shut down the monastery in 1920.The canals that link the lakes on Bolshoi Solovetsky are another legacy of the ancient monks, and facilitated the island’s hunting, fishing and farming activities. Rowing boats are rented out by the hour. The lake is flat and serene as we leave. On the way back the sky darkens quickly and the wind whips up the water. We head for the shore and a short intense shower follows, with thunder and lighting to match. The rain ends as quickly as it arrives, the sky clears and the water calms immediately. An old bus is standing at the boat house. Ask the driver if he’ll give you a lift back to the monastery, suggests the boat lady. Sure, he says, but it’s 150 rubles each. “Make hay while the sun shines” is the motto for everyone in the very short summer economy on Solovetsky.

Selection_232The prison museum is housed in a former prison block and is magnificently laid out. The guide is excellent. Solovetsky was set up as a detention camp for mostly political opponents of the Soviet regime. It functioned initially with some freedom; there was, for example, a camp newspaper and an active theatre scene. However, the ambience soon turned menacing and forced labor became the norm and the model from which the concept of prison labor in the vastly expanded GULAG system was developed. Some 60,000 people passed through Solovetsky in the 15 years until the camp was closed in 1939 and thousands perished in conditions of indescribable horror and cruelty. The guide informs us that three people were always present when someone was shot: one to read the order, one to do the shooting, and one to witness the event.

It’s late afternoon and we are standing next to the labyrinth on the north shore, reluctant to enter. The sky is overcast and grey and the water slaps at the seaweed clogging the rocky shore. This is one of only a few labyrinths accessible to visitors. As I move back into the woods lining the shore I feel the wind swirling, like leaves being lifted; it gets intense, a sensation of invisible people rushing around. As I lift my camera I notice someone in my peripheral vision on the shoreline. I turn to look but there’s no one there. There’s no wind either, no leaves blowing about, only a sense of movement, of people moving around intensely. It’s a deeply peculiar sensation and I feel my hair standing up. It’s gone as soon as I reach the road.

Selection_233It’s dark by the time we reach the Kayut which is busy with the dinner crowd. Svetlana steers us towards her line of tables. After my experience at the labyrinth I need a shot of vodka and choose the brand from Archangelsk. It goes down like paint remover. I sense a presence again and look up. It’s Svetlana. You have to order everything at once she says. We have about 1,000 people living on the island and our school has eleven students, she tells us. I order the pork goulash with buckwheat and shredded cabbage and a side of grated carrots with sugar. Help yourself to sugar from the bowl, she says.

A storm beckons as we bid farewell to Solovetsky. There’s an order to boarding the boat irrespective of when you arrive at the gate. Tour groups first. These are pilgrims and they rush below decks to find the good seats. Tour guides top the pecking order because they will be back tomorrow with more business. Mothers with children next. Ordinary ticket holders board last. A man in a fluorescent safety jacket signs something and the boat heaves away from the pier. The sea is rough unlike the calm water on the journey to the island. The ferry’s nose is low and it has to punch its way through the water. I walk around and count the passengers: about 170 souls. I count the life rafts: 14 rafts with a capacity for 140 people. Some of us will be swimming if this ship goes down.

Selection_234I am still unable to pronounce ‘Rabocheostrovsk’ properly but nonetheless relieved to get there. The captain shouts at me to get out of the way of the anchor rope as we approach the dock.

Kem railway station is accustomed to travelers hanging out in the waiting room and there are signs in English. There is a столовая (dining room) run by the railways nearby. As expected, it offers ‘starch and steam’ cuisine. I drink the tea.

The train arrives predictably on time at 13:12. This one is the Murmansk-Adler Express, which runs from the White Sea to the Black Sea in two days. The attendant hands out the bed linen and towels. There is no water in the coach and the cabin light doesn’t work. But nothing much matters after four days on Solovetsky. A kaleidoscope of images turns through my mind before the clattering rhythm of the train puts me to sleep. Invisible people sweeping around me like the tail of a comet, the magnetism and energy around the labyrinth, a walker on the shore who wasn’t really there, gulls silhouetted darkly against the giant retina of the ice halo, impressions of unimaginable cruelty and suffering, mysticism, spirituality, serenity, and above all, great beauty.

Selection_235The Solovetsky Islands (or Solovki) are an archipelago located in the Onega Bay of the White Sea in Russia. They are the setting of the Russian Orthodox Solovetsky Monastery complex, which was founded in the 1430s. The islands attained notoriety as the first Soviet prison camp, which ran from 1923 to 1939 and upon which much of the expanded GULAG system was modeled. Following that, the islands became a training base for naval cadets of the Soviet Northern Fleet. In 1992, the monastery was handed back to the Church. In the same year the Solovetsky Islands were included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List “as an outstanding example of a monastic settlement in the inhospitable environment of northern Europe which admirably illustrates the faith, tenacity, and enterprise of later medieval religious communities”.

Suggested reading

The Journals of a White Sea Wolf, by Mariusz Wilk (Harvill Press – 1998). The account of a Polish journalist who spent six years on the Solovetsky islands and in the process became acquainted with all the residents.

Solovki – The Story of Russia as told through its Most Remarkable Islands, by Roy R. Robson (Yale University Press – 2004). Roy Robson recounts the history of Solovki from its first settlers through the present day. 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.