Solovki - the pearl of the Barents Region
It rises like a fairytale castle in between the water and the sky. The approach to Solovki is a voyage into an archipelago full of contrasts. It is one of the most spectacular monasteries in northern Russia, unique scenery and a story full of piety and cult, war and terror. Solovki is Russia’s heart – and pain.
Solovki is also a gem in the Barents Region. Anyone visiting the archipelago, regardless of the interests and purposes, agree the visit cannot be forgotten. The complexity leaves a lasting impression.
The archipelago consists of six large islands in the White Sea in Arkhangelsk Oblast, about 160 kilometers south of the Arctic Circle. The islands cover 300 square kilometers. Today's settlement is on the Big Solovki, while some monks in recent years have moved back to a monastery on the second largest island, Anzer.
The best period to visit Solovki is between June and late September, when navigation is open. You take the boat from Kem, a small town on the mainland in northern Karelia. To Kem you travel by railway from either Murmansk in the north or Moscow and St. Petersburg in the south. The voyage over the White Sea takes several hours. But, arrange for surprises; storms can come up and boats do get canceled.
You can also fly to Solovki with a small propeller from Arkhangelsk on scheduled flights during the summer season. Some of the river cruise vessels sailing the inner water ways of the Russian north also have Solovki on their list of destinations.
Stay at least two days to get a chance to explore the archipelago. There are several small hotels and guest houses in the vicinity of the local village in short walking distance from the monastery and water-front area. Priyut is nicest if you want to get the touch of real northern Russian cuisine, but you can also choose Hotel Solovki where most foreigners stay.
Historically the archipelago have been the setting of the famous Russian Orthodox Solovetsky monastery complex, founded in the second quarter of the 15th century. By the end of the 16th century, the abbey had emerged as one of the wealthiest landowners and most influential religious centers in Russia.
The existing stronghold and its major churches were erected in stone during the early reign of Ivan the Terrible at the behest of St. Philip of Moscow. At the onset of the Schism of the Russian Church, the monks staunchly stuck to the faith of their fathers and expelled the tsar's representatives from the Solovki, precipitating the eight-year-long siege of the islands by the forces of Tsar Alexis.
The best known and most dreaded part of Solovki's history began in 1923 with the establishment of SLON (Solovetsky Camp of Special Purpose). This was one of Stalin's most feared prison camps, where tens of thousands of political and cultural prisoners lost their lives for the most brutal torture methods.
SLON became world famous through the stories of Alexander Solzhenitsin collected in the book Archipelago Gulag.
The Gulag camps on Solovki were closed in 1939, and were long suppressed in the Soviet history. There is still much unwritten about the prison camps on Solovki, but organizations like Memorial has done a great job of clearing old archives. In recent years, it also opened a special section of the museum on Solovki Gulag dealing with that period. The museum is located inside the monastery, but remember a museum can’t give the true nature of how brutal the camp must have been.
During and after the World War II the Soviet Northern Fleet used Solovki as a school for naval officers. The museum was established in the late 1970ties and monks were gradually returned to the monastery after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The monastery was listed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1992. Walking around the monastery, in the water front area, in the village or to the different churches on the island is truly a walk in history. Although we in the BarentsObserver names Solovki to be the pearl of the Barents Region, you will not (still) find any traditional tourist traps around. There are some five, six souvenir kiosks in the village where you can get your "must have" cap with Solovki printed in the front, but most of the items for sale are cosy small local handwork and much more "real Russia" than you will find along Arbat in Moscow or Nevsky Prospekt in St. Petersburg.
Solovki has a unique flora and fauna. Both the islands Big Solovki and Anzer are covered by taiga forest, while the Hare Islands (with the labyrinths) is tundra. You will find the Barents Region's oldest botanical garden on Solovki, established several hundred years back in time and with a plants usually found much further south.
The White Sea around Solovki is one of the best places in the world to watch for Belugas. A number of rare ducks, wading birds and owls nest on Solovki.