Solovki's main feature is the island's round stones, which look rather like the eggs of the earth. Their origin is no mystery - the granite pieces have been polished and shaped by ice and water over thousands of centuries. Solovki, the island in the middle of the White Sea of the Russian North, is a lesson in severity and fortitude. Quite a useful lesson for Russians, who always seem to be fighting severity of one kind or another.
History tells us that in 1429 three monks fled north from the Kirillo-Belozersky monastery in search of a new frontier on which to found a much stricter order. Zosima, Savathius and German, now consecrated saints, settled on a picturesque island a three-day boat trip from the southern coast of the White Sea. The island had previously been used as a pagan sanctuary. The small site established by Zosima, Savathius and German became a powerful monastery in less than 100 years. Between 1550 and 1566, stone cells and cathedrals were built under the authority of Philip the Prior, later the Metropolitan of all Russia. Philip was a man of remarkable managerial skills and the strongest moral principles, even in comparison with other Solovki monks. Soon after his appointment to the Moscow cathedral by Tsar Ivan the Terrible, Philip began to criticize the tsar's spontaneous repressions. He was murdered by the tsar, but new priors of Solovki continued Philip's activities and canonized him. From 1582 to 1594 the walls of the monastery were built and are now the most remarkable feature of the island. The round rocks that form the walls were inserted without cement. It's hard to imagine now how monks and workers managed to move the 100-ton rocks that lie along the base.
By the end of the 16th century, the walls and most internal buildings were finished. Nevertheless, the monks continued their work around the island, which had by then been granted to the monastery in perpetuity. During the 17th century the whole archipelago of Solovki was transformed. Even today, when many of the taller structures have deteriorated or been destroyed, the lasting works of the 17th century are very impressive.
The channels of Solovki are truly marvelous. Over the centuries of monastic life, the countless lakes and rivers were connected into one water system. The monks' technology for making channels was much simpler than in Holland or other European countries: their equipment was limited to spades, crowbars and barrows.
A small river or stream was initially chosen as a base and its bed was dramatically broadened and deepened. This task was far from simple: to deepen the stream bed, monks had first to remove all the rocks and set them aside for use as future construction material. Then spades were put to work, and tons of earth were dredged. All this was done either in the water itself, or with the flow blocked by a dam. This was hard physical work, particularly considering the climate. It is important to remember that this was not labor performed under pressure - it was a spiritual challenge taken up by the monks of Solovki.
It's widely said in Russia that the Old Believers - those who preferred not to reform Orthodoxy in the 17th century - are much like Western Protestants. Whether this analogy holds true or not, the Old Believers of Solovki proved as businesslike and sturdy as model Lutherans. After the Church was reformed (regardless of protests), Solovki refused to take on the `new habits'. Bishops sent to Solovki from Moscow were turned back after meeting with no sympathy there. Then the tsar turned his attentions to Solovki with brutal force. After holding out for seven years, Solovki eventually fell. Such long-term resistance was possible thanks to secret friends and to the large gardens and food reserves of the monastery. Solovki could have resisted the siege even longer, but a traitor from Moscow opened the back gates. Some of the monks were killed and the rest were forced into the new-style Orthodoxy. After several years of devastation, Solovki was renovated and re-blessed by the tsar.
The severe and calm life of the monastery continued until the 1917 revolution. Soon after that it was closed down, and Solovki's darkest age began. A maximum security prison was opened on the island. The prisoners were bishops, noblemen and others whom the revolutionary commisars labeled `socially determined elements.' Solovki was somehow chosen to be the world's first 20th century death camp. The prisoners were treated in ways calculated to kill them as soon as possible: lack of food, various tortures and huge amounts of senseless hard labor were effective weapons. Those targeted for destruction by the Soviet commissars' orders were actually executed. In 1934 the prison was closed, as the prisoners proved to be more useful as free laboureres at numerous Soviet construction sites. For several decades after the prison's closure, military institutions possessed the island, turning a once prosperous place into ruins. Take a close look at the photo of Solovki in the 1960s on a 500-ruble note. No crosses, no domes, no churches - only dark towers covered by rough iron.
Today, with the buildings of Solovki restored and in the joint control of the renovated monastery and the state museum, those dark ages seem far away. Besides, Solovki's financial problems have been partly solved through the development of the travel industry The question now under discussion is whether the whole island should be returned to the monastery, or whether the museum also has the right to stay on the island.
Reaching Solovki is not the problem it once was. The unfortunate downside of Solovki's new popularity as a tourist destination is that the island is losing its atmosphere of deserted sanctuary. Well, that's globalization a-coming, and nobody can stop it.
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